Houses In The Post-Peak World
By Peter Goodchild
25 February, 2012
What are some practical responses to house-building in a world where petroleum and other natural resource declines to a small fraction of their present annual production? In particular, let us consider dwellings for a cold climate, where the challenge of adequate housing is greater. One's first thought might seem a simple one: the "log cabin." The more we examine it, though, the less simple the concept becomes. If we look closely at today's log cabins -- and log "houses" -- the less they seem to serve their original purpose, which was to act as durable warm domiciles requiring few tools, and taking materials mainly from the surrounding area.
Those qualities are no longer there: the purpose has vanished. Modern log structures often use logs so big that they can be lifted into place only with heavy machinery, which requires fossil fuels, and so the point of it all has disappeared. Most of the cutting and shaping is done with chainsaws, again defeating the purpose. The list of the "inauthentic" goes on -- plywood flooring and roofing materials, prefabricated windows and doors, synthetic preservatives. Even the making and use of axes in the future will require a knowledge of metallurgy, but let us assume that this is possible.
For that matter, a modern log house uses far more wood than an ordinary frame house, i.e. a typical suburban house, so there is really no point in building a log dwelling when there is machinery for construction available -- and especially if, at the same time, the structure is being erected on a well-built road where modern materials could easily be delivered.
We might look back into the log cabins of the 19th and 18th century in North America. These seem closer to structures that fit the above description of the "purpose." But some of these structures are rather daunting, requiring a good deal of both labor and expertise. Many in those days had hewn logs, i.e. logs cut with a special type of axe so that they became squared (four-sided). The making of cedar shingles for the roof is also not a task for the beginner.
Looking at the wooden houses of the Vikings, or of late Anglo-Saxon England, gets us no further, because many of these involved woodworking techniques that would probably defeat all but the best of modern woodworkers. Contrary to popular belief, these were not the houses of "primitive" cultures.
Hence we must go even further back in history, to the Iron Age, which in northern Europe extended from about 500 B.C. to about 1000 A.D., although there is not much agreement on these dates or the definitions. There was considerable variety in forms. Gerhard Bersu in the 1940s believed that most Iron-Age houses in Britain were round, although Geoff Carter now questions this. Certainly on the Continent a house was more commonly a large single room or "hall," or at least the hall consisted mainly of a large single room.
It is important to note that, unlike structures of later times, Iron Age houses had earthen floors, and the main timbers were earthfast, i.e. set directly into the ground, whereas later buildings had their posts placed on sill beams, which in turn had stone footings. The earlier, earthfast posts would of course be subject to rotting and might only last a few decades. But raised sills would entail the use of a complete wooden floor, set above the ground, a far more complex design problem.
The walls would be built of logs, wattle-and-daub, turf, stone, or a combination thereof, depending on what materials were locally abundant. Both squared and non-squared timbers were used at times. Roofing was mainly turf (with an under-layer of birch bark?) or thatch. The sleeping area might consist of benches running along the sides of the hall.
The fire was just an open area in the middle of the floor, although sometimes with either a sunken or a raised hearth, and the smoke escaped through a hole in the peak of the roof or perhaps the gables, or simply through the thatch. Such a central fireplace may have resulted in a smoky interior on days when a strong wind blew the smoke back into the house, but in general the centrality of the fireplace actually resulted in better radiation of the heat than in later houses, which had enclosed fireplaces built into a wall.
The interiors seem not to have changed much from the early Iron Age to the end of the Middle Ages. Anyone who has read Beowulf, a poem originally composed in about the 8th century A.D., will recognize many of these features: the large multi-purpose hall, the sleeping benches along the sides, the central fireplace. Even the dwellings of the later Middle Ages, although more sophisticated in the structure of the walls and roofs, often had such a large "communal"-style interior, since not only kings but also farmers tended to live among close-knit groups of people.
Addyman, P.V. (1972). The Anglo-Saxon house: A new review. Anglo-Saxon England, 1, 273-307.
Carter, G. (2009, January 15). Credibility crunch hits Iron Age building. http://structuralarchaeology.blogspot.com/2009/01/18-credibility-crunch-hits-iron-age.html
Kephart, H. (1917). Camping and woodcraft. Reprint: various editions.
Phleps, H. (1989). The craft of log building. New York: HarperCollins.
Peter Goodchild is the author of Survival Skills of the North American Indians, published by Chicago Review Press. His email address is prjgoodchild[at]gmail.com
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