Lounging in France 5: Modern Buildings

Before we leave the subject of buildings (so dear to the writer’s heart! Knowing how buildings are made makes explosions more convincing.) I have here a fine example of how it is done today.


This house is under construction. It is made out of factory-made terra cotta blocks, mortared together. Not only are the blocks a standard size and shape, making it easy to erect walls. But they are semi-hollow (you can see the edge of one, the very top block at the corner of the eave) like their close cognate the cinder block. This makes them cheaper, lighter to handle, and mildly insulative with that dead air space in the middle. Tons better than chunks of stone, and much easier to lay. This building awaits its finish coating of stucco. Once that’s applied, you won’t be able to see what’s underneath. It could be chunks of rocks hacked out by Romans two thousand years ago, or half-timbering filled out with sticks, anything. The house will blend right in with all the other houses in the region.

Furthermore, a standard size of block means that the openings can be a standard size, so many blocks wide and deep. This allows you to manufacture windows and doors and garage doors in bulk. (And this is how you can spot a modern house.) All those castles and stone houses? Every opening was unique, and each door or window was a one-off built by an expert craftsman. That’s why you see so many super old doors around, patched, repaired, reused, their cat holes boarded over — because replacing it would be a costly custom job.

Finally — look at the roof. Is that a terra cotta tile roof? No it is not! Tile roofs have to be at least two, sometimes three layers of tile to shed water. This one is only a single layer. It’s asphalt tile, closely modeled and colored to look like terra cotta. Why do this? Well, it’s massively lighter, which means the roof trusses don’t have to be so sturdy. And asphalt is way cheaper, and far easier to install. You can get an asphalt roof up in less than a day. A tile roof has to be laid by a crew of experts. This is not a roof that will last thirteen hundred years, like a tile one. It’s hotter to live under, and it’s more flammable. But it’s a roof that cost maybe $40,000 less. That’s not a negligible sum, and makes this house affordable. Modern technology is here, all in the service of making the house look at first glance as if it was built five hundred years ago.

Let me wind up this focus on building with a modern interior under construction in the US:


This is the modern American house construction. The walls are exactly as thick as the two-by-fours you see here. They were carefully spaced (on 16 inch centers) so that the window openings are a standard size, so that the pre-manufactured windows can just be popped in. Outside it was closed in with plywood, which will be sheltered from the elements by a tight wrapping of Tyvek and then a layer of siding. The inside view, here, shows you how fiberglass insulation was crammed between the studs. Sheets of wallboard are just about to be installed. Those were manufactured to center on those studs so they can be quickly nailed down. The openings for windows and the ceiling lights have to be cut, but it’s fast work with a nail gun.

Look how thin the walls are. No this house will not stand for two thousand years. But because of the supermodern building materials this house is notably warmer and more soundproof than stone walls a yard thick. (Believe me. I lived there!) Those windows have argon between the double panes and have a superb R-value. An infrared photograph of this wall in winter would show you that the glass keeps in the warm as well as the walls.

So you can see what drives building choices. It all comes down to availability. And the power of money to affect that availability!



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 5: Modern Buildings — 2 Comments

  1. Hi, Brenda, and thanks for more intriguing info about different dwelling choices. (I, too, can’t open the first photo.)