Monday, November 25, 2013


Back in the not-so-Jolly Old England of the Middle Ages, where many of America’s  building traditions originated, no one had ever heard of structural engineering. Instead, carpenters used common knowledge gleaned from trial and error and handed down over the centuries. With no way to analyze the strength of their buildings, they just built them as stoutly as they could, using massive timbers hewn from lots and lots of trees. 

For example, records show that one six-room, two story house built in Cambridgeshire around 1600 required seventy-two small oak trees to be cut down for the framing lumber alone. Seven more mature oak trees (which yielded wider planks) were sawn into floorboards. The total wood used was equivalent to about 68 acres of oak forest. A larger house could easily consume over 300 trees--more than 280 acres of woodland as it then existed.

Given the rate at which these houses gobbled timber, the English were already managing their forests for harvesting by 1200. Even so, over the next few centuries, the island famed for Sherwood Forest became the sparsely wooded place it is today.

Fast forward to America during the postwar Baby Boom era. Our houses are constructed with a light framework of slender wooden studs, doing away with the need for heavy timber. It’s a relatively efficient system--an average house of 1950 uses about 9000  board feet of framing lumber, or about 9 board feet per square foot (a board foot is a hypothetical quantity of lumber twelve inches by twelve inches by one inch thick). At a crude average of perhaps 200 board feet per tree, this means we cut down something on the order of 45 trees--mostly softwoods--to build a house. No matter how we, er, slice it, it’s quite a bit less lumber than your average English house of the Middle Ages required. 

But fast forward once again to the present, and you find a strange irony: Today, even though we manage to use even less lumber per square foot than in 1950--only about 8 board feet--the amount of wood we use has nearly doubled, to about 17,000 board feet per house. That’s back up to about 85 trees--even more than were used during the Middle Ages. 

What gives?

For one thing, modern building codes require wood-framed structures to withstand much higher wind and earthquake forces than before, and that takes more lumber and plywood. For another, houses also have more rooms, and hence more interior walls. 

But the main reason we’re back to gobbling wood is simply this: Today’s average house is much bigger--over double the size of a typical house of 1950. In short, we’ve wiped out all the gains we’ve made in using wood more efficiently, simply by using a whole lot more of it. 

Now, one bright spot in cutting down so many of England’s oaks is that some wonderful houses of the Middle Ages are still with us. How many McMansions will still be standing in 2500 A.D.?

Monday, November 18, 2013


What if we paved over the whole state of Wisconsin? 

Actually, we already have. According to recent Federal Highway Administration figures, the U.S. has close to 240 million motor vehicles--almost forty million more cars than there are licensed drivers--and just under four million miles of paved roads for them to run on. All told, some 61,000 square miles of the United States--an area just a little smaller than the Beaver State--is solidly paved over, either with roads or parking. And of course, there’s plenty more on the way.  

We weren’t always an asphalt nation. What happened?  

There’s plenty of blame to go around, from pressure by vested interests such as oil and automobile companies, to political pork barreling, to plain old infatuation with our four-wheeled friends. But the most disgraceful helping of blame for our autocentric landscape goes to people who should know better: our own city planners. For the past six decades, they’ve swallowed the premise of the asphalt nation whole.

It’s city planners who’ve long uncritically accepted the notion that cars should be the focus of our urban design, turning the built environment into one big playground for motor vehicles. It’s city planners who’ve allowed draconian parking requirements, rather than intelligent land use, to determine what gets built--a policy that literally puts humans second to their cars. But don’t take my word for it. In his book, “The High Cost of Free Parking”, UCLA urban planning professor Donald Shoup flatly states: 

“Parking requirements create great harm: they subsidize cars, distort transportation choices, warp urban form, increase housing costs, burden low income households, debase urban design, damage the economy, and degrade the environment.”

We make these sacrifices to accommodate a machine that, despite having been civilized a bit by electronics, essentially remains an early 20th century-style, oil-burning, exhaust-spewing contraption. The legacy of this long reign is an utterly car-centered environment of huge, signal-clogged boulevards and buildings adrift in vast oceans of parking. 

But this kind of autocentric design isn’t just ugly and wasteful--it also creates a vicious planning cycle. In order to kowtow to all those cars, we have to build everything on a superhuman scale, which in turn uses more land, which in turn lowers density and creates sprawl. And once density gets down to the level of the average suburb, you simply can’t walk anywhere anymore. Your kids can’t walk to school, and you can’t walk to work or to the shopping center, because everything is spread so far apart. The result is that we’re ever more beholden to our cars to get anywhere. 

If all this seems perfectly normal, it’s only because most of us don’t have any alternative. On the other hand, in most European cities, not to speak of Asian ones, close-knit, easily walkable neighborhoods packed with urban amenities are the rule. It’s not that their planners are any smarter than ours. Rather, it’s just the natural result of humanly-scaled urban design that predates cars by many centuries, and which will doubtless outlast them by many centuries as well. Whether our own cities will outlive cars isn’t all that clear yet.

