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What is Structural Masonry, and Why does it Matter?

Structural masonry refers to the practice of using masonry, brick or stone, in such mass that it becomes self-supporting.  Sufficient stabilization usually begins to occur when a wall reaches 8” thick of solid masonry for something small, say, a garden wall.  Larger structures, like houses, are usually one foot thick—like the home you are standing in—or more.    

It is one of the oldest building methodologies, and by far the most resilient.  From the Egyptian Pyramids and Roman Pantheon to the Vatican and the Biltmore, stone and brick masonry have been used to build the world’s most iconic and enduring structures.  Though it wasn’t just reserved for monumental buildings; it was just as widely used to build the humblest of cottages.  It is simply how most of the settled (non nomadic) world has built.

Brick masonry, specifically, was popularized by the Romans with their exploration of arches—a tool used to span large openings in a masonry structure without massive stones (compared to the huge stone lintels spanning the columns in the Greek Parthenon)—ushering in new possibilities and a whole new era in architecture. 

It was only recently, with the industrial revolution and its offspring of mass produced nails, lumber mills and processed materials, that the building methodology used through most of human civilization was upended.  Collectively known as “stick-framing”, masonry was replaced by two-by-fours, plywood and plastic wrap.  Stick framing itself was a remarkable innovation, enabling quick, cheap, mass-produced housing.  A helpful tool, to be sure, when quick and cheap housing is needed.  But it has since become the only tool.

Even as wealth in the US grew drastically post WWII, and far more permanent housing could be afforded by a great deal of the population, size trumped quality.  Rather than build better homes, we simply built cheap homes bigger.  Since 1973, the average new house size has increased 62% (from 1,660 sq/ft  in 1973 to 2,687 sq/ft in 2015).  Over the same time, the average household size has steadily decreased, meaning the square feet of living space per person in a new house has nearly DOUBLED in the last 45 years.

Even in luxury housing, when size has peaked, we simply apply increasingly expensive bells and whistle.  But the bones remain fragile.  The home is but a sturdy tent with decorative gold plating—and tents don’t last.  In fact, the average lifespan of a house in the US is 70 years.  We now have a country full of mass-produced, temporary housing.

Don’t be fooled by the new brick and stone buildings you see today—they are merely a thin veneer, a cladding, held up by the sticks behind them.  Many of them span openings with thin sheets of metal that rust away all too quickly.  They are pretending to be brick buildings.  And that’s why they never look quite right—they are just illusions. 

There are still structural brick buildings in America in the old downtowns, and especially in the old cities: Savannah, Charleston, Chicago.  And they are by far the most coveted buildings, being retrofitted into the coolest lofts, coffeeshops and offices.  Why? Because in our disposable culture we long for something real.

At Building Culture, we believe houses can be more than the chemically laden, machine-produced shelters churned out by the construction-industrial complex.  They can be homes—places we love, care for and feel intimately connected to.  They can enrich our lives and communities, and contribute to a cultural heritage worth passing down.   But first we must rediscover how to build authentically, and remember how to build things that last.        

This is why we choose to build with structural masonry.  It is the most durable building methodology in existence, and its authenticity is self-evident.  Why is a brick the size it is?  To fit the human hand.  What is it made from? Clay—the stuff we’ve been walking on and digging our hands into for millennia.  When a home is sculpted from over 60,000 hand-lain brick, of course the outcome is authentic.  It’s human.  And with each passing year it gains beauty and patina.  It takes care of, and is taken care of, by many as it is inherited by successive generations.  Its walls tell stories.  It lives.

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Gas fires are easy. Too easy...

 Morso wood burning stove

Morso wood burning stove

We fired up our Morsø wood burning stove in the Franklin this week. Nothing like a little fire to warm the soul. The flames dancing off the walls, the soft crackling echoing around the room, the way it compels everyone to gather around, and the tending of the fire that invites you to participate. Hard to beat.

I’ve been thinking about why I prefer wood burning fires to gas. Gas is just too easy...it’s like flipping on a light. There is no deep appreciation bc there is no effort. It’s just an expectation met. You can flip it on without the intention of “let’s gather around a fire,” or really any intention at all—as an afterthought.

Having to gather the kindling, get it going, warm up the stove, and finally tend to it after it’s piping hot. There is work involved. And so it is also more satisfying. Plus, I don’t think I’ve EVER started a fire alone while others are around. For some reason, the moment someone starts to make a fire, everyone tries to pitch in—gathering the wood, stacking it just right, finding the lighter, blowing on it, adding a piece of wood as it gets going...or just putting in their two cents of how it should be done. And then there are those that just watch the process unfold. Whatever it is, it causes people to pay attention, and it brings people together. I wouldn’t trade that for easy.

