Alternative Building Materials and Their Uses

alternative building materialsGreen building has taken off in recent years with many builders and new homeowners looking for new and different methods of construction that can potentially offset energy costs. Some alternative building materials can be made out of natural materials, while others can help to lower energy costs of the occupant once built. Regardless of what the goal of the builder is, alternative building materials and their use is on the rise. Many of these methods have already been in use in Europe for many years, while some are just starting to catch on everywhere. Learn more about the different types of building materials available to you to make more informed decisions about how you’ll be constructing – and living in – your new home.

Why Use Alternative Building Materials

Stick building or traditional building methods are still just as popular and relevant today as they ever were. In fact, stick building is one of the least expensive ways to build a home, and most builders, contractors, and homeowners are familiar with the process. After all, if you’ve ever taken a home improvement course, you’re already familiar with how to examine, build, and repair many of the things in your home. So why would you want to use alternative building materials?

There are actually several good reasons why people may choose to build in an alternative way. Many of these methods are becoming increasingly popular as people hear more about them.

  • Expenses

Homes are not only expensive to build, they can also be expensive to maintain. As anyone who’s taken a course in budgeting for a home within your means can attest, the costs don’t just stop after the initial planning phases.

Some types of homes built with alternative materials or methods can be cheaper than traditional stick building. Other types might cost just as much – or even more – to build, but can be very inexpensive to run and maintain because they are so energy efficient. This makes them attractive over the lifetime of the building, particularly to those on a budget.

  • Time

Stick building methods can take several months to a year to complete. And while this is expected in many areas, it doesn’t have to be the case. Many alternative building methods can go up in just days or weeks, dramatically shortening the building time. When you consider that time is money, or the fact that many people building a home are paying for alternative lodging at the same time, this is a crucial factor in determining how to build.

  • Eco-Friendly

Green building is the watch word of the industry these days, and many alternative building materials are eco-friendly or made of natural and renewable materials. Some green homes are also very energy efficient as well as green to build, so eco-conscious consumers can make good choices for their lifestyles by looking into some of these alternative building materials.

  • Strength and Weight

Stick building methods require specific amounts of material and lot size to construct. And even then, they may sometimes be weaker than they should be in areas that are prone to things like earthquakes, or in areas with unstable foundations, such as buildings built near a beach. Many alternative building materials are extremely strong, yet extremely lightweight at the same time. This means you can build them just about anywhere without issues.

Natural Alternative Building Materials

When examining alternative building materials, they can be loosely classified into two groups – natural or man-made. Natural materials are those that do not resemble traditional stick building methods, but have been in use for hundreds of years in various cultures. These are viable methods of building a home that are much cheaper and greener than traditional methods. In fact, many students of frugal living may want to take note, because these types of homes cost far less to build and run than a traditional stick built home.

  • Straw Bale Houses

If you live in a fairly dry climate, consider constructing your home from tightly compacted straw bales. Straw bale homes have been in use since the Paleolithic times, and are still in use today in many parts of the world as an inexpensive alternative to traditional building materials.

In a straw bale home, a watertight foundation is built on the ground to keep out moisture. Tightly packed bales of straw, oats, bamboo, or rice are then stacked on top of the foundation in a running bond, or offset brick pattern. The bales are covered in stucco or plaster to help protect them from moisture and the elements, and to help seal them.

Because the walls of the home are so thick, straw bale homes can be fairly energy efficient, provided steps are taken to keep them free of moisture.

  • Cob Houses

Like straw bale houses, cob houses have been around for hundreds of years. What’s more, many cob houses built as much as 500 years ago are still standing, and in good condition!

Cob houses are built of a mixture of clay, earth, sand, water, and fibers like straw that have been kneaded and stomped into a tough mixture that can be used to erect homes in a variety of different shapes and sizes. A home made of cob will usually have walls about 2-feet thick, which helps keep energy costs down by insulating the home.

Cob houses can be very labor intensive to put up, but are also extremely cheap to build. Modern day cob houses typically cost around $3000 to build, and are eco-friendly to boot.

