Sustainability is all the rage these days, and with good reason. From re-useable straws to electric cars, everyone is trying to make a difference by choosing eco-friendly options. One of the most sustainably minded choices you can make is by exploring alternative housing options.
Let’s face it: conventional housing these days is an environmental mess. The materials used, the style of building, and heating inefficiency all make our homes completely unsustainable. We can do better!
The world of alternative housing is filled with beautiful, practical, and family-friendly options. No matter what your needs are, there’s an environmentally sound house waiting to welcome you home. Read on to discover five great options to explore.
Yurts are round, tent-like structures made of canvas. The fabric is stretched over a wooden lattice frame with a circular dome or opening at the top-center. American yurts are inspired by traditional, Mongolian Yurts (or Gers) that are used by semi-nomadic people in Northeast Asia’s cold steppes.
I’ve lived in a 460 square-foot yurt for over eight years, and it’s a really cozy structure. Round houses feel so welcoming.
We built our yurt in the woods of western Maine, and it has weathered some rough winters. Yurts are easy to heat, as they have no corners to trap the cold. The tall central dome brings in light and opens up the space beautifully.
Yurts are also easy to alter. Many yurt-living families build rooms into their yurts with ease. Lofts are especially popular as bedrooms in cold-weather locations.
American-style yurts can be found all over the country in a variety of sizes. My family of four has found our 24’ diameter yurt more that big enough.
The Trouble with Yurts
They do have some peculiar issues. American yurts are made with plasticized canvas instead of traditional felted wool. Canvas doesn’t breathe as well as wool, so they tend to have trouble with mildew in the winter.
The best way to combat this is through insulation. Insulate your yurt floor very well and make sure the canvas walls are tight against the floor. It’s also a great idea to get the best insulation package your yurt dealer offers.
In hot climates, yurts sometimes struggle to “breathe” out the hot air, and can act like giant greenhouses if you’re not careful. When ordering or building your yurt, make sure to place windows at a cross breeze from each other. Or add in a summe time screen wall: this will ensure that your yurt has enough airflow to keep cool.
2. Straw Bale Houses:
Straw bale houses are examples of a beautiful, old-world style of building. Their walls are made of stacked bales of dry straw that are then sealed in and stuccoed. This creates a thick-walled, cozy house that holds its temperature well against anything nature throws at it.
Straw Bale House Pros:
They’re some of the loveliest eco-friendly homes available today. In fact, they look like they belong in a tiny Polish village, with their thick, textured walls. Few houses can equal the straw bale for R-value (thermal resistance value) either. The straw walls hold heat (or cool air) incredibly well.
A straw bale house can be adapted to suit any climate. The buildings outlast most convention houses with ease, and your heating bill will be absolutely miniscule.
The Trouble with Straw Bale Houses:
You absolutely need to keep the straw from getting wet before it’s sealed under a stucco or cob exterior. Any dampness in the straw can do a lot of damage to your house. This is generally not a problem in dry climates. In damper areas, however, you’ll need to work quickly and with proper cover.
The stacked bales are held together in part with metal bars that pierce through many layers and into the foundation. In wetter areas, replace the metal with wood to keep the straw safe from condensation as well.
When friends of ours built their earthship out of dirt and old tires years ago, I was skeptical.
How can a structure built primarily of soil and discarded items be an effective, attractive, and eco-friendly alternative housing option? Amazingly, they do!
Earthships take materials that might otherwise fill a landfill—such as tires and old bottles—and turn them into a cozy, environmentally conscious home. They’re often funky, modern-looking buildings with casual charm.
They reuse so many items that might otherwise spend eternity in a landfill. They’re also some of the least expensive, eco-friendly buildings available and are full of personality.
Like straw bale houses, earthships often have a very high R value. They hold heat well and require less energy to heat than yurts or conventional houses.
The Trouble with Earthships:
Aesthetics can be a source of frustration here. Earthships aren’t known for their beauty. They can be lovely houses, but they often have an awkward shape. It’ll take some planning to build an earthship that your neighbors will find attractive. In more populated areas, this could cause zoning issues or neighborhood conflicts.
These buildings are created to be used as passive solar houses. So despite the high R-value, they’re often a bit chilly in cold weather. In cold climates, they’ll need a design adjustment to allow an alternative heat source.
Earthships are also some of the most difficult eco-friendly houses to connect to the electrical grid, so unless you’re building an off-grid homestead, talk to someone about wires and plumbing before building anything.
4. Geodesic Domes (Geodomes):
These extremely efficient, adorable domes are a fascinating approach to eco building. Doing more with less is the goal of geodome design, and they do it well! They’re durable, funky, and uniquely beautiful structures.
Like yurts, geodomes have all the coziness that life in the round has to offer. Also like yurts, they tend to have an open floor plan that encourages family intimacy. Geodomes don’t need load-bearing walls to be a part of the interior floor plan, so design is entirely up to you.
Domes use fewer materials than traditional construction and leave more up to you to design and decorate inside. They can be as minimal or as opulent as you want them to be, and interior renovation is easy.
Geodomes also connect easily to the electrical grid or to solar power sources. They retain heat well and have been known to survive earthquakes better than practically any other structure. These are solid houses.
If you love the round, earthy look of a yurt, but want a bit more structure in your life, consider this option.
The Trouble with Geodomes:
Unless you’re building in an area with few codes, zoning is going to be a struggle. Code enforcement officers tend to feel at a loss when dealing with domes. Make sure you’re allowed to build a geodome in your area before doing any serious research.
Finding a builder and financing the project are also typical issues with geodomes. Not many contractors are confident in dome construction.
5. Timber-Frame Houses:
A timber-frame house is the closest eco-friendly alternative to conventional housing you’ll find. Visually, timber frames are absolutely stunning. Built with huge, exposed beams that fit together like puzzle pieces, timber frame houses are warm, welcoming, and versatile enough to accommodate any family.
What makes a timber-frame eco-friendly? They’re less impactful on lumber because of how they’re made. Larger pieces of wood, fitted together with skill and precision, make timber frames longer lasting and less wasteful than conventional construction.
Timber Frame Pros:
They’re gorgeous, detail-oriented buildings, which use the resources of a place to make a durable, long-lasting home. Timber frames are known for outlasting generations of homeowners, and for needing fewer repairs than the average home.
They’re an ideal choice for large families that might feel squashed or claustrophobic in a yurt. These can be built on any scale, large or small. They’re also some of the easiest alternative houses to connect to the grid, and the most welcome in neighborhoods and tightly zoned areas.
The Trouble with Timber Frames:
Timber frames are expensive, and it’s often difficult to find someone skilled in this craft. If you have the budget, research skilled builders near you and be sure to look into their work.
Most timber framers are happy to show you their portfolios, and many have a house or two nearby for you to check out. Building a timber frame is like getting a tattoo: it’s expensive and it’ll be around forever. Make sure it’s something you’ll love! Unlike tattoos, however, timber frames have great resale value.
Making the Right Choice:
Housing decisions can be such a challenge. After all, building a home is an expensive and life-altering change. Remember though: you’re not just changing your life, you’re changing society and the planet—hopefully for the better.
Shop around, and consider staying in one of the yurt Bed and Breakfasts that are popping up everywhere. Talk to timber framers or earthshippers. Alternative housing people are always excited to share their experiences.
Most importantly, talk to zoning officials. Make sure that the land you’re building on is able to welcome an environmentally friendly house.