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7/7/2016

Garden Image 1

How many times have you seen someone’s sprinklers on during a rain storm? Or even worse, arrived home to find yours going while it’s pouring? I think you’ll agree that it’s a truly painful-to-watch waste of Mother Earth’s most precious natural resource. With today’s climate issues, where some parts of the country are living through significant droughts, it’s even more imperative that we be mindful of our water use.

Sprinklers and drip irrigation systems are some of the more efficient ways of watering your garden and, when used correctly, are invaluable in helping fruits, vegetables and other plants grow and thrive as part of a natural ecosystem. So how do we make sure we use them wisely?

Digitally Controlled Irrigation Makes a Garden 'Smart'

The good news is technology has a solution: the smart garden. An offshoot of the smart home that harnesses the power of the internet to help you conserve energy, the smart garden connects your landscape to the internet to more efficiently manage and conserve water use, while growing stronger, healthier plants.

Connecting your garden to the internet has a lot of surprising benefits. By giving your outdoor space “smarts,” you allow it to essentially think for itself. It can decide when it needs more water, fertilizer or other treatment, and tell you if it has a problem with insects, location concerns or other issues.

There are currently three main components to the smart garden:

1. Smart irrigation controllers – Automatic sprinkler and drip systems that create smart schedules and monitor the weather via the internet to manage watering intelligently.
2. Smart sensors
– Small electronic chips embedded in devices that go in your soil to monitor nutrients, moisture levels and other pertinent factors.
3. Smart hubs
– Central units that collate all the data coming from your smart garden devices and sends it to “the cloud,” where the data is compiled to determine the best way to manage your plants.

Smart Irrigation Systems

Garden image 2 

Rachio Smart Sprinkler Controller

Smart irrigation systems can cut your water use by up to 50 percent. These devices hook up to your existing irrigation system’s in-ground sprinklers, drip line or even just your garden hose to automatically take control of your watering. They “learn” your garden’s needs and create a watering schedule that will maintain your plants and vegetation while also saving water. They can adapt and change based on past, present and future weather patterns — so no more sprinklers running in the rain. 

These devices can also configure themselves based on your soil type, shade amount and gradient level to further optimize your water usage. Even better, you have access to all this data and can dive deep into advanced analytics that show you how much water goes into different areas of your garden so you can manage your water use more efficiently. You can also control smart sprinklers remotely from your smartphone or computer.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, which certifies eligible devices with an EPA WaterSense Label, replacing a standard sprinkler timer with a smart irrigation controller can save a home 8,800 gallons of water a year.

“If every home in the United States with an automatic sprinkler system installed and properly operated a WaterSense labeled controller, we could save $435 million in water costs and 120 billion gallons of water across the country annually,” the EPA says. Additionally, to encourage these savings, many local water companies offer rebates that cover up to 50 of the cost of the devices.

Smart Sensors

Garden image 3

PlantLink Smart Sensor

Think of smart sensors as having your thumb constantly stuck in your soil, with added intelligence that can track not only moisture but also ambient light, temperature, fertilizer and nutrition levels. Use one to monitor a particular problem area or plant, or set up a system of multiple sensors throughout your garden.

These devices can continuously feed your smartphone or tablet data on the health of your soil via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. Most garden sensors come with an app that will chart the data for you and offer recommendations on how to better care for your plants, or help you decide which plants will thrive best in a particular area.

Smart Hubs 

Garden image 4

Green IQ Smart Garden Hub

The next step for the smart garden is to collate all the data being created by these separate smart devices and compile it into “actionable” data. A smart hub can do this. Green IQ is the leader in this emerging space and its hub, which is also a smart irrigation controller, can connect to a variety of smart garden devices from different manufacturers, such as sensors and weather stations, and use their data to determine what’s best for the whole yard.

Smart hubs deliver daily and weekly water usage and savings reports, visual indication of each zone's status and evapotranspiration and rainfall indicators, all crucial information to help you use your water wisely.

GreenIQ can also integrate with smart home technology. For example, a Nest Protect smart smoke alarm inside a house can talk to the GreenIQ hub and tell it to activate the sprinklers if a fire is detected in the home.

