There are many ways to build a house to make it more environmentally friendly. One way is to use alternative building materials which are recycled, from renewable sources, or energy efficient. Let’s look at some of the choices of alternative building materials and the pros and cons of each type.
Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs)These panels are made of a foam insulation core sandwiched between fiberglass panels; much like gypsum board is manufactured. The panels are structural, so the house doesn’t need a wood frame for support. The panels are lightweight, quickly assembled, and more airtight than traditional frame houses. The process requires a little expertise to assemble correctly and costs about 10% more than a traditional frame house.
Insulated Concrete Forms (ICFs)
Similar to building with legos, expanded polystyrene (EPS) blocks are stacked upon each other, held together with metal connectors, and then filled with concrete. The EPS blocks provide temperature and noise insulation, while the concrete core provides structural sturdiness and thermal mass to modulate temperature fluctuations. Simple to erect, and structurally sound, ICFs provide great insulation qualities to reduce heating and cooling costs. The concrete used is not exactly eco friendly, but new concrete products will help to minimize the environmental impact.
Engineered Wood Products
Engineered wood products use recycled wood and wood by-products bonded together with resins to form structural components for the building sector. These products will save old growth trees, are lighter in weight and structurally superior to traditional dimensional lumber, and save in material and shipping costs. The construction techniques are similar to traditional building techniques, but the products can be more eco-friendly.
construction at SolarHaven.org.
An interesting choice for home construction is the common bale of straw. In this building technique, straw bales are stacked on rebar rods anchored into a traditional or ICF (insulating concrete form) foundation, and then covered with stucco, or other flame resistant coating. The straw provides the structural and insulating components required to make quiet, warm house. From the outside the structure looks just like any adobe house with thick walls and deep windows. Materials are cheap and the construction inexpensive, but the straw is susceptible to water damage and mildew, as well as vermin infestation if the outer coating is faulty.
Underground or Earth-Bermed Housing
Building your new house mostly or completely underground provides tremendous insulation advantages or reduced construction costs. Similar to building a basement, a cement or ICF house built underground is warm and quiet. Lighting can be an issue, as well as flooding, if the drainage is not properly designed.
Other Alternative Building Materials
You are only limited by your imagination (and the local building codes) in the materials that you can use to build your home. I’ve seen houses built out of wine bottles, shipping containers, retired railroad cars, and other recycled materials. If it appeals to you, is environmentally friendly, and meets building codes, then it is a good alternative building material for you.