News From the Field

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What’s Old is New Again

I have been consulting with builders and conducting training sessions about building technology for more than twenty years. Much of my time is spent on the road, and I typically visit hundreds of different job sites during the course of a year.

This past May I took a break and traveled for a month through Europe. Though my intent was to NOT think about building science for awhile, I found my eyes were drawn to construction details in every city and village I visited.

What I saw in Europe was a whole different level of craftsmanship than I see on most job sites. It seems that in our endless quest to do everything faster, easier and more efficiently, we have forgotten some basics; like how to build something if you expect it to still be solid and beautiful 300 years from now.

I noticed in my travels through France that one of the largest builders in the US has offices there. Their focus is multi-family track projects, and in Europe they have developed a reputation for high quality construction. I have little doubt that the standards they’ve had to establish to impress their European customers are considerably higher than what’s expected by their U.S. offices.

Masonry sills were a construction detail I noticed again and again. From Holland to France, England to Ireland, whether the house was 3 years old or 400 years old, it was clear that builders knew how to slope for proper drainage. Now I doubt the Europeans have a better understanding of gravity than we do. But they do seem to have more respect for it!

The pictures here illustrate what I’m talking about. They’re the sort of details that I saw in new construction and retrofits as well as in buildings that were built 400 years ago.

Look at the slopes on these homes in Amsterdam. Notice the consistent use of rounded corners and pitched sills. In France, I saw several places where pre-sloped masonry sills were installed into the window openings prior to window installation.

One place I have seen this technique used in the U.S., was in masonry home construction in Florida, where CMU’s were used for the first floor walls. Unfortunately, they abandoned this technique once they get to the second floor and switched to wood. At least they got half of it right!

I guess the point here is that we have a choice. We can choose to employ construction methods that demonstrate a high level of engineering prowess, or, we can choose to employ construction methods that we know are destined to fail.

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