Alternative Building Materials and Methods

by Katherine Athanasiades

The buildup of past construction techniques up to our present point in time has denoted wood as being the first and foremost material used to build houses in the United States.  Building codes prescribe wood to build homes, because of both its structural benefits and because it is ingrained in the industry as the material of choice.  Because wood has been used for so long, it is the material that builders know best and are the most comfortable with.  However, the world’s forests are rapidly disappearing, as wood is used inefficiently and excessively in building – both the quantity of houses and the amount of wood used within a single house helps to quickly deplete our natural wood supply.


            Because of this, alternatives to wood building are being sought out by environmental organizations, with the aims of increasing awareness of the state of our forests and providing information and access to wood alternatives in building and upkeep of houses and other structures.  Though it may be a slow process to change building codes and norms, there are other alternatives available.


            There are two main ways to decrease wood consumption: alternative building materials and alternative building methods.  Alternative building materials include concrete, flyash, cob, earth, and straw/bale.  All of these materials have been used in both the United States and in different countries to build houses, and have proven to be viable replacements for wood in construction.  However, efforts to mostly or entirely supplant the use of wood with these wood substitutes have not yet been successful.  Alternative methods for building range from sustainable practices in acquiring materials to the development of materials, efficient designs, and efficient energy utilization, especially in terms of electricity and water.  The different methods generally not only use techniques that make wood a less practical candidate for building, but they make development and upkeep of structures more environmentally friendly than they have been in the past.


            There are several factors to consider when comparing different types of “green” building with traditional building methods and materials.  One of the first issues to consider, and one that carries a lot of weight with consumers, is whether or not alternatives are economically and/or environmentally more beneficial than the traditional system.  In India, use of wood substitutes such as flyash and ferro-cements may reduce building costs by 15-25% (AsiaPulse).  However, in the United States, Big Timber has such a foothold in the government that it receives subsidies making building with timber much more cost-efficient than building with alternatives (Daly).  Because of this, some people have questioned whether or not the payback time from investing in alternatives will be small enough that environmentally friendly alternatives are economically worthwhile.  If the cost to be environmentally friendly is only slightly more than the other options, then people will probably pay the extra money.  However, if the cost is much greater, then it is much less likely that people will pay the extra money because it is not economically practical (Carr Everbach, personal communication).


            Another determinant in the future of alternative building methods and materials is the access to these technologies.  Though straw-bale homes were offered as low-income housing in Tucson (Daly), the access to this type of alternative is limited.  Because wood is the dominant material in building, there is no infrastructure in place to easily develop alternative houses.  If construction workers were enlisted to build a new type of home, they would need to learn new methods and techniques for building.  Acquiring different materials for alternatives requires supply lines to be established.  Because of the lack of infrastructure, it becomes increasingly difficult to utilize non-wood materials for construction.


            As stated earlier, although alternative structures like straw-bale houses can be cheaper to build than their normal wood counterparts, it is generally more expensive in the United States (Daly) – this is partly because of the lack of infrastructure in the business, but also because of the subsidies Big Timber receives.  Only when subsidies are taken away from the timber industry, or subsidies are also provided to alternatives, will alternative options have a good chance of supplementing or supplanting the timber industry.


            Other hardships may arise when consumers try to receive bank loans for alternative houses or to get them insured after they have been built.  Because both the bank and insurance companies are very conservative institutions, they are less likely to help those who wish to invest in alternative housing because of liability issues.  This may act as a major deterrent in people’s decisions regarding whether or not investing in alternative housing is worthwhile.


            Information about alternative materials and methods for construction is available but not widespread.  Because of the wealth of knowledge available about wood construction, it is cast as the option of choice.  Change is opposed not only by corporations who profit from wood construction, but also by the consumers who purchase wood houses and supplies.  This, I believe, is partly because of the lack of information readily available to consumers regarding alternatives.  A major question concerns what it would take in order to cast alternative options in a positive light – so they are seen as economically viable, environmentally friendly, and safe.  A major ad campaign may be effective, because it would not only spread information about alternatives, but it could also be upbeat and trendy – factors that play a major role in influencing people’s opinions.  In addition, access to alternative options is important in terms of availability of materials and people who know how to work with them.  Tim Taylor, president and CEO of green company Built-e, Inc., believes that switching to alternatives can be accomplished by “marrying information about the products with access to the products (Fowler).”  People might begin to see the benefits of alternative options, and these options in turn may become more popular and utilized.


            Another issue of importance is whether or not the government has a responsibility to fund alternative, greener methods and materials for construction.  Though the government lives by a capitalist platform, they still provide subsidies to Big Timber.  This helps maintain the status quo in the construction industry.  Should the government also provide subsidies for alternative corporations?  Should it emphasize the importance of alternative options’ environmental benefits?  Should it force compliance with new building codes, both on suppliers and consumers?  These are important but controversial issues, because government approval and support for alternative options could greatly increase the likelihood that they will be widely utilized in the future.


            In conclusion, it is obvious that we have the alternatives we need in order to shift away from the heavy use of wood in construction and upkeep of structures like houses.  Unfortunately, there are many barriers to this change that will be very difficult to overcome.  As a global environmental issue, however, it is important to strive for the widespread use of alternative options.  I believe that if the use of alternatives becomes economically viable, ad campaigns are instituted to promote their use, and government subsidies are allotted differently, then alternative materials and methods will definitely start to be used, to the benefit of the environment and world in general.



Works Cited


Daly, Ned. Demanding change in the wood and paper markets. Multinational Monitor, v19 n4 p13(4), April 1998.


Fowler, Stacey. Building the future: Sustainable building materials come of age. Environmental News Network. September 25, 2001.


Use of Alternative Building Materials Could Save India 25% Cost. AsiaPulse News, Feb 24, 2003; p7044.


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last updated 5/17/03