Monday, November 11, 2013


For some years now, my favorite place to find a big old homemade slab of pie has been an unassuming mom-and-pop restaurant called Walker’s Pie Shop, not far from where I live. It’s the sort of place that hasn’t changed in decades. Its decor, such as it is, evokes the home-improvement hit parade of another era: asphalt tile, Formica-topped tables, Masonite paneling, and glossy oil paint. 

Oddly enough, this very lack of pretense is what makes Walker’s stands apart. It’s quite clear that no corporate consultants came up with its cheerfully jarring vanilla-orange-vanilla color scheme. There are no fake old books on high shelves, no copper muffin pans or reprints of old French bicycle posters hanging on the walls. In short, there’s none of the strained quirkiness that comes from decor specified down to the last jot by some corporate guidebook. Instead--now here’s a concept--there’s plain old good eating: a whole roster of big, old-fashioned pies baked up each morning right in the back of the shop.

Sad to say, unassuming mom-and-pop establishments such as Walker’s are increasingly rare these days. Some are, of course, being squeezed out by corporate chains with more sophisticated business models. While it’s pointless to denigrate this kind of success, its economic downside is well known: profits that used to stay in the community instead go flitting to some distant headquarters, to be divvied up among faceless investors instead of by the family down the street.

But there’s another, more tangible problem with the steady corporate takeover of Main Street business. Beholden as they are to shareholders, the chains are all but obligated to repeat ad nauseum the formula that’s brought them success. This robotic repetition of a profitable concept, regardless of regional setting, is among the main culprits behind the increasing sameness of America’s built environment, whether urban or suburban. 

Retail chains of one sort or another are nothing new, of course. Among the first businesses widely built to a corporate template were gasoline filling stations, whose highly specialized architecture and signage were already being standardized well before World War II. But the real juggernaut of corporate standardization was the McDonald’s hamburger empire, founded by Ray Kroc in 1955, and now operating over 31,000 restaurants in 119 countries. 

The phenomenal success of McDonald’s has since been the model for countless food, retail, and service chains--good news for shareholders, so-so news for consumers, but generally bad news for the American landscape. Today, pretty much every shopping center across the nation contains some musical-chairs variant of the same familiar chain outlets, whether they sell food, clothing, or coffee. Ironically, some genuinely local establishments now feel pressure to adopt the same slick corporate atmosphere just to remain competitive. 

As for Walker’s Pie Shop, alas, it too is closing its doors--a victim, perhaps, of economic times, or simply of its more calibrated competition. A new restaurant calling itself a “bistro”has replaced it. Let’s hope it doesn’t serve up another trendy helping of “Anywhere U.S.A.”

Monday, November 4, 2013


Nowadays, when you’re feeling chilly, you just nudge your thermostat up a few degrees. Not too long ago, you’d have been in for a lot more effort: Until the 1880s, most American houses were still heated by an open fire. 

In those days, any room you wanted to keep tolerably warm had to have its own fireplace and chimney. This is one reason houses had such boxy, compact floor plans--the idea was to have as few of those expensive fireplaces as possible. Often, they were placed back to back so they could share a chimney. All this finally changed in the late nineteenth century, when the innovation of central heating made it possible to warm every room in the house with a single source of heat.

Of course, Americans were hardly the first to have central heating. As early as 100AD, the Romans used the hypocaust system, which conducted warm air from a fire into hollow spaces beneath a tiled floor. Ancient Korea may have used a similar system, called ondal, even earlier. By the 12th century, Muslim engineers had improved the hypocaust by using pipes--our modern heating ducts--which did away with the need for hollow floors.

The English had an early version of central steam heating as early as the 1830s, though it was of course limited to the fabulously wealthy. It took another fifty years for a proper central heating system to make it across the ocean and into ordinary Yankee homes.
Some central heating used steam or hot water piped to radiators, but most heated the air directly. Early systems burned wood or coal, which meant you were still liable to freeze unless you kept the furnace stoked. Later on oil and natural gas prevailed as fuel, since they could be fed automatically. 

All of these early “gravity” heating systems relied on the fact that hot air tends to rise (or more accurately, that gravity makes the denser cold air sink). Of course, since warm air just wafted its way into each room through big ducts, the furnace had to be located below the living space--one reason older houses had basements even on the West Coast.

Once individual rooms no longer needed a bulky and expensive fireplace for heat, houses could be laid out much more freely. The characteristic rambling floor plans of late Victorian houses such as Queen Annes--among the first adopters of central heating--were a direct outgrowth of their liberation from the fireplace.

After World War II, central heating systems began using a fan to actively push warm air through the ductwork. These so-called forced air units could use smaller ducts than the old gravity furnaces, and could be located anywhere in the house, even in the attic.

Thanks to our increasingly urgent quest for energy efficiency, today’s central heating systems make even those postwar units look antiquated. Gone forever is that consummate energy-waster, the standing pilot light, and many forced air units now boast efficiencies in the high nineties--about double that of old gravity furnaces. Electronic burner controls and programmable thermostats make it easy to forget that your furnace is even working. But don’t: next time you turn up the heat, think about how far we’ve come in just a hundred and twenty years.