  • Rammed Earth

Rammed earth houses are made entirely out of very tightly compacted earthen walls. The mixture is a very precise blend of clay, sand, and gravel that is kept moist to help it pack together tightly. The mixture is tightly pressed into forms that are then erected. Each wall may be several feet thick, and it is not uncommon to have some homes built into the side of a hill to help make use of the natural landscape.

Rammed earth homes, like cob homes, are inexpensive to build, and very eco friendly as they cost less in utilities than traditional houses do.

Man Made Alternative Building Materials

In addition to these natural building methods, there are several other man made alternative building materials as well. These differ in price and maintenance costs, as well as their basic pros and cons. Weight the differences between these styles carefully when making your choice.

  • Structural Insulated Panels

One of the fastest building methods around is done with structural insulated panels or SIPs. These are insulating panels made of fiberglass foam that have been sandwiched between structural panels. A home built from SIPs can go up in a matter of hours, rather than months. The panels are also extremely lightweight, and because they are already insulated, the houses tend to be a little more airtight with fewer air gaps or leaks, which leads to lower utility costs. Keep in mind that they do cost about 10% more than traditional methods to build, however.

  • Steel Framing

While stick building often refers to homes that are built out of lumber, the same style of homes can also be built using steel beams, rather than lumber. Steel framing goes up in much the same way that lumber does, but with a lot more strength and integrity, perfect for homes in areas prone to natural disasters. Not to mention the fact that steel frames are also extremely stable, so you don’t have to worry about drywall cracks, or about problems with the house settling. If you choose this method, make sure you get a contractor familiar with the process; steel is vastly different than lumber and needs to be treated accordingly.

  • Polyvinyl Chloride

Most people are already familiar with polyvinyl chloride or PVC. PVC is a hard type of plastic already used in most homes as part of the plumbing pipes or sink traps. It can also be used to frame and build a home. PVC is very stable, and can last for as long as 20 years without any maintenance, which can be a major money saver for homeowners.

Keep in mind, however, that PVC homes look like what they are – plastic homes. Therefore, you may have difficulty selling the home when the time comes, particularly if it still hasn’t caught on as a popular construction method.

  • Timber Framing

Like stick building, timber framing uses wood to build and frame the house. Unlike stick building, however, the timber frames are each individually handcrafted to suit the location in the home, then transported there for erection. The homes are usually sheathed in stress skin, which is a great insulating material, making the homes very energy efficient. The drawback to this method is that while it has been used for hundreds of years, there are few builders today who have the knowledge to take on a project of any scale adequately.

  • Autoclaved Aerated Concrete Blocks

Autoclaved aerated concrete blocks have been used in Europe for many years. These incredibly lightweight, insulating concrete blocks are made from concrete that has been mixed with chemicals to cause it to rise like dough, filling it with air. The mixture is then pressure cooked so that the resulting blocks are 80% air, but have the durability of true concrete. The blocks can build extremely energy efficient buildings due to their high insulation rate. Unfortunately, they are fairly expensive; a home built using this method costs about 20% more than a traditional stick built home.

  • Insulated Concrete Forms

Insulated concrete forms are another way to build a very energy efficient home. They are constructed of interlocking foam forms that are hollow inside. Concrete is poured into the centers to give the forms stability. The insulating foam helps to seal the outer structure and make it more energy efficient. Like autoclaved aerated concrete blocks, it’s much more expensive than traditional stick building methods – about 15% more, and many builders have never worked with it, so finding one that is knowledgeable can be difficult.

  • Engineered Wood

If you’ve recently put hardwood flooring in your home, you’re probably already familiar with the concept of engineered wood. Thin pieces of wood are stacked on top of one another and held together with glue. This makes an extremely stable lumber that does not react to moisture by swelling and shrinking. This can therefore create a more dimensionally stable home than traditional stick built houses. It costs about 5% more than a traditional stick built house.

Make the Best Choice for You

If you’ve been studying up on home buying, as you can with this course, you’ve probably found that the majority of homes are still stick built in America today. That won’t always be the case, however; learning more about alternative building materials will give you greater options for your home building tomorrow.