New Advancements

To date, the companies developing in the smart garden are largely new technology startups, but earlier this year lawn and garden stalwart Scotts Miracle-Gro announced its foray into the space. Instead of coming out with a standalone product, however, Scotts announced Gro, its “Connected Yard” platform.

Instead of a physical hub to collate and orchestrate all your garden’s data, Gro lives entirely on your smartphone or tablet as an app. It promises to be the brain of your garden, working with all the various smart garden devices you own and using that data to know what the recent weather and rainfall has been, what types of plants are most likely to succeed in each location, what the local soil type is, and what to do at each stage of the season.

“Previously complex tasks will be presented instead as bite-sized, highly visual, personalized instructions,” the company said in a press release. “We will offer the same type of advice a friendly, expert gardener would suggest if they lived next door.”

Gro’s Connected Yard is an open platform, which means other companies and startups can build and connect to it. Its launch partners include the smart water controllers Blossom, Rachio, Green IQ and Lono, and smart soil sensors PlantLink and Parrot.

The Future Garden

Whether you just want to dip your toe in the smart garden with a sensor or two or go all in and get your whole landscape online, you can benefit the health of both your garden and the planet by harnessing the power and knowledge of the internet to help you become a smarter gardener.

Jennifer Tuohy gardens at her home in Charleston, S.C., and also writes on home technology trends for The Home Depot online. Jennifer’s enthusiasm for smart home tech, especially for gardening, is often aimed at using tech to help keep our planet greener. Home Depot’s selection of smart tech for the home can be found online here. Read all of Jennifer's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.



6/15/2016

Enjoying the most out of your garage is a challenge. There’s no right or wrong way to use the space, which leaves many people feeling rather indecisive. That’s why garages often become a catch-all area that can quickly become overflowing with items you don’t want in the house or items you don’t use every day.

Luckily, there are plenty of options for creating storage space in your garage without emptying your wallet. If you understand the basics of DIY and have some materials to reuse and upcycle, most of these projects can be close to free, which is great news for you and the planet.

White PVC Pipe

Source: Wikipedia

Use the Walls

Surprisingly, walls are one of the most underutilized spaces in a garage. They’re so easy to use, especially if you have a few basics to work with. You can easily hang PVC on your walls. For easy wall storage, take a couple of 2x4s, nail them to the wall, and use a few small chunks of leftover PVC piping. Attach the PVC vertically to the 2x4s, and you have a secure place to hang shovels, rakes and axes without worrying that they’ll fall onto your car.

If that doesn’t sound like a good idea for your garage space, consider upcycled pallets, DIY shelving and pegboards are all great alternatives — they’re also relatively simple.

Create a Workspace

A workspace in your garage can save you a huge amount of hassle down the road, especially if you consider yourself particularly adept at home improvement projects. Consider making a work table that folds back down into the wall. It’s actually a pretty simple concept, kind of like hanging a door sideways. Any older desk that isn’t fit for inside the house would be perfect for you to repurpose in your garage.

Though there are many different ways you can construct a workbench like this, my personal favorite is this Instructables tutorial which also includes hideaway tool storage. You can find reclaimed materials for your project instead of buying new in order to make it as earth-friendly as possible.

Create a Vertical Bin Hanger

Recycling bins tend to eat up space in garages. Everyone has them, and people are either acquiring larger ones or simply more of them. Recycle bin hangers are a simple way to raise them off the floor, giving you more space for bigger items in your garage. It’s a pretty simple project — all you need is a reclaimed 2x4, 1x4 and some drywall screws. Make the hangers, attach them to the studs and raise those bins.

Sturdy Coat Hooks

Source: Mirona Iliescu

Store Your Ladder High

No Garage Door

Ladders are awkward to try to store. They’re skinny and tall, so they’re relatively unstable. It’s easy to store a ladder on the ceiling with some screws and about four large hooks. If you’re a bit short or your garage ceiling is occupied by your garage door, you’ll need another plan for ladder storage

Garage Door

Your garage door is a heavy object that can be dangerous, especially if it is malfunctioning. Working with it requires specialized (and costly) tools, so that’s one area that is best left to the experts. Here is a workaround if your garage door takes up a majority of your ceiling space.

