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Ask HN: Why do Americans live in houses made of wood in 21st century?
16 points by baybal2 48 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 32 comments

Countries use the building material most available to them.

In much of Europe that's stone because wood has mostly been harvested to the point of extinction (and wood is expensive to transport long distances). Whereas in North America wood remains an inexpensive building material. Wood, combined with modern insulation and building codes, can be safe and efficient enough for modern homes.

As someone who has lived in both parts of the world, wood takes some getting used to but you start to appreciate it after some time. Specifically brick may provides better noise isolation, heat retention, arguably can look nicer than drywall, but on the downside once a home is built modifications can be extremely challenging/expensive (whereas drywall/wood is almost like LEGO in terms of being able to re-configure non-load interior walls, even for handy homeowners themselves).

Will a brick home outlast a wood home? Absolutely, no question.

But that advantage is largely lost in the US. Cheaper land means homes are more spaced out, and wood construction means they're cheaper to re-build, so homes are often completely gutted or entirely re-built so a new owner can put their personal "stamp" on their home, whereas it is impractical to rebuild a European home due to neighbor proximity, cost of brick construction, and land size (i.e. there's often no other configuration that's workable for the lot).

So these days, I don't consider one superior to the other. They both have advantages and trade-offs, and frankly the contest is irrelevant as brick isn't suddenly going to get cheaper than wood in the US nor wood get cheaper than brick in Europe.

Same reasons as in the 20th century, wood is cheap, very available, effective for the task, and quite easy to use. Other possible materials fail to match it in most categories.

It's interesting to me that no-one is talking about steel frames, which are becoming something of a standard in Australia, mainly because they share some of the advantages of both constructions styles.

A Steel framed, clad house can be constructed relatively quickly, but is also durable. Alterations aren't as easy as with wood, but are significantly easier then concrete.

With modern insulations and soundproofing, you can have a lot of the benefits of concrete or stone. Plus, there's less thermal mass in the structure, which is a big advantage when building in Australia; Your primary challenge is keeping the inside cool in Summer.

I work for a restaurant group and during COVID we had a rather successful outdoor dining setup built with you guessed it... wood! Super versatile, inexpensive, and easy to work with. As winter approached, we had to think about ways to do 'outdoor dining' in a bit of a nicer method so we opted to partner with a modular home builder. Aside from the steel frame, the structure is clad with marine grade plywood, etc and was trucked and dropped into place. Minimal disruption to our operations or service! Imagine trucking in a cement or brick structure? It would be insanely heavy. Our current structures are estimated to weight about 20,000 lbs?

This isn't why they do it, but... it's a way of sequestering carbon.

You think that's crazy? For additional craziness: Many of these wood houses have literal flames in them (gas furnace and water heater). In a wood house. And we (almost) totally get away with it.

Yes, that's crazy.

In Europe, and most of developed countries in Asia, you can't even have gas in an apartment building made of concrete.

That moreover strange how it's not banned yet, given how militant building codes are in America.

Gas stoves do occur in several European cities.

That isn't counting Florida, where the standard is concrete block. It seems to be about 90% concrete block, 5% wood, and 5% solid poured concrete. Concrete resists termites, fire, and rot. The better houses have metal roofs.

See https://www.monolithic.org/homes for the serious solution, if you really want the toughest home possible.

Cheap, renewable, flexible, durable. You can put nails and screws through it pretty easily. K.I.S.S. Also... cave shortage.

What else would you make it out of? Depending on your locale, stone can be a very dangerous base material.

Many places use bricks and cement.

Mostly because my house was built in the 20th century.

Also, at least in my area high quality cement was not available locally until the late 1930s. You can really see a difference in the quality of cement in the basement of houses built before vs after. Of course, wood is abundant as well.

I've actually built several wooden (frame) houses, although in Europe. They have their advantages and disadvantages. Essentially, they are fast and cheap to build. Personally if I was building myself a long term house I would not use wood as a core material.

My house is over 100yrs old. It's made of wood. Wood can be very durable. It's easier, faster, cheaper than cement. They can even lift these wood houses and move them from one location to another.

If you think wood is obsolete as a building material, you are wrong

Wood works fine for the size and scale of most homes.

It is inexpensive, readily available, and easy to use with minimal training and tooling.

What alternative building material do you propose?

Most houses in the UK are made of brick.

I wonder if this is down to worldview rather than practical reasons

"In the UK, 100 miles is a long distance. In the US, 100 years is a long time."

I think there is a perception that timber houses won’t last a long time. I have no idea how true that is but the brick house I live in is 150 years old and that isn’t considered particularly old.

Also even when new builds here are timber framed they still use bricks for the exterior.

Much of the west, especially the five Pacific states, have to set seismically safe construction standards. Wood frame buildings have flexibility.

I very doubt that if any resistance is there, that it will ever beats reinforced concrete, or steel frame for safety.

Reinforced masonry, if properly designed, will certainly beat wood, and nails too.

Reinforced concrete has strength but not resilience.

Check out the Cypress Structure collapse in the 1989 earthquake. There were similar failures of reinforce concrete spans in the later Northridge earthquake.

The manufacture and transport of concrete for buildings also has a much more severe environmental impact.

There is no chance that a wooden single family house will beat concrete.

Obsolete building codes that rely on excess craftsman labor that are resistant to change by inspectors and craft unions. Inspectors can not get on top of new materials. New stuff takes years to get into the codes, place by place, and the unions want to maintain the labor intensity of their business. Modern wood made buildings are fine, but they need to add newer materials and ways of doing it. Look at the building industry web sites. Most goes into high rise condos etc,.

The real question is: if wood is so inexpensive, why the price of a wood house is close to 1mil in Silicon Valley?

Most of the price is the land, not the house.

A: Its a great material for building a house with, in most any century.

What else should we be using?

Concrete, blocks, panels, steel frames... and plain bricks after all?

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