The only story I can think of in which building materials play a starring role is “The Three Little Pigs,” but that doesn’t mean it’s an irrelevant background consideration. Not only does this play into how a writer describes their characters’ surroundings, but it affects the shape of the structures in which we spend most of our lives.
On a baseline level, the materials in question are either organic or inorganic — or rather, often a mix of both, but for the sake of being able to wrangle this subject into something resembling coherent order, I’m going to divide them that way. Though there are exceptions, organic materials have historically tended to be cheaper, while inorganic ones are pricey. We’ll deal with the former in this essay, and save the latter for next week.
You may be visualizing a house here, but first think less permanently. The structure often called a wigwam in North America is found more or less everywhere there’s suitable vegetation: bend a circle of saplings into arches, lash more saplings latitudinally around them to complete the frame, and then cover it with . . . well, what do you have on hand? Hides, fabric, bark, large leaves, reed mats, bundles of grass, anything that can create a surface capable of holding back (some amount of) wind, sunlight, and precipitation. Hey presto, you have a building.
The resulting structure can’t get very large, because you need the saplings to be flexible enough to bend — or, if you’re using mammoth bones for the frame, you’re limited by the size of the animals. It’s also not terribly durable, and tends to be used for seasonal habitation; societies that build these often shift between summer and winter camps (or wet season and dry season), and when they come back next year, they’ll make a new one.
Or it’s even more temporary than that. While you may not think of tents as “buildings” per se, for nomadic cultures, this is what architecture consists of. The notion of “frame plus covering” still applies, but I think it’s more common for these to have peaked roofs, rather than the rounded dome of a wigwam, and the covering is likely to be either hides or fabric: something you pack up and take with you when you move, rather than gathering fresh materials everywhere you go. The same may be true of the poles used for the frame (which may or may not have horizontal elements), if you live in a plains or desert region where long pieces of wood are hard to come by. Whether it’s a North American tipi, a Mongolian ger, or the tents of the Bedouin, this is and has been a standard way of life for many people.
But let’s say you want to stay in one place for a long time. You actually don’t have to rely on wood for this, even if you’re building mostly with organic materials; if your region is poor in trees, you can make a structure out of sod (aka turf), with a few framing pieces to support it. Cut blocks of grass out of the soil, the layer where their roots are holding the dirt together, and you have something like a ready-made brick. You’ll be limited in how high you can build before your walls collapse under their own weight and it will require constant maintenance — rain will eat away at it, especially if sod is also used for the roof — but the insulating properties of this material are quite good, which is why it was favored by the settlers of Iceland.
Many other cultures, however, have looked to wood as their main material. The simplest form here is probably the log cabin, with whole trunks shaped to a greater or lesser degree and stacked to form walls. That’s liable to have drafts coming through everywhere, though, so you have to fill the seams between the logs. This could be some combination of rocks and smaller pieces of wood (chinking), mud, moss, or whatever else was easily available, which again requires regular maintenance. Clapboard — horizontal planks laid across an underlying frame — can be more weathertight, especially if the each plank overlaps the one below. That also has the advantage of being lighter, allowing for taller construction than your average log cabin.
Those methods, however, use a lot of timber, and deforestation started to be a problem long before modern times. So how can you build a house out of mostly organic materials without cutting down quite so many trees?
Fill the spaces between the framing elements with something a little cheaper and more renewable. Wattle-and-daub and lath-and-plaster are the same basic idea, just different levels of effort and sophistication. The latter uses thin strips of wood — much thinner than clapboard planks — while the former uses flexible branches, woven between upright pieces. Then, to make them weathertight, you cover them with some kind of plastering material, whose exact composition varies regionally: soil/clay/mud often forms the base, but animal dung can also be used, with straw or a similar element mixed in to give it a little more structural integrity once it dries. This is a hugely common approach, and you can still see the visuals of it, if not the actual construction methods, in the architectural style called “Tudor Revival.”
You can even go lighter than that. The aesthetic of traditional Japanese architecture, with its panels stretching paper between delicate ribs of wood, was born partly out of the need to conserve the country’s rapidly diminishing forests; older styles made much greater use of large beams and planks. This lets in more light, but the price for that light and your minimal materials is that the insulation is very poor.
What about the roof? I’ve already mentioned sod, but there are other possibilities. Thatching uses layers of dried vegetation (straw, reeds, palm branches, etc.) to shelter the inhabitants from the elements, which often serves again as insulation, as it holds pockets of air. It needs to be replaced rather frequently, though — maybe once a decade or so — and may harbor vermin, though open fires inside the building can help keep down that latter problem, as you literally smoke the bugs out. Wood shingles last longer, but are more expensive and less insulating.
Of course, how long anything lasts depends on local factors: not just the weather, but also what exactly you’re using. I’ve been saying “wood” as if it’s all the same, but any carpenter will tell you that not all trees are created alike, and if you use the wrong species for the job, you’ll regret it. This isn’t the place for an exhaustive rundown of all the possibilities — that could literally fill its own book — but relevant factors include how the material holds up under compression or bending and how it endures around water. Alder, for example, performs spectacularly when submerged, which is why most of the pilings beneath Venice are made from alder wood. Can you imagine what would happen if those rotted out from under the city? Choose aesthetics over pragmatics, or employ an unfamiliar wood from a region you don’t know, and you may find your house literally falling down upon your head . . . without need of a wolf to blow on it.