Consider dropping the ladder storage method down to two hooks and hanging your ladder length-wise on the wall. If you want to green-ify this project, instead of buying hooks at your hardware store, try reusing hooks from an old coat rack in your home (the hook should be 1 inch+ in length). At the end of the project, be sure to drill the hooks into the studs so the ladder doesn’t fall.

Color Code It

Dealing with an entire family’s worth of stuff in one garage can be a bit messy. To keep things more organized, try color coding everything. Instead of going out to buy storage containers, pick up an old dresser or drawer from a thrift or community store.

After cleaning up the drawer set, paint or spray paint each drawer a different color for each family member. If items are used by multiple people, make that a separate color, too.

Reuse Your Spice Rack

If you’re tossing out an older spice rack in favor of a new one, save it! Give it a quick wipe down and you’ve actually got a nice place to store your loose nuts, bolts, zip ties, screws and nails (the kind that always get lost when you need them).

Place a few wide-mouthed jars (old mason jars work great), label them and you’re all set. This saves you from going through the garage “junk drawer” when you need an extra screw or two to fix a door.

Making your garage an inviting area isn’t hard. If you can implement a few of these tips over the summer, you’ll experience a transformation the whole family will appreciate.

Megan Wild improves homes by focusing on increasing their sustainability and finding new ways to repurpose old materials. When she’s not holding a hammer, you can find her writing up her ideas and thoughts for her blog, Your Wild Home, and read all of Megan's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.



6/14/2016

Light Straw Clay Building Technique 

 

When I tell people that we design and build natural buildings, many immediately assume that we are speaking of straw bale building. Far fewer people have heard of Light Straw-Clay (LSC) building and yet the combination of natural fiber and clay soils has been a primary building method since mankind began building shelter.

Light Straw-Clay, also known as clay/straw, clay slip, light earth, light loam and Leichtlehmbau evolved in Germany in the early 1920s from the more traditional heavier mixtures of clay soils and fiber. The lightweight, aerated version containing more straw (or other plant fiber) was recognized for its superior physical and thermal characteristics, which resulted in more energy efficient and comfortable buildings.

Robert Laporte, my partner in life and work, was an avid timber-frame builder when he went to Europe in 1990. He was in search of a natural, non-toxic and ecological wall system to substitute for the styrofoam and press-board panels called SIPS commonly used for timber-frame building in North America.

 

When he discovered the Light Straw Clay (LSC) technique being used in Germany, he knew he had found the materials he was looking for. He brought the knowledge back to North America and has been innovating ever since. I joined him in 1994 and, as an architect/builder team, we formulated the EcoNest home concept.

 

The EcoNest Home

 

The EcoNest home combines light straw clay, timber framing, earthen floors, natural plasters, and other natural techniques using the principles of Building Biology to create finely crafted, modestly sized homes where health, ecology and owner participation are the keynotes.

 

The EcoNest workshop experience is designed to bring together builders, aspiring builders and future natural-home owners for a hands-on building experience which produces professional and predictable results in the form of a building shell for the workshop host — a new EcoNest owner.

 

As Robert likes to say, it is about building the builder as much as it is about building good shelter. Our EcoNest homes have now been built in 17 States and 4 Canadian Provinces and we now have trained Affiliates throughout North America.

 

The EcoNest Home Book Cover 

Must-Have Books for Natural Builders

 

Our new book, The EcoNest Home: Designing & Building a Light Straw Clay House, published by New Society Publishers, is the “How-to and Why” manual for the EcoNest  Building System. It is the result of 25 years of evolution streamlined into 300 pages of everything a builder needs to know to successfully replicate our system.

 

It contains step-by-step instructions for every aspect of the wall system, explains how we apply the health and ecology principles of Building Biology and illustrates these with many photos of finished homes. Our book can be purchased at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Store and on our website.

 

When Robert went to Germany in 1990, there was only one current and definitive text on LSC building: Architect Franz Volhard’s Leichtlembau. Alter Baustoff-neue Technik. Fortunately for North Americans, after several editions, Mr. Volhard has very recently published his work in German, French and English.

 

Light Earth Building: A Handbook for Building with Wood and Earth (find it here). It covers multiple techniques, illustrated by contemporary case studies of LSC building from around the world. It is also the most comprehensive publication on the physical characteristics of LSC to date.

