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February 7, 2010 3:12 PM   Subscribe

Some less common types of building construction (e.g. Straw bale, earth, adobe, tires) seem like they would be cheaper than the standard balloon wooden houses that are built these days. Assuming you could find knowledgeable workers, which type would be the least expensive to build, but would still meet modern construction codes?
posted by mmf to Home & Garden (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Any book on these sorts of construction will tell you one thing: do not go into this to save money.

You will save a little on labour if you do it yourself (but then you lose income because your time is generally not free) but the major cost of a house is the foundation and the roof, and none of the techniques you list here help you with that, and may even add to the overall cost of a house.

So, the least expensive is the one that matches your local code, and is made of the most readily available material, expertise and labour.

There are all kinds of good reasons to, for example, make a straw bale house over a standard stick-frame house. Overall cost is not really one of them
posted by clvrmnky at 3:26 PM on February 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

Labor is at least as big a component as materials. So if you save 10% on materials but it takes 30% more labor, you are hosed.

And don't forget how cheap most modern construction materials are. Have you priced 2x4s or OSB lately? They are stupid cheap, and you can find six suppliers to bid against each other, all of whom are professional and competent and will deliver your supplies on the day you need them. None of this is true of most non-traditional supplies or suppliers.
posted by Forktine at 3:33 PM on February 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Well, first of all . . . "modern contruction codes" have made a lot of headway in terms of allowing building with materials like strawbale. But in many places, they still lag behind, and the cost of additional inspections and proving the viability of these methods can, in some areas, add a lot to the building costs.

That said, most experienced people will tell you that strawbale housing costs about 10% more than sitck-frame housing, on a square-foot basis. If you do a lot of it yourself, it can be cheaper . . . but you'd have to really know what you're doing, and that's discounting what your time is worth.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 4:23 PM on February 7, 2010

Labor is at least as big a component as materials.

To expand on this, at least on the smaller projects I get bids for at work, the labor/materials split is almost always 50/50. There are exceptions, where the materials are expensive but take little labor, and vice versa. But as a general rule for a lot of smaller scale construction, assume labor to be at least 50% of the cost, and more if the work needs to be more skilled or precise. So your alternative materials have to be both cheaper and less labor-intensive in order to save real money.

And, similar to what DX says, I can get an entire extension approved by the planning office with no engineer or architect involvement, if I am using typical building materials and techniques. You basically say "I'm doing it the regular way" and they say "no problem!" If you come in with plans for your weirdo earth-berm, sawdust-mortared, hay-bale-and-chicken-manure dome, you are going to have to invest in a fair bit of effort to prove that your design will be safe and legal.

Alternative materials are really cool, and houses built that way are fun. But unless you are providing the labor yourself, or are buying materials at a significant discount, don't expect big cost savings on the construction side.
posted by Forktine at 4:36 PM on February 7, 2010

The construction methods are so disparate and specialized, I don't think you can compare. Straw bale can be very fast, but if it is going to be two story, you've got to come up with a way to support that as bales are not load-bearing. Rammed earth can be load bearing, but requires more specialized equipment to do it (more) efficiently. Plus you've got t find or buy resources in the way of forms for the walls. Cob is super cheap but is a long, arduous process. Adobe requires the forms and space to dry many bricks (not to mention time). The skills required for a masonry building are different than straw bale, cob, tires, &c. Clay-straw usually is associated with timber frame construction, and so while the wall infill can be cheap and fast, the timber construction also requires a specialized skill set and particular resources in the form of timber, which is not cheap.
posted by oneirodynia at 4:36 PM on February 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

the major cost of a house is the foundation and the roof

Windows too, which all of these alternate ways still require.

Also, the margins on wood bought from a lumberyard in house-load quantities aren't that high. Lumberyards make their money on windows, bathrooms, and kitchens.
posted by smackfu at 5:34 PM on February 7, 2010

One really cheap way to build a house is to find a structure that somebody wants removed from their property, take it apart, transport it, and then put it back together on your own land.

Log end housing is supposed to be very time-intensive, but very inexpensive to build.
posted by candasartan at 6:23 PM on February 7, 2010

Similar question asked recently. I posted some time ago about the Rural Studio and the late Sam Mockbee.
posted by theora55 at 7:04 PM on February 7, 2010

Best answer: Superadobe is inexpensive, requires no special skills or tools and meets the strict building codes of San Bernardino COunty here in SoCal's earthquake country.

I've helped build a few superadobe homes and have been impressed both by ease of construction and how they've held up. 2 of the ones I worked on have been through two 7.0> earthquakes with no serious damage.
posted by buggzzee23 at 7:07 PM on February 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

FWIW, houses are built now using what's called platform or "stick framing". Balloon framing is an older technique that fell out of favour in the 1950's.
posted by davey_darling at 7:40 PM on February 7, 2010

You should check out Mortgage Free by Rob Roy. Hate to say this because he's just a guy selling books, but it's available pretty cheap used on amazon.
posted by sully75 at 8:01 PM on February 7, 2010

You want to get Building Green, which covers all these questions in pretty thorough detail.
posted by dhartung at 10:15 PM on February 7, 2010

I love this question. But the first thing you should do is take a look at the cost breakdown for a normal house. You will immediately see that the cost is spread out over a much wider range of things than you currently think.

For example, people are saying here that foundations are oh so expensive.... they are about $18,000 including labor for a 2000 sq ft house in the US, actually.

You will quickly realize that the low hanging fruits are not the outer shell, but the electricity and plumbing, and the way you finance and organize the thing.

If I was going to have a house built, I think I would get the outer shell built, up to the point where the insulation is in the walls and the windows are in, and the service lines are hooked up, then do the rest myself.
posted by Nish ton at 11:19 PM on February 7, 2010

Oh yeah, and one thing that interests me is the possibility of vacuum panels. There are patents on using vacuum panels to provide great insulation and soundproofing - an it's just a hollow metal box with spacers, so it could be very cheap. Instead of using getters to absorb the gas which inevitably leaks in, I would pump them down regularly, which might seem impractical at first blush, but you could connect all the panels with tubing and/or make the panels very large.

I think metal buildings are the cheapest for the structure part.

Don't forget about container housing too...
posted by Nish ton at 11:25 PM on February 7, 2010

As far as cheapness, in housing, time is money. The quicker a house is on the market, the sooner a construction company makes their money back on the construction. And when you look at the 2x4 framed houses, it's harder to get any quicker than that. I live in a 1300 square foot house, and if I had to frame it out from scratch, I could do it myself in a few days with just an extra person around to hold things and do gopher work. If you get a trained crew of carpenters that do this kind of thing every day, they'll put up a house frame in a day. (I've seen it happen quite a bit, since several subdivisions have sprung up nearby in the last few years.) They've also been able to make stick framed houses pretty energy efficient these days.

That said, I'd love to see a push towards more efficient materials. Out here, people were building with adobe long before anyone introduced sawn lumber. Other areas of the country have cheap cheap cheap straw bale. I've been in both kinds of buildings out here and they're simply more comfortable in the hot weather while requiring less energy.
posted by azpenguin at 7:22 AM on February 8, 2010

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