Saturday, January 25, 2014

European construction versus North American construction

Construction of houses varies significantly between Europe and North America.  European houses are typically built with masonry, while North American houses are usually made of wood.  Why is this so?
 
When North America was settled, the vast forests provided a free resource of building material, so wood was the primary construction material used.  This still holds today: compared to Europe, North America possesses large forests which are harvested and used extensively as construction material.  After a few hundred years, a tradition of construction has developed and persists, so that most contractors or builders know how to build a relatively inexpensive home using wood as their primary construction material.

By contrast, most large forests in Europe were clear cut several hundred years ago.  These original forests have never been allowed to return to their original state; the population density of Europe simply does not allow it.  By the law of supply and demand, wood prices in Europe are significantly higher than they are in North America.  There is also a tradition of construction in Europe which involves masonry, and which goes back several hundred (even thousands) of years.  Most Europeans are surprised when they visit North America and notice that the vast majority of houses are built primarily of wood.  Similarly, most Americans visiting Europe are frequently surprised that most European houses are not built with wood. 

The implications of these different approaches to construction have a particular relevance as we face the future and address the challenges posed by changing climate.  The scientific community shares an overwhelming consensus that man-made CO2 is a major contributing factor to our changing climate.  A new awareness of the impact of our activities on CO2 added to the atmosphere has put the practice of home construction into sharper focus by many in the construction industry. 

Research indicates that masonry construction is “greener” than traditional wood construction, for several reasons.  First, fewer trees are harvested, and more forest remains intact.  Trees are a major carbon sequestering force in nature: they remove CO2 from the atmosphere and create oxygen.  Conversely, cement production creates CO2, and the question must be answered: which has less impact on the environment, wood construction or masonry?

As discussed in this article, for a 2,400 square foot wood house, it takes approximately 750 cubic feet of wood to construct only the walls of the house, and requires 2.3 acres to produce that amount of wood.  This 2.3 acres of mature forest would otherwise remove 11,818 lbs. of CO2 per year from the atmosphere (5,200 lbs/acre).

By comparison, a 2,400 square foot masonry house requires 23,558 lbs. of cement to construct only the walls. During the manufacture of the required amount of cement, 11,779 lbs. of CO2 are released into the atmosphere – resulting in slight improvement at the end of the first year. However, concrete provides significant improvement from year 2 and beyond.

Another issue that is a factor is the area of disruption.  Cement production is relatively localized to a few square miles of quarries and mills, whereas lumbering affects thousands of square miles of land and requires considerable energy be expended to clear and transport a forest and convert trees in to lumber. Lumbering decreases the biodiversity of forest; it creates erosion and pollution problems. It also enters into the problem of forest fires.  Instead of allowing forest fires to occur as a natural function, forest managers prevent and put out fires, which robs the soils of the benefits of natural fertilization that occurs during burning.

This comparison does not take into account other factors of construction relating to sustainability, such as the fuel energy – even more if the lumber is imported.  A concrete house has a much longer service life than a wood frame house, lessening landfill burdens and creating the need to expend more energy to reconstruct the house. Europeans have traditionally built homes that last far longer than homes built in the U.S. The result is that with their reduced birthrates, the housing stock turnover is far less. This translates to a much lower percentage of GNP devoted to housing, 9% compared with over 12% in the U.S.

To build a 2,400 square foot house requires 2.3 acres of mature forest which absorbs 11,818 lbs of CO2 per year. Producing the 23,558 lbs. of cement required to build the same house with concrete produces virtually the same amount at 11,779 lbs. of CO2. The CO2 ‘payback’ when building with concrete is one year.  Considering it takes 50 years for a new trees to mature, the ‘ROI’ from using concrete is 2,290% by the time the re-planted forest fully matures.

In addition to the environmental benefits provided by concrete construction, significant savings in heating and cooling houses and other buildings are realized through more thermally efficient concrete construction.  These homes will also last much longer, have a higher resale value, will be able to withstand rot, termites, fire, storms, etc., and thus have a much higher value over their lifetime than wooden construction.


It is time for North America to reassess its construction practices and evaluate which form is better: wood or concrete?  Instead of imposing burdensome new government regulation on the marketplace, we should educate the new homeowners of tomorrow, and allow the lower cost of superior construction determine how homes of the future are built.  Wooden construction is often called “stick construction,” it is not a compliment, and it is accurate.  Just ask the third little pig or the big bad wolf.

49 comments:

  1. Hi
    It’s hard to find knowledgeable people regarding.but you sound like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks for sharing this with others.

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  2. While I'm in favor of more masonry construction I have two questions.

    1) How would you get contractors and tradesmen educated about the new building techniques. I find that it's hard to get them to learn or even listen to anything new, that is not already being done around them.

