The Nature of a House

Over a number of years I have been researching the nature of shelter. Many books have been published on system used by indigenous people and the use of natural resources. With the advent of steel tools, nails, and saws, new large wooden building emerged. There was a close parallel between ship building techniques and large wooden house construction. At a domestic level, the clinker built house emerged in England. This construction had the advantage of strength with overlapping boards. A house could be framed up, similar to a boat, and the cladding gave the building its strength in the same way as a clinker built boat. The ship lapped “Weather Board” construction became the standard in Australia, New Zealand, and North America William Toomath 2003 “Houses we live In“.

Early last century a new construction technique emerged on the West Coast of North America: the frame construction. The house was framed up using 4×2 timber. The strength of the building was largely in the framing. Once framed up the roofed was added and the building clad. The cladding became an aesthetic and waterproofing feature. Weatherboards were still used. Other materials for cladding emerged as well as lining boards for the inside of the building. This is still how wooden and steel-framed houses are built today.

The novelty of the UpDown down design is that it returns to the clinker cladding principal for strength but the material is on the inside walls and it provides strength and bracing. This panel construction allows a variety of external treatments in keeping with an historical or modern design. The elements are screwed and bolted together. No nails are used. This has several advantages: the maintenance of the building is simplified, wall cavities can be easily accessed, and the modular elements can be reused if removed in other buildings. The materials are not wasted and their life cycle is extended. If well looked after their value is maintained and enhanced. If finished with undercoat and paint they could have a higher value.

The early cottage houses were also built on a basic module: about 3.6 meters wide. At this span, the timber-framed roof did not have to be bulky and load-bearing walls were not needed internally. This basic “salt box” acted as the basic unit and clusters of these modules built up the basic house design. Towards the middle of last century houses moved away from these simple designs into more complex bungalow styles based on the Japanese influenced styles of West Coast America.

Many writers on house design have noted that the house, like a painting, is a one off design. The elements are often modular: windows, concrete blocks, bricks, tilt slabs, but the house itself is not. There are some systems in Scandinavia where walls are constructed, off site, with services installed but large scale factories and heavy machinery is needed to transport an place them. At the time of construction little thought is given to recycling the components. Other approaches have been to look at scale and affordability. The “Grow Home” is the best example. In this book Avi Friedman makes a compelling case for smaller size and “row home” design. In many ways the UpDown arguments mirror his designs. The additions being internal wall bracing, a design that incorporates the sustainable use of materials, modularity and design for future retrofitting and enhancements.