The Three Little Pigs: Revisiting Building Material Mythologies
The story of the “3 Petits Cochons” (the 3 little pigs) is as well known to Americans as to the French. Any culture which has grown up with this story probably has certain prejudices about the relative value of the building materials described. Brick is best, wood is next (but won’t stand up against the wolf), and straw is worthless.
The first little pig built a house of bricks
In France, and much of Europe, the traditional building materials of brick and stone have gradually given way to their modern day equivalents, concrete and concrete block. All of these materials represent the permanency of construction in a place where buildings have lasted, and are built to last, for hundreds of years.
The second little pig built a house of sticks
In the United States, on the other hand, due to the original availability of vast forest resources, wood has traditionally been the building material which made the most sense. It can be used to build sturdy, adequate housing quickly and economically. The housing is not as permanent, but this is a more mobile society, without the same sense of permanency and historical continuity found in Europe.
Fooling the big bad wolf
Interestingly enough, there are a fair number of wood structures with brick or stone veneer on the front façade. Does this reflect the “brick is better” mentality of the 3 little pigs? Is the owner attracted to the look or permanency of brick, but not wanting to pay the higher price? In Switzerland, where wood is highly valued as a building material, the opposite occurs. Many large buildings are made of concrete covered with wood veneer.
In Europe as well as here we find the same phenomenon of materials pretending to be something they are not: concrete floors stamped to look like stone pavers, laminate countertops made to look like granite, a variety of materials which imitate wood grains. The materials which are being imitated are invariably more expensive (otherwise, the real thing would be used). Although the imitation somehow reproduces the feel of the admired original, the directness and honesty of the material is compromised.
Subsequent pigs built beautiful, practical structures from concrete, steel, wood, glass, asphalt shingle . . . .
By using the materials which make the most sense in a given time and place in a creative and honest way (rather than wasting resources to transform them into an imitation of something else) architecture becomes a true, local expression of the people it is created by and for.
And the last little pig lived happily ever afterward in a cool and comfortable house of straw!
What about the house of straw? On a recent visit to the Congo, I had the occasion to compare homes with thatch roofs with those with steel roofs. I was surprised by how cool, comfortable and visually pleasant the homes with thatch roofs were. Similar homes with metal roofs felt like an oven during the day. A well-crafted thatch roof can last for 30 years or more.
In Crestone, Colorado, we eventually took it as far as protecting our clients from the big bad wind, the big bad freeze, and the big bad heat by designing and building a home out of 14-inch thick strawbale. This was combined with a solar and in-floor heating, and where thermal comfort was required we obtained thermal delight. All in all, there is real solidity and a sense of safety with a softness and visual warmth that is captured by the strawbale structure. The sheer thickness of the walls makes you wish for the wolf to put this home to the test. Maybe the little pig that built the house of straw wasn’t doing so poorly after all!