The most common house building material in America is wood. Over 90% of American homes are constructed primarily using wooden frames and other wood products for the floors, walls, roofs and interior elements. This differs greatly from many other parts of the world that more commonly utilize brick, concrete, stone and steel for home construction.
There are several major historical, economic, practical and cultural reasons why wood became the predominant building material for houses across the United States:
Abundant Wood Resources
The early United States was blessed with vast, dense forests that provided an abundant, high quality source of lumber for the first American settlers. It has been estimated that over 50% of the land area that would become the United States was covered in forests when Europeans first arrived.
Unlike Europe and large parts of Asia that had largely depleted their native forests by the 18th and 19th centuries after centuries of logging, charcoal production and shipbuilding, America still had huge woodland areas that remained heavily wooded.
The heavily forested Northeast and Midwest were especially rich in tall, straight, high quality trees like pine, fir, spruce and oak that were ideal for milling into lumber for construction. This gave American builders easy access to a local, renewable building material. Constructing with plentiful wood was faster, easier and most importantly cheaper than having to quarry, transport and shape heavy masonry materials like stone or brick.
Lack of Good Alternative Building Materials
The early United States did not have the same tradition of quarrying and shaping stone for building found in Europe. There were far fewer granite, limestone, marble and quality sandstone deposits that produced the building stones commonly used in Britain, France, Germany and elsewhere in Europe.
American also historically lacked significant high quality clay deposits needed for firing structural brick in quantity. Some exceptions like Baltimore had access to good brick clay. But many areas had no local brick production. Even basic cement for concrete was not manufactured in the States until the 1820s.
This lack of abundant, quality alternative building materials forced most American builders to rely almost exclusively on what was available in copious amounts all around them – trees for wood. Even as brick kilns and masonry production centers developed later on, wood construction techniques had already become standardized across the country.
Adaptability of Wood Construction Methods
The relative lightness yet high strength of wood compared to masonry gave wood-frame building methods several advantages that led to its adaptation as the dominant construction system. The ability to pre-cut and assemble major structural elements like wall panels and trusses using nails rather than heavy mortared joints allowed for greater standardization and much faster building.
The balloon framing technique developed in Chicago in the 1830s revolutionalized building with wood. It used efficient modular construction with pre-cut wooden wall studs, joists, rafters and sheathing that could be quickly nailed together on site row by row to erect whole houses. This along with platform framing became prevalent ways of constructing multi-story wood-frame houses and commercial buildings across America’s growing cities and towns.
Wood’s relative ease of working on site allowed builders great flexibility to experiment and innovate with different architectural styles and floor plans more difficult to achieve with masonry or concrete construction. Wood framing’s simplicity and speed allowed it to fully capitalize on the economies of scale possible with standardized dimensional lumber mass production that developed over the 19th century.
Expanding Frontier and Mobile Population
As the American population steadily expanded westward over the 19th century, having housing construction methods that were portable, flexible and quick became a necessity to keep pace with growth. The relative ease of using local wood that was available in abundance nearly everywhere to build houses made perfect sense for what was often still a frequently moving populace pushing the frontier further westward.
More permanent masonry house construction methods common in older settled areas of Europe and colonial America did not align well with the needs of more temporary shelter and rapid development required in the new settlements springing up on the western frontier. Even as populations settled more permanently in frontier regions like the Midwest and Pacific Coast, wood stick construction remained the dominant status quo method. Sawmills were erected near growing settlements to provide steady local supplies of dimensional lumber.
Climatic Challenges of Masonry Construction
The wide climatic variations found across the many regions of the United States posed additional problems for more traditional masonry construction methods. In northern cold weather regions, wood withstood freeze-thaw cycles and wide temperature swings far better than masonry. The flexibility of wood construction did not result in the same cracked, crumbling walls seen more with brick and stone.
Wood-framed buildings can also flex and breathe with the seasons, which is a major advantage in extreme cold. In southern hot and humid regions, massive masonry walls tend to retain heat and moisture more than lighter wood-framed wall systems that allowed for better airflow and ventilation through spaces like attics. Overall, wood construction proved more adaptable across America’s diverse and often extreme climates compared to masonry.
