9 Alternative Building Materials to Consider for Your Home

Looking for something a little different? Consider a house made of straw bale or shipping containers.

By Devon Thorsby, Editor, Real Estate |March 4, 2016, at 2:53 p.m.

9 Alternative Building Materials to Consider for Your Home


When conventional just won't cut it

(Getty Images)

For some, a traditional home doesn’t cut it. And for others, a traditional building process doesn’t cut it either. Whether it’s to reduce energy use, create a more environmentally friendly space or simply to cut labor costs, people are seeking alternative building materials and methods. If you’re looking to try something different when you build your new home, be sure to do some research into what could leave you with the hobbit hole of your dreams and what could leave you literally sitting in dirt. Check out these common alternative home building materials.

Straw bale

Straw bale

(Getty Images)

Straw bale is rising in popularity as a natural building material, and it's also known as a good insulator. Needing just plaster or a similar material to protect the bales from the elements, bale houses are fairly affordable to build, explains Chris Magwood, a sustainable builder and author of “Making Better Buildings: A Comparative Guide for Sustainable Construction.” “Most times a bale house costs the same as a conventional building, but it will outperform that conventional building in terms of energy efficiency, and it will way outperform the conventional building in terms of a much, much lower impact on the environment,” Magwood says.

Earth shelter

Earth shelter

(Getty Images)

An earth shelter home is primarily covered by a hill, whether the hillside existed before or was built from flat land to cover the structure. The use of land as cover for the often curved structure helps to protect it from the elements and reduce utility costs by keeping temperatures in the home relatively temperate. “It’s sort of one disruption to a local environment,” says David Skinner, manager of Performance Building Systems LLC, which creates earth shelter designs that are built around the world. “You’ve got to dig, you’ve got to prep the land … and then you’re going to put it all back, which sort of recreates a new homeostasis,” he says.

Rammed earth tires

Rammed earth tires

(Getty Images)

The combination of recycled and natural materials found on site can be enticing, and rammed earth tires fit that mold. However, the process of packing dirt into individual tires to build the exterior walls for an entire home requires a lot of motivation. “It’s extremely labor intensive,” Magwood says, noting you may even need a sledgehammer to pack the dirt into the tires tightly enough. For someone set on the style though, it's extremely inexpensive to make, often with dirt near the home being used to pack the used tires, which can be purchased used from a tire shop, local tire recycling site or even found discarded on the side of the road.



(Getty Images)

Earthbag construction uses a similar earth mixture to what is found in rammed earth tires, but the materials are placed in bags, which can take on a brick-like quality. “I would say it’s the least expensive way of building. It has no insulation value, though,” Magwood says. To provide better protection from the elements, incorporating insulation of some sort would be needed. Magwood says he has been able to use earthbag as foundation for past projects, then straw bale as the primary wall structure to better regulate indoor temperatures.



(Getty Images)

A combination of paper with other materials to create a concrete-like material, papercrete allows builders the opportunity to make something entirely new from recycled materials. It can be used as a plaster or formed into bricks, though it isn’t the most durable material, says Kelly Hart, founder of GreenHomeBuilding.com. Hart previously built a home using earthbag and papercrete as plaster, but found it giving away over time, as moisture can be tough on it. “It was a little too vulnerable to the elements,” he says.



(Getty Images)

A clay soil mixture with sand and straw, cob has been used for centuries as a building material in Europe. The mixture doesn’t require framing, and can simply be packed together and molded. Cob Cottage Company in southern Oregon teaches the cob method to interested owner builders and those who would be assisting in the process. While machinery can be used to build the walls, Cob Cottage Company uses a method called "mud dancing," allowing for more artistic freedom in the process, which is an attractive feature for many who choose to build with cob. "People actually mix the material of the clay soil and the sand and the straw into a mix, and then we hand sculpt it into the shape," says Linda Smiley, a director at Cob Cottage Company and co-author of “The Hand-Sculpted House: A Philosophical and Practical Guide to Building a Cob Cottage."



(Getty Images)

Made of a similar mixture to cob, adobe takes on a more structured, brick-like shape. “With adobe, you’re going to pack that mixture into a mold, and you’re going to pull that mold off, and you’re going to let it dry all the way to the center,” says Ross Lukeman, creator of the website Alternative Homes Today. While adobe and cob may both require additional insulation in colder climates, the materials' thermal qualities provide some heat. “If you’re in a place like the desert, [adobe will] absorb the heat during the day like a battery. It stores the heat, and it will re-emit that heat inside at night,” Lukeman says.

Hybrid build

Hybrid build

(Getty Images)

With all these options, mixing and matching materials is better than just relying on one. Cob and straw bale, for instance, offer the insulation a cob home may lack otherwise with the same sculptural capabilities you desire. Smiley says cob-bale homes are common, particularly with straw bale applied to the walls facing west and north, which don’t receive as much sunlight in North America. “It creates a very strong material with great thermal mass and insulation,” Smiley says. Earthbag can additionally incorporate straw bale for insulation and cob or similar substance as plaster over the walls, according to Lukeman.