 

Light Earth Building Manual 

Along with these two helpful manuals to assist anyone wanting to build with Light Straw-Clay there is more good news! The International Residential Code has, as of 2015, included a new Appendix R Light Straw-Clay Construction which paves the way for anyone needing to obtain a permit for Light Straw Clay building.

 

This code initiative originated several years ago when Architect Martin Hammer, who represented CASBA, the California Straw Building Association, in tireless efforts to include straw-bale construction in the building codes, extended an offer to help us propose code language for LSC. Martin initiated a group of dedicated LSC practitioners, into the complex world of changing building code and, with his help, we were successful!

 

The inclusion of both Straw Bale and Light Straw-Clay into the International Building code was a giant step forward in the recognition of the viability and promise for the future of natural building in North America. We are grateful to Martin Hammer and CASBA for opening this opportunity to us and demonstrating the generosity and spirit of cooperation that is characteristic of the natural building movement.

 

Are you someone who learns by doing? Join us for comprehensive hands-on training at an EcoNest Workshop and learn firsthand all of the techniques illustrated in our book. Hope to see you there!

Paula Baker-Laporte, FAIA, is an architect, healthy building consultant, instructor for the International Institute of Building Biology and Ecology and author. She is the principle of EcoNest Architecture. She is primary author of Prescriptions for a Healthy House and co-author with husband Robert Laporte of The EcoNest Home. Connect with Paula on her website, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


6/3/2016

The simple act of being outside just feels eco-friendly, doesn't it? Using nature's heating and air conditioning, soaking up Mother Earth's natural light and enjoying the serenity of a starlight night is not only good for the soul, but it's excellent for your energy bill. And the more comfortable and appealing your patio, garden or deck area is, the more time you'll spend out there. Make spending time outdoors even more eco-friendly by following some of these suggestions.

Light it Up

Enhance your outdoor space with some subtle lighting so you can enjoy it well into the evening hours. Today, there are lots of eco-friendly lighting options available, including no-energy solar, low-energy LED and light-pollution reducing fixtures.

Simple, solar-powered post lights placed around your patio or deck will soak up their light during the day and deliver a soft glow for you at night. These are excellent low-cost, no-energy solutions for areas where you don't have (or want) wires.

If you do have an electrical line installed, LED lanterns will offer a little more brightness. These low-powered, long-lasting, eco-friendly lights are an excellent solution for lighting up your patio area, as there is a wide-variety of shapes, sizes and styles on offer to suit any aesthetic.

To really maximize your view of the stars, consider investing in "Dark Sky" lighting fixtures that are designed to reduce light pollution.

Relax in 'Green' Comfort

The "green" patio furniture space has really blossomed in recent years. There are many great designs and styles to choose from, meaning you no longer have to sacrifice style to be kind to the planet.

One particularly interesting product is POLYWOOD. This manufacturer offers a range of attractive outdoor furniture. Similar to the recycled plastic alternatives I wrote about in my article on choosing eco-friendly decking, this product is essentially a wood substitute made from recycled plastic (predominantly milk jugs).

It resembles wood but requires none of the maintenance. It is also resistant to salt, oil and other corrosive substances, and you can clean it with soap and water. It's expensive, but its 20-year warranty means it lasts long, so you won't have to buy a new set every few years.

Plus, the minimal maintenance means there’s no need for applying sealants, paints or stains, helping keep those potentially toxic products out of your outdoor space.

If you live in a very hot climate, however, the plastic can get uncomfortably hot and potentially warp. In this case, furniture made from Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified hardwood is probably your best bet for longevity and low maintenance.

Teak is an excellent option, but whenever you shop for hardwoods, make sure they are FSC-certified to know for sure that they come from a renewable source.

patio 4 

Of course, the most eco-friendly option is to reuse someone's unwanted patio furniture. However, recycled and vintage outdoor furniture can require significant upkeep, and many of them are what I like to call "project pieces," where you'll need to do a fair bit of restoration to make them fit your space.

But it's hard to beat the satisfying feeling of having rescued a piece of furniture and put it to good use! 

patio 5 

Beyond the staple pieces of furniture you need on your patio, there are other sustainable items to consider adding that can enhance and extend your outdoor comfort. An outdoor rug is an excellent option for bringing some color and style to a concrete patio area.

