Top 10 Green Building Techniques for Affordable Housing and Sustainability

The traditional timber “stick house” in America is one of the most significant investments we can make. If sustainability is your goal, there are much more affordable housing options to explore before you build your own house. Homes that not only shelter us, but provide for our basic needs or at least circumvent the rent/mortgage trap. People have been innovating on green building methods around the world, and we’ve broken down the best of ’em from shipping container homes to tiny houses!

Straw Bale Construction

Sustainability Score: ★★★★★ 5/5
strawbale-construction-comparison-sustainability
Image credit: Celebrate Big and Paja Construction

With the proper maintenance, these affordable structures can last hundreds of years. Being able to recycle waste from old crop harvests make it an ideal candidate for permaculturists, farmers, and homesteaders. With the exception of some traditional building materials, you can potentially produce a never ending supply of building blocks. Earthen plaster is commonly used as a finish – another free and abundant material!

PROS
Affordable, Quick, Widely available materials, High insulation rating (R-30 or more), Easily maintained

CONS
Cannot bury or earth berm, Will rot if not coated perfectly, Not suitable for extreme humidity, Walls take up a massive footprint

RESOURCES

3D Printed Housing

Sustainability Score: ★★☆☆☆ 2/5
3dprinted-house-comparison
Image credit: Pixel Push and Sobify

3D printed houses have been built using giant machines with minimal human labor. Other printed homes have also been produced in modular sections, being shipped and assembled later on the build site. These structures can be created with extreme precision using computer software, empowering us to utilize 100% of the sun’s seasonal orientation with unprecedented accuracy.

PROS
Electronic blueprints can be shared and replicated, Creative flexibility, Unprecedented precision, Can easily conform to building codes

CONS
Expensive materials and equipment, Requires software proficiency, Printing compounds are not readily available, Large industrial footprint

Tiny Houses

Sustainability Score: ★★★☆☆ 3/5
tiny-house-comparison
Image credit: Tiny House Pins and Tiny Home Builders

Tiny houses are taking over the world with more and more people joining the movement. It’s easy to see why – unique custom houses that challenge our ideas of essential vs excessive living. While they can be an affordable housing option, many average between $35,000 – $100,000 and utilize ample traditional building materials. Ultimately if you have the skills and can afford it, these are an excellent alternative to the rent/mortgage trap.

PROS
Wheeled homes offer locational freedom and can be positioned tactically to optimize on the seasons, Conform to traditional building code, Unique structures, Lots of learning resources and consultants

CONS
Expensive, Requires conventionally unsustainable materials, Tiny living space (maybe that’s a pro?), Can be challenging for non-carpenters, Often requires grid connections – or at least a compost toilet!

RESOURCES

Earthships

Sustainability Score: ★★★★☆ 4/5
earthship-comparison-green-building
Image credit: Eclipse Now and Earthship Biotecture

These futuristic-looking homes are best known for the repurposing of garbage as construction materials. Pioneered by architect Michael Reynolds, these structures provide our essential needs autonomously; They harvest and filter rainwater, cool and heat themselves passively, recycle wastewater and operate on renewable electricity. There’s even a greenhouse involved for managing convection currents and producing food!

PROS
Strong structural integrity, Exceptional at providing for our basic human needs, Creative flexibility, Minimal construction skills necessary, Recycles and repurposes waste, Earthquake resistant, Typhoon and hurricane resistant

CONS
Heavy usage of concrete, Does not conform to traditional building code, Pounding 900+ tires full of dirt is back-breaking work, Potential tire off-gassing (there is debate if tires are truly off-gassing within an Earthship since they are buried behind layers of earth and out of direct sunlight), Expensive

RESOURCES

Cob

Sustainability Score: ★★★☆☆ 3/5
affordable housing cob construction comparison
Image credit: Forbes

Green building at it’s finest, cob has been used by civilizations for thousands of years. It involves creating an adobe mixture using clay, sand, silt, water, and plant or animal fiber. This mixture can be formed into bricks or put directly on the house. The solid cob has a dense thermal mass that can be covered with protective outer layers to increase longevity. It’s an affordable housing approach utilizing abundant materials and simple techniques.