    2) Does having the house last hundreds of years really matter? With Cities continuing to grow and grow would you really expect the houses to stay around for hundreds of years or would you expect them to get demolished to make way for something bigger within a few centuries?

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    Replies
    1. Aren't the timeless structures in Europe the reason tourist flock into
      Europe every year.

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  3. Thanks for your comments. I'll try to answer your questions:
    (1) First -perhaps most importantly- I have simplified masonry systems which are not yet described on this blog; these are much simpler to use, easy for tradesmen and even laymen to use. Furthermore, we will have several efforts in educating the tradesmen, including videos available free at our (upcoming, yet unpublished) website. We'll also be offering courses in using this system. I We also plan to train and educate BAC/IMI (Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers/ International Masonry Institute) the "best hands in the business." Finally, we plan to have a focused marketing effort for the geographic area of each blockmaker that makes our masonry product; this effort will include free workshops showing how to build with this system.
    (2) Does having houses last really matter? That's like saying "does having children matter? They're all going to die anyway, why bother?" Of course it matters, make quality things that will last, especially in the face of our changing climate, housing faces new threats: rising sea level, droughts, fires, floods, more violent weather, etc. This masonry system will stand up to these challenges. Lastly, if you look at societies which truly value their architecture, old buildings made of masonry get periodically restored and refurbished, every few hundred years - they were made to last, and they serve their purpose over centuries. For example, in Italy, old masonry buildings are treated like this. It is a more sustainable, higher quality of building and better quality of providing living spaces than disposable cheap buildings which are shoddy and characterize the American "McMansion." None of these "McMansions" will be around in 100 years, they are very poorly made.

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    1. How will masonry stand up to droughts, floods, and rising sea levels?

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    2. Masonry is unaffected by a drought, and its high thermal mass will help keep a building cooler in hot drought conditions. Masonry can also be used to store rainwater (rainwater harvesting, rwh). Here's a link to an entry on this: http://masonrydesign.blogspot.com/2012/11/building-water-storage-tank.html

      Masonry can be used to build high performance, affordable, easy-to-install breakwaters, levees, and flood control hardscaping/landscaping features. These applications will help alleviate the impacts of rising sea level. Properly designed, installed and maintained masonry structures can withstand flooding and water damage, certainly much better than wood-framed houses and buildings. Here are some pertinent links from this blog:

      http://masonrydesign.blogspot.com/2010/05/retaining-walls-and-landscaping.html

      http://masonrydesign.blogspot.com/2010/05/retaining-walls-to-make-glacier.html

      http://masonrydesign.blogspot.com/2010/07/can-mason-build-submarine.html

      Thanks for your interest, please let me know if you have other questions.

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    3. Does it matter whether a house lasts matter? Of course it does! Some houses in Europe are more that a thousand
      years old. It's very difficult to find a house that is more than 100 years old that is still standing in North America. Just think of the environmental impact that has. Try the following tests in a North American house. Try flushing the toilet. You will have to turn the TV up. Try jumping up and down, the wall will shake and pictures will rattle. What happens with termites or really bad weather?

      Lets face it, North Americans have been sold a cheap bill of goods as usual. And trying to defend an inferior product can not be justified unless someone is greasing their pockets.

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    4. Does it matter whether a house lasts matter? Of course it does! Some houses in Europe are more that a thousand
      years old. It's very difficult to find a house that is more than 100 years old that is still standing in North America. Just think of the environmental impact that has. Try the following tests in a North American house. Try flushing the toilet. You will have to turn the TV up. Try jumping up and down, the wall will shake and pictures will rattle. What happens with termites or really bad weather?

      Lets face it, North Americans have been sold a cheap bill of goods as usual. And trying to defend an inferior product can not be justified unless someone is greasing their pockets.

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    5. You are so correct. I have owned both, homes in Europe and American wood houses, and you cannot compare a wood box that rodents and termite fester in to a stone or concrete house. It's like comparing a car to a house. It's not in the same league. They were sold a cheap bill of goods as usual. It is being kept out of the media like the plague. Several people are lining their pockets such as the wood industry and all the chemical companies that fill the drywalls, especially fireproof products are full of harmful chemicals. Treating the wood chemicals and of course it is a way to keep Americans perpetually poor. Because they will never own anything for any extended period of time. Everything in these homes breaks apart. After 10 years it starts after 30 it's all over the house stinks is infested with termites and on and on and on. Some homes are worse than this and some are not quite that bad yet. But they all get there. that means more money because they have to replace everything and have to continue fixing these homes which realigns the same pockets that put them there in the first place. You seem to seem to understand the real motives.

