“form ever follows function”

The Wood Box
A Broken Paradigm

Almost every house in America is simply a wood box. The boxes are covered with asphalt shingles, siding of various kinds, brick, or stucco. In a few parts of the country the outside walls are constructed of concrete block; however, the rest of the structure is a wood box.

The fires in Texas in September, 2011 proved a paradigm. In a Structures class I asked the professor why we continued to build houses out of wood. His answer was twofold: “They’re cheap to build, and that’s how we’ve always done it.” That was a perfect answer to an imperfect paradigm.

American architect, Louis Sullivan in 1896 wrote in an article on office buildings that “form ever follows function.” He was saying that one must first consider the functionality of a building before you consider its beauty or other characteristics. Sullivan’s assistant, Frank Lloyd Wright continued the “form follows function” mantra, as did many others in different fields.

In any building design there is only one most important role: To house and protect its inhabitants. That’s it. Nothing else matters. That is the function of a house. But big homebuilding corporations, small builders and the home buying public set that aside for points of extreme insignificance, such as the number of square feet; the R rating of the wall and ceiling insulation; the color of the brick; the beautiful Ionic columns; the SEER of the cooling units; the high ceilings; the crown moulding; and all the many refinements a particular home has that match what buyers see on HG TV.

Nobody, but nobody during the time that I’ve sold houses [conventional houses] has ever asked, “How safe will I be from fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, bullets or external explosions?” All buy under the assumption that “it won’t happen to me.”

According to FEMA, 76% of fire deaths occur in residences; the majority are in one- and two-family dwellings; thousands of people die in house fires each year in the U.S. While one can die in a fire that’s in a fireproof building, one is much less likely to die in a building that does not turn itself into a bonfire.

According to NOAA, as of September 2 of 2011 there had been 544 tornado fatalities in the United States. A large proportion of those fatalities occurred while people were inside buildings; the buildings simply did not hold up to the force of the storm. On April 25, 1994 a Force 4 tornado took down several hundred homes in Lancaster, Texas. A few months later I spoke with one survivor. Here’s how he put it, “My wife’s aunt was visiting us. We sat in the hallway, at the very center of the house. The next thing I knew I was out; I woke up in the hospital; my wife woke up in the hospital; her aunt was in the morgue. The only thing left of the house was part of the hallway.”

Wood houses have a long list of severe disadvantages; here are some of their shortcomings:

  • Support combustion; will burn to the ground easily.
  • Will blow away in a tornado; no matter how many roof clips or metal straps are used, they’ll blow away or collapse.
  • Are not self-supporting; billions of dollars are spent each year repairing failed foundations that allowed the wood structure to lean, bend and break.
  • Make excellent insect food; untold tons of insect poison are placed in the ground and around humans, animals and plants that pollute the ground and the air we breathe to kill those wood-eating insects.
  • Rot over time; water and humidity are among a wood frame’s worst enemies.
  • Self destruct in a flood; mildew and mold appear within hours and the walls and insulation are quickly ruined.
  • Not bullet proof; small arms fire can penetrate a wood house or even pass through it, and an outside explosion can damage or demolish it.

All of these problems are solved with Monolithic Domes...all of them. - md

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