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Why Structural Masonry?

Typical "brick" buildings today are mere shadows of what they once were, the brick being reduced to a cladding, a veneer held up by two-by-four walls wrapped in plastic to keep the water out.  Openings for doors and windows are supported by steel lintels that rust away rather than a far more resilient structural arch or solid stone lintel.  More effort goes into creating the illusion of a good home than actually building one. 

The new commodity driven housing market and mantra of "bigger is better" has led to the proliferation of cheap, faux, trendy, "cookie-cutter" houses that require remodeling every decade to fight off irrelevance and decay, and will be lucky to reach a 70 year lifespan.  No amount of Prius's or energy efficient lightbulbs can make up for the ecological impact of demolishing and replacing a house every 70 years (the US average). 

That's in addition to contributing to the unhealthiest population in US history.   Our houses make people sick.  Indoor air is up to 5 times worse than outdoor air in urban areas.  It wasn't long ago, late into the 70's, that we were putting asbestos into our drywall (and a whole lot of other building materials).  While today asbestos is a big no-no, the industry still operates under the same assumptions that allowed asbestos into our homes in the first place: "Assume any chemical is safe until proven otherwise."  That's how we still have endocrine disrupting bromides in our mattresses and carpets.  Not to mentions the thousands of other chemicals we've never even tested.  

The promises of Commodity Housing have betrayed us.  That luxurious 'dream' house at the end of the cul-de-sac that we are all entitled to and will help us achieve happiness?  Yea, it's a maintenance nightmare.  Turns out those 'luxurious' materials were just cheap imitations.  And 2008 proved it isn't the retirement plan we'd been told.  Also, that one hour commute to work makes us depressed, unhealthy, and is a leading contributor to global warming.  And community?  Forget it.  With a 3500 square foot house, big yard and garage, and suburban sprawl that requires us to get in our cars to go anywhere, we never even see our neighbors except through glass. 

Yet even as the promises of Commodity Housing crumble around us, its legacy persists with religious fanaticism in a single idea: cost per square foot.  It's an idea so entrenched in the American mindset that it's hard to even fathom another way of valuing our homes.  Banks certainly don't.  "Well, this 'comparable' home in terms of size and trends across the road went for 250 per sq/ft, so yours should too."  It would hardly make a difference if it was the Biltmore.  Why are we listening to a movement who's crowning achievement is the amalgamation that is the McMansion?  Not every square foot is made equal.  The value isn't in the cost of footage, but the quality of footage.    

Now compare that to the rich architectural heritage of Charleston or San Francisco.  Or just imagine the coolest coffee shop or pub in your town, or that repurposed warehouse with exposed brick walls and rough mortar joints.  We love those buildings!  They are solid, authentic and real.  They are simple but beautiful.  And    unlike all Commodity Houses where time is the mortal enemy—because time reveals the truth and exposes the illusion—for well built homes, time is actually an essential ingredient in reaching their full potential because it reveals the truth.  Each passing year their true qualities, their character, shine through a little more, earning our admiration, respect and love.

The only problem is we don't know how to build those buildings anymore.  All the world's oldest buildings are solid masonry, but we only know how to preserve the ones we already have.  Preservation is an excellent practice.  But if we must build new buildings, and we must, why not build good ones? 

At Building Culture, we are reviving one of the oldest and most resilient building practices, structural masonry, and integrating modern innovations to create responsible, authentic, beautiful and enduring homes.  We believe that buildings reflect back the values that went into them, so we are constantly asking ourselves, "what values help cultivate a thriving world, and how do we express that in a building?"  It's a mission that will never have a singular conclusion, but that just makes it more interesting.  We are building the future's old buildings, and there is endless exploration ahead.  We hope you join us.

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Stone Sills: How to beautifully increase the lifecycle of a masonry building.

PART 1: Locally Sourced Sandstone Sills

These beautiful pieces of chopped sandstone from a quarry 20 minutes away are awesome additions to our homes.  They increase lifecycle, are beautiful, totally natural(it's rock), and ecologically responsible.  How does it get any better than that?

PART 2: Cutting the Sills.  

We couldn't find anyone to cut a slope into them to help shed water, so we had to wing it.  Here's how we did it!  Crude, perhaps, but got the job done.  

PART 3: Laying the Sills

Coming soon!