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  4. This entry is also relevant to your second question: http://masonrydesign.blogspot.com/2011/08/brick-mortar.html

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  5. "The scientific community shares an overwhelming consensus that man-made CO2 is a major contributing factor to our changing climate."

    Yet another brainwashed zombie

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  6. Obtaining a building permit in the European Union varies according to country. There is a very big difference in time, costs and efforts, if we were to compare obtaining a building permit in the capital city or in any other city or town. Obtaining a Slovak building permit for a family house in surroundings of Bratislava may only take 3 months, whereas obtaining a Slovak building permit for a residential apartment building in Bratislava may take even one year. In Slovakia, there are two basic levels included in the proceedings. The first one is planning permit and the second one is building permit. Intended developments must be in line with the zoning plan of the city or town. For planning permit, certain documentation and approvals must be submitted to a local Slovak building authority. Planning permits includes opinion of several Slovak authorities, organisations and companies. Building permit requires even more detailed project documentation. Detailed procedures can be found at http://www.slovacon.sk

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    Replies
    1. What does this have to do with the article?

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    2. I get a lot of spam, which this appears to be. There's an entire industry of people who post spam on blogs, it's hard to keep up with them. I try to delete most of it. They refer to building in Europe, this is the topic of this blog entry. If you're interested in getting a building permit in Slovakia, you may want to contact them.

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  7. Could you comment on the existence of sustainably managed forests and the renewable characteristic of wood in relation to your arguments?

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    Replies
    1. "Sustainable forestry" is not economically viable. It is recognized as a greenwashing effort by the forestry industry.

      The Sustainable Forestry Initiative’s label approves environmentally irresponsible forestry practices. Despite its ‘Good for you. Good for our forests.’ logo, the SFI program certifies logging practices that have a disastrous impact on North American forests. Here’s an example: SFI’s rules do not require any work to restore forests that are essential for the survival of rare wildlife.

      The average clearcut approved by SFI is the size of 90 football fields. Whether it’s the average SFI-approved clearcut, or bigger, the damage to watersheds, water quality and soil productivity are often permanent. SFI allows excessive use of toxic chemicals such as pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides that contaminate fresh water.

      The SFI certification program actually assures its timber company customers that it does not prohibit logging in old growth forests, wild areas that do not currently have roads, or other places in which ecological values are especially rich.

      SFI’s greenwashing harms forests. And SFI’s greenwash also undermines the hard work of those trying to protect forests, or create a more forest-friendly product.

      source; http://www.forestethics.org/sustainable-forestry-initiative

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  8. Hi,
    Do you have any idea about how many square feet of brick and cast stone masonry is specified in the US each year for new and repair projects?

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    Replies
    1. I'm sorry, but no: I don't. These numbers are notoriously hard to get. It is a very fragmented industry, and producers keep their numbers private.

      Delete
  9. Very nice post. I like the way you present this article : European construction versus North American construction..Thanks for sharing.

    Site Preparation for Construction

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  10. Great article, however I served in Europe for several military tours living in Germany, Spain & visiting several other northern European countries. I found mason (brick & mortar) construction to be extremely inefficient in winter, generating huge heating bills. Bottom line, my home was never warm, nor were the homes of most of my European friends. I admit. masonry construction felt cooler during spring & fall. Could you explain if current masonry construction methods create more efficient homes during cold seasons & what are average heating costs for a 3,000 sq/ft masonry home in Europe? Thanks

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for your comment. You are correct in noting that masonry is a poor thermal insulator. The advantage of masonry, thermally, is that it has a high thermal mass, and can absorb and store significant thermal energy. The key to taking advantage of high thermal mass is to insulate the outside of the masonry. This way, heat is stored in the masonry, and re-released to the inside. If this approach is used, and properly done, the resulting building is close to, or actually is, "zero energy" and requires little or no energy to heat and cool. If masonry is un-insulated, it is relatively thermally inefficient, as you have noted.

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  11. Is the cost and/or time involved significantly higher in masonry homes? My relatives' homes in Germany seems so much more sturdy and it was interesting to see the interior walls and the stairs also made of cement or brick, with the stairs being covered in wood. I would love to build one as my next home. A German relative referred to us in the States as having "plywood houses." Made me laugh.

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    Replies
    1. It seems to depend on whom you ask. I am a proponent and supporter of masonry, so my answer is that masonry is less expensive than wood. Someone from the timber industry is likely to say the opposite. If you look at the structure I built in my most recent blog http://masonrydesign.blogspot.com/2016/03/building-masonry-prototype.html
      it cost me about $4,000 in materials. This is very inexpensive, for about 750 square feet. If we also include the life-cycle cost, there is no comparison: masonry is much less expensive per year, because it lasts much longer. If we also include the energy savings provided by masonry, it gets even less expensive over time, because less energy is required each year, saving additional money each year. I agree with your German relative, although I call it "stick construction" as do many others. Thank you for your interest.

