Today I want to talk about some alternative building methods. These methods can be used for structures of all kinds, from root cellars to animal shelters to full on homes.
I’ve always been fascinated with the different kinds of structures we build, and how we ended up going from efficient structures to stick built houses like we use today in most residential applications.
Earth Sheltered Structures
Earth sheltered structures use a bunch of dirt against the walls to provide external thermal mass. This reduces heat loss and makes it nice and easy to maintain a steady temperature inside the structure.
People have been making earth sheltered homes for centuries, and they are still used on a regular basis with modern technologies. Bill Gates’ home is a 66,000 square foot earth sheltered home.
Water can be an issue with these type of buildings, and air filtration is a huge issue. It can be tough to get good air circulation.
Underground living can either conjure the image of a hobbit home or a more uncomfortable bunker style home. The benefits and drawbacks of underground homes are similar to earth sheltered homes, but they usually have a completely covered roof.
These buildings can be pretty fascinating. There’s a good book out there by Mike Oehler called ‘The $50 and Up Underground House Book‘ which is quite entertaining. Definitely food for thought.
Similar to an underground home is an ‘umbrella style’ home that is above grade but uses an umbrella type roof that makes it look like it’s underground. This picture is an example of one of those homes … you should check out the site for more information!
One interesting variant is the ‘wofati structure’ which is similar to the structure that Oehler describes. Paul Wheaton has a good description of this type of structure, so go and check it out!
Landscape Timber Construction
I don’t know much about this, but I thought it was interesting. The concept is to use those 8′ landscape timbers that you can buy at the lumber yard and build a structure with them. Instead of going into details here, check out this page that shows a nice home that someone built using this method.
Straw Bale Construction
Straw bale construction uses bales of straw as a structural element. Buildings are constructed by stacking rows of bales on a footing or foundation, tying them together with pins or rebar. You then cover them with a stucco or plaster layer to keep the water out of the bales.
The bales themselves can provide structural support, or you can use them in between the poles of a pole building style structure. This is generally useful for structures in heavy snow areas.
Straw bales provide quite a bit of insulation and thermal mass for a building, which makes them very temperature stable.
Cob has been used since prehistoric times, and is still common in some parts of the world. In some parts of England you can find 500 year old cob buildings that are still going strong.
The walls in a cob home are about two feet thick, providing a huge amount of thermal mass that maintains a steady internal temperature.
For some reason cob has really had a resurgence in the Pacific Northwest. One of these days I should go see if I can tour one of them…
There are certainly plenty of other techniques that you could consider alternative building methods. But I wanted to give you a few that I thought were worth knowing about. Which one is your favorite?