Friday, January 18, 2008

Eco-friendly, frugal homes

About a week ago I showed a different side of myself here on - the minus sign blues. I made a mini post about some earth friendly housing constructed out of recycled, steel shipping containers.

I'd like to return to that subject briefly. I think with the housing market and economy the way it is, a lot of people are looking for interesting ways to settle down and not break the bank while they're at it.

The green movement is a very important one with a very worth while cause, but I think the biggest advantage of living green is simply due to the fact that it's just cheaper most of the time. Whether it's consuming less gasoline or not having to shell out $5 for a non biodegradable plastic tube filled with tap water, it just appeals to more people.

Suffice to say there are quite a number of eco-folk looking to save a buck.

As such alternative housing seems to attract me for some particular reason. The more bare bones and frugal, the more I get into it. Which is not to say that my first planned home is going to be a hollowed out tree festooned with solar panels and wind turbines, but I'd eventually like an interesting home that is both eco-friendly and cheap to maintain.

But there are still a fair share of people buying cookie cutter McMansions. Most of them with faux stone facades, fake farmer's porches, large furnace-busting cathedral ceilings and elaborate stainless steel kitchens. All for the low, low price of $399,999. Which is a shame, I think. It's quite easy to spend half of that on something with a bit of character and simply save one's self a tremendous mortgage.

But let's take a look at the some of the eco-friendly, frugal homes those up and coming trend setters are trying to get the ball rolling on.

Container Homes
Like giant, recycled legos I have to admit that shipping container construction is the method I'm the most interested in on a pure intellectual level. They're simple and easy to understand by themselves, but can be linked together to form something elaborate and beautiful if the right hands are at work.

If you have not read my mini-post on ISBU Construction you'd know that I barely touched upon the subject. Which is a total shame with all things considered.

The United States as well as a number of other western nations import far more goods than they export. And due to the low labor costs in many developing, industrialized nations (such as China), steel shipping containers are actually cheaper to construct than to ship back. As such they clog U.S. ports as they are most often than not abandoned after their first load of iPods or wheel chairs. They're written off and sit in all their potential glory unused and largely forgotten.

So this is recycling to the extreme. Shipping containers can be molded into just about anything, due to their high stack ability, secure construction and optimized space. And while they're made out of a highly conductive material they can be quite efficiently insulated by use of a neat ceramic.

Since they're designed to weather the high seas strapped on top of huge cargo ships, they're also very resistant to weather and are quite water tight with little to no modification required. The best part? They can often be purchased used from major transportation companies for as low as $900 a piece. Which allows you to pump a big portion of your housing budget into refitting it to make it a bit more livable and less bare bones. Several can be used in conjunction to form any type of multi-leveled dwelling with zero use of lumber.

The disadvantages are few. While there are a number of reputable contractors that specialize in this medium of construction they are not too common. These contractors will also need the services of special labor, such as welders, crane operators and tractor trailer trucks (for delivery). This can get fairly costly, but pale in comparison to the costs of construction a lumber house with similar square footage.

Earthbag Homes
Earthbag construction is very straight forward and simple to understand. It's been becoming increasingly popular in the south western United States for some years now, but there are still a fair number of people who have never heard of it. You essentially take polypropylene (a type of plastic) bags and fill them with a mixture of dry, local earth, clay and sand. You then coil and stack them up into something that can accommodate a fair sized family before covering it all in a type of water tight plaster.

After that point it's only a matter of installing some non intrusive plumbing, heating and electrical work.

Since it's constructed more or less wholly out of local, easy to find materials you don't need to waste gasoline, energy and manpower bringing in tractor trailer trucks holding massive amounts of lumber, likely clearcut from a 3,000 year old Maine forest. All you need is pretty much the bags and a good lot of land.

Because they are made almost entirely out of earth these buildings are remarkably well insulated and are often situated to take advantage of passive solar heat by facing an eastern direction. The same is true if you're worried about the summer heat. If you've ever been in a basement (or a cave) in the dead of summer, the mechanism is the same. The walls of the home hold a lot of energy before giving it up and keep an even temperature even on the hottest days.

My only concern is that many local zoning boards are not up to speed on the whole eco-friendly dwelling movement. As such it's often a sad occurrence that they're rejected for construction simply because of the fact that they're not entirely traditional. So before you get too excited make sure to check with your local ordinances to make certain you'll be given the correct permits in a timely fashion. There are professional firms out there specializing in earthbag construction, so contacting one of them may be your best bet, even if you plan on it being a DIY project.

Straw bale Homes
When I first read about straw bale construction I immediately thought of The Three Little Pigs and the poor little piggy caught inside of his straw home when push came to shove. But as I continued to research the subject I became increasingly interested in the subject of using them as a construction material instead of animal bedding and bonfire fodder.

The name is a little misleading and the subject as a whole requires a little bit of deeper thought. Straw bale homes are not constructed entirely out of cubes of hay stacked on top of one another in some elaborate fire trap waiting to happen. But instead they are used as a compressed filler inside of a lattice work of steel or lumber framing before being covered with papercrete (imagine the love child of paper mache and concrete) or a plaster very similar to the variety used in earthbag construction.

