The Case for Using Sustainable Building Materials

| 9/28/2010 11:36:32 PM

The other day I was in a large building supply center looking down long isles of thousands of products used to construct modern buildings. Even though I’ve been in the building trades for over 35 years and made countless trips to purchase building supplies, this trip was different. You see, I’ve been immersed in writing a new earthbag building book and now the differences in the way I build and the way most of modern society builds has been brought into even sharper relief.

For years, I’ve been building and writing about the advantages of using locally available, minimally processed natural building materials, such as straw, earth, stone, bamboo and small diameter wood, along with recycled products. I’ve discovered how building with these materials is the best way to create low cost, safe and healthy sustainable housing. These materials are owner-builder friendly, require minimal tools and are gentle on the planet. The stark contrast between these human-scale materials and the lifestyle that naturally develops as you return to a more common-sense way of living couldn’t be more different than what I was facing in that building supply center.

The shelves of building supplies stretched before me were laden with gleaming products made from steel, brass, aluminum, concrete, plastic and other energy intensive materials — the same materials that are helping destroy the planet we call home. Behind every one of those products, there’s a story of a strip mine that ravages the earth, a factory that spews toxins into the water we drink and the air we breathe, a supply chain that’s running full steam ahead into peak oil and peak resources with little or no thought of where the future will lead. It’s simply impossible to construct our built environment with materials that consume so much energy and use up so many scarce supplies to build things of such inconsequential value. There is no way to squeeze infinite resources out of a finite world.

Despite the idiocy in continuing down this path, most will admit there’s definitely a powerful allure to buy these things. They look good and make life easier in some ways. Builders know exactly what to expect because everything is uniform and standardized. Architects and engineers can readily look up specifications for each. Building officials can pigeonhole each and every product without thinking about the blindingly obvious alternatives. And businesses need to make a profit to keep their doors open, so they continue to sell what’s most profitable. After all, there’s little or no profit in simple raw materials with low resale value. And so the system, no matter how self-destructive, goes on and on.

What’s odd is that many or even most people seem aware of this on some level, but somehow can’t grasp what needs to be done on a personal basis. They know about global climate change and environmental destruction on an abstract level, but can’t (or don’t want to) make the connection to what they do every day. What happens when the roof leaks? Go out and buy more asphalt shingles, of course. Need to add on to your house because 2,500 square feet isn’t enough? Then it’s off to buy dimensional lumber that’s likely been stripped unsustainably from a distant forest you’ll never see, along with hundreds of other environment crushing products that are available at a building supply center near you.

Maybe we can’t save the world, but building and living more sustainably is definitely worth the effort. It reduces original construction costs, and takes less money and effort to operate. It’s easier to maintain comfort in properly built sustainable homes. And they are incredibly freeing when you have only what you really need, because you have more time and money for things that really count.

Danny Wirth
9/14/2012 7:54:00 AM

Creating energy-efficient buildings like the one from will help reduce our costs and it will save money for the following years to come.

Danny Wirth
9/14/2012 7:48:15 AM


Lowen Lowen
11/14/2011 3:58:09 AM

Hi. I'm as green as the next guy and I design and build houses and other buildings. I'm big on solar, I hate the idea using an imported energy source if there is another reasonable one nearby. I also LOVE using natural materials, case in point milk paint and I am getting away from the overly manufactured materials in favor of those that are 100% recyclable. But I don't agree with anyone that just out of hand buys into "peak oil" (yes I've read the articles about it, mostly before the Bakken oil and shale oil and huge natural gas deposits), carbon poisoning, and those guys who want to label CO2 just have me rolling on the floor! LOL. Earth is made up of an almost infinite array of materials mankind (with his infinite creativity), can create. Just look at all the new stuff we're coming up with as our thought advances, and that's just the beginning! The stuff we use doesn't have to be toxic, dangerous, or in any other way, harmful. Think back. The reason mankind has used the materials we have seen to date, is that he/we haven't "thunk up" anything better to use, or it was the only thing available, or has been cost prohibitive.Today, the vast majority of timber is farmed timber using extremely careful calculations as to harvest, and utilization of every last bit of usable timber all over the world (you should see China's timber farms, too). Simpson timber has software that scans each log and cuts it to the most usable dimensions with the absolute least waste. How's that for starters?Timber crops are planned 50 years or more in advance. That is responsible timber cultivation, and those of us who are ignorant about their methods should not be insinuating that timber companies are greedy rapers and pillagers of our natural resources. The reason we still have forests is largely because we have responsible individuals raising and protecting the forests from fire, as well as a host of other pests and from man himself. You know idiots who smoke and throw away their still burning match, eh? Peak oil is also a huge misnomer, just like "climate change". Too easy to buy into what some guy with a political, monetary, or other radical agenda, rather than to deliberately investigate that which would refute the loud squawking of the guy who wants to take advantage of you. In the case of peak oil and global warming, that has been promoted by a lot of savvy left wing guys who came up with a great way to take a lot of your money. Carbon Credits. Oh crap. I have to buy more carbon credits. Just so I can do this ir that. Who do I buy those carbon credits from? Oh yes. The same guys who have been scaring everybody about global warming. What do they do with the millions they take from you? Buy private jets, huge houses, big cars, yachts, (I mean wouldn't you if you made all that money?) and look where we all are left in the crapper and after a while we realize how stupid we were. How 'bout we just don't go there in the first place, eh? Doesn't that make you feel "special"? LOL. So enough of this carbon poisoning and Global warming (80% of greenhouse gas is water vapor, dudes, LOL. Um, that's H2O !) Look at the leaps and bounds we're making in recycling our waste products. Urine as motor fuel no less. Who do you think thought that up, eh? A guy in the lab, dudes, so don't be too hard on the guys that we all like to think of as mad scientists or greedy corporate thieves bent on taking our treasure. That's not how it is. Best thing for all of us to do is roll up our sleeves and figure out the best ways to use natural resources without using too much, being responsible stewards of nature and encouraging all to use it wisely. Notice I didn't say "Save the Planet" or anything ignorant like that, eh? These resources are our tools and they are here for our use, and also to share it with all the other creatures. That's part of responsible use, too. Well duh, we all knew that. For me, I wanna design stuff that's gonna last a super long time and then when somebody wants to take it down, they can use the same stuff all over again. That's the way of the future. So careful about pointing fingers and engaging in that old idea about peak oil and too much carbon. Nobody wants poison even the meanest and greediest there are. As more cleaner things come available at prices we all can live with, then the pollutants will disappear. Do you part to make that happen, we'll all be happy and nobody will be sniping at each other.

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