Environmentally Secure Concrete Houses

Addressing the Need for Permanent Shelter in Hawaii

Problems Facing the Housing Market

© 1993 John August

Subjects Covered:

  • Extremes of the elements
  • Rise of insurance premiums
  • Flaws of the gabled roof format
  • Speculative construction
  • Housing as a commodity
  • Redundancy in parts
  • Agency approvals

Hurricane Iniki clearly demonstrated our lack of preparedness for defense against tropical storms, especially with regards to residential construction. However, in the long run it could be a relatively inexpensive lesson, but only if we choose to learn from the experience.

What did Iniki show us? As tropical island dwellers in the middle of a very big ocean we are prone to the extremes of the elements. Wind, water, salt, and heat work in endless synchrony to break down all structures, wherever they may show weakness.

The winds of Iniki shredded many wood frame structures. Some dwellings literally exploded from the force. Those structures which performed best were made with concrete. Not only could they withstand the winds, but they also proved extremely resistant to water damage.

As a result of Iniki we see an enormous rise of insurance premiums and cancellation of homeowner policies, especially disaster coverage. We are also left with replacing thousands of dwellings. And not to be measured, but certainly counted, is the toll of human misery.

Yet, aside from maybe stronger mechanical ties, rebuilding in Kauai has followed the contemporary wood-frame, gabled roof format. Inherent with this choice of building are two serious flaws. The first is in the general shape of the structure. Gabled roofs with eaves may look attractive and prove effective protection from moderate wind and rain, but in severe conditions they are liabilities, rather than assets. This is because they are not very aerodynamic, in fact they may be the poorest choice of shape for coping with wind load. The build up of air pressure from lateral wind can peel these roofs right off.

The second problem with the wood frame model is the vulnerability of wood to biological attack. Alternate wetting and drying produces conditions perfect for wood fungus, the first step in decay. And a warm, humid environment is ideal for infestations of termites, whose only prevention is in poisoning the wood, then over the years, periodic applications of more poison. These poisons in turn poison the environment as they leach into the groundwater and eventually the ocean.

Now, how did these flaws arise, and how did they perpetuate themselves?

To answer these questions we should look at the recent historical development of housing. Traditionally, housing arose to serve the primary need of shelter, and was usually created by the family or extended tribe. Housing developments were only created to accommodate large influx of populations. These were usually built by people who did not live in them. The 20th century brought about building based on a perceived increase in population around industrialized cities, initiating what is termed speculative construction. The tendency with speculative building, however, is to cut corners whenever possible to increase profits.

Prior to this, at least in the U.S., the largely rural population was more directly involved in the construction of their homes. Great pride was taken in creating shelters which would be in the family for generations. Permanence was an important function.

But this changed in the latter stages of the Great Depression, and even more so after WWII. According to Buckminster Fuller, in his book, "Critical Path", part of the problem was inherited from FDR's New Deal and the WPA: "It must be noted that the rejuvenated building industry was reset in motion as a concession to the building trades and a move to increase employment, not as a much-needed evolutionary advance in the art of human environment controlling."

Initially, with large numbers of people out of work, housing construction was designed around the need to give workers jobs. As a result, the methods used for construction were based on increasing the production of the work force, not necessarily as better methods for building. The revolution of the modern housing industry was a direct result of this development.

The simultaneous consequence of this development was a new phenomena: housing as a commodity. And as a commodity it was also designed for consumers, to be used, discarded, and replaced. In the meantime, durability took a back seat to consumerism and speculation. Even the term "housing market" reflects this attitude.

The conventional systems of building which are so popular now are based on using a very high number of parts and workers. For example, the typical wood house in Hawaii consists of a framing system assembled with hundreds of thousands parts to hold the structure together, including wood, nails, screws, glue, brackets, and bolts. On the inside, gypsum board with thousands of nails covers the walls. Outside, again a cover of Douglas fir T-111 with thousands of nails. Today's roofs - with their thousands of parts - have become no more than fancy tops strapped on to the flimsy box beneath them.

The point is: in the average house we build today, the excessive redundancy in parts has evolved because of a need to accommodate material suppliers and provide a maximum number of jobs for specialized tradesmen. Plus, many of these materials are designed to fail in a given period of time. Anyone who has ever experienced gypsum board getting water soaked knows that afterwards it turns to mush. These are things unknown to the average person, who feels they are getting a good deal whenever they get something cheaper. But the cost becomes truly exorbitant in the long run when additional capital is needed to maintain or repair a deteriorating structure. And complete structural failure due to either wind, fire, termites, or rot is always a possibility. And in Hawaii, this possibility is a probability.

Most people think that strict building codes limit the likelihood of either poor or fraudulent construction. To a certain extent they do, but they are written around their acceptance of commercially available building techniques and fasteners. These suppliers of technology and materials must usually have their processes or products evaluated by federal, state, and county agencies before being given approval for general public use. The testing required by these agencies is time consuming and expensive. A new product may be required to have several agency approvals. As a result, the companies with the most money are more likely to achieve agency approval and gain priority in the market place. Under capitalized entrepreneurs often are unable to develop significant ideas because of this agency approval, especially if their idea may conflict with the larger vested interests.

It is important to understand the physical evolution of today's housing market, and how speculative building has created a commodity with questionable value. Consumerism is built into our homes, just like our automobiles. By the very nature of their design and choice of materials, most will have to be completely replaced in 100 years, if not sooner. The problem is acerbated by housing having become a speculative commodity where unqualified regulators, such as bankers and real estate salespeople, are passing judgments of quality in an area where they lack expertise. The family home, once that bastion for timeless survival, has succumbed to a form of currency with a questionable value.


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