The popularity of alternative building methods is growing in the United States. The Earthship Homes in New Mexico are a perfect example of people tossing out traditional building methods to use methods that use less waste and are more efficient in the long run. The increasing interest of alternative building methods has made information in form of instructional books more readily available.Though alternative building methods are becoming more popular than traditional stick built homes, they are becoming more difficult to build do to building codes and permitting. As people’s minds open to the idea of alternative building methods, more and more counties are making building requirements tighter. Insurance companies also make it more difficult to acquire homeowners insurance on these types of homes.
The best thing to do is to check with your county to see what’s required in order to build your house the way you want it. Here are some common alternative building techniques that have been being used for many years.
Rammed earth is a desirable building method due to it’s low environmental impact. The structure is built out of soil that is compacted into a solid surface. Usually a mixture of sand and clay, the soil is put into a form and compacted to form sandstone. If you have the right type of soil on your building site, this method will save you money on supplies as they will be mostly free. It is an extremely labor intensive process, especially without the help of any machinery such as an industrial tamper. Having the structure consist of sandstone means the walls will be safe from termites, rot, and fire as well as being well insulated from temperatures and sound.
Straw bale construction is another alternative building method that is considered sustainable. Straw is easily renewable and fairly inexpensive due tot he fact that is a waste product. Not to be confused with hay, straw is the dead plant stalk that is left after the seed has been harvested. It is typically sold as animal bedding or burnt. Walls can be built completely with the straw bales or can be used between a framed structure as insulation. The straw bales offer great insulation value which will vary depending on the thickness of the bales. Though the straw is susceptible to rot, compacted straw is fire resistant. Straw bales are commonly covered with a stucco made from earth or lime. This method is cost effective and much less labor intensive than that of rammed earth.
Cob building combines a little bit of rammed earth and a little bit of straw bale construction. Hopefully your building site has a good amount of clay in the soil because you’re going to want to mix this with some straw and sand to make a malleable clay substance. work it into lumps and start stacking and forming into the shape of the wall. Once dried, cob is impervious to rot, insects and fire not to mention its strength during seismic activity. The insulation value isn’t great and a secondary insulation method should be used in colder areas. The nice thing about cob is that it can be shaped however you like just like if you were using it in an art setting. Making custom designs in the building is as easy as imagining them. Then paint the cob to match your style.
Earthbag construction is another alternative building method that uses the dirt right underneath your feet. This technique uses dirt in sandbags that are stacked in a staggered method to build walls. The method has been used by the military throughout history because the structures are so strong. They not only resist bullets, but they stay well insulated and will stay standing during heavy seismic activity. If the bags are filled with earth, they will provide thermal mass which means the walls will absorb heat during the day and release it at night. If they are filled with crushed volcanic stone or rice hulls, they will have increased insulation value, which makes this method work well in any location. Bags are stacked, usually with a couple strands of barbed wire in between for grip, before being coated with a stucco. They can be built with a framed roof or can be stacked into a dome shape to eliminate almost all traditional framing materials.
The most modern of these alternative building methods is the shipping container home. This method is growing in popularity very quickly due to the wide availability of used shipping containers. This is a great form of upcycling that environmentally conscious people can use to build their dream home. These shipping containers are already structurally sound and water tight, but can be easily modified if desired. They are inexpensive and come in a variety of sizes. They don’t offer much in the way of insulation but a layer of insulation can be added easily. They are obviously impervious to rot and fire. You do have rust to think about but a good coat of primer and paint will solve that easily. Shipping containers can also be easily use for outbuilding such as storage sheds, art studios, home offices, and workshops.
No matter what type of alternative building method you choose, you are only limited by your imagination. Check with your local building department to find out what they require to get a permit to build your home out of a non traditional method. Find an engineer who has experience with alternative building methods to help you develop plans that will pass the plan review process. Being open and honest with the building department is the best way to start the process and hopefully you will encounter some open minded individuals. If that doesn’t work, you may have to move on to plan B. The more interest we show in the alternative building methods, the more areas of the country will start opening up to them.
If you have a favorite alternative building method, leave it in the comments. Or if you know of an area of the US that is open to these techniques, let us know!