As I've written about before, there are many great eco-friendly options for outdoor rugs. Another must-have accessory is a deck box. These can double as impromptu seating, but are most useful for storing items such as pillows and throws. Deck boxes protect them from the elements when not in use, which helps to extend their useful life. After all, longevity is a cornerstone of an eco-friendly lifestyle.

Add Eco-Friendly Features

patio 6 

Finally, consider enhancing your patio space with some aesthetically pleasing features that will also help the environment. Add a water feature to attract birds and wildlife. (Bonus points if it uses reclaimed water and can be used to water the plants on the patio!)

Surrounding your patio space with tall planters is a great way to create a natural barrier, rather than using up materials to build a fence. Plant them with native plants and edibles, such as herbs and vegetables, to create a kitchen garden.

Plant bright colors and fruit to attract butterflies to your patio, or wildflowers and native species to attract bees (blues, purples and yellows are their favorites).

Any or all of these tips can help you create an eco-friendly patio space, so you can enjoy the outdoors longer while keeping Mother Earth safer.

Jennifer Tuohy writes on eco-friendly home topics for The Home Depot. Jennifer shares her knowledge on energy efficiency and cutting energy usage from her home in Charleston, South Carolina. You can review a selection of patio furniture to use in your eco-friendly patio renovation here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.



5/20/2016

Geek thing of the day! Since I wrote about induction cooking 2 years ago, the cost has come down enough now that I bought a single “burner” unit and after a week of use, the numbers are in.

As a long-time gas range cook, the switch takes some getting used to, and it only works with pots that are magnetic. But, I like that it’s fast and I can dial in the temperature fairly tightly. Of course, I didn’t trust any of the ad hype, so I got out the meters and the spreadsheet. Here are the results.

Comparison Between Gas Range and Induction Burner

Gas range, 7,000 BTU burner: time to boil 1 quart of 60 degrees Fahrenheit water was 8 minutes 30 seconds, consuming 992 BTUs of heating energy (one British Thermal Unit is approximately equivalent to the heat released by burning one wooden kitchen match).

Induction cooker: same pot, same temperature and quantity of water, the burner used 1,300 watts at the highest setting and took 5 minutes 50 seconds to boil. This works out to 0.126 kilowatt-hour of electricity and is equivalent to 430 BTUs of heating energy.

cook time comparison

If there was a 100-percent efficient way to boil water, the energy required would be about 317 BTUs. This gives us a way to calculate the efficiency of each unit.

The induction cooker is 74 percent efficient, and the gas range comes in at 32 percent. The induction cooker transfers much more heating energy to the pot. The induction method was 32 percent faster and consumed 57 percent less energy.

cooking efficiency

Because I’m off-grid, induction will be my go-to cooking method when sunshine is ample, offering an option for fossil-free cooking!

Paul Scheckel is an energy efficiency and renewable energy consultant and author of The Homeowner's Energy Handbook and The Home Energy Diet. Paul is also a speaker at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRS. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.



5/20/2016

Radon test kit

As I was reading the local newspaper I saw an article on radon with an offer to get a free radon test kit. The article said that radon is colorless, odorless, and invisible but it can give you lung cancer.

Well, that certainly got my attention, since I have had asthma since childhood and I’m pretty cautious when anything may affect my lungs. Especially something I can’t see, smell, and is a gas that emanates from the ground. If you are health conscious it can keep you awake at night wondering as you breathe deeply as you sleep if you are inhaling a deadly gas. That is like telling someone that science has determined that saliva causes cancer so don’t swallow.

What is Radon?

So what is radon? Radon is a cancer causing radioactive gas that comes from the decay of uranium which is present in almost all soils. It can be found all over the USA and is more prevalent in some localities than others.

Becauseit is colorless, tasteless and odorless, it is easy to chalk it up to “nothing to worry about”. That could be a mistake, because there are 21,000 deaths attributed to radon each year (compared to 17,400 drunk-driving deaths).

Testing for Radon

It can be in any home or building and it typically leaches up from the ground. If it is trapped in a structure and builds up, it is breathed into your lungs. It is estimated that nearly one in fifteen homes has an elevated level of radon. While radon problems may be more common in some areas any home can have a problem and it is best to test. Our local county environmental department provides a free test kit - all you have to do is go get it. There is also a map that you can look at found here  where you can check your specific state and county.