Development and Refinement of Balloon Framing
The continual development and refinement of advanced wood framing techniques such as balloon framing in the mid 19th century made wood-based building even faster, easier and cheaper. The milling of standardized dimensional lumber and factory production of wire nails enabled framers to quickly erect buildings using modular pre-cut 2x4s and 2x6s for wall studs, floor joists, rafters and sheathing.
These framing advances eliminated the need for intensive labor cutting joints and fitting structural timbers on site. The resultant skeleton framing also reduced material use compared with traditional timber framing methods. The lightness and spaced studding possible with balloon framing allowed the creation of much larger and open floor plans than possible with dense, heavy masonry load-bearing wall systems.
Overall, wood framing became an increasingly industrialized, optimized construction system based on interchangeable parts. This sped the construction of everything from houses to commercial buildings to factories.
Tradition and Familiarity with Wood Building
Even as alternative building materials like steel, superior manufactured brick and concrete block became more available and cost-effective by the early 20th century, wood-frame building remained by far the dominant construction method. The techniques, tools, trade skills and best practices using dimensional lumber and plywood were deeply ingrained in several generations of American builders by this point.
Home buyers were also most familiar and comfortable with the wood-frame houses which had a proven track record. Light wood framing allowed for flexibility in home plan designs and sizes. Wood lightness and resilience was also thought to provide better resistance to earthquakes and high winds compared to more brittle masonry construction. So tradition and familiarity helped wood maintain market dominance.
The established wood product supply chains, construction techniques, trade skills and overall industry maturity gave wood stick-framed houses a consistent cost advantage in most American housing markets, which still holds true today. The distributed nature and competition within the wood products industry helped keep material costs relatively affordable and stable. Wood’s lightness also made it cheaper to transport lumber than heavier masonry.
In addition, the speed of framing assembly along with wood’s lower labor requirements reduced overall construction schedules by weeks or months compared to other methods, lowering costs. Builders naturally gravitated toward the building materials and methods that provided the most cost-efficient path to completion. For most residential and small commercial buildings, wood stick framing provided that lowest cost option.
In summary, abundant local wood supplies, lack of abundant quality local alternatives, wood’s construction adaptability, an expanding and frequently mobile population, the diversity of American climates, refinements like balloon framing, tradition and familiarity, along with consistent cost savings for builders and buyers all contributed heavily to wood becoming the dominant building material for American houses as well as most low-rise structures.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why have American homes historically used wood framing?
Wood framing developed very early in American building history, primarily because there were abundant local forests that supplied quality lumber across the country. But masonry materials like high grade bricks were in short supply. Wood was also quicker and easier to work for builders, especially as balloon framing improved the process. This allowed fast, affordable construction.
What are the advantages of building houses with wood?
Wood is a renewable and workable material that’s available locally in most areas. Wood framing allows for more open floorplans, lower construction costs, and design flexibility compared to masonry. It also handles extreme weather conditions well. Homeowners appreciate wood’s familiarity, aesthetics and resilience.
Are wood structure homes more prone to fires and other risks?
Properly engineered, constructed and maintained wood homes are normally quite safe and meet building code standards. Wood can perform very well in seismic zones when proper structural bracing is used. Fire risks are minimized through design elements like fire-rated wall assemblies, automatic sprinklers and fire-resistant exterior finishes.
Why have many countries traditionally used masonry instead of wood construction?
Places like Europe and Asia historically lacked the same abundant native forests available in North America. Masonry construction has much older regional traditions there. Population densities in urban areas also favored sturdier masonry building methods. America’s sprawling suburban development patterns make wood’s structural lightness more practical and affordable.
What are some of the downsides or weaknesses of wood framing?
Wood is flammable so fire is always a concern if building codes and best practices aren’t followed. Rot, insects and moisture can damage wood if not properly maintained. Logging for lumber can deplete forests when not sustainably managed. But responsibly managed forests, fire-retardant treatments and improved water-resistance are helping address these issues.