Monday, October 22, 2007

Inflamatory question of the day

Why are almost all houses in the U.S. so similar? This has nothing to do with the real estate market, but with their layout and materials. From Maine to California, the typical home, built out of flimsy wood and stucco, is very similar (it seems almost centrally planned) regardless of climate or other considerations.

I ask because I live in San Diego and, while in no danger, I've seen on the television countless homes burn in minutes. Southern California has always faced severe danger from wildfires. Yet, houses are built in a manner that makes them highly flammable. Maybe wood is less expensive than brick or cement as a building material, but surely it can't be that much of a difference and, if the present value of fire insurance is added, the other options would be more attractive.

This is not the first time I've asked this. Americans build houses that the Big Bad Wolf would have no trouble blowing down in harm's way. Like the Gulf Coast. I have yet to see anyone even suggest a change in the way houses are built (in Mexico's Caribbean coast damage from hurricanes is much less severe precisely because buildings are made of sturdier stuff).

Why is this? Government doesn't help. By subsidizing catastrophe insurance and providing generous reconstruction funds it shields homeowners from the worst consequences. Nonetheless, my guess is that it's mostly a cultural thing. Americans simply can't conceive of houses build any other way. While the typical home may be well adapted to, say, New England or the Pacific Northwest, its totally out of place in West, where it would make much more sense to build the typical Mediterranean house.