They won’t solve today’s crisis, but new building materials are on the way. Here’s the score to date
JOHN CAULFIELD SMITHAugust11946
What’s For Building?
They won’t solve today’s crisis, but new building materials are on the way. Here’s the score to date
JOHN CAULFIELD SMITH
THE stern realities of the housing situation have jolted most people out of their day-dreams about futuristic houses with walls made of sawdust and cotton. Most people are willing to take any kind of building material—or any kind of house they can get.
Yet behind today’s feverish activity to use every pound of cement and foot of lumber to get orthodox homes built, exciting new things are happening in the building industry. New materials for houses are being tested. Old materials are being given new forms and functions.
Most new materials are as scarce as the old; often they cost more, though prices may drop as increasing production puts them in common usage. But when today’s crisis has passed, Canadians will have a chance to make a selection from the new developments science offers for the home of the future.
Since the lumber shortage is the most serious lack facing the builders of Canada today, any technique that eliminates or reduces the use of this hard-to-get material commands attention.
Concrete, for instance, formerly found only in foundations and sometimes in the front steps, is now being used to build the complete outer shellin some cases even the roof.
One of two new concrete techniques is the use of concrete blocks, laid like oversize bricks and mortared together. The outer wall usually gets a stucco or paint finish, but some builders get a striking “shadow line” effect, much like clapboard, in the mortaring of the blocks, recessing the horizontal joints while leaving the vertical ones flush with mortar.
This type of construction costs less than brick or
wood frame, and its supporters say it is as warm as a good brick house. The blocks are plentiful in eastern Canada, are becoming increasingly available on the prairies, but scarce in British Columbia.
In the second new concrete method the walls are poured either into vertical forms or on the flat, then raised into position. In the United States a giant machine, nicknamed “the concrete biddie,” lays one-story houses, 24 by 33 feet, like eggs. A wide range of floor plans is offered for production by the house-laying machine. The walls, centre partition and even the roof, which is flat, are all cast in one piece. Steel mesh is the reinforcement.
The machine, which has been used exclusively on large-scale housing projects, is set up at a point close to all the proposed sites. An inner wooden form for the concrete is prepared on the ground. Then the machine, which is mounted on high wheels, lowers an outer form (also wood) in place and the concrete is poured between the two forms. When the concrete has set, the biddie lifts the house away from the inner form and waddles over to deliver it at the new address. The machine then takes the outer form away—and there’s your house!
The machine has not yet been used in Canada, probably because the rental, including the cost of the forms, runs as high as $30,000 a month. Because the forms are costly, these poured houses have to be produced in large numbers before their construction becomes economical. Structurally, they are sturdy and satisfactory and, I believe, quite as good as the concrete block house.
Steel, for many years the backbone of industrial construction, is being used in house construction in a limited way. An all-steel prefabricated house has
been built in Ottawa. The Ottawa house (there is another in Australia) was erected by unskilled labor. A different system uses steel floor joists, wall studs and plates that have a patented groove into which nails can be driven to hold the interior finish in place. The groove is curved so that the nail is bent, gripped and held firmly in place.
Builders would readily adopt this new type of construction if it would help to solve their troubles, caused mainly by the lumber shortage. But steel also is hard to get. And until mass production methods bring down the price the steel units are too costly for the ordinary home. The Ottawa house, if in mass production, would cost, it is claimed, about the same as a frame house of similar size.
Steel joists have been used in home construction when lumber was not to be had. These cost half as much again as lumber, although they have the advantages of strength, durability and easy handling.
Steel sashes have been used for house windows, but for the average house the cost is high. There is heat loss in this type of sash, and there is also the problem of condensation, or moisture formation on the inside surface of the glass, in winter.
Aluminum is being used as siding in the Fairchild house, which is being built at the rate of seven a day near Montreal. This prefabricated house employs the metal as a sheath enclosing a frame house. Builders are watching the Montreal experiment with interest, but in it they see no solution to their own problems—it does not eliminate the use of lumber, and aluminum also is scarce. Also, they’d like to see some long-term reports on this aluminumsheathed house’s performance.
Costly and Scarce
ALUMINUM and steel roofing is being made . in the United States, not in Canada. Aluminum probably will cost about twice the conventional tile or asbestos covering, with steel higher than that. The styles being shown in the U. S. are plates held together by expansion joints. The steel roof is given an enamel finish, which washes easily. This prevents rust. The aluminum has the minor fault—it darkens with age. The problem of condensation has been met by coating the inside of the metal roofing and insulation.
Canada is supplying most of the metal for 50,000 aluminum houses being built in Great Britain.
Plywood is by no means a new material, but in the past it has been used almost exclusively for interior Continued on page 43
Continued from page 12
finishing. Now it appears as a durable exterior sheathing, six times as strong as natural wood—but it costs 25% * more than lumber and is hard to get. The reason for its scarcity is explained by the fact that so much of our plywood production is being exported.
Several brands of composition board also have been developed for exterior walls. One of the newest is two inches thick, has its own insulation built right into the board. There is an exterior and an interior finish, which means that the whole wall can be raised into place in one operation. The makers haven’t got beyond showing a few samples to contractors, and they haven’t offered it for sale in Canada. They don’t know how much it will cost here, but it will be considerably more than the standard composition boards.
Plywood, however, still has its widest use as an interior finish, and is being produced in. many new and attractive forms. One of them is a panel with parallel grooves. When these sheets are mounted the joints are almost invisible.
