Buildings that Pass the Test of Time

Reader Contribution by Paula Baker-Laporte
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Building Biology advises us to look for a successful history of use when choosing building materials but in our ever changing product-based building environment we seldom have the luxury of evaluating track record. This becomes quickly apparent when vetting new products for client’s homes.

I recently called a major manufacturer to find out what was in a new product developed to prevent mold growth on framing lumber. I wanted to avoid the use of biocides for this chemically sensitive client. The rep said with great pride that the product had now been out for six months and that they hadn’t received even one warranty complaint!  When Building Biology addresses the principle of history-of-use it is looking at a bigger picture…not six months but decades and centuries!

In the brief history of building with petrochemical-based products, centrally produced by a handful of very powerful corporations, we must often put our trust in new products expecting them to do what the manufacturers have claimed they will do. Time-accelerated lab testing can help us to project how a material may behave over time but it is not an exact science and nothing can surpass the real test of time.

New “smarter” products for building our homes are being invented all the time and while advertising campaigns continually grind out tantalizing lists of benefits for the latest and greatest, the manufacturers are silent about the millions of homes that were built on yesterday’s promises…those products that failed to become the “super endurables” they were initially advertised to be: waterproofing materials that have been conveniently re-named “water resistant”, construction tapes that lose their “stick” over time,  foams that get tunneled by insects, insulations that shrink away, products that leach chemicals, and so-called harmless chemicals that are found to be harmful.

The Evolution of Natural Building

In contrast the pre-industrialized buildings that populate the old world, intact and serving for centuries, are the byproduct of thousands of years of building evolution that preceded them. They represent holistic systems that were perfected for their local climate, from their local resources and by their local craftsmen. They are made of natural non-proprietary materials and they have successfully weathered the test of time. They embody the principles of sustainability by their very nature. This valuable heritage of accumulated wisdom is little understood or acknowledged in current North American building and it has become the precious baby that got thrown out in the bathwaters of industrialized building assembly.

Many of us who have embraced natural building have found that, contrary to what manufacturing interests would have us believe, we can not only use time-tested materials and traditional craftsmanship to build our homes, we can create enduring spaces that nurture us, nurture the environment and serve our modern lifestyles well. All of the buildings throughout Europe and Asia that are several centuries old stand as a testament to longevity and they have several things in common:
They are built of the natural materials at hand
They have massive wall construction
They allow for the free flow of vapor through them…no vapor barriers.
They have the capacity to handle large fluctuations in moisture without deterioration
They are petrochemical free and biodegradable.

    We can build building with such longevity in North America too. Why don’t we? As long as we continue to see housing as a short-term financial investment for personal gain rather than a contribution to the wealth of future generations, initial cost per square foot will continue to be the most important perception of housing value. It remains the rare home-owner/investor who is willing and able to step outside the conventional housing industry, pay more for something that will last beyond their lifetime and reap the benefits of living in a naturally healthy home along the way

    Photo credit Robert Laport