Saturday, August 28, 2010

Building materials

Since I accidentally posted my stub draft of this yesterday, I've decided to make it my official re-opening post!

One thing I was struck by when in France and the Alps (France, Italy, Switzerland) was that most buildings were not made of wood, but stone. Of course, if you look around when you're there, it's easy to see why. There are rocks. Lots of them, available everywhere. Reason number two, a rock wall makes very good insulation, and when it's cold and snowy, that's a really serious advantage. We stopped in a restaurant in the Italian city of Chatillon, and the lower floor had walls of rock that came up into low arches, while the upper floor had higher walls of rock topped with wooden beams and ceiling. Then on top of the roof, the tiles were made of - you guessed it - rock. Most of the roofs in town looked like snake backs because of the overlay pattern of diamond-shaped tiles.

This has consequences. Buildings made of rock stick around for a very, very long time. People become accustomed to the sense of permanence around them. It infuses itself into the culture and into people's self-awareness. My friend Dario says he feels like something's missing when he can't see the evidence of permance, of history, around him.

Of course, any people will build with the available materials to suit local conditions. If there's a lot of good mud available, you can make brick walls - but if there's no stable soil, then there's no point in trying to build a heavy wall on it. Or if there are constant earthquakes (or even occasional ones!) there are distinct hazards involved in building with brick.

When you're creating a society, think about what the environment offers for building. A place built with locally available materials will have a sense of rightness, and that sense of rightness will be evident in the attitudes of its people. A place built with imported materials will be somewhat different. If properly planned, it can really stand out. If done badly, it can be laughable, or a disaster. If done with materials imported by humans across space (for example) it can look entirely out of place - another way to "stand out."

The architecture of the place you're building has a lot more to say about your setting, and about its people, than you might realize. Think through it, because it will be worth the trouble.

I'll have more thoughts on this soon!

It's good to be back.


  1. Megs - Scattered BitsAugust 29, 2010 at 6:50 AM

    It's good to have you back!

    I have to admit, never thought much about what's available to build with. We get these stereotypes in our head from the kinds of books we read (this setting should have that) and then somebody says something and it sort of smacks us upside the head. Duh! :eyeing story's building materials suspiciously: :goes to work:

  2. Welcome home to the Wade family. :-)

    Thinking over my stories, in most cases, the buildings are just sort of there. Nothing extraordinary, or especially noteworthy to the characters or readers, in that aspect of the setting.
    Hmm . . .

    You observed,

    *** Buildings made of rock stick around for a very, very long time. ***

    As you mention in passing, not in California. Here, they come down on your head, promptly upon the next earthquake.
    In some less-advanced areas, the poorer folks are the better, because they're not mushed by their own collapsing homes.

    A structure well-made from redwood, and properly maintained, can last for centuries. (More so in colder climates.)

  3. Thanks for the comments, guys. Good points, Paul. There are shrines in Japan which are periodically renewed to keep them fresh. But of course there are also wooden things which, under the right extreme conditions, survive for millenia (Viking boats, Egyptian artifacts).

  4. Welcome back! I hope you had fun - and found lots of inspiration.

    I create most of my buildings of stone, but I hadn't thought about the impact that would have on the society. You've given me a new level of depth to consider. Thanks!

  5. Great post! Important things to think about.