In order to truly understand green home building ideas, you should first understand the ideals of the people who pioneered the technology. The affordable green building ideology began in the 1960s. The field very quietly continued to grow despite the absence of mainstream interest, throughout the last fifty years. Green building was occasionally featured in magazines, like Mother Earth News and Popular Science, but few green homes were built in the U.S. due to the ever increasing restrictions of building codes designed for wood construction only.
In the 1960s and 1970s the cost of home building rose sharply. In 1959, one could build a small home in the Southern United States for only $5000. Generally people did the construction work themselves, and hired skilled friends to help. By 1980 the cost had increased to over $70,000, and very few people built their own homes. Increasing regulation of building standards drove up costs, but did not yield an increase in construction quality. Instead many buildings of that era were inferior to buildings of previous decades as well as buildings built today. Building codes made it increasingly difficult for people to build their own homes, so they relied on home builders and contractors. Cheap knockoffs of fad modern architecture featured lower roof pitches, minimal lumber, leaky skylights, and in this environment the brick ranch style house became the industry standard.
Also during 60s and 70s, people first became interested in environmental issues such as pollution, waste disposal, overpopulation, deforestation, overbuilding, vanishing farmland, and energy conservation. In addition Americans became very concerned about poverty in other parts of the world, as well as the need for affordable homes in our own country. All of these concerns were put forward by the younger generation, and especially that segment of the population commonly referred to as hippies.
Originally affordable green construction was part of the clash between hippies and bureaucrats. The original green builders were typically interested in science, and some were architects while others could best be described as craftsmen. These young people abhorred profiteering of any kind, and resented the idea that individuals were so restricted when building their own homes. They saw great injustice in overpriced boring ranch style homes, which they felt would stifle the creativity of the young minds of the children who grew up in them.
The developers of this field of science never planed to earn a lot of money. Generally they just sold plans for a few dollars or gave their ideas away in magazines. Building codes, zoning ordinances, and development lot restrictions continually thwarted efforts to actually build green in the United States. Everyone always knew their quest was a bit like jousting with windmills.
While most architects, home builders and contractors became increasingly focused on profits, the very object of green construction was affordability and they strove to create homes for the least possible expenditure. The original ideals included extreme affordability, conservation of resources and unusual materials, unique architecture which promoted a simple natural lifestyle, the concept of recycling, and energy efficiency. Affordability took precedence over most of the other goals. Small size was also part of the ideal. The chief goal was to create a home for a few hundred, or a few thousand dollars.
One of the first and most important materials of this new science was Ferro-cement. There were many pioneers in this field who experimented with geodesic dome shapes, spherical buildings on pedestals and underground homes in which the cement structure was buried except for the front doorway. One of the early Ferro-cement designers, Steve Kornher, owner of Flying Concrete Construction, relocated to Mexico where he is able to work without those pesky inspections. He currently volunteers to help build small affordable homes for the poor, and also does a lot of contract work. After his many years of experience he is a true artist creating amazing spiral stairways with artistic freeform looping banisters. He creates vaulted ceilings, with amazing treelike columns. Kornher can build a virtual wonderland palace for less than $25 per square foot. He frequently uses pumice stone blocks as a base for walls, and ceilings. These blocks are excellent for insulation. Steve’s work is durable, and will likely last at least 200 years at minimum, and Ferro-cement also stands up well against earthquakes.
Insulated concrete panels are a relatively new invention based on the concept of Ferro-cement. They will pass code, and offer all the benefits of Ferro plus superior insulation. These panels have R-values in the 50s. They are less expensive than lumber, and much easier to build. Putting up insulated concrete panel walls only takes a day or two in most cases. There are two methods possible. Panels can be created in a factory already poured, and shipped to your site, or you can order the foam core with wire already on the outside, and have the concrete sprayed on once the house is built of foam core insulation covered with wire. While these panels are not as cheap as those early designers would have hoped, they are more affordable than most other forms of construction. They are also exceptionally durable.
From the beginning of Green Construction the goal has been to create building materials of found items, compressed waste paper or some other type of discarded materials. Compressed paper bricks, glass bottles, tin cans, and even old hubcaps have been incorporated in this form of green building. One new ‘found material’ which has become popular is the shipping container. Shipping containers can be stacked, or arranged in a row and used as housing. There are many creative homes that have been built from them. The biggest selling point for doing this is the price. Used 8-foot by 40-foot shipping containers can be purchased for around 2000 dollars each. Most people put a traditional roof on them, and some sort of foundation would also be necessary. Some people even add vinyl siding. After these changes the homes look amazingly traditional. Other people paint the shipping containers in bright colors and enjoy the whimsical look.
Natural materials such as rammed earth, adobe, straw, rice panels, log and timber clad are among many natural materials which are incorporated in building. In fairness lumber, stone and brick are also natural materials. Unfired earthen materials do not work well in damp climates however. Many of the unprocessed natural materials suffer in moist or insect ridden climates. These materials do work well in dry conditions however.
The new goals of green building focus on energy efficiency. There is much less focus on affordability. There are savings to be had however in green construction, both in energy and building cost. There are still a few green architects who offer plans and kits which are amazingly affordable. It is more possible than ever to get a permit for green construction, and get it to pass codes. It’s still tricky but with all the interest in green construction and energy savings, it may be just the time to build a non-conventional green house. I hope you enjoyed this article on the history of green home building ideas.