Bungaroosh vs. Comte Thibaud

Bungaroosh and its lessons.

Never heard of bungaroosh or bungarouche? I wish I hadn’t. It’s a building material used in Brighton by Georgian and Victorian builders, those exemplars of proper values of craftsmanship and sturdy independence in the halycon days of laissez-faire. Sure enough, the surveyor says it’s what holds up the little house we’re buying. A conservation expert for the local council explains:

The material is basically a freely interpreted flint rubble. A lime mortar was made up, and poured into shuttering, and anything else that came to hand was bunged in too. This could include old bricks, bits of flint, odd lumps of wood, lumps of chalk, in fact anything solid. [snip] It is not unusual to find vertical joints between the front wall and party walls. This can be a boon if the front wall falls off, since it leaves the rest of the house standing. [snip] Most of the time … bungaroosh stays in place — probably through force of habit. All the bits of timber in the mixture tend to create a rather pleasant breeding ground for rot and exotic fungi. Since the mixture is very porous, the rot circulates quickly, and can usually find some damp somewhere to feed on. In fact bungaroosh has to be a little damp. Too dry and the now leached mortar crumbles, too wet and it becomes mobile. My predecessor considered that on this basis you could probably demolish a third of Brighton with a well-aimed hose.

Why do I post this?

First, it’s a splendid and widely applicable term of abuse.

  • The appropriations bill is a fetid bungaroosh of wormy pork and tax-break payoffs for lobbies.
  • The party platform was cobbled together overnight, the usual incoherent bungaroosh of every faction’s wish-list.
  • Tony Blair’s response to the crisis of alienation in Britain’s Muslim minority is to announce yet another commission to blather on at great expense about “multiculturalism”: to cover up the absence of policy, equal parts of sentimental communitarianism, “Yes Minister” inaction, and cynical media spin are thrown together into the usual New Labour bungaroosh.

Second, those Victorian values. The builders got away with this because of lack of regulation. Buyers of houses are vulnerable through the usual information gap; they can’t see how a house is built, and don’t know enough to challenge the producer. Bricks may have been expensive in Regency Brighton, but surely not in 1870, well after the coming of the railways. Still, a penny cheaped is a penny earned.

Though the name is exotic and of unknown origin – you can pick your spelling according to your preference for French or Oriental etymology – the material is in fact very common throughout Europe. The walls of the many ruined farmhouses in rural Spain are made of a soft concrete rubble. Inside the expensive dressed stone facings, it’s what went into the walls and piers of cathedrals and the arches of bridges. I dare say the Romans used it for slave hovels.

As with art, our impression of the average standards of buildings in the past suffers from a tremendous survivor bias: we only see the better stuff now. Many mediaeval cathedrals suffered major collapses, without the excuse of fire: Beauvais, Hereford, Lincoln, Ely, Winchester, Dublin, Erfurt … It’s a miracle that Salisbury cathedral hasn’t, with foundations all of four feet deep, or Strasbourg, whose airy 400 foot spire rests on oak pilings sunk into wet gravel.

I was shocked because of the comparison with the house we built in Strasbourg in 1975 and the one we live in now in Spain, built about 1983. Both have massive compound concrete floor slabs; Strasbourg has 22 cm alveolated brick walls standing on a solid concrete basement box; Caleta – in a minor earthquake zone – has brick walls in a reinforced concrete frame, with 30cm² pillars. Some of this improvement is of course down to technical progress, mainly the inventions of reinforced concrete and Portland cement; some to changes in relative prices, making materials cheaper and labour more expensive, so jobbing builders have less incentive to cut corners. But that would also hold of Turkey, where shoddily built blocks of flats collapse by the thousand in the predictable earthquakes; and public buildings don’t, because Turkish builders daren’t cheat the government.

The counts of Champagne got it right in the twelfth century. With asymmetric information, a trustworthy market takes place in the space between the church (or equivalent), to supply norms of integrity, and the castle gallows to enforce them.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

10 thoughts on “Bungaroosh vs. Comte Thibaud”

  1. There aren't a lot of buildings in America 135 years old. Is it because of construction material — wood, or something worse than bungaroosh? Were they built worse than equivalent European houses? I'm guessing most were torn down to build something considered better.
    In most US cities, ye olde historical district is made up of buildings built around the turn of the century.

  2. The American version is called balloon-framing:
    It is the basic wooden 2×4 and nails, which replaced post-and-beam framing.
    A wooden post-and-beam building, which has survived the dangers of subsequent development, termites and fire, is still usuable. But, it will be more than 160 years old. Balloon-framing, though, definitely has a limited life, of less than 120 years, even if termites and fire are escaped.
    The U.S. population in 1860 was ~30 million, and is 300 million today, so almost everything was built after the balloon-frame was introduced.

  3. James Wimberley wrote:
    "Second, those Victorian values. The builders got away with this because of lack of regulation. Buyers of houses are vulnerable through the usual information gap; they can't see how a house is built, and don't know enough to challenge the producer."
    The word is certainly a wonderfully useful term of abuse. I'm not sure, though, how you can conclude that lack of regulation led to a faulty construction practice, except in the trivial sense that there was no regulation of the practice and some variants of the practice were faulty.
    One obvious answer is that there was no regulation because the practice was generally believed to be sound for centuries. After all, the collapses you mention happened long after, decades or hundreds of years after, the initial construction.
    Why should one expect a government to forbid a practice of which actual scientific details of its deficits were unknown, and for which all known evidence was that the practice resulted in buildings that outlived entire governments? All innovations are not perfect, but to forbid one solely based upon novelty is just superstition.
    No doubt various politicly strong interests would like to outlaw novel construction methods, but that wouldn't make such a prohibition any less a superstition.
    Modern examples of political interest denying science include the battles over Romex wiring in the 1950s. Fortunately for citizens, Romex won. But the battle was fierce and long. Another is the still raging battle over prohibitions on geodesic dome construction in some jurisdictions. The obviously scientifically superior practice is still under attack by the usual suspects, unions, builders and suppliers of post and lintel construction, and assorted purely economic interests.
    The fact is that use of rubble in walls can be a sound practice, and is a sound practice in most modern cases, so long as the particular rubble is properly selected.
    There are, after all, buildings constructed primarily of dirt, still standing and habitable after hundreds of years. They're now lauded as historic pueblos.

