Dan Chiras has been involved in natural and alternative building since 1994 and lives in an off-grid passive solar/solar electric home in the foothills of the Rockies. His house is built from straw bales, rammed earth tires, and numerous green building materials and is powered entirely by wind and solar energy. Dan is author of The Natural House: A Complete Guide to Healthy, Energy-Efficient, Environmental Homes, published by Chelsea Green; The Natural Plaster Book: Earthen, Lime, and Gypsum Plasters for Natural Homes (with Cedar Rose Guelberth), published by New Society Publishers; and numerous articles on natural building and sustainable design, which have appeared in Mother Earth News, Natural Home, and The Last Straw. Dan embraces a comprehensive systems approach to building that offers a wide range of benefits to people, the planet, and our economy. He will field general questions on natural building and offers consultation on project design and construction, as well as lectures and workshops on various aspects of natural and sustainable design and construction.
Q: What you have achieved is amazing; very few people think humanly. I appreciate any information about the cost for material, so as to construct same in my country (Burkina Faso ) West Africa.
A: There are so many variables in the cost of supplies from one place to another it is very difficult to estimate what any given project might cost. In general the methods of building that use simple local materials, such as with earthbag building and adobe can be very inexpensive.
Q: I will be building my first home and want to know the least expensive building approach to completing a simple 1 or 2 bedroom, one bath home...single story in central Texas. There are so many options to chose from. Of course, earth sustaining, local products that have the least impact on health and the environment are my preferred products but getting it built is paramount first.
A: (Kelly) There are a lot of factors to consider here. Can you do some of the construction yourself? If so you need to choose a technique that you feel comfortable actually getting involved with. Doing most of the labor yourself can save a lot of money, but this also can prolong the building process. I would recommend starting with the most basic and compact design that would work for you, and then plan on expanding the home later as time, money, and experience allow. Some the least expensive homes that I know about were built with adobe, earthbags, cob, strawbale, and cordwood.
Q: Are natural building techniques price comparable to other building methods?
A: (Kelly) This depends on the exact design and choice of materials...they can be either more or less expensive.
Q: We live off a small barrier island in North Carolina and are looking to build a home. We have relatively cold winters, long hot, humid summers, and hurricanes. Also if we decide to move to the mountains in a few years and want to sell, it should look relatively "normal". What would be the most cost efficient way for us to build?
A: Your question would take me a couple of hours to answer. It depends on what you want, how efficient you want to make the building, etc. In other words, there's no pat answer. I can't simply say "Build with straw bales or rammed earth."
Q: I need to find information comparing the cost/sq.ft. of conventional home building and alternative "green" homebuilding methods. Can you tell me where I can find such information?
A: (Kelly) Generalized cost comparisons of this sort are really hard to make realistically; there are too many variables, depending on the location of the building, the exact design, the labor costs, etc. I know of alternative buildings that cost perhaps one tenth of what a conventional home of the same size would cost, when built mainly by the owner with primarily cost-free materials found at the site (such as adobe blocks). On the other hand, I know of many strawbale homes that actually cost more than their conventional counterparts, because so much of the finish work is custom and requires more time to accomplish.
Q: I have a question about which of the alternative house building techniques is most feasible and cost effective. I would assume that using local materials makes a sizeable difference, but as to construction time/effort/cost -- do you know where there are any cost comparisons per square foot by technique (strawbale, rammed earth, earthbags) etc.?
A (Kelly): I have not seen calculated cost comparisons per square foot on the various alternative methods, and this might be a bit difficult to come up with. There are so many variables and factors that are hard to compare across the board. I usually suggest that people focus on the design of the house first, making sure that it fits the site and the needs of the residents. Once this is done, then consider your options for building materials, employing those that can be obtained locally and that suit the needs of the design. This often means building a hybrid structure, because the best material for constructing the south side of the house is often not the best material to use on the north, etc. At this stage, you can compare the costs of the various choices, and make a selection partly based on this. Keeping the design modest in scale will probably make much more difference in the overall cost than your materials choices.
Q: I have a 42 acre ranch in Ventura City, California and am planning to build a home that employs "sustainable architecture." I find quite a bit of information on photovoltaics, heating systems, etc., but haven't found a way to compare the various "green" alternatives in regard to COST. Any suggestions?
A: For the most part, you will need to compare the green energy options to their conventional counterparts. That's the most useful information when trying to select energy technologies. I have a new book which will be out soon that offers advice and some cost comparisons. The book is entitled, The Homeowner's Guide to Renewable Energy, and is published by New Society Publishers.
Q: I'm looking to build a house in Walsenburg Colorado (6,171 ft. elevation). There are several natural/alternative techniques that I am considering:(straw bale. earth bag. sip's. ICF. aac.) I am wondering which one of these would get the highest overall score based on the following list of my MOST IMPORTANT CRITERIA: 1. Cost/ease of construction- I have a VERY small budget, and would like to save as much labor cost as I can by doing much of the structural erection by myself....but, I have very little construction experience. So an easier technique would be beneficial. 2. Cost of materials- The same financial constraints also make materials cost very important....(although, the apparent ease of using some ICF's might offset some of the material cost because it might minimize the number of labor hours I may need to pay for help with earthbag, strawbale, sip's, etc..). 3. Energy efficiency- Very important, as my very low monthly income makes it essential for me to have very low energy bills. 4. Low maintenance/durability- I need it to require as little maintenance as possible. A technique that is less likely to develop an expensive problem down the road. Based on the techniques/styles I'm considering, (or another you may recommend), and the criteria I listed, could you give me a recommendation?
A: (Owen Geiger) Look at the dozens of earthbag, scoria bag and strawbale houses in your area. Visit some job sites, watch for a while and talk to the workers. Some of these structures are for wealthy clients, some are built dirt cheap. Focus on the dirt-cheap ones. The details and advantages and disadvantages would take a whole book to explain. But seeing the buildings yourself being built is priceless.
Two obvious contenders: 1. scoria bag (roundhouse = super easy) and 2. strawbale with roundwood post and beam (local wood poles) with wood siding. Hire an unemployed carpenter a few days if necessary for the difficult parts. It's easy to get a firewood permit and cut poles in the national forest. Find a local sawmill for the rest of the wood. To sum up, you are in an area where natural building is very popular and resources are easy to obtain.