Straw on its own is a waste product. It's left over from the cultivation of barley, wheat and flax used to feed cattle. After the harvest it is usually burned, releasing all types of delicious carbon into the air. A small amount may be used as animal bedding in smaller mom and pop run farms, but the vast majority is nothing more than a waste product.

It's a great insulator and surprisingly fire resistant when compressed and coupled with papercrete or plaster. One contractor specializing in straw bale construction reportedly carried out fire and wind tests rating it as fire safe up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and stable in 100 mile per hour wind speeds. In comparison to a wood structure which lights up at 500 degrees, there's a big misconception about which structure is the more fire prone.

The negative aspects are few, but understandable. Because of the perceived lack of stability and match like flammability certain states prone to wild fires have banned straw bale construction outright. Others who have not gone so far are extremely skeptical and may run you through the gauntlet should you decide to construct your next home in this manner.

But the cost of production is often well less than half that of a traditional home per square foot. Is having to jump through a couple of hoops worth saving $150,000+? I think so.

"Earthship" style Homes
Pictures have been floating around on television and on the internet about this one for decades.
They're pretty out there are far as construction goes, but they are still worth elaborating upon.

The Earthship concept was created by a gentleman by the name of Mike Reynolds in the 1970's. Mr. Reynolds was looking for a variety of home that that would be self sustainable, constructed out of largely indigenous materials and life "off the grid" as it were. Earthship structures are typically built to utilize passive solar heat, much like an earthbag home. But instead of plastic bags coiled upon one another and coated in thick plastic, earthbag homes for a step further in the eco-friendly direction. They utilize used tires honeycombed together in giant horse shoe shape.

The tires are packed with dry earth and compressed by hand using sledge hammers and rams before being coated with a thick layer of water tight plaster to add an extra level of insulation. Internal, non load bearing walls are constructed out of used bottles or cans suspended inside concrete. While not required for their successful operation, many earthship homes are designed to operate purely by internal means. Which essentially boils down to pure solar / wind turbine power and an elaborate water collection and reclamation system.

Since it's more or less made out of plaster, garbage and a small amount of lumber, costs are slim to none for the adventurous would be home owner willing to get a little dirty. Permits are actually fairly easy to obtain for this type of construction so long as you don't have close minded neighbors.

The downside? Because they were originally designed to be built in the hot and dry south west United States a lot of home owners don't consider all thermal options. As such many northern earthship designs sit on uninsulated slabs and actually have a huge problem with lack of heating. But if properly planned these can be an extra hippie-esq eco-friendly home, should you choose it.

Earth Shelter Homes
It's exactly how it sounds. If you're a fan of The Lord of the Ring's you'll immediately recognize this medium of construction as that employed by the adventurous little halfling-esq Hobbit folk. Certainly one of the more picture-esq varieties of eco-friendly construction Earth Shelter homes do not necessarily have to look like they were born of story books and block buster films.

Earth Shelter homes utilize the practice of adding earth to external walls to add an additional level of thermal mass to reduce heat loss and to maintain a stable indoor temperature. They can be made using any of the above mentioned construction archetypes or something wholly different. These types of homes can be above ground, domed structures with earth piled on top, recessed into a small hill (either man made or not) or placed inside of an excavated pit.

Earth shelter homes can vary between small, self sufficient cottages to large, sprawling mansion complexes spanning acres. A prime example this variety of home used to the extreme is Bill Gate's home in Medina, Washington. But despite the scale of construction, the underlying principles, technique and general problems remain the same. Most homes using this medium of construction are typically heavier than their counterparts, due in part to the weight of the earth and water proofing measures that must be undertaken to prevent internal leakage and rotting.

While initial costs for the average sized above ground home may be comparable with it's earth shelter cousin there is a definite benefit once the dwelling is occupied due to reduced energy consumption in the form of heating and cooling.

Problems occur only when poor planning and unskilled contractors are involved, but they mostly include poor air quality and water seepage. As such it is crucial that these factors are taken into account. Often enough they can be offset by a coupling of water hungry vegetation (if the climate supports such plants), an open floor plan and good water proofing. Like most homes not situated on stilts, the local water table should be investigated before any construction begins. Flooding during heavy rains in never a good way to brighten one's day.

Sure. These homes are a bit outside the box and require a little extra effort on behalf of the home owner. But all of them are in one way or another eco-friendly and frugal at the same time. Not to mention the fact that they're most often than not completely one of a kind and require little more than an already allotted house budget and a small lot of land.

Did you enjoy this eco-frugal post? Catch up on the rest - the minus sign blues has to offer!


Katie Gregg said...

Thank you for this interesting article. I don't have a "green" home at this time, but my husband and I hope to build one in about five to seven years. You have given me some great inspiration!

Joan said...

My husband and I are really interested in getting his toolshed solar powered. Its always in the sun with a great wide roof.

if it works out it'd be cool to see if we could do it to our house

Anonymous said...

Good article. Could stand to be bigger for my tastes.

Bruce said...

Nice one! I like the outfit of the characters. Wish i could do the same thing too but im not that techie.i like the outfit of “from farmer to warden”.. really interesting.


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