Mother Nature is getting old and has grown tired of being used only for fast profits. You can hear the silent cry of the oceans just by looking at images of sea creatures trapped in plastic bags. Stories of whales dying with their stomachs full of shopping bags and packaging continue to become headlines on the major media outlets. The mission bells are ringing and we are making up for our mistakes! As so many resources are running out, we are thinking twice about the way we use them. We are falling in love with the eco-friendly lifestyle. And because real estate is the most important asset and the ultimate goal for most Americans, consuming both renewable and nonrenewable resources, it’s time we rethought our traditional houses and embraced new forms of architecture that employ green building materials.
Of course, planet Earth is the only home we have, but the modern man can’t sleep under the stars. Mankind continues to invent and innovate, constantly improving the standards of living in an attempt to make life easier or to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor. Despite all the economic and scientific progress, we still haven’t managed to alleviate poverty. How is this possible? Maybe one step towards a world with no poverty would be to rediscover the green building materials and build less traditional houses where people can live a decent life. Recycling will definitely change the real estate industry for good.
Right as you read this sentence, somewhere, in an office, an architect is using the BEES (Building for Environmental and Economic Sustainability) software to reduce the environmental impact of a new project. The way we build is changing. Did you know that The Solaire (NY) is the first green building in the USA? Solar panels are incorporated into the facade and on the roof. When building green, though, the curb appeal fades in front of a low environmental footprint. We are constantly told that a house is the most expensive asset we will buy in our lifetime. But it shouldn’t be so. Below are 10 green building materials that could make housing affordable again.
This grass is simply amazing! If you have ever been to southeast Asia, you must have seen bamboo houses, furniture, and decorations. Bamboo is a strong eco-friendly building material which, if treated right against termites and other small predators, can last for centuries. China and India have the highest bamboo production and the good part is that most bamboo processors are close to plantations or forests.
The strongest species is Guadua angustifolia. For construction purposes, the culms must be between 4 and 6 years old. If not treated, bamboo only lasts for two years, but with protection against insects, it can last more than 30 years. So, bamboo could successfully replace the thick wood logs (which take decades to grow) used to build log cabins in the mountains. Harvesting, treating and shipping bamboo poles don’t come cheap if you don’t live close to its native regions. Don’t panic! There are still 9 more green building materials left.
Wheat straws - dry, brittle, airy, and thin - how could these ever be used as a green building material? Well, we didn’t make a mistake here, for sure. Wheat straws are not used individually, like bamboo poles or canes. Straws are condensed first, to form larger bricks which are then stacked to form walls and ceilings. You may build a small house out of straw bales for only $20,000. But an even more interesting trend is emerging: the straw panels. These are the new drywalls that provide not only good insulation and thermal comfort, be it summer or winter, but also excellent soundproofing between rooms, especially for home theater rooms. And when compressed at 105 kg per cubic meter, straws become fire-resistant.
Structural insulated panels (SIPs)
Since most walls look like a sandwich in cross-section, this principle will be replicated using various combinations of green building materials. Structural insulated panels are one example of sandwich walls where the filling is a foam, or even with more layers. It’s like a burger recipe that differs from one manufacturer to the next. For example, some structural insulated panels have a windproof membrane, vapor membrane, sterling board, and plasterboard. In most cases, the insulating core is made of polystyrene.
One major benefit of building with SIPs is that these panels come pre-cut from the factory so you’re not wasting building materials. There is also no need for roof trusses, which allows you to build extra rooms or storage spaces above. The cost to build a 920 sq. ft. home (3 bedroom 2 bathroom) is between $26 and $30 per square foot.
Insulated concrete forms (ICFs)
Invented in the 1940s and constantly evolving, these expanded polystyrene forms are first stacked, reinforced with rebars and then filled with concrete. The forms remain in place, providing insulation for the building. Houses built with ICFs don’t lose heat. Another great advantage of the ICFs is their light weight. A panel weighs no more than 7 pounds and replaces about 6 bricks or concrete masonry units. No traditional wood frame is required (except maybe for the roof). So being surrounded by concrete gives you the highest safety in the way of wildfires, tornadoes or other acts of God. What does this mean? That you will make fewer insurance claims and consequently, your home insurance won’t become unbearable.
The ground underneath our feet has long been used as a building material, and even today, in some parts of the world, we can find adobe houses. Earthbags are stacked like masonry and flattened. Between each row of bags, two strings of barbed wire are fixed to provide tensile strength and keep the bags in place. This building idea could be a great solution in areas where access with heavy vehicles is difficult. Wouldn’t it be nice to have an earthbag cabin in the mountains?
