Saturday, 9 August 2008

Americans are environmentally friendly shock

For some years I've taken the mickey out of American housebuilding techniques. US suburban homes are typically closely engineered timber frame and plywood structures with a wodge of insulation and cladding that may also be timber and a roof that may be timber shingles. It will withstand most things except American weather, which causes involuntary relocation and may be dangerous to those of a witchical persuasion.

In contrast to British homes solidly constructed of clay bricks, blockwork and Portland cement mortar with heavy concrete roof tiles which won't shift in a breeze and that leaves witches intact.

So no prizes for working out that US homes, from the nation that reportedly produces 25% of the world's CO2, are rather more environmentally friendly. Portland cement manufacture is the world's second greatest CO2 emitter, after energy production, and before transport and air travel. Clay bricks need firing at high temperature. The average new British home will have been responsible for many, many tonnes of CO2 having been emitted in its making.

Timber, in contrast, locks in atmospheric CO2 for as long as it stays intact. A medium tree will have locked in about 4 tonnes of CO2. A house built of timber is therefore very environmentally friendly - it is, quite literally, carbon capture and storage that you can live in. And frame and truss design that maximises resource use and minimises waste as external benefits to price competitiveness (though not tornado proofing) is also a good eco-thing.

The downside to US housing is that it's built scores of miles from employment hubs in suburbs that stretch to the far horizon, so they have to use gallons of petrol every day getting to work. But you can't have everything. And because they're so spread out, when one is spared by tornadoes only to catch fire, it doesn't matter much, whereas our dense housing tightly packed around town and city centres needs to be a bit more fireproof, hence the party wall requirements brought in after a small blaze in 1666.

The difference in approach to house construction is also psychological. Our homes are mini castles, looking back to the Norman keep and the solidity of ashlar and mortar. American homes are on the frontier, log cabins to provide temporary shelter as one moves on. We are fixed, they are mutable. They're going somewhere, while we've got there already.

5 comments:

Blue Eyes said...

Have you seen some of the new "affordable" blocks which appear to be being built of MDF?

Nick Drew said...

there's something else. UK-standard electric plugs are unbelievably robust: euro-plugs are flimsy by comparison and US-standard positively flaky

and yet somehow they get by

now either (a) they are riding for a fall, we get far less electrocutions & shorts & burnouts etc, and we're simply paying for the extra performance as a rational trade-off

or

(b) ours are grotesquely over-engineered (as are many things in the former-monopoly world of utilities) & we are pouring money & raw materials down the proverbial

any views on which ?

Raedwald said...

Grotesquely over-engineered seems spot on. The rule is that the cross-sectional area of a connector shouldn't be less than that of the downstream conductors - so say 1.5mm2 for most things that plug in. Our plug-socket design gives many times that area of contact.

And we can't blame the Victorians. I grew up in a house with the old round-pin plug sockets in three different sizes - almost as difficult to explain to a teenager as pre-decimal currency, but closer to French and US sockets than their replacements.

hatfield girl said...

Grotesquely over-regulated too. I had to rip out the perfectly good art nouveau copper light and switch fittings and replace them with acceptable modern versions while being hounded at the same time to use nails so expensive in the subflooring, where only the rabbits and workmen went, it made you blench.

Brum does have a thing about fastenings in general, but really!

Yokel said...

If you want to see the old 5 amp and 15 amp plug and socket system still in use, visit India. They have had the sense to realise that it works, and to leave it working!