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    2. I want to build 2000 sf home. Where do I begin?

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  12. Your post is awesome.
    You have shared very valuable information to us.
    Thank you so much for sharing this.
    Brick Masonry Retaining Walls

    ReplyDelete
  13. Manufactured and modular homes are two different things. One is a trailer and one is a house built indoors in sections.
    home builder houston

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  14. Great info!

    So those amazing European buildings are made of concrete?

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    Replies
    1. Just the newer European buildings are mostly concrete. Here in the US, building code does not allow you to build with stone, so I focussed on concrete as a masonry material in this blog entry. Of course, all the amazing old European masonry is stone, the Romans did some great concrete work too.

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    2. So can I build a home like a European home in the US?

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    3. no you idiot...you would have to build it in europe and ship it to the states, with ...duhhhhhh

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    4. To 'Stone house wanted' question, again: it really depends on code. Generally, in the US stone cannot be used as a building material under current code. It seems silly to me. You may want to consult with a local architect or building engineer, and learn what your state and local code requirements might allow.
      Or, you could build it in europe and ship to the states.

      Delete
  15. This is really a nice blog in which you discuss some useful things, thanks for sharing this and keep going on.

    Construction Solution | House Painting Services

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  16. Great blog created by you. I read your blog, its best and useful information. You have done a good work. Thanks.ready to occupy villas in thrissur

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  17. Nice article! European wood houses have a many adventages. Check this http://www.farosgroup.fi/palvelumme/markkina-ja-palvelututkimukset/

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    Replies
    1. Europeans should not buy into the scam they to Americans convincing them to live in a wood box. You are hurting Europeans by spreading this nonsense. Very sad to see the some Europeans have been coned into this. So sad. I hope to educate yourself more and change your direction to one that does not hurt people. I was in Europe 2 months ago and saw the increase of wood construction. I was present at a sales presentation to Europeans on Wyehwood is good and better. Most of it was lies, not disclosing that the products are treated with chemicals and not lasting. Very disappointed in the presentation.

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    2. Northern Europe have long traditions of sturdy wood houses made out of timber, they are much warmer and easier to keep warm then stone houses.

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  18. This video post is really incredible, the commotion quality and the photo nature of this tape post is truly astounding.
    Smart home Singapore

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    Replies
    1. This link has nothing to do with the topic.

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  19. An interesting discussion is worth comment. I feel that you must write extra on this matter, it might not be a taboo subject but generally people are not enough to speak on such topics. To the next. Cheers

    ReplyDelete
  20. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  21. I am studying Mechanical Minning and Metallurgical Engineer in the NTUA of Athens, one of the top Universities in Europe and the world, and as a girl myself, I always wondered why on earth are US houses built like that opposed to the European Contruction laws and all. It was an amazing thread to read myself as I am on my 4th year in University ( it is a 5 year Uni in total) and I back up every information you provided. Excellent work! I hope for their safety first and only (one of my biggest concerns studying in my field) , they soon start building houses like that way more often. It is a huge no-no for me to see all of the victims of either hurricanes or just extreme weather breaks to shutter beautiful houses like that, just cause of their way they are built. Much love, x

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  22. My house is made from wood & stucco with 100 year lasting tile roof. It is 32 years old and still going strong. My walls do not shake when jumping in the house and I do not have to "turn up the tv" whenever someone flushes the toilet. There are high quality builders and there are bad business orders in America. They aren't all the same.

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  23. The real problem is NOT C20 or whatever the hell it's called but globalization which is a fancy word for China slave labor.

    All our wood in America gets sent to China to be processed and we buy our own wood back at a premium price with crappy quality but hey it's cheaper then using US workers who know what they are doing. This has been going on for 30 some years now.

    TODAY's problem is there is nobody left that knows how to do anything the old way and those who do are either dead or dying off from natural age.

    Perhaps this is planned obsolescence as part of Agenda 21 or Illuminati whatever the agenda is but wood in America is not good quality as it was most of it's history.

    *Climate change* is only a small picture. An important one but small as regardless of mankinds activities we are due for a warming which will last 200 years regardless if we are *in* the picture or not.

    What we can do instead of spreading the wealth outside of the US is to prepare such as using ocean power for example to bring new sources of electricity and NOT tear down the west coast dams because of sucker fish.

    Tearing down sources of power only make our country a pretty stupid loser.

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  24. Even in *natural* global warming we will have a few years of *colder* then relative average which will be leveraged to say "See it worked! We reduced climate changed!" or it can be twisted to say 'This is caused by climate change!" depending on how they feel at the time.

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    Replies
    1. You've left me speechless, well done. Carry on.

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