June 24, 2018
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Here’s to the house that lasts 500 years — maybe

By Tom Gocze, BDN Staff

I was watching an architect on TV recently. He built a house out of plastic blocks that was covered with stucco and which he thinks will last 500 years.

The blocks are ICFs, polystyrene plastic blocks that are stacked together and filled with concrete. They are like Legos for adults and are great fun to put together. They were invented in Europe and many people think they are the answer to all our energy woes.

They are cool. They are fun to put together. They are also backward from the way that concrete and foam should be put together. The foam should be in the center of a block and the concrete installed on either face. This protects the foam from damage and insect attack and puts thermal mass inside the building, where it is insulated and can do some good.

But, I did not really want to talk about ICFs, I just get sidetracked easily.

What is really interesting is to talk about an architect who thinks he built a house that will last for 500 years. (Builders can insert their own architect stories here. I would like to avoid architect hate mail, if possible.)

In the town where I live, there is a tax map from 140 years ago. I live in an area where there is only one house that I can see. It is across some water and through the trees. It is nice and relatively secluded.

When you check out that tax map from 140 years ago, you see at least 10 houses that would have been within viewing distance of where I live.

In fact, if you ride around Maine and look at what appears to be the forest primeval on the side of the road, you will discern multiple old foundations and cellar holes all over the place.

Houses do not last. They require constant maintenance. They seem static, but they are really a lot like cars, except they usually don’t move and they usually cost more. We don’t recognize the routine maintenance as such, but think about what happens if you stop mowing the lawn or stop painting the house or, God forbid, not maintain the roof!

Our life in our homes is constant maintenance. The 60,000-mile maintenance is spread out over five years, so it might not seem as bad as that $1,000 bill from the car dealer, but think about what you spend on maintaining your house.

When we first started doing the “Hot and Cold” TV programs, we made regular trips to the old Bangor Waterworks building on the Penobscot River. There was a hole in the roof about 1 foot square the first year we taped a program. Two years later, it looked like an alien spacecraft had fired a giant laser beam down into the building that penetrated right into the watery basement. The hole in the roof was about 10 feet on a side.

Plastic foam building blocks can last awhile. We all lament the fact that plastics will endure in landfills for thousands of years. But they are buried underground, away from the weathering of the sun and wind and rain. Stucco cracks, plastic breaks down in sunlight and there is always a critter that will find some building product delectable.

I like to look at what lasts. Many desert dwellers’ caves have lasted. I am kind of stumped at what else might make it 500 years as a residential structure, without a lot of visits to the local lumberyard or home center.

We are a lot better at making buildings last, but we still have a little way to go before we can proclaim a 500-year house.

Questions for Tom Gocze may be mailed to The Home Page, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402-1329. A library of reference material and a home-project blog are at www.bangordailynews.com/thehomepage.html.

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