Lounging in France 3: Buildings

How things are put together fascinates me. A writer must know many things, and a person who makes things always wants to know how it’s done. Today let’s think about buildings.

In the US modern housing is ‘stick built’, erected out of 2 by 4s, in a balloon construction. You’ve seen them, a skeleton of wooden members with layers of plywood, Tyvek, and siding layered on outside, and insulation, drywall, and flooring inside. This is very modern, a method developed less than a hundred years ago.

I’m now living in a house built more than a thousand years ago. The walls are made of stone. Windows and doors are supported by stone or brink lintels. Here is an exterior wall:
French wall

Notice the addition of the modern plumbing, represented by that descending pipe. Also notice that the home next door is smartly done up with stucco on the outside. Stucco is a development of clay daub, which does the same thing: blocks up the cracks in the stone wall to keep drafts and animals out. You can also achieve the same effect with mortar. Plaster, on the inside, gives you nice smooth interior walls.

But stone walls are hard. You need literally tons of stones. They have to be laid by skilled labor — this house is 3 stories tall, so the walls are more than 40 feet high. (It was part of the old city wall, so the stones were laid for defensive purposes and not housing.) A cheaper and easier way is to make a wooden framework, and then fill in. Then the stones or whatever don’t have to stand on their own:

Gallo Roman

This is a modern reproduction of a Gallo-Roman workshop. How much more easy it must have been to build! Instead of trying to mortar all these oddly shaped stones together, you erect a framework of timbers. Once all the roof, openings, and so on are organized, you fill in the gaps with stuff. They used anything on hand, as you can see in this picture: wattle and daub, or pieces of wood. Or, since this was built next to a pottery manufactory, they made pieces of terra cotta about the size and shape of a smart phone. These are stacked on edge, in the square spaces to either side of that central window.

Once the spaces are filled in, you stucco the outside and plaster the inside. Up until the modern era this was one of the most common way to build a building, all over the world. In China they used bamboo instead of oak; in the tropics they might just use panels of grass. All the doings inside are hidden by a skim coat of something that sheds the water for a while. If kept dry the wood lasts a long time — the beams in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris were cut in the 14th century.

But all these cracks in the stones, or gaps between the wattle and daub, are wonderful for vermin. And so this is the door of the house across from mine:


Near the bottom of the door is this hole, about 4 or 5 inches in diameter. It’s for the convenience of the cat, whose duty it was to keep the mice down. Every old door in France seems to have this. The door in my kitchen has one, neatly closed off by a piece of tin to keep the heat in.






About Brenda Clough

Brenda W. Clough spent much of her childhood overseas, courtesy of the U.S. government. Her first fantasy novel, The Crystal Crown, was published by DAW in 1984. She has also written The Dragon of Mishbil (1985), The Realm Beneath (1986), and The Name of the Sun (1988). Her children’s novel, An Impossumble Summer (1992), is set in her own house in Virginia, where she lives in a cottage at the edge of a forest. Her novel How Like a God, available from BVC, was published by Tor Books in 1997, and a sequel, Doors of Death and Life, was published in May 2000. Her latest novels from Book View Cafe include Revise the World (2009) and Speak to Our Desires. Her novel A Most Dangerous Woman is being serialized by Serial Box. Her novel The River Twice is newly available from BVC.


Lounging in France 3: Buildings — 7 Comments

  1. Tuck-pointing is an interesting result of people wanting to see the bricks of a brick house. But plastering works better. I’ve been to a bunch of restaurants where they removed the plaster to expose the bricks on the inside.

    The pyramids were covered with polished limestone, which made them very bright and shiny white. I’d love it if at least some were restored to their glory. I don’t know whether it would work like plaster on houses.

  2. The origins of the Masons steps from the secret society of actual masons in the middle ages. By not revealing the secrets to anyone who hadn’t been properly trained, masons could send their properly trained masons out into the world able to prove that they could lay the stones properly so the building would not fall in.

  3. Thanks, Brenda! Fascinating. I’ve lived in tropic houses with woven grasses for wall panels, and some that had wooden louvres as window/walls to let breezes in. And stayed in those very old European stone houses with walls so thick and tiny windows — a bit claustrophobic. So many building possibilities!

  4. Buildings are always thrilling, but the styles are usually highly local, driven by what’s available in your area and what the conditions are. Unless you travel, you don’t realize what a huge range of building styles there are.

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