House building in the USA: between inside and outside

Noisy heaters and boards nailed together: During a winter in the USA, our author realizes what house building can tell about a country.

Nice on the outside, bitter cold inside Photo: Zuma / imago

Even as a child I always thought that what you see of the world is not everything. I just didn’t realize then that I was thinking like that. But just as you as a child expect your parents to have special abilities, you expect the house in which you live to be held together by complicated formulas. That something complex is going on behind the wall that goes beyond the visible.

This impression is maintained today by TV programs that show us that an airplane is made up of 150,000 individual parts. Or that 40 kilometers of cables are laid in a Mercedes S-Class. One is amazed, and at some point the certainty arises that there is always a certain complexity that carries the things, that gives us security and that it is only possible that way.

Some of this belief in a root system beneath the world has persisted with me into adulthood. I saw in America that it is not the same everywhere and that there is also a life without filigree complexities.

It took weeks, but then I knew what many American cities reminded me of when I arrived there in 2015: of trade fairs where houses are set up as backdrops, of this fake living space made of cardboard. Only: in the USA the houses really look like that.

The idea behind it: let’s achieve maximum impact with minimum effort. It doesn’t have to last long, but it has to be worth it. What looks like a temporary solution here becomes a permanent facility. Simply by nailing a row of wooden slats together between the inside and outside and calling it a house.

Indeed, I would argue that the most prosaic of things shows the essence of a nation, if such a thing exists at all. A symbol for America is its heating technology. Inexpensive heaters with loud fans fight against the cold clinking through the thin window panes.

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The system common in Germany, in which water is heated and heat is transported silently into radiators, is by no means a US standard. Instead, one often finds a process with the dramatic name of forced air, in which air in the basement is heated with a gas flame and then “forced” through shafts into the living room with an electric fan. The steamy ventilation shafts that are essential for thriller dramaturgies actually exist.

The American system heats quickly and is cheap to install because it does not require plumbing. However, it is the opposite of sustainable, because it immediately becomes cold again when the fan switches off. It’s noisy too, but sensitivity to noise isn’t a particularly American quality. The German system, on the other hand, is expensive to install, takes time to warm up, but then works discreetly and economically.

This text comes from the taz on the weekend. Always from Saturday at the kiosk, in the eKiosk, with a practical weekend subscription and around the clock on Facebook and Twitter.

If you want to rent an apartment in America, you come across forced air at some point, as I did during the harshest winter of the last 40 years in New England. On the last miles of the Atlantic flight I looked anxiously at the display of the current outside temperature. At -25 degrees Celsius, the Boeing tires finally touch down on the runway at Logan Airport in Boston.

I have never known such a cold. This is no longer cold, but pain that has become atmosphere. It doesn’t take long and you don’t care how a house is heated. The main thing is that it gets warm somehow.

The top floor apartment, which we lived in until something better was found, offered an unfortunate mix of differently obsolete heating systems. A baseboard heater was installed in the bedroom, an inconspicuous piece of equipment level with the baseboard below the window. Here, 2,500 watt electricity was used to counter the notoriously leaky sliding windows.

The electricity bill shot up to unpleasant heights, even by American standards, but it didn’t help: the fuses were blown when you operated the toaster at the same time – and as a result it was just terribly cold.

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So we moved the bed into the living room, where there was our own forced air system. Since it had been retrofitted, the gas flame and ventilation were not used in the basement, but a meter away from the bed. Due to the terrifying noise, we could now choose between warmth or quiet – because as soon as the forced air subsided, it was freezing again.

Immediately next to our bed, an archaic system was blowing against the cold, one meter further it was -25 degrees. The boards in between were the house. No secret system of cables, pipes, or at least clinker and mortar, nothing. Except for wooden slats and some nicely painted plaster, there was no difference between inside and outside.

That was also the case during the blizzards, the snowstorms after which the mayor of the city reminded citizens via Twitter to shovel the nearest hydrant so that the fire brigade would not have to look for it under two and a half meters of snow in an emergency. The citizens did this task very calmly early in the morning, and the fire brigade actually kept moving. The sirens could be heard several times a day – and that in a city of just 150,000 inhabitants.

But also in a city that is older than the USA itself and in which almost all houses are made of wood. And where, except in the center, the power lines all run above ground, and not on statically clever aluminum structures as in Central Europe, but on simply cut tree trunks.

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These masts sometimes fall over, then the power fails, there may be a fire, then the fire brigade will come, hopefully find the exposed hydrant, put out the fire and put the mast back up. This has been going on for decades.

There is something temporary about the US infrastructure, houses are consumer goods, not capital goods. That’s how it works, America thinks

The efforts to somehow bring the infrastructure of one of the richest countries on earth at least to the level of post-war Europe were given up after the stock market crash in the early 2000s and the Enron bankruptcy. Bringing the power grid underground, repairing the broken roads, the sometimes dubious looking bridges – that would cost trillions, and not the American trillions, which are “only” billions, but real trillions.

That’s how it works, America thinks. There is something temporary about the US infrastructure, houses are consumer goods, not capital goods. Just as an American career appears precarious and not particularly resilient from a European point of view (you can lose your job as quickly as you win it), so houses are often not built to last forever.

An American friend once asked me: “Why are you being so German about this?” By this she wanted to express that Germans assume that there is a (only one!) Correct solution for every problem. Americans are more pragmatic: if it works, it’s okay for the time being. And since makeshift arrangements last the longest, Americans live with above-ground power lines and poorly insulated houses.

There is nothing more, no wonder, no world behind the world. It just is what it is.