A Home is a Good House

Crummy Substitutes Are Merely Shelter

Paris:- Tuesday , 30. April 1996:- The annual Paris Fair is such a vast affair, that in order to see anything and be able to understand it, one must chose carefully and by no means go with the intention of seeing... everything.

The fair organizers kindly sent me the 187 page thick press dossier - that I haven't got time to read, so I closed my eyes and opened it at random, which turned out to be at page 143: "Salon de la Maison Individuelle." This could be interesting - it is about shelter, something human and basic, fundamental. For all non-residents may know, in France we live in tin sheds.

I already live here so I already know what we live in - what caught my eye on page 143 was the last item: 'An Innovation - Incredible But True!' This is what it really says. In English, it would probably have been, 'The Innovation House - And You Can Buy It Now!'

It goes on to describe this prototype house, built by a naval architect, using the latest high-tech materials like polycarbonates and including all the snazzy tricks for storing lots of stuff in efficient spaces - in either traditional or contemporary-style houses. Following the index (in last week's Metropole) and a plan I went to Hall 5 to see this wonder. I especially wanted to see its 'porthole'-style windows and see how the curtains were figured out. And to see if it was an improvement over the 1949 Airstream caravan I once lived in for six months.

But, oh woe! At Hall 5, I was told this prototype house did not make it to the fair. No innovation! In that case, why not go to the other extreme - to the house made out of wood. Yes, wood.

Let me explain. First, I've read more of the press dossier than I let on. There is a wooden house on display at the fair. So what? you may say. Just this: except for alpine chalets and garden sheds, hardly anybody in France - in Europe for that matter - lives in a wooden house. Maybe - you! - have never lived in a wooden house, but I have. There is a lot of wood in France, so why not make houses out of it?

Safety. In recent weeks we have had the misfortune to be able to see on TV what 155mm cannon balls can do to steel-reinforced concrete. So wood or concrete, it doesn't matter what gets hit by one of those HE balls - they go through it like cheese. Meanwhile, in other parts of the world, there are inhabited wooden houses that had been standing for 350 years.

Cost must be a major factor. As much wood as France has - and Scandinavia - there are no forests to match those of, say, the Pacific Northwest. Big wood, cheap wood - by the time it comes off the boat in Le Harve it will not be cheap even if it is still big. But everything costs so much these days, even pressed matchsticks passed off as paneling, that I'm not sure the cost of building a really wooden house would be all that much more than one of these pre-fab chicken coops that pass for tract houses around here. The plumbing is all plastic anyway.

Woodhouse (14k)
A small model of a frame house.
A friendly doorman told me the wooden house was in Hall 7 and I went there. This building is so big you should be able to hire a guide, just to figure out the escalators, and the trick they have with the 'mezzanines.' Luckily the wooden 'house' was not far from the entry, on the second floor, past two mezzanines.

Okay, it was not 100 square metres like I'd been told. Only 40. It wasn't finished, with walls and everything, as I had expected. It wasn't full of tomorrow's appliances today either.

In effect, this framework of a wooden house, looked antique. Right out of Hansel and Gretel. In Normandy, for two summers, I stayed in one of these, with a thatched roof. You know... one of these picture-book half-timbered affairs, with a black and white cow in the front garden.

A modern one, inside, with walk-in fireplace and a square-cut log for a mantel-piece; but with nice tile floors, wooden staircases and full electro-gaz kitchen and bath - they are nice.

This one at the fair was a small demo-model - to fit inside the Hall 7 - built by a French sawmill-carpentry company. They will make you any size you want, but not with a cookie-cutter; these are all custom-built. The only reason why they can't be mass-produced, is lack of demand. The same company also makes all the accessories, like staircases, doors and window frames.

One feature that needs emphasis, is their use of wood in its natural shape - not everything is planed flat and straight, and many of their curved pieces look like artworks.

Not that the Ile-de-France is colder than where I lived for so long in a wooden house, but I took at look at the insulation all the same. The house is framed - that is, there are many rising 'studs,' on which supporting cross-beams rest. A lot of extra cost depends on whether you want to see these from the interior - if not, the interior is panelled with flat lumber - but if you want to see the 'studs' it requires a lot more work.

Wall detail (8k)
Wall detail, from outside
with insulation in centre.
Between the studs, on the exterior, there are either bricks or plaster something-or-other. Then there is a loose filler in-between the interior and exterior - and although 'artisanal,' it looked adequate enough. On the topside of the planks covering the roof 'studs,' there is a 10 cm thick layer of polyeutherane, which was demonstrated to me as being fireproof, by setting it on fire. It made smoke but didn't burn. On the very top, shingles or tiles are the final touch.

Most of the houses this company makes look 'traditional,' but they had some photos of ones they had built that were decidedly modern - it would depend on what you telling the architect what you want.

The cost? With no mass-production; all hand-work - well the demo-house had a staircase that looked like a piece of highly-crafted furniture. I thought that 30,000 francs for the staircase alone, to be a fair price. More material, work and craftsmanship is in it than a dental bridge, and about the same price.

I live in a reinforced-concrete apartment building and when madame drops a toaster on the floor, two floors up and five apartments across, it sounds like a 155mm cannon ball has exploded over my head. If this crummy building were made of wood, I wouldn't hear a thing. And it might be warmer - in summer.

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