Building Materials Matter: or What Happens when the House the Third Little Pig Built … Falls Down


Here on the moss blog, we’ve often talked about how important quality building materials are to us.  A well designed and constructed building can last for generations with tweaks and remodels to keep up with the time and its always a tragedy when a good building is knocked down before its time – something that happens all too often in Chicago’s neighborhoods these days. The situation unfolding in Connecticut – when well loved homes begin to crumble on their own, is even sadder.

Concrete especially is one of the really important building materials to get right. Proper admixtures, water content and weather conditions have a huge impact on the strength and longevity of the material and, when it is the foundation supporting a whole building, making corrections to it after the fact can be ridiculously difficult.

What’s Happening in Connecticut

Homeowners in northeastern Connecticut are discovering that the concrete foundations of many homes have failed – or are failing – due to a high pyrrhotite content in the concrete mix.

Homes built with concrete sourced from one particular quarry starting around the mid 1980’s have a mineral content which has caused the concrete to crack and crumble in as little as 10 years after construction.  Homeowners who tried to patch their basement walls or generally shore up the foundations had no luck. The situation worsened until it couldn’t be controlled.  The only solution – to raise a house and totally replace its concrete foundation!

The situation is a real catch 22.  A house with this problem may not be safe to occupy and can’t be sold.  The insurance companies claim that their coverage of “building collapse” only counts if the building actually falls down – not if it is going to slowly over years.  And, in some cases, homeowners notifying their insurance of the problem resulted in cancelled coverage!  Similar issues in Canada have already prompted a government pledge of $30 million for homeowners afflicted with crumbling concrete.  At the moment the situation in Conneticut is continuing to disintegrate … just like the houses.

The importance of Infrastructure

The USA does not pay enough attention to infrastructure in general – either public or private. Whether it be lead service lines connecting our homes to the city water system or crumbling highway bridges, we tend not to care about it until there is a crisis.

So, the New York Times’ description of what is happening in Connecticut as “a slow-motion disaster” is entirely accurate, but even this problem may be a little too slow to proper attention, despite the disaster status.  We should care.

This issue is just as scary as a the hurricane or shark attack movies we love to cringe to so, in a hilarious (to architects) attempt to generate more excitement around the issue, the Last Week Tonight team produced this “movie” trailer dramatizing the intensity, and importance, of … routine maintenance and repair.

Why Building Materials Matter

If we want our great grand children to benefit, as we do, from a strong existing building stock of beautiful, historic structures waiting to be renewed and reused … we need to start constructing buildings that can last.  Planned obsolescence is one thing but careless construction is perhaps even worse.

Building well, and quality and environmentally friendly building materials, is key to moss’ ethos for this and many other reasons.  Please peruse the rest of our website to find out more!