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May 26, 2003

Alternate Alternative Housing Materials?

When I was growing up my grandfather had a subscription to Popular Science magazine. As far as reading material for a young teenage boy, it was pretty stimulating. It talked about all the latest products, gadgets, cars, technology, and anything else that could be roughly be considered "science" but still be mainstream or interesting enough to be "popular". Hardly a lot of substance, but it kept my interest and taught me a few things.

Once in a while there would be an article or mention about strange and wonderful new homes that people had designed or even built. I remember one article about a guy who built his home out of plastic bags. It was an interesting, amorphous, blobby house situated in the woods that looked like it was made out of white stucco. I don't recall exactly how he used the plastic bags, or how he managed to get any structural value out of his home's walls, but it must have used an awful lot of bags. That article was my introduction to alternative housing materials.

Many years later I started hearing about more alternative housing materials. Every once in a while I'd read another article about some new kind of home construction, or be told about a really neat house that someone saw on TV (back before Discovery Channel, no less) or in a magazine. Nothing really started sticking until a few years ago, when I heard about straw bale construction. From that point on, any information I could get about alternative home construction has been locked away in my brain for future consideration. (For the record, my wife has never once offered any opinion - positive, negative, or otherwise - in response to my inquiring as to whether she'd mind our next house being of an alternate construction. I think she's a bit wary.)

I'm still high on the idea of building a straw bale home at some point. For those of you who don't know what a straw bale house is, or can't for the life of you figure out how such a house would ever stand up, let alone survive even a rainstorm, let me give you a brief overview. First, decide where you want your windows and doors, and build frames for them. After that, you build the walls of your house up around the frames like giant Lego blocks, but with bales of straw. (Straw - not hay. Hay is moist and still has the grain on it. Straw is the stalk of any grain, and should be quite dry.) Put a roof on top of the wall when it's finished. Now spray both the inside and the outside with layers of a stucco-like plaster to give the walls extra strength and a weather/vapour/air barrier. There - you've just built your own straw bale house.

The benefits are many for straw bale houses. First, if you stack your walls yourself, the house can be much cheaper to build than a regular "stick" house. Labour is a huge part of the cost of any house, and if you and some friends can stack your own walls and apply your own plaster, you've just taken a huge chunk of dough out of the price of your home. In addition, because the walls are so thick and heavy, the house is much quieter, stronger, fire resistant (I kid you not), and the whole house is extremely energy efficient. Not bad for the waste product of grain harvesting, huh?

There are other materials that you can build a house out of. One type you're probably already familiar with is log house construction. Log houses are also quite efficient, assuming that you spackle them correctly and can get logs thick enough for your climate. Much more recently, insulated concrete formed (ICF) houses are becoming popular. Much like straw bale construction, you take the hollow styrofoam blocks and stack them to create your walls, after which you fill the blocks with concrete. Again, a very strong, quiet, efficient house. Although I have yet to read it, I have an article on my table right now about cord wood construction, also called stackwood construction. It's sort of like log house construction, but oriented the other way, and with much smaller pieces of wood. Picture stacking firewood like you normally would do, but adding mortar between each layer and piece of wood. I'm not overly fond of the aesthetics of this kind of construction, but I'm willing to concede it's another easy, interesting, efficient, and potentially inexpensive building material.

Thinking about all this got me wondering about other materials that could be used to build homes - alternate alternatives, as it were. As a society we use so much stuff that with some legwork I would think it possible to acquire enough of just about any material to make a house out of it (with the possible exception of bellybutton lint, but with the Internet being what it is, I won't dismiss that out of hand). One immediate possibility that crossed my mind was paper. Yup - just plain old paper.

Think about how much 8 1/2 x 11 paper your office or school or local Kinko's goes through. Hop into your local FutureShop or Office Basics and see how much paper they have in there. Hundreds of grosses of reams of paper are gone through daily, I'd guess, and although most of it gets recycled, I'm certain that one could easily skim enough out of the recycling system to build a house. I figure that if log houses are efficient, and straw bale walls are efficient, then neatly stacked paper should be quite efficient too. Just take the recycled paper and make it into 500 sheet reams again. Use those reams as bricks to build up your walls. Bingo - you've got an 11" thick wall that is fire resistant (no air to burn in a compressed stack of paper), efficient (high thermal mass), quiet, and also extremely cheap as well.

How about tires? Millions of rubber tires are discarded every year. Although tire recycling technology is improving in leaps and bounds, gathering enough together for a house would simply be a matter of going to a couple dozen tire centers in your area I'll bet. The only problem is, I'm not sure how I'd use the tires. As best as I can figure, if you could manage to get tires that were approximately the same size you could cut them into quarters and stack the quarters. That would still leave quite a bit of air space in a tire wall, however. Perhaps styrofoam peanuts could fill those voids. Or sand, or dirt, or wood chips. (Speaking of dirt, I didn't mention rammed earth houses. I'll only say that much, as I'm not entirely familiar with their construction, but I do know the walls are made up pretty much entirely out of plain old dirt.)

What about batteries? Car batteries, AA batteries, cell phone batteries, whatever... I'm sure there'd be more than enough to build a house out of. Of course, there would be the tiny problem of what kind of toxic mess you would turn your neighbourhood (or city) into if your home ever caught fire. Come to think of it, a tire house would have the same problem, and be really hard to extinguish. OK, forget about batteries and tires. I'm just brainstorming here...

I think paper's a frontrunner, but until I know where I can find tens of thousands of reams of recycled 8 1/2 x 11 paper I'll probably continue pondering both straw bale and ICF construction. I think straw bale has a slight edge in my heart right now, as ICF uses expanded polyvinyl foam pellets (dense styrofoam) to insulate and form the concrete. You can't tell me that making that much styrofoam is good for the environment. Of course, all that is only a secondary consideration, until I can get a straight answer out of my wife as to her thoughts on the subject of alternative housing materials.

I want to build a straw bale house - how about it, honey? (Honey.... Honeycomb... Beeswax? Hmmm.....)


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