Building Walls in the Owner-Built Home

Ken Kerns covers what you need to know to construct sturdy walls in your self-built home.

| May/June 1972


Bracing tests


Man's first wall was built as a stockade around his village. Its function was to protect from intruders and to contain livestock. In the evolution of house forms, herders de-emphasized the importance of the hunter's roof-tent in favor of wall embellishments based on the village stockade. First, he drove posts into the ground and wove wattle in between. Later, he pressed stiff mud into the wattle — a direct predecessor of our ever-popular suburban "half-timber" style.' Finally, a few thousand years before Christ, the wall builders invented the brick, which essentially brings us to the modern scene.

As contemporary man continues to place brick on brick to form the wall — stockade around his "living" space, he armors against life in much the same manner as his pastoral ancestors. The function of walls for protection persists even though the early pastoral significance has been lost in our present non-pastoral communities. Some self-conscious design reformers later succeeded in disturbing these notions when they started the bring-the-outdoors-in campaign. Result; the picture-window became a stock item and indoor planters defied the "outside" feeling as much as the concrete patio did the "inside" feeling.

It's about time we re-examine the wall in terms of purpose and function. A house can be thought of as having many purposes; but primarily it is a contrivance for regulating (controlling) a segment of our environment. This conditioned environment is enclosed with roof, floor and walls so that weather factors such as air movement, humidity, precipitation, temperature, and light may be regulated. Walls are structural membranes separating the indoor environment from the outdoor environment. On the other hand, the greater the difference between the indoors and the outdoors, the more elaborate must be the wall's inherent properties. The more important characteristics which a wall must have include strength and durability, flow-control (heat, moisture and air), and good design at low cost. These are the more significant properties that will concern us in this chapter.

Generally speaking, about one-half of the cost of a house is the cost of the materials which go into it, the remainder being labor costs. With this fact in mind one would naturally assume that builders would have a thorough knowledge of the nature and properties of all building material possibilities. The functional performance of a wall material is number one consideration, but at the same time the most economic solution requires a selection of components having the lowest combination of initial cost and maintenance. This long-range cost is too often overlooked by builders in their concern with how much money must be raised in the beginning.

Among the many considerations for selection and evaluation of wall materials, listed below in order of importance. I would certainly include a seemingly far fetched salvage value. Cheaper and easier demolition becomes significant in this era when the average useful life of a building is comparatively short. Plywood paneling and heavy timber framing have high salvage values; brick and concrete have low salvage values.

Check List for the Selection of Wall Materials 

1. initial cost and subsequent maintenance cost.
2. compressive and traverse strength.
3. resistance to natural weathering, chemical attack and atmospheric pollution.
4. combustibility.
5. ease of handling (size, weight, shape) and erection.
6. resistance to scratching and impact.
7. dimensional changes with temperature and moisture content changes.
8. susceptibility to insect attack.
9. appearance in color and texture.
10. moisture penetration resistance.
11. sound insulation and absorption.
12. adaptability to future changes of layout and salvage value.

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