  4. I recognize the important role of government regulation in the protection of citizens' health and safety. But it's worth remembering that regulation of housing is not always motivated by such concerns.
    For example, I lived in greater Montreal as a child, in a suburban municipality adjacent to another, rather wealthier one. The latter had a bizarre, unique bylaw that required all homes built therein to have a layer of cement blocks just inside the outer brick face. The law was justified as a fire prevention measure, but no other municipality saw any need for it, and it was widely understood that the real purpose of the regulation was to increase the price of homes, thus maintaining the municipality's exclusivity.

  5. Dan,
    That can be a tough question though. The old City of Chicago building code (conduit and all) was clearly intended as a guild/jobs protection measure. But buildings built to that code are far superior to those built using today's "modern" standards: they last longer, are harder to damage, and can handle more rennovation/changes over the years. If we consider all houses disposable that is a bad thing, but both economically and environmentally I am not sure we will be able to keep on considering houses disposible as we have since 1970.

  6. Traditional (non-engineered) building practice is full of myth and legend. Like the knowing pronouncement about old pianos, "they don't build them as well any more, and age improves the sound" which is obviously news to professional concert pianists who can play any piano they want and invariably select new instruments.
    Post and beam mortised and pegged framing is one of the most inefficient uses of wood, not to mention extremely difficult to add services like electricity and plumbing, and actually not very strong. One step less wasteful than a log cabin, though, and at least it can be fairly well insulated. It is economical of ripping, which used to be an extremely expensive milling operation compared to axing and adzing a big timber square, but is now cheap.
    Wood frame construction, either platform or the much less common balloon frame (with two-story studs), that connects many small wooden elements with lots of nails (wood, being very strong for its weight but with low crushing strength, likes multiple small fasteners–or, more recently, the limiting case of this, adhesives) is very efficient and especially strong and resilient in lateral loads like earthquakes.
    However, any wood building requires eternal maintenance, especially of the roof and exterior finishes, and good details and flashings. Given proper upkeep, a building that gets through a northern winter will probably survive hundreds more, as long as its plan and location continue to satisfy an economic demand. The three-deckers of Boston are a good example of this longevity, providing good housing services through generations of renters, owner-occupant landlords, remodeling, and adaptive reuse.

  7. Nobody: I agree that you have to judge past builders by the standards of the time. I would have thought that it was poor practice in 1820 to chuck bits of wood and chalk into a rubble concrete. And the weakness of the tie-in at the corners compared to interlocked brickwork would also have been pretty obvious, at least by 1870 when my terrace house was put up. When the Romans were really trying, with the dome of the Pantheon, they achieved a superb structure in unreinforced concrete by careful control of the materials and tamping down each small layer to drive out the air. The oak timbers for the mansion of the Marquis de Sully, chief minister to the French King Henri IV, were seasoned by several years' immmersion in a pond. Quality has always been available, at a price.
    I also agree that regulated markets are prone to rent-seeking by special interests, and of course by the regulator: I'm sure Comte Thibaud (a wholly exceptional feudal magnate) did pretty well out of the fairs he protected. The answer isn't however, to return to laissez-faire.

  8. > Traditional (non-engineered) building
    > practice is full of myth and legend.
    As a design engineer who has touched on the concept of optimization from time to time, I do understand your point. But help me understand this: why does every house I have been in in the last 15 years that has been built since 1990 stink of mold? Every single one? I happen to be sensitive to mold, so when I smell it I know if I start sneezing within 30 minutes it _is_ mold, but most of the people who live in these houses don't even seem to notice it. I have been in tract mansions less than 18 months old that I would consider unlivable due to mold and mildew, and I shudder to think about the consequences for asthma and allergies among the inhabitents. If these houses and the techniques used to build them are so well engineered, why do they get infested like this within a year of closing in?
    Yes, I know the technical answer: because tighter sealing creates a lack of uncontrolled infiltration/exfiltration. The solution would be forced air exchange with heat recovery. Again, if these buildings are so well-engineered why isn't this done? How long will these buildings last with what is growing in their walls?

  9. Michael O'Hare wrote:
    >Traditional (non-engineered) building practice is
    > full of myth and legend. Like the knowing
    > pronouncement about old pianos, "they don't build
    > them as well any more, and age improves the sound"
    > which is obviously news to professional concert
    > pianists who can play any piano they want and
    > invariably select new instruments."
    As prelude to a critique of wood building construction this analogy carries a certain irony.
    The primary reason that modern pianos sound better than ancient ones is better metallurgy and metalwork design and construction, not advances in wood construction. The harp and strings, which make the piano sound, are metal, not wood. Wooden harps for pianos were very short lived in the history of the instrument.
    In the case of **some** wooden instruments, the analogy is simply false. No modern luthier has ever quite duplicated the sound quality of a Strad or a Guaneri, even with benefit of modern scientific design, materials selection, and construction techniques. That fact may be legendary in the sense of old and accepted, but so far it is no myth, in the sense of false.

  10. The other reason that there aren't many old buildings in America is that 'America' in its modern extent is very new. Anything off the east coast has to be younger than 150 years – younger than Sydney, older than Bangkok.

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