When the manufacturers get their new products rolling you’ll be able to get colored plywood panels, made by laminating sheets of cloth, paper and even metal into the board. These panels will also be made fire resistant. However, you will have to wait until the makers get through that big backlog of orders for their standard products.
One Canadian company is going to offer molded plywood trim for doors and windows. Production lessons learned during the war, when aircraft fuselages were made of plywood, have made these new applications possible. These plywood sections will come to you as a packaged product ail ready to set in place. Some firms are carrying the idea even farther and will offer prefabricated kitchen cabinets, cupboards, fireplace mantels and china cabinets all in color-impregnated plywood. One advantage they will have is that the doors and drawers will be guaranteed to work without sticking.
There’s a new type of natural wood flooring you may want in your house of the future. It comes in planks six inches wide, and, while it is only 3/16 of an inch thick, it has the same durability as the thicker and narrower type of
tongue and groove hardwood flooring. Right now it is available only in dark oak. It’s cemented down like linoleum, and costs more than half as much again as its predecessor.
There’s no straw required in making the new kind of bricks you will soon be able to put in your house. They’re made of glass. They cost just about the same as the kind that went into the little red schoolhouse. The experts, who have tried living in glass houses, say they are fine for eye health. They are fluted and ribbed in such a way that you can’t see through them, and stand off the weather every bit as well as clay bricks. But they have the usual drawback—you can’t get them until the plants work through their stacks of orders. They are made in the United States.
For those who crave cascades of sunshine in their rooms there will be whole walls of clear plate glass. The new technique calls for three panes enclosing two sealed spaces. They won’t fog up or frost. The sealing is done with metal, and the windows are built right into the wall structure of the house. They cost twice as much as single thickness plate glass, which in turn costs about four times as much as ordinary glass. Even if you want it at those prices, it’s hard to get. There is some compensation for the high cost, however, when it is considered that the big windows take the place of costly wall construction.
There is another use for glass—glass wool for insulation. Filters of spun glass can be used to remove impurities from the air in the conditioning system in your new house. Builders will soon be able to get light, shockproof glass doors such as those you see now in the plush shops. You will be able to get glass screens in attractive designs, if you think you would like that sort of thing scattered about the house.
Plastics for Decoration
If there is a symbol for the House of Tomorrow, it is probably made of plastic, for this bright new material seems to catch the modern mood of house styling. It will be used mainly for decoration, however. You will find it in such minor and stylish roles as lighting fixtures, light switches, bath-
room fixtures, and as wall and ceiling panels in which wood, marble and even linen finishes are simulated.
Plastics will also blossom in the kitchen, where manufacturers will be able to supply entire drainboard and back-splash units in single molded sections. These will take hard wear, say the makers, and will cost about the same as enamel or metal units they replace.
The colorless, clear plastic known to airmen as perspex, which was used in aircraft turrets and windscreens, has been turned to domestic use under various trade names. A shower room curtained with this crystal-clear plastic was recently on display in Toronto.
This plastic is as transparent as glass, only half as heavy and much tougher, but it costs about half as much again.
Plastic molding is also available in limited quantity, but it costs twice as much as wood.
Plastic woven mesh has been used for some time in window screens. It withstands the weather, won’t sag, but is not fireproof. It costs the same as the copper screens, but is hard to get.
If you have the new plastic wallpaper in your house of the future, you won’t have to worry about Junior’s smudgiest and most futuristic sorties into art on the living room walls. All you have to do is wash it off with soap and water and the paper is as good as new. The makers say that lipstick, shoe polish and gravy come off without leaving a mark. You can’t get it in Canada just yet. In the United States, where there is a limited supply, it costs three times as much as the conventional wallpaper.
There will be paint on the house of the future, just to keep you from getting nostalgic for the good old days. In fact, it will be just about the same kind of paint you got used to before the war, but it will be better than the wartime product and will cost about the same. There will be oil paints that can be scrubbed without injury, but there’s nothing very revolutionary on its way in paint cans, unless you want to include the promise of paint deodorant, fireand mildew-resistant paint and luminescent and fluorescent paints.
But with all these innovations, to most builders wood is still the best house construction material available.
This is no sentimental addiction. If anyone could show them a substitute with the same performance at the same price they’d be delighted. It hasn’t been developed yet. Those of us who attended the recent Chicago convention of the National Association of Home Builders were surprised to see just how few new wood-replacing materials had been developed.
Where’s the Lumber Going?
Canada is producing 40% more lumber than ever before, and although two fifths of it is being exported, Canadians are getting more for domestic use than they have had at any time in the last 10 years. But the demands of postwar construction, following on the equally stern demands of wartime, have consumed the increased production and created a shortage.
Why is so much lumber being shipped out of the country when there is not enough for domestic needs? Part of the answer is to be found in the Canadian price ceiling, which makes it more profitable to sell outside the country. The main reason is a desire to maintain export trade. Most of our lumber goes to Europe or to the United States. In Europe we have an obligation to war-stricken countries and their ravaged cities—an obligation which didn’t end with V-E Day. And selling to the United States helps us get U. S. dollars badly needed for our buying there.
Relief is in sight, however, for hardpressed builders working against time to get the nation’s homeless indoors before the snow flies. The lumber shortage is expected to ease by late fall, when the summer cut will become available. Strikes and other operating difficulties aggravated the situation during the summer.
There are some builders who do not think styles in housing materials are due for any great change even after this crisis has passed and Canadians have a greater selection. They say the Canadian home builder is a naturally conservative person in his tastes.
I believe it’s too early to,say, because the new materials are both scarce and expensive. But fer anyone who wants to let imagination remp, there’s new beauty and new utility in the future.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.