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Re: Single-wall house

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Irving Gill, an architect in San Diego in the early part of the century, designed
homes and buildings using innovative techniques.  On Seventh Street in San Diego
he designed three homes called the "Three Sisters."   Local lore is that three
sisters wanted to live adjacent to each other but had little money. Mr. Gill
sought to design homes as inexpensively to construct as possible.  The result was
three, two story, single wall homes. They date from the 1920's.  I have been in
one of them and found it free of any distress that might be the result of
racking.  Because this type of construction applied finishes to both sides of the
walls, there were no connections visible. In this case, rats had invaded the
attic making it impossible to enter.  So I have no idea how the roof was framed.

I do not know what plans or documentation that might exist and my knowledge of
the history is second hand at best.  Perhaps some research of architectural
history using "Irving Gill" and "Three Sisters" may produce some info.

I had another experience with single wall homes. I was called by the owner of a
home that had partially collapsed.  The owner had hired a contractor to add a
second story to their home. They did not realize that they owned a single wall
home. The contractor had plans made that assumed typical stud construction form
the existing . They proceeded and did not stop when they found single wall
construction.  The City inspector did not notice the discrepancy and work kept
proceeding until the plaster on the lower walls started to crack. Valiant efforts
by the neighbors and lots of Home Depot 4 bys kept the building from pancaking.
The owners were paid the value of a new 2 story home by the various insurance
companies as repairs were almost impossible.  The problem of establishing a
complete load path without a perimeter foundation and other problems were too
costly to correct.

The mysteries of single wall construction have caught others.

Please share what you find out

NRoselund(--nospam--at) wrote:

> I spent the days around Christmas with our family in a single-wall cottage
> where my daughter lives.
> I've designed repairs and strengthening for a few single wall houses and had
> the opportunity to study others.  They are fascinating.  They seem to have
> been built in California in the 19th century and up to about 1920.  The style
> can be found in widely-spread parts of California.
> A single wall house is constructed of lumber, with walls, including bearing
> walls, having no studs -- instead, the walls consist of a single layer of
> vertical 1x boards joined with vertical battens.  The wall boards are nailed
> to a ledger on which the rafters bear.  Floor and roof construction is what
> we would now consider more conventional, with 2x or 4x rafters and floor
> joists and 1x board sheathing, but often surprisingly lightly framed with
> widely spaced and seemingly undersized members.
> I sometimes have the impression that they are almost magical -- the lightly
> framed structures showing virtually no signs of distress.  They are
> light-weight and make very efficient use of wood.  They are universally
> thoroughly weather tight.  I've never seen or heard of an earthquake-damaged
> single-wall house -- I suppose because they are very light-weight, in
> addition to being so rare.  They seem typically to have been thoughtfully
> designed and to have been built with very skillful craftsmanship.  Joints and
> other details are always tight and accurately cut.  Cracks and splits in the
> lumber are almost never found.  The widely-spread consistency in the style
> seems to indicate that there used to be a well communicated technology of
> single-wall house construction.
> Because of my niche of structural engineering for repair and strengthening of
> old buildings, I'm always on the alert for old books on archaic construction
> techniques, and have several.  However, I've never found a book with
> information on how to build a single-wall house.  I'm curious how the
> construction of a single-wall house proceeded.  For example, were the walls
> built on the ground and tilted up?  Have you seen or do you know of any
> references on single-wall construction?  I'd love to see something written
> during the era when they were being built.
> Nels Roselund
> Structural Engineer