Alternative Living, Design, DIY, Energy, Green Building, Small Housing

4 Strange and Amazing Alternative House Designs

In my last post I discussed some problems with the typical suburban house, which today can be found in all corners of the world. The huge quantity of energy needed to ship materials from faraway places, then construct and heat and cool these enormous homes is creating literally tons of greenhouse gas emissions and waste products. Fortunately there’s a better way: we can build houses smaller, more efficient and with plenty more local materials.

Even thousands of years ago, native people were building shelters using materials from their local environment, and they took advantage of the sun’s orientation for heating.

There are many simple alternative house designs that are cost effective, comfortable and just plain beautiful. And some designs even offer the opportunity for an ambitious individual to build their own home.

1. Passive House
Super insulation and ultra-high efficiency? Of course this is German invention. Passive House (or PassivHaus) is simply a building code that if met, results in a house that experiences extremely low heat-loss. In fact, they say you can heat the whole house with a hair dryer! Think super thick insulation, strategically placed triple-glazed windows, and blockage of every potential entry or exit for heat to get in or out.

Passive House in Whistler, B.C.
Blower test or thermal scan of a typical house showing where heat or leaks occur (the more red, the more heat loss). As you can see, the attic, windows and doors are highly susceptible. A passive house design would have much less heat loss
Blower test or thermal scan of a typical house showing where heat or leaks occur (the more red, the more heat loss). As you can see, the attic, windows and doors are highly susceptible. A passive house design would have much less heat loss, i.e. all blue’s and green’s!

2. Straw Bale

Having grown up in the prairies, I would love to build this style of house to make use of the abundant resource of straw. It’s cheap, renewable and is a great insulator. Plus it allows your house to ‘breathe,’ keeping the humidity just right which mitigates mold and mildew issues, and doesn’t contain any nasty chemicals like some standard building materials.
'Nebraska' style straw bale where supporting walls are made of straw. Alternatively one can build normal wood stud walls and fill in the space with straw.
‘Nebraska’ style straw bale where supporting walls are made of straw. Alternatively one can build normal wood stud walls and fill in the space with straw.
The straw is plastered with earth or stucco. This makes for soft, curved walls and window reveals. Cozy!
The straw is plastered with earth or stucco. This makes for soft, curved walls and window reveals. Cozy!
3. Earthships
This design is by far the most strikingly weird of all alternative houses. It was invented by Michael Reynolds in New Mexico. All I can say is if you can have an off-grid house in the desert (+40C by day, -20C by night, rare rainfall), it must be amazingly effective. The foundation is made of used car tires filled with rammed dirt, glass bottles and aluminum cans, resulting in its unique look. If you’re interested, you can stay in one in New Mexico, it’s on AirBnB! Check out 10 reasons why Earthships are awesome to learn more.
Clay plaster and wine bottle patio wall. It is entirely self sufficient, collecting enough rainwater for every day use, even in the desert! Solar panels, passive solar heating and an optional wind turbine supply all electricity.
Clay plaster and wine bottle patio wall. It is entirely self sufficient, collecting enough rainwater for every day use, even in the desert! Solar panels, passive solar heating and an optional wind turbine supply all electricity.
The construction of the walls with recycled car tires filled with rammed earth
The construction of the walls with recycled car tires filled with rammed earth
4. Cob / Adobe
Cob houses can also look pretty unique. Building this style is like being a kid again- it’s essentially construction with play-dough where you’re only limited in size and shape by imagination. Cob is a mixture of ingredients such as clay, sand, straw, lime and other stuff that is rigorously stacked to form walls. It provides thermal mass to collect heat from the sun, blocks noise and regulates humidity. Plus if anything happens to the walls you can just slap on some material and it’s good as new!
Creative, curvy walls are the cob house's signature look
Creative, curvy walls are the cob house’s signature look
The labor intensive building process
The labor intensive building process
There are still so many more great alternative ways to build a home, I’ll hopefully discuss some more in later posts.

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