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:
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:
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.