It’s easy to be distracted and even wowed by glitzy features in a new house – a built-in entertainment unit, hot tub, walk-in closets, custom cabinets, and more. But the next time you’re in a stick frame house, really stop to think about what the house itself is made of. It’s actually just a thin shell of wood sticks covered with sheetrock (chalk and paper) on the inside, and often fiberboard (sawdust and toxic glue) on the outside. The materials in these stick frame houses are like a ticking time bomb. You know they’re going to fail before too long and cause untold problems.
The wood will crack, bow, bend, split and attract all sorts of pests like termites. And stick built houses burn like crazy. Engineered wood products (OSB, etc.) off-gas toxic chemicals in fires that actually kill more people than the flames.
You can hear and feel the wind blowing through the walls of a stick frame house on a cold, windy day. Sit for a few minutes by a window or put your hand in front of an electrical outlet to feel the breeze coming through. That’s why heating and cooling bills are astronomical.
Try not to breathe while you’re in one of these conventionally built houses. A typical home has hundreds of volatile chemicals and because of this the number of people suffering from sick building syndrome is on the rise. Almost every product in these new homes off-gas chemicals that endanger one’s health.
Also, mold is an ever-present danger in stick frame houses, especially in humid climates, basements, bathrooms and kitchens. Particle board cabinets, heating ducts, paper facing on sheetrock, and other materials all foster the growth of mold.
And, frighteningly, stick frame houses are a death trap in hurricanes and tornadoes. Just ask residents of Greenburg, Kansas whose houses were wiped off the map, or those from New Orleans. Stick frame is no match for nature’s fury, whose storms are increasing in size and intensity almost yearly.
Doesn’t sound very comforting, does it? When will people catch on?
Natural building, in contrast, has a long, long track record and is far superior to conventional building in many ways. Let’s briefly compare stick frame building with two natural building options.
Straw-bale construction is a no-brainer. Regular readers of The Last Straw Journal know the benefits, but most of the general population doesn’t. Straw-bale homes are (deep breath) durable, environment and owner-builder friendly, fire resistant, insect and rodent resistant (once plastered), and provide excellent insulation. Straw-bale homes are safe, warm and quiet. One of the primary benefits of building with bales is the lower utility costs over the life of the building.
Earthbag building is ideally suited for areas prone to flooding, hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes and other natural disasters. Building with bags is a simple process of filling polypropylene feed or rice bags with soil, sand, gravel or similar material, and tamping the bags solid. You can use sand in the desert, soil in most climates, or porous volcanic rock such as scoria in cold climates. Scoria-filled bags approach R-30, at least those sealed with papercrete. (I lived in a house built this way through a Colorado winter and the R-30 value is for real.) In addition, unlike other earth building methods, no special mix is required. Just use what is readily available, often the soil on or near the site is best. Also, it is easy to make roundhouses, domes, vaults and organically shaped structures with earthbags.