When I checked our county, I found we were in a moderate zone, which means we have between 2-4 picocuries per liter of air or (pCi/L). Anything above 4 should be long-term tested or tested a second time for accuracy and if it remains over 4 pCi/L, then mitigation should be explored.

Mitigation for Radon

Radon mitigation is not difficult in most cases but simply a venting system with an exhaust fan that will keep it from building up in your home. Your home could be new, old, or anything in between and have a radon problem. You can test yourself with a free kit or one you order online, or have it tested by a professional that is well versed in radon testing and mitigation.

Radon Can Cause Lung Cancer

Radon gas decays into radioactive particles that can get trapped in your lungs when you breathe. As these particles break down further, they release small bursts of energy which can damage your lungs and lead to lung cancer.

Not everyone exposed to high levels of radon will develop lung cancer, and it may occur over a lifetime. Smoking combined with radon is a particularly serious health problem, and smokers have a much higher risk than nonsmokers. While there is no conclusive data, it is believed that children also have a higher risk due to less developed immune systems.

Who is Susceptible?

Example: 4 pCi/L in nonsmokers has about 7 out of 1,000 people that could get lung cancer. In smokers, that statistic goes up to about 62 people who could get lung cancer. As the pCi/L goes up, the risk goes up exponentially. Although some scientists question the precise number of people affected there is agreement among all health organizations that radon is a problem when levels exceed 4 pCi/L.

The normal level of radon in the outdoors is 1.3 pCi/L and while the authorities would like structures to have the same level it presently isn’t required or realistic. While much is known about radon, there is still apparently more to learn. What is known is that some people are susceptible to lung cancer when exposed to radon long term and others are not.

Since the test kits are either free or very low cost, it just makes sense to test your abode to see if you are in a high radon area. Mitigation can resolve issues and then there can be peace of mind and should you decide to sell at some point there won’t be any last minute surprises.

Conflicting Data Creates Confusion

I read in the newspaper article that approximately 50% of the homes in Colorado have radon. Then as I was doing research for this article, I read that could actually go as high as 70%. Putting all the material aside, it just seems that the way to be sure is to test and if needed test again.

Dealing with radon reminds me of the time the story was going around that only male mosquitoes buzz and the males don’t bite you. The females don’t buzz and, therefore, when you don’t hear anything, you should worry about getting bit. Of course, that is not entirely true, but I can see the analogy, as it could also apply to radon. It's just better to test and be sure because if you do need to mitigate it is not that difficult and then you will have a safe environment where you can live without fear.

Resources: Environmental Protection Agency's radon page

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their domestic and natural family go to www.BruceCarolCabin.Blogspot.com. Read all of Bruce's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.



5/19/2016

 

Cob house

I love mud and straw buildings for so many reasons. They are sustainable (unlike log cabins, trees don’t need to be felled), inexpensive and the maintenance is a cinch. Three popular mud and straw-based natural building techniques are cob, straw bale and earthbag. People often ask me which I think is better, or greener. Each has its pros and cons.

Strawbale house

Your climate, the topography of your land, and which materials you have to hand are crucial in choosing which technique to use. Building a straw bale house when there is no straw in your area means squandering fossil fuels to ferry the bales in. On the other hand, earthbag building usually involves polypropylene bags – not exactly bio-degradable. Cob is probably the greenest method, but takes time and not the most practical if you live on a flood plain.

 

Earthbag house

11 Materials Considerations for Natural Building

So here’s a checklist of 11 points to consider when choosing between straw bale, earthbag and cob.

 

COB

STRAW BALE

EARTHBAG

 

Difficulty of technique

Cob construction is time-consuming, but fun. Patience and some know-how are necessary.

 

The interior is completed along with the exterior, so finishing is easy.

Straw bale is the fastest and least labour-intensive of the three. Bales are light compared to sacks filled with mud. You can have a house up in weeks or less. Finishing the interior may take longer.

Earthbag, is labour-intensive compared to straw bale, but the technique is pretty idiot-proof. Earthbag homes can be built fast, depending on the energy of the team. Finishing the interior may take longer.

Cost

Mud is free. Labour, time and learning the art is where you could spend money. A great technique if you have volunteers and plenty of time.