PROS
Simple techniques, A fun and safe building process, Affordable, Abundant and sustainable materials, Lots of learning resources

CONS
Does not conform to traditional building code, Takes a long time for a little progress, Deteriorates quickly if unmaintained, Vulnerable to extreme weather

RESOURCES

SIP: Structural Insulated Panels

Sustainability Score: ★☆☆☆☆ 1/5
sip-comparison
Image credit: Tight Line Designs and Arch Daily

Houses made out of structural insulated panels (SIP) offer some advantages over a traditional build. The pre-insulated boards make installation easy while saving a lot of time by circumventing traditional framing. Their compact size makes them a suitable candidate for smaller blueprints and are sometimes used in the construction of tiny homes. Traditional materials and techniques are still required, making this option less than ideal for green building.

PROS
Easily conforms to building code, Less labor than a traditional home, Quick and simple initial installation

CONS
Expensive, Requires concrete foundation and conventionally unsustainable materials, May require heavy machinery,  Traditional carpentry skills neccessary

Shipping Container Homes

Sustainability Score: ★★★★★ 5/5
affordable-housing-shipping-container-homes-comparison
Image credit: A Wooden House and Digital Trends

Shipping containers are numerous and widespread, making it a great choice to get up and running quickly. Since they’re already manufactured a lot of the building work will be cosmetic and relatively less than someone starting from scratch. Not only are they inherently load-bearing and monolithic, but they can be buried underground! If you can get it transported to the build site, shipping container homes are an affordable alternative.

PROS
Affordable, Easily available, Can be completely constructed off-site then transported to the land, Monolithic, Structurally sound, Can be stacked for multi-storied homes, Can later be shipped to different locations

CONS
Requires metalworking skills and equipment, Relatively less contractors and learning resources, May rust or cause health hazards, Not an eco-friendly origin (but hey, it’s here now so we may as well put it to good use)

RESOURCES

Vehicle Repurposing

Sustainability Score: ★★☆☆☆ 2/5
vehicle-repurposing
Image credit: Tiny House Listing

Turning an old vehicle into a home is a great way to save money and repurpose old waste. If the vehicle still works and can be driven around, even better! This kind of recycling is a great green building approach for affordable housing.

PROS
Affordable, Potentially mobile, Creative and unique, Eco-friendly

CONS
Will have to adapt construction approaches within the context of each specific vehicle, Poor insulation, May rust and deteriorate with the weather

Geodesic Domes

Sustainability Score: ★☆☆☆☆ 1/5
geodesic-dome-comparison
Image credit: Domerama and Lauren Interior Design

Geodesic domes can be built from scratch or assembled using pre-manufactured kits. These structures are super-stable as they delegate weight evenly, sending pressure straight down while eliminating the need for buttressing.

PROS
Fun and exotic shapes, Pre-manufactured kits save time, Structurally sound, Quick

CONS
Expensive, Requires conventionally unsustainable materials, Complex geometry (and therefore carpentry), Unforgiving weathering if not built precisely

RESOURCES

Earthbags

Sustainability Score: ★★★★★ 5/5
earthbag comparison green building
Image credit: Off Grid World

Earthbag homes are constructed very similarly to how 3D printers build homes – each layer established one row at a time. Sandbag tubing is filled with a super adobe mixture and mortared together with barbed wire in between. When the cob solidifies, you end up with one completely monolithic structure. This innovative green building approach allows for creative shapes with curves, arches, domes, and traditional linear walls. The dense material provides significant thermal mass and can be buried underground. This simple approach can also circumvent the need for conventional carpentry skills altogether.

PROS
Monolithic, Fireproof, Earthquake resistant, Typhoon and hurricane resistant, Can be buried or bermed, Easy to repair and make alterations, Can be any shape, Domed roofs are possible without timber, Quick, Safe, Simple, Dense thermal mass, Structurally sound, Affordable housing

CONS
Not up to building code, Requires manufactured polypropylene bags that must be special ordered

RESOURCES

 

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