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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.

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I specifically disclaim any warranty, either expressed or implied, concerning the information on these pages. Neither I nor any of the advisor/consultants associated with this site will have liability for loss, damage, or injury, resulting from the use of any information found on this, or any other page at this site. Kelly Hart, Hartworks, Inc.

 

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