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

Slideshow

When conventional just won't cut it

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Earthbag

Earthbag

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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.

Papercrete

Papercrete

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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.

Cob

Cob

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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."

Adobe

Adobe

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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

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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

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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

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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.”

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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.


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