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Letter: Why don’t Americans build fireproof homes?

Why don’t Americans build fireproof homes?

Every time I see news accounts of large apartment complexes, great mansions or family homes utterly burned to the ground by misadventure, arson or forest fires, sometimes with loss of life (to say nothing of all the contents), I ask myself: Why does America still build combustible and dangerous houses? We are one of the few advanced countries in the world where that is legal.

My wife and I recently visited in-laws in northern Italy for two weeks, and their eight-room house was just as comfortable, with ample windows, as any contemporary house in the states, but – like virtually all modern houses in Europe – their home is fireproof. The framework is reinforced concrete, as are the floors and ceilings; walls are filled with terra cotta breeze block; and the exterior is veneered with brick or stucco. Roof rafters are also reinforced concrete, and the gabled roof is covered with heavy terra cotta tiles. The house cannot burn. While one might say that such buildings are too expensive, I have noticed in the Caribbean that even the most humble one-story farmhouse is made the same way – reinforced concrete framework, floor and flat roof, with breeze block infilling of walls.

Such fireproof construction has been around for generations. When I was a Rotary Fellow in Belgium more than 50 years ago, I discussed house building with a Rotarian who was an architect. He could not believe that almost all American houses were wood frame (even with a face-brick veneer). “But isn’t that dangerous? If they catch fire, don’t they just burn to the ground?” Wood-frame construction may be the American way, but it is far more dangerous, and wasteful, than what people build in much of the rest of the world.

Daniel D. Reiff, Ph.D.

Architectural Historian