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Carpentry in Building

One thing that has always interested me was the different way buildings, especially home buildings, are done. For instance in the USA it seems most houses are built out of wood, whereas in my home country South Africa it is the absolute exception.

Possible Reasons

The reason might be the availability of the main materials. The USA as well as Canada have large indigenous forests. In South Africa (SA) there are few indigenous forests and these are protected so that very little lumber may be taken from them and the lumber that can be used is too precious and only used for expensive furniture.

SA has planted forests in the wetter parts of the country, mainly in the east where the rainfall is higher. These are single species forests and the lumber used for building comes mainly from pine. The species are pinus patula, a native of Mexico and pinus radiata, mainly a native of California, but also pinus taeda and pinus elliotti. These grow very quickly, due to the heat in SA, so the growth rings are far apart when compared to lumber in the USA. This results in wood that is not of a high quality and is very soft. It also tends to warp badly, so care has to be taken when it is dried. The lumber is harvested within only 20 to 30 years in contrast to 45 years in the USA

Building Methods

The houses built from lumber in the USA have wooden frames with wooden cladding and sometimes even the roof shingles are wood. This would be unthinkable in SA as the sun would damage these in a short time if made out of these soft woods. Another factor is the plague of termites which attack any wooden structure unless it is specially treated.

Houses built in SA are built with bricks, either burnt clay bricks or cement and crusher sand hollow bricks. The last named are mainly used for low-cost buildings for the poor. For the roof structure lumber is used, with either clay or cement tiles for the more up-market houses, or galvanized iron sheeting, which is by far the most common. Sometimes shingles made from slate are used but are not popular. Pressed metal tiles such as Harvey tiles are also used, though these are quite costly. The floors are concrete with a variety of coverings such as tiles, laminated wooden flooring, carpeting or even colored cement floated screed depending on whether it is an up-market building or not.

Thatched roofs are used sometimes but they are risky because of the danger of lightning. They have much higher insurance costs. In coastal areas this risk is less, thus more houses have these roofs there, especially in the Cape where the old gabled Cape-Dutch houses originated.

Other Building Methods

For high-rise buildings concrete frames with brick walls and concrete roofs are common here. The use of steel framing is seldom used in contrast to the USA.

The black (Bantu) population in traditional areas use natural wood framing from branches and small trees cut in the bush combined with mud daub and thatched roofs. These huts are very maintenance intensive and it is the task of the women to regularly smear them with mud clay. The floors are made out of a mixture of mud clay and cow dung.

The brown (Khoi-San) people, who were the original inhabitants of SA, built their traditional dome houses with thin branches covered with hides, perhaps because they used to be nomadic. This is hardly used anymore, only in some desert areas in the North Western part of SA.

Other countries have very different building methods, but this article concentrates on the differences between South Africa and the USA and demonstrates how the availability of materials can affect building methods, not to mention other natural occurrences such as earth quakes.

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