Going Green: Natural Home Building

I'm going to finish up my series on environmentally-friendly building practices with an overview of "natural building".

Natural building is a term used by Wikipedia to encompass the wide variety of practices in the eco-friendly building movement. I've covered only a few of the interesting options that you can use to either build or renovate your home. There are many other kinds of natural building that could work for you, your family, your climate and your geographical region.

If you live in the US southwest, you've likely seen homes that incorporate adobe. Adobe is an old form of building material that's been around for many centuries. It's also simple: mix clay and sand, with a bit of straw if desired, and add water. Adobe is often formed into bricks, which are then used to make the home's structure. Traditional adobe homes work well for hot climates, but you might want something with better insulation if you don't have a very moderate climate.

If so, upgrade to Cob building. Cob takes the traditional components of adobe -- clay, sand and straw -- and builds the home without forms, bricks or wooden framework, from the ground up. While a simple and inexpensive building material, this kind of dwelling is very labour intensive. However, you can end up with a very unique home, as cob's versatility can allow for free-form innovations that wouldn't be possible with other types of building materials.

What about using earth as a building material? While it might seem that such a structure would have a very short life, you'd be wrong. "Rammed earth" is a building technique that employs easily available local earth and wooden forms to construct buildings that can last centuries. In fact, once the structure has properly "cured", it is extremely durable and long lasting. This kind of building has good "thermal mass", which means that it will absorb heat in the day and release it at night. However, it is not a good insulator, so it often is combined with insulation when used in colder climates for home building.

One of my favourite forms of environmental building is straw bale construction. What could be more environmentally friendly than building with straw, which can be renewed in a year or less? However, this building method has definitely gone high tech. While you could use a simple bale made by a farmer with his baling machine, nowadays more and more are turning to higher density "recompressed" bales that can increase the load-bearing capabilities of the walls, as well as the insulating and fire-retardant qualities of this kind of structure.

So, if you are going green, you have to keep a lot of factors in mind: what kind of environment you live in; what kind of building materials you have easy access to; and what kind of home or design you want. It can be a complex choice!

Whatever your choice in home, don't forget to shop smart for your mortgage. Always do your research into rebates, grants, or "inexpensive" money that might be available through your local, regional or federal government, or utility companies. Don't underestimate how much help there is out there! For instance, if you want to build a straw bale or "Eco-nest" home and need a lot of available labour to do it, you could find folks who will work for free in order to learn the method.

Be sure to look into mortgages that give you better rates or more money, such as the EEM mortgage.

Don't forget to get your mortgage quotes as early as possible in the process. And always get at least 3 quotes. It's a must.

Michael Chantrel 

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