This building technology that uses raw green building materials such as the soil itself is not new at all. Humankind has been using compacted soil for thousands of years. Ramming can be done manually, with a hammer-like tool, or with a press. The walls are almost completely soundproof, and with the right sun exposure, the owners can save up to 80% on heating. Building a rammed earth house could be more expensive than a traditional house due to the physical effort involved - it is very labor-intensive.
Thatching is an art and some architects don’t shy away from using it in their projects. Thatched roofs are the most common features, but Attika Architekten have proven that even facades can be thatched in a project in Amsterdam. Thatched roofs can last as long as any other type of roof - about 40-50 years, but the roof ridge has to be replaced every 8 to 10 years. Thatching may not be common in the US nowadays, but natives and early inhabitants of this continent mastered the technique, so thatched roofs were quite common, palmetto being the main material. Combed wheat reed is the most frequent material used for roofs. After the installation, the roof is covered with a layer of fire-retardant spray. Be aware, though, that a thatched roof may require separate insurance.
If you’re looking for a house that can last for centuries, build it yourself out of stone! Have you ever visited a Middle Ages castle in Europe? If not, you still have time - because the combination of stone and concrete keeps them standing, attracting thousands of tourists - for example, Rochester Castle was one of the first castles in England made in stone.
Building with stone is not much different than building with bricks and mortar. You have to fill in the gaps between the larger stones with lime mortar and smaller stones. Besides providing a natural look, the stone is also energy efficient - it warms slowly and emanates warmth during the night. If you really want a house with character, contact a real estate agent today and start looking for an old stone house. These properties have a unique charm and a timeless look. And most of them are very quite affordable. And in case you are wondering where is the oldest building still standing on its original foundation and unchanged at all, look for The Old Stone House in Washington, D.C.
Hemp used to be cultivated without any restrictions and traded as a valuable commodity. Today, 15 states allow hemp cultivation, but the cultivar contains no CBD so it isn’t psychoactive. Fortunately, though, it can be used to obtain a revolutionary green building material. In 2011, at London’s Ideal Home Show, Prince Charles revealed a house insulated with lime-hemp and sheep’s wool where residents could live without central heating. The first completed HempCrete building can be found in Ireland - an office in Clones, County Monaghan.
But hempcrete was developed in France. The part of the plant used for making HempCrete is the inner woody core which is mixed with a lime-based binder. HempCrete blocks are made of hemp, hydrated lime, and hydraulic lime. However, a load-bearing structure is required, as hempcrete is used to create a second wall for new constructions - replacing the expanded polystyrene insulation technology.
Plastic doesn’t decompose fast. It takes between 450 and 1000 years to disintegrate and disappear without a trace. But this disadvantage can be turned into a huge advantage in real estate. Building with recycled plastic can provide affordable housing for low-income families. Colombian architect Oscar Mendez has already built 43,000 square feet of housing using recycled plastic, in Bogota, Columbia. But using plastic bottles is not unusual either. In Taiwan, the EcoArk was built using 1.5 million plastic bottles. When people need a roof over their heads, they don’t care what the walls are made of. Using PET bottles as bricks, they are doing Mother Nature a huge favor. However, be aware that plastic can start a fire or can even melt under the sun. The PET plastic melting point is 260 degrees Celsius / 500 degrees Fahrenheit. So you may want to cover the bottles and give the house a less striking facade. However, recycled plastic is also suitable for furniture (benches, chairs, tables) as well as for artificial grass or plants.
With so many green building materials out on the market, there is no doubt that we are facing a revolution in architecture and building technologies. Not only is it a must that real estate agents become familiar with these, but home buyers should also educate themselves in order to make the best decisions. We can also expect an increased demand for vacant land as the new generation of home buyers look for passive homes or buildings with low environmental impact and maintenance cost. And until the price of houses will drop, we can expect more and more Millennials to embrace the trend of tiny homes.
Let’s not forget about the 3D printing technology which can create more houses in a day at an affordable price. And it would be worth to mention the idea of two British guys, Chris and Mike, who designed hubs for building domes in under one hour. Building with hubs is easy and eco-friendly and is suitable for temporary or permanent domes. What can you build with hubs? Almost anything: aviary, chicken run, children’s den, garden rooms, and even homes.
Although the world’s population is growing, to cross the 8 billion mark by 2025, we will not run out of ways to make room for everybody. Green building materials are the future. Can you think of other green building materials that might become popular in the next years?