Depends if you have bales to hand or not, and on the price of the bales in your area.

The post and beam structure could be more expensive.

The materials are very inexpensive for roundhouses. Mud is free. The sacks are inexpensive. Labour is the key factor for cost here.

Insulation*

Earth has poor insulation.

Great insulation.

Poor insulation.

Thermal mass*

Great thermal mass.

Poor thermal mass.

Great thermal mass.

 

Shape

You can create any shape with cob, that’s the beauty of it.

Squares and rectangles are the most logical choice for straw bale, as the bales are cuboid.

Earthbag definitely thrives on curves and circles.

Resistance to earthquakes

Stronger than brick, as cob is one monolithic unit.

Excellent. Straw bale has been known to survive an 82-ton force on a shake table.

Almost invincible. Exceeded earthquake test limits with no visible damage.

 

In the wet

How well cob functions in the wet depends on how high your footings, and how wide your eaves. Cob can resist a fair amount of rain and weathering, but is not recommended on flood plains.

Moisture is the enemy of straw bale, but as long as you construct a decent rubble trench foundation, a high stem wall and wide eaves, straw bale can stand the rain.

Performs the best out of the three in the wet. With a gravel foundation and a decent stem wall, earthbag can survive a flood.

In the cold

Earth works very well with passive solar construction (for those in the northern hemisphere that means south facing windows which draw in the sun’s heat which is then absorbed by the earth walls).

 

Takes a while to heat up.

Excellent. The high insulation factor means it’s easy to heat a straw bale home.

Earth works very well with passive solar construction (for those in the northern hemisphere that means south facing windows which draw in the sun’s heat which is then absorbed by the earth walls).

 

Takes a while to heat up.

Maintenance

Easy.

Easy.

Easy.

 

Longevity

Cob houses have been standing for hundreds of years in the UK.

With large eaves and the correct moisture protection, straw bale is estimated to last a life time, at least.

 

An earthbag structure with proper foundations is estimated to last at least a century.

Other quirks to note:

 

 

Mice can live in the walls of straw bale homes.

Walls can swell and shrink in areas with drastic seasonal moisture/heat changes. This affects window and door frames.

What’s the Difference Between Thermal Mass and Insulation?

Insulation is the ability of the house to slow down heat loss (or cold air loss). Straw insulates. In practical terms, this means you can heat or cool your house quickly and it will retain that temperature. If you are in a building that you only use once a week, say a church or a meeting room, or you live in the arctic, you need a high insulation factor. Straw bale is the way to go.

A building with high thermal mass takes longer to heat or cool, but retains the temperature for hours. Mud buildings (cob and earthbag) have high thermal mass values. But what does this mean? In winter, earth walls slowly absorb heat in the day, and then release it back into the house at night.

In summer, they absorb the cool in the night and release that cool back into the house in the day time. Earth buildings are perfect for hot, dry and Mediterranean climates. They are also work well in temperate climates where people live in the house the majority of the time.

Round vs Square

I may field some criticism from the straw bale and earthbag purists, but in my humble opinion, if you want a round, oval or curved house, then earthbag is the obvious choice. If you want straight lines, then straw bale is for you.

It is true, people have built round straw bale houses, and square earthbag houses. But this takes greater time, requires a higher level of know-how, and utilizes more resources. Straight earthbag walls have to be buttressed. Round straw bale homes need more adjustment and increased plaster. Why make life difficult?

The Bottom Line

Whichever of the three mud and straw natural building techniques you choose, you will have a more comfortable, healthier, greener, better ventilated, and more soulful home, than if you build using the mainstream construction materials of today (Portland cement, foam, fibreglass, plastic, chemical-based paints and plasters). Your home will breathe rather than sweat. And most importantly, you will smile every time you look at it.

Straw bale house photos by Sophie Hunter.

Atulya K. Bingham is an author and natural builder. She lives in Turkey in her beloved earthbag house. She runs The Mud Website which offers plenty of earthbag building information, a window into Atulya’s off-grid life, and sustainable living tips. She is also currently giving away The Mud Earthbag Building PDF. Mud Ball, Atulya’s popular personal story of building her earthbag home, is available from all major online stores. And read all of Atulya's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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