August 4, 2015

Single-Wall Construction: The West’s Humble (But Fascinating) Architecture

  • By: National Trust for Historic Preservation
Written by Anya Grahn

Single-wall structures can be found throughout the Pacific Northwest, West, and the South. Some communities, such as Park City, Utah, have found ingenious ways to restore these structures.

Chances are if you live in a community that sprung up because of sawmills, railroads, oilfields, or even mining that your historic structure may be comprised of single-wall, plank wall, or box house construction.

Rapid population growth during times of economic boom required the immediate construction of buildings, and single-wall construction or “wood tents” allowed communities to meet mounting demands. These rudimentary wood structures were meant to provide temporary shelter; however, many have been successfully preserved and continue to be used today.

Single wall construction consists of vertically stacked wood plank interior walls covered by exterior horizontal wood siding. Typically, a floor structure was constructed on a rubble stone or wood foundation; however, equally common was no foundation.

Built like a box, the wall panels were constructed on the ground and then stood up to form rooms. The panels were attached to one another, leaving no room for corner posts or vertical structural members. Door and window openings were cut out after the wall was constructed. The roof and floor structures provided rigidity to the box.

Single-wall structures are prevalent in the old mining towns located in the Bodie Historical State Park in California.

The forms of these structures vary from hall-parlors to gabled-wings to pyramid-roof cottages. Many are only a single story in height, though two-story box houses are common in some regions. Decorative elements were applied to the exterior of the “wood tent,” contributing to its architectural style.Due to their simple construction and lack of foundations, these structures are prone to structural defects and deterioration that threaten their survival. The lack of foundation often leads to uneven settlement and wood rot, and the scarcity of vertical structural elements cause structural failures.

Nevertheless, these structures can be restored.

In many cases, it is possible to build a new structural system on the interior. Floor structures can be rebuilt and new members used to stabilize the roof structure. New stud wall framing, constructed on the interior and attached to the single-wall, provides greater flexibility in incorporating insulation, wiring, plumbing, and other utilities.  In some cases, panelizing, or disassembling these structures wall-by-wall, constructing a new structure, and cladding the new structure with the panelized walls has been effective in preserving the historic structure.

From the exterior, it is difficult to identify this style of construction; however, closer examination of the structure reveals its simple construction method. This type of building technique is prevalent in mining towns like Bodie, California, as well as towns throughout the Pacific Northwest, West, and the South. In Bodie, as well as other mining era ghost towns, the ruins have remained intact. Other communities, such as Park City, Utah, have had to find ingenious solutions to restoring these structures while upgrading structural systems to meet local building codes.

The McDonald house in Bodie Historic State Park.

Visiting historic communities comprised largely of single-wall buildings reminds us of the precariousness of settling the Wild West.  The methods used to assemble these structures provide valuable insight into the attitudes of their builders and owners:  with no foundation and no insulation, these structures were built to provide temporary shelter that was a slight improvement than the canvas tents used during the initial settlement period. Their inhabitants intended to strike it rich in the industrial boom and move on.  The architectural styles, ornamentation, and interior decorative treatments express tastes, values, and the aspiration of the owner in creating a comfortable home for an extended duration.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded nonprofit organization, works to save America’s historic places. @savingplaces

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