Once upon a time there were three little architects. One architect built his home with straw, the other of sticks and the last of brick.
The first architect handpicked straw from the field outside his property, while the second gathered sticks from the forest floor. The final architect, well that architect ordered his custom-made bricks from thousands of miles away for just 10 cents a brick! What a steal oinked this little architect. Little did he know he would soon be facing $4 dollars per brick shipping and holding fees. Weeks passed, but still no bricks.
The first two architects received their Certificates of Occupancies within days of starting, while the only paperwork the third poor, little architect received were change orders and more bills.
Homeless and distraught, the third architect had to stay with the other architects while his site sat full of dirt. Months past, and finally boxes of bricks arrived!
“How do I build with these?!” he squealed. He picked up his phone and called Wolfe Contractors. They were at the site in minutes, and the architect hired them. Wolfe employed Union Contractors and it took weeks before a brick was even laid. The contractor huffed, and he puffed, for more and more money. Soon the architect was completely broke.
The bricks sat there dormant until the third little poor architect was able to borrow money from the other two architects who already paid off their mortgages. Finally, after more and more months of waiting, the project was complete!
During the architect’s house warming party, a major earthquake struck. The area was prone to such occurrences; fortunately for this architect, he had already included seismic calculations into his design. However, this earthquake was unlike any earthquake ever felt before and it shook and it shook the three little homes. The straw and stick house stood intact with a few stray straw and stick pieces gone astray. The poor brick structure stood, but a large crack ran straight down the center of the building. That night was an extremely cold, wet night. The expanding and contracting ice split the brick house in half and it was condemned.
Fairy tales utilize anthropomorphism and whimsy in order to tell their tales which engrave moral undertones in the minds of young children. In such cases, vestigial feelings remain such as in the story of three little pigs, where the material that could withstand the huffs of a wolf is brick. This leads to the assumption that brick is always the right material to select because no “wolf” can penetrate it.
Brick has always been revered for its strength and symbolic meaning of fortitude. Even today, brick homes sell for more than wood stud homes. Is this because subconsciously we worry that someone will knock on our doors and start blowing it down?!
Brick is not without its disadvantages:
- Brick does not do well with extreme shifts such as mentioned in the story above. Being porous, water can easily penetrate the bricks and begin cracking when it turns to ice.
- Bricks need repointing in order to replace loose mortar.
- Brick cannot be laid during inclement weather such as rain.
- Efflorescence can form making the bricks look like they are covered in chalk.
- Brick buildings can easily shift from their foundations and are not great for seismic areas or areas that do not offer a solid rock foundation.
- It is a lot harder to move or repair a brick building versus wood construction.
For centuries homes have been built of sticks and even hay and they are still standing today. Log homes are very popular in wooded areas with inclement weather. Early colonial towns would come together to build a new log house by harvesting nearby trees and using mud to fill the gaps of the wood. Despite the misconception that building your home out of a flammable material such as wood is a bad decision, it may come as a surprise that some heavy timber homes will remain standing longer than unprotected steel buildings! This is because heavy timber takes a longer time to burn, where unprotected steel, due to its high thermal conductivity, quickly heats up and loses strength during fires making it prone to failure. Heavy timber construction even has a special class of construction called Type IV.
Straw-bale construction is a building method that uses bales of straw as structural elements and/or insulation. Straw is a naturally fire retardant with a very high insulation value. When combined with clay, its biggest disadvantage- rot- is greatly reduced making it an ideal choice in farmlands over the centuries. The dry straw that makes up the bale is very combustible when loose, but compressed in the form of a bale, the straw does not trap enough air to allow easy or rapid combustion.
In the story of the 3 Little Pigs, the two other pigs are referred to as being lazy because they built their homes from easily accessible materials and even had time to sing and dance. In today’s sustainable based society, these two pigs would earn LEED credits and be celebrated for their architectural choices, while the carbon footprint of the brick home would be criticized.
There is a reason for regional contextual architecture. For centuries people have already experimented with building for climate. They did it without central air, automatic window blinds, sprinkler systems and heating. Years of perfecting natural smart design choices are thrown to the waste side with new technology. One can build an ice igloo in the Mojave Desert and use cooling systems that prevents it from melting, but is this the most intelligent, sustainable method to architecture?
Now, let’s take a step back and imagine that for arguments sake the Wolf’s name in the ‘3 Little Pigs’ is Sandy! Sandy hit unexpectedly and caused massive destruction leaving many homeless. We should look at why certain homes were destroyed and why others survived in order to build a more “wolf” resistant area. This should be the focus and moral on rebuilding after Sandy struck. For example, small wood-framed homes that survived have a major advantage in rebuilding. They are easier to repair, elevate and place on piers versus a large double-story brick McMansion. Eliminating basements and switching to pier buildings can ease the damage caused by these unexpected forces and prevent homes from being dislodged from their land. Replacing all windows with hurricane windows will reduce potential dangers caused by the wind and debris breaking glass and harming the occupants inside. Lastly, rebuilding natural barriers such as sand dunes that have protected these areas for centuries will bring contextual architecture back to its rightful place.
With technology, overpopulation, and ease of building, we have stripped away all context from where we live and how we live it. The boom of construction through cookie cutter homes have littered the landscape with inefficient outdated inappropriate “brick” homes. We should not look at architecture as just build it right, but rather build it suitable!
Jason Peist, Assoc. AIA
Regional Associate Director | New Jersey Region