I’ll huff, and I’ll puff and I’ll BLOW your house in…

 So said the big bad wolf to each of the three little pigs… I’m not sure how well children’s stories translate from one side of the water to the other, but if you can remember from your childhood, this story was about a wolf who fancied some lunch….

Each of the pigs chose a different material to build their house from – one chose straw, one sticks and the third bricks. The wolf attempted to blow down each of their houses in order to satisfy his appetite, and as might be expected the first two were duly demolished whilst the third remained standing. As news came out this week about the Kansas town of Greensburg’s attempts at rebuilding itself after a devastating tornado, it occurred to me that there would have been rich pickings for the wolf here …

When I lived in England I remember being somewhat bemused at TV pictures on the evening news of American towns that had been hit by hurricanes or tornados. It seemed incredible to me that they had been completely flattened, with huge swathes of land leveled as far as the eye could see – until I came here….

For the benefit of British readers, the reason for this utter devastation is quite simple – most houses here are made of wood !

America when compared to other countries does seem to have more than it’s share of natural weather related disasters – hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and ice storms being rather regular occurrences not to mention earthquakes. In a country whose church going population is impressive, the Creator does seem to have a strange sense of humour !

Of course here where I live in the Mojave Desert – building houses from wood makes perfect sense. We are mercifully free from vagaries of the weather, other than it just being very hot for three months of the year. As Geoff Schumacher said in his excellent book on our city – Sun, Sin & Suburbia

“It is also worth noting that Las Vegas is unlikely to endure hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, mudslides or devastating earthquakes….”

However – it seems foolish, nay almost criminal to build wooden houses in ‘Tornado Alley’ or the hurricane belt of Florida.

A friend of mine is an architect who once told me that contractors had questioned his specifications for a development that was in an area which was subject to certain extremes of weather. He was told that what he had specified was over-kill and not needed, however my friend stuck to his guns…. When the big storm came – his was the only development that was left standing.

I was curious to see that a fellow Brit had asked the sellf-same question that had been on my mind – why do Americans build houses of wood – in the Wired New York online forum. Answers from people ranged from:

“Brick is hard to work with”
“Wood is a better insulator”

…through to:

“Wood is more beautiful”

– but the real reason is of course greed. Wood is a lot cheaper than bricks, and building from it is a lot more profitable. Let me say from the outset that I have no problem at all with companies receiving a fair return for their products and labour – but there does sometimes seem to come a point where the accumulation of the most amount of money in the shortest possible time becomes the ONLY driving value in town… Like many I suppose, I had socialist leanings in my dim and distant past – but as time has gone on have come to realise that it just doesn’t work in practice. George Orwell’s Animal Farm said it all really…

Getting back to housing – the other day I went for a drive around Red Rock Canyon – one of this area’s outstanding natural beauty spots. En route I drove through Summerlin – a large master-planned community in the west of the valley, and was saddened to see that the houses in practically all of the new developments that had been built were all crammed very close together, with hardly any space between them at all. Surely in as open an area as this they could have been given more room ? Then again it all comes down to money doesn’t it…. Developers can simply make more money by constructing houses with barely an arm’s length between their outer walls…

It was Oscar Wilde who once said that

“…the cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”

For “cynic” substitute “developer”…..

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