Shipping container

Shipping container

(Getty Images)

If you’re interests lie in recycled materials, or you have a more modern design aesthetic, a shipping container home may be for you. While a 40-by-8-foot container may provide the perfect exoskeleton for your new tiny home, be sure you research all the costs first. “It gives you a kind of quick structure,” Lukeman says, but he notes insulating the interior and treating the exterior to prevent corrosion requires time, effort and money.

How do you choose?

How do you choose?

Lots of questions


The possibilities for building a home using unconventional practices are endless, but before you choose materials and a method, consider your location and what you will be able to handle. Smiley says to ask, “What are the best materials for the given area, and what are people trying to do?” And regardless of a final decision, keep in mind that no building process goes exactly as planned. Skinner says whether you’re building a home with traditional wood and brick or one with earth and tires, “No construction project known to humanity has ever gone perfect.”

Read More

Devon Thorsby is the Real Estate editor at U.S. News & World Report, where she writes consumer-focused articles about the homebuying and selling process, home improvement, tenant rights and the state of the housing market.

She has appeared in media interviews across the U.S. including National Public Radio, WTOP (Washington, D.C.) and KOH (Reno, Nevada) and various print publications, as well as having served on panels discussing real estate development, city planning policy and homebuilding.

Previously, she served as a researcher of commercial real estate transactions and information, and is currently a member of the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Thorsby studied Political Science at the University of Michigan, where she also served as a news reporter and editor for the student newspaper The Michigan Daily. Follow her on Twitter or write to her at dthorsby@usnews.com.

Recommended Articles

The Best Places to Live in Florida

Devon Thorsby | Sept. 16, 2019

See how the most populous metro areas in the Sunshine State compare to each other.

Your Guide to the Housing Market

Devon Thorsby | Sept. 13, 2019

Breaking down buyer's and seller's markets, forecasts for home prices and how the housing market affects your financial situation.

Tips for Making Your Home Holiday Ready

Lisa Larson | Sept. 11, 2019

Here are some tips for making your home safe, inviting and delightful from now until the end of the year.

How to Declutter Your Home

Devon Thorsby | Sept. 6, 2019

Follow this step-by-step guide to make your home more manageable and organized.

The Best Places to Live in Texas

Devon Thorsby | Sept. 5, 2019

See how metro areas in the Lone Star State stack up.

How Much Does It Cost to Build a House?

Dima Williams | Sept. 3, 2019

Building a house may offer the customization you want, but be aware of the design, finish and labor costs that add up.

Decorating Ideas for Small Patios

Robin Kencel | Aug. 28, 2019

With the right approach and mindset, you can transform your small patio into an outdoor living oasis.

Best Places to Live in South Carolina

Devon Thorsby | Aug. 28, 2019

See how the largest metro areas in the Palmetto State measure up.

The Best Places to Live in Tennessee

Devon Thorsby | Aug. 28, 2019

Find out how the largest metro areas in Tennessee compare.

Seasonal Home Maintenance Checklist

Maryalene LaPonsie | Aug. 26, 2019

Keep your home in tiptop condition by completing these essential home maintenance tasks.

Tips for Buying a Second Home

Lisa Larson | Aug. 26, 2019

Here's what to know about buying a second property whether it's for weekends, work, rental income or your college-age kid.

How to Decorate Your Living Room

Devon Thorsby | Aug. 23, 2019

Style your family room using design tips in this step-by-step guide.

The Most Expensive Places to Live

Devon Thorsby | Aug. 21, 2019

These metro areas have the highest cost of living compared to median income.

Features That Make Selling a House Easy

Wendy Arriz | Aug. 19, 2019

These details in a home are a must-have on many homebuyers' lists.

Tips to Make Your Home Instagram-Worthy

Devon Thorsby | Aug. 16, 2019

Inspire social media envy and excitement with these design and photography tips.

7 Fall Decor Tips for Your Home

Deanna Haas | Aug. 16, 2019

Autumn provides home sellers with unique opportunities for staging and decorating. But does fall decor actually help sell your home, or make it more difficult to attract buyers?

The Biggest Cities in the U.S.

Devon Thorsby | Aug. 14, 2019

These cities have the largest populations in the country, with amenities to match.

Smart Home Upgrades to Raise Home Value

Steven Gottlieb | Aug. 12, 2019

Smart home technology may wow homebuyers, but they may not be willing to pay more for the latest upgrades.

The Guide to Closing Costs

Devon Thorsby | Aug. 9, 2019

Here's a breakdown of what buyers and sellers can expect to pay when closing on a home sale.

The Best Places on the West Coast

Devon Thorsby | Aug. 7, 2019

Discover metro areas near the Pacific Ocean that offer residents the most.