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Alternative Building Materials

  • Green Magic Homes

    >Green Magic Homes components are fast and easy to assemble. Each component has perforated flaps which screw and seal together. The entire structure is then anchored to the foundation with galvanized steel screws. Components with composite ducts and channels for electrical wiring and water pipes, as well as mechanical ventilation ducts, can be added to the shell at any point necessary.

    Green Magic Homes.
    Green Magic Homes

    The advantage of this type of design is that it is ready to go right out of the box. You just pour the foundation, install the utilities, and then bolt it together and pile the dirt on top.

  • Concrete Insulated Walls

    Insulating concrete form-work (ICF) is a cost effective, flexible, modular, permanent concrete form system. The basic unit of this system are expanded polystyrene (EPS) forms that are filled with concrete and steel reinforcement. The departure from typical poured-in-place concrete construction is that the EPS form-work is left in place after the concrete cures for permanent insulating value. There are two types of forms: planks and blocks.

  • Straw-Bale

    Straw Bale Construction.
    Straw Bale Construction

    Straw-bale construction uses large blocks of straw that usually come material that farmers were going to dispose of or burn. Straw-bale walls are very thick and therefore have a very high thermal mass. If you are building a straw-bale home in an area where browsing animals live, such as cattle or dear, the straw must be protected until the construction is complete.

  • Rammed Earth

    Rammed Earth Construction.
    Rammed Earth Construction

    Using wall forms, local earth materials are mixed with small amounts of cement, then compacted into the forms. When the rammed earth is dry the forms are removed. Rammed earth has many advantages over stick built homes. Rammed earth walls are very thick and contain a very high thermal mass. This reduces temperature variations inside, thus requiring less artificial heating and cooling in the building. Rammed earth structures are also fire and pest proof. However, if the exterior is not properly sealed, moisture damage could occur.

  • Papercrete

    Papercrete uses common newspaper reformed with water and Portland cement to form blocks or walls in home construction. It has several advantages including reducing landfill waste, being a light weight material, and being fire-proof to name a few. The mixing of papercrete is also done in an energy efficient manner. The materials are mixed at the site using a modified circular trailer that has a turning blade. The blade is attached to a re-used differential under the mixing pan. The hopper is filled with newspaper, water, and concrete, then pulled behind a motorized vehicle to blend all ingredients. Great photographs of the mixer construction can be found at

    Once a smooth mixer of papercrete is ready, it can be poured into wooden forms through a hole in the bottom side of the mixing pan.

    Papercrete poured into block forms.
    Papercrete poured into block forms

    Or the material can be bucket carried to wall forms directly at the building site.

    Boards used as wall forms for papercrete
    Boards used as wall forms for papercrete

    If blocks are created, they can be cemented together to form the walls of the house. These blocks are much lighter than traditional concrete blocks and can be made small enough that even a retired lady can handle them.

    If the papercrete is poured directly into wall forms, it saves having to handle individual blocks and the wall tends to be more consistent.

    Papercrete is a relatively new building technique, so a lot experimentation is taking place. Most building sites are in remote locations where building codes are a bit more relaxed.

  • Preformed Styrofoam Walls

    steel reinforced foam
    Steel Reinforced Foam Construction

    Preformed Styrofoam Walls can form the shell of a very energy efficient home. The Styrofoam is thick enough that no thermal bridging occurs from outside to inside. Also, since the walls are pre-fabricated, then brought to the site, construction can be completed in a fraction of the time needed for a conventional stick built house.

  • Bamboo

    Bamboo is a much stronger material than pine wood. It is a remarkably fast growing plant and is considered a renewable building material. Most homes built primarily of bamboo are in tropical countries. Conceivably, bamboo stalks could replace 2x4s in American home construction. However, bamboo material is good for hardwood flooring. That is the application most often used.

  • Earthships

    An earthship home is considered a deep green home, because it is totally self-sufficient, even including food production. Earthships are designed in such a way that they do not need additional fossil fuel type heating and cooling devices. They can be built anywhere, including Canada, the tropics, or the desert.

    Earthship tire pounding for walls
    Earthship tire pounding for walls

    Earthships are built with at least 40% recycled materials. Three of the four walls are made of recycled tires. The equator facing wall is made of glass and framing, allowing winter solar gain to heat the floor and walls on cold winter days. Snow on the ground in front of the windows increases the solar gain, making the house even warmer. At night, the high mass floor and walls slowly release heat back into the living space.

    Vents in roof evacuate hot air
    Vents in Roof Evacuate Hot Air and Draw in Cool Air from the Ground.

    During the summer, sun is high overhead. The sun does not enter the main living area of the home. Roof vents open in the summer to allow warm air to leave. The vacuum created by rising warm air, pulls cool air out of underground conduit, thereby cooling the living space.

    Earthship wall layers
    Earthship Wall Layers

    Water management in an earthship is completely self producing. All water is harvested from the roof of the earthship, stored in tanks behind the building, and used at least three times before leaving the property. The rain water goes through several stages of filtering before drinking. Then, kitchen and bathroom sink, as well as shower water is used to hydrate a bed of plants. The plants and the planting medium are used to filter the grey water for usage as toilet water. The black water coming from the toilets could be used to water plants outdoors, sun-dried and used as compost, or sent to a septic tank. The choice of black water distribution depends on local building codes. A pond could be incorporated into the water distribution system, allowing for edible fish production.

    Earthships allow plant growth using reclaimed water
    Grey water used for plant growing

    The original creator of the Earthship design, Mike Reynolds, has been experimenting with self-sustaining construction for more than 40 years. These homes are full of sustainable ideas that could be used even in conventional home buildings. Take these ideas and use them.

    Here is an excellent animation of how to build an Earthship.

Earthship Building Intern Experience

Much hands on experience has been gained participating in an earthship build this summer. Follow our experience with finishing earthship walls, floors, and black water treatment systems.

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Tags: Concrete Insulated Walls, Straw-Bale, Rammed Earth, Papercrete, Preformed Styrofoam Walls, Bamboo, Earthship

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