Build Homes That Last

Old stone houses, and adobe and rammed earth houses, many abandoned for centuries, can still be found standing worldwide.
Old stone houses, and adobe and rammed earth houses, many abandoned for centuries, can still be found standing worldwide.

This blog post is short and to the point. Durability is one of the most important principles of sustainable building. The concept is very simple. Homes consume a lot of materials and take a great deal of time and effort to build, and so it makes sense to choose materials and building methods that last a long time. This goes hand-in-hand with choosing low maintenance materials. Choose carefully or you’ll end up spending an inordinate amount of time and money maintaining your home.

Related: Ancient Rammed Earth Structures
Image credit: Minnesota Prairie Roots

11 thoughts on “Build Homes That Last”

    • Follow that link to Ancient Rammed Earth Structures at the end of the blog post. Rammed earth structures can last thousands of years. Rammed earth and earthbag are very similar and so properly constructed earthbag houses can also last a very long time.

  1. Amen to this! When I look at new home construction in my area, I see nothing but disposable homes, homes built out of milled lumber and highly susceptable to fire, termites, storm damage and in general a short life. Not surprising in light of the disposable culture that is prevalent today, but entirely unsustainable for the long run.

    Build a home with a minimum of 100 year lifespan, not 30 years. A 500 to 1000 year lifespan would be even better. Build it with maintainability in mind, so that the shorter lived components (plumbing, wiring, etc) can be easily upgraded without the loss of the structure.

    • Yeah, the instant gratification, throw away mentality seems to be the norm now. Architecture and engineering students are taught to design for 30-year lifespans. It’s now a race to the bottom in many ways. One more sign of a decadent society.

    • I also want to make it clear that I’m enthusiastically supportive of this principle of long lasting construction for permanent shelters.

      I don’t want my other comments related to temporary shelters to detract from the importance of building for the long term in most situations. This is an extremely important issues that is far too often ignored.

      One area where even most natural builders could improve their designs is the manner most use to install electrical systems.

      Too often wires get buried inside plastered walls and is difficult to modify or upgrade without making huge mess.

      This is where utilizing conduits to run electoral systems really pays off. Conduits allow wires to altered without nearly so much invasive modifications to the rest of the structure.

      Here is another tip: Pay attention to the dumpsters near big office buildings, especially when offices are getting renovated. It’s very common to find free electrical conduit and electrical boxes getting thrown out. This makes it very possible to install a Rolls Royce of electrical systems for very low cost.

  2. I agree 95%.

    The 5% where I disagree is associated with situations that really call for temporary structures.

    When a structure is never intended to be used for more than a short time, it doesn’t make sense to build it from long lasting materials. These are the situations where it becomes even more paramount to build using the most natural materials directly from the building site as possible. Build with the intent that the structure will simply erode and decompose naturally. This allows the structure and the site to quickly return back to it’s natural state with a minimum of damage to natural systems and minimal toxic footprint.

    There is something to be said for designing a structure to be used for a couple of years and then composted to disappear completely.

    I suggest that the shorter period of time the structure is designed to be used, the more important it becomes that long lasting unnatural materials not be used, or at least be easily removed for salvage/reuses/recycling as the structure gets abandoned.

    There is also the alternative to use portable structures when a temporary shelter is needed, but for that concept to work, it is most paramount that the portable structure be versatile enough to have a second, third, fourth reuse at various sites.

    FEMA trailers are perhaps the worst example in all of history of ignoring this principle. Most of those weren’t even fit for their first use, let along subsequent reuse, and the materials used to build them were the worst materials possible.

    Owen’s strawbale emergency shelter would be 1000 times cheaper and better to live in than those nasty toxic FEMA trailers, and they could be built at an astoundingly rapid pace.

    Once a family is able to rebuild a more permanent structure, the emergency strawbale structure could be dismantled and mostly turned into garden mulch. The rest of the parts could mostly get reused into the garden shed.

    • Good points. Getting feedback like this is one reason I like doing this blog so much. It’s not that one person is right and someone else wrong. It’s all a matter of perspective and goals of the particular building project.

      Two examples of temporary structures that I’ve seriously considered building:
      $300 Forest House
      This could last 10-20 years depending on how well you built it. Or you could keep the cost ultra low and hope for 5-10 years.

      Haystack House: Escape the Ratrace and Live a Carefree Simple Life
      Hobbit house with straw stacked on top. The roof would have to be replaced every year or two. But hey, the roof is virtually free.

    • Of course FEMA will never build straw bale emergency shelters. There’s no money to skim off the top. No way for insiders to profit. No pork. Related: I just heard about a photographer who was threatened with arrest for trying to photograph one of the shoddy FEMA camps in Louisiana. Guess they don’t want the negative publicity. So much for free speech.

      Idea for the next disaster: Volunteers could build a straw bale shelter or earthbag shelter near the disaster area and let people decide where they’d rather live. The main challenge would be finding a place to build it. Build it nice enough — maybe splurge $1,000 or so — and many people would choose one of these over the FEMA trailers (especially if they knew about the high risk of lung diseases, etc. from all the nasty chemicals in trailer houses). Can you imagine the massive embarrassment to FEMA? The headlines would read something like “Family chooses $1,000 straw bale shelter over toxic FEMA trailers.”

      • I would love to see a group of natural builders form a emergency response team.

        The idea would be to have a standard emergency shelter design or two ready to deploy. Perhaps one design that would be viable for warmer southern climates, and another design for northern climates.

        The key would be to create a design that can be built extremely rapidly and build it mostly from materials already available near a disaster site. (Don’t hesitate to utilize the rubble and debris from a typical disaster site.)

        For strawbale, I bet during a disaster that nearby farmers could be approached and asked to donate strawbales and many would be happy to donate whatever they could spare, especially if someone else was transporting them to the disaster site.

        Imagine a semi truck transporting a couple loads of strawbales, and volunteers salvaging almost all the rest of the needed materials from the debris and from the earth under everyone’s feet.

        Imagine constructing dozens of structures within a week or two after a disaster. Bunk-beds built right into the walls of a structure like shelves using the courses of bales as the bunk-bed supports.

        Just swoop in like a construction swat team and build the structures before the government bureaucrats get the chance to try to stop it from happening. Families happily cooking, sleeping, playing, staying comfortable while the government still hasn’t processed a single claim form for an emergency shelter.

        It would be awesome.

        • That’s an interesting plan, Jay. Some groups have jumped in to help on previous relief projects, so this is possible. Just keep in mind that disaster areas are extremely dangerous — contaminated water, aftershocks, lack of food, spread of diseases, crime, etc. are all very real risks that volunteers would encounter. Add to that heavily armed police and restrictions on travel to prevent crime, and this sort of work becomes nearly impossible unless you know the area very well and are extremely well prepared.

          We recently finished an earthbag shelter design for an upcoming journal article. Watch for the blog post in about two days.


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