Conventional building materials are just fine for many people. But for off-the-gridders who must be conscious of their budgets and their energy usage at every step along the path, the situation is more complex. If you have decided to pursue an outside-the-box off-the-grid lifestyle, you can’t afford to neglect any details or blithely ignore any possibilities that would allow you to save money and preserve precious energy resources, and the building materials you choose when you start a new construction project or renovation should reflect your concern with efficiency, affordability, durability, and sustainability. If you choose the wrong building materials or acquire them from the wrong source, the extra expenses you rack up in both the short and long term could be just enough to bankrupt you and put you off your land.
And you most certainly should not have a fear of the unknown here. While wealthy people with deep pockets may construct “green” homes using sophisticated energy-efficient technologies and exotic materials that are way out of your price range, that does not make “alternative” a naughty word. Going alternative in your selection of materials and the sources you choose to purchase them from can save you money and allow you to construct a home that will cut your energy usage dramatically, while also keeping you safe and secure from fire, flood, famine, tornado, avalanche, mudslide, volcanic eruption, or even the occasional stray meteorite (the last one is unlikely, yes, but not impossible). Even though you might have to do a little negotiating with local authorities should you decide to follow a cost-effective alternative path, you should be able to meet building code requirements without too much trouble, and in the end you and your family will find yourselves firmly and comfortably ensconced in a home that is sturdy, functional, economical, and aesthetically-pleasing in all aspects.
In the passages that follow, we are going to be looking at two categories of unorthodox building materials. First, we will take a brief glance at some of the most innovative new products that have been released onto the market by building manufacturers over the past few years. And after that, we will offer some suggestions about the types of interesting materials you should be searching for if you have an interest in do-it-yourself salvage or reclamation. The idea here is to be as fresh in our thinking as possible, realizing that the most obvious options and the most familiar choices are not always the best. This principle of course motivates the off-the-grid lifestyle right down to its core, so we will be traveling in familiar country as we take a deeper look at some of the exciting opportunities available for those seeking maximum-performance/high bang-for-the-buck building materials.
It’s Bold, It’s New, And Maybe It’s For You
You wouldn’t guess it by looking at the overall state of the economy, but we are living in a rather dramatic and revolutionary era where amazing technological breakthroughs are being announced on an almost daily basis. Our lives and our material practices are being comprehensively transformed by this wave of innovation, and the construction trade has not escaped the impact of this growing trend of change.
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If you are planning on building a new home or adding another structure of some sort to your homestead, there are several ingenious and exciting new (relatively speaking) products and materials that are worthy of your attention, and depending on your circumstances, one or all of them could be ideal for your particular situation. Most of these have been around for a while, actually, but because old habits die hard, they are not as well known as they should be.
Recycled steel: Scrap steel is widely available, and steel beams and panels made from recycled materials can be custom-built to act as a super-strong and durable stand-in for the wooden frameworks that are usually used in new home construction. While at least 40 trees would have to be killed to provide enough wood to build a framework for a 2,000 square foot home, six salvaged cars will furnish more than enough steel to get the job done, which is a testament to steel’s unmatched combination of light weight and superior strength. Steel has of course been used in skyscrapers for decades, and recycled steel has now given homebuilders an advanced and affordable alternative to wood. If you live in hurricane or earthquake country, a steel framework could keep your home upright while those around you are collapsing into ruin.
Recycled Wood/Plastic Composite: Ever wonder what happens to all of those plastic bottles or bags you throw into recycling bins? Some of them may very well have been melted down and used to create this high-quality building product. Made from 50 percent wood fibers and 50 percent recycled plastic, this composite material is impressively strong and rigid, resists rot and mold with ease, and contains far less toxic chemicals than conventional treated wood. Granted, wood/plastic composite is more expensive than wood, but its distinguished quality and inherent durability will guarantee a long lifespan and might make the additional investment entirely justified if you live in an area with high humidity or that experiences a lot of extreme weather conditions.
Insulating concrete forms: Concrete is a notoriously poor insulator, which normally makes it unsuitable for use above foundations. But the Oreo-cookie design of insulating concrete forms solves this problem with room to spare. Two rigid insulating panels are joined together with an open pocket in between them, and the concrete is poured in between them and allowed to harden, creating a rock-solid wall, floor, or roof that is ten times stronger than wood while also providing excellent insulating qualities. Insulating concrete forms are perfect if you want something strong, simple to install, and durable enough to stand for a hundred years without any loss of function. And they will keep the heat from escaping during the winter and entering during the summer, keeping those interior temperatures just the way you want them to be.
Low-E windows: E in this case stands for emissivity, and these specially treated windows certainly earn their low-E moniker. A clear coating of metallic oxide on the outside of a single storm window or on the inside of an outer window in a double-pane set up does an amazing job of regulating indoor conditions, cutting down on the amount of heat flow that passes through a typical window by as much as 50 percent. A low-E window will cost you from $60 to $110, which is about 10 to 15 percent more than the normal clear glass type, but when you factor in the perpetual reductions in energy loss they will probably pay for themselves within a couple of years at the most.
Structural insulated panels (SIPs): Simply put, unless you live in a climate that is mild all year round, there is no better choice you could make for a building material than structural insulated panels. Made from a layer of high-quality insulation sandwiched between two pieces of oriented-strand board, plywood, concrete, or sheet metal, structural insulated panels are designed to be fit together like puzzle pieces, and if you construct a home from them, it will be essentially the macro-scale equivalent of building a model home out of LEGOS with your son or daughter on the floor of your living room. Now it’s true you will need a crane or forklift to put some of the larger pieces in place, but SIPs are still a big labor saver and will require a smaller-than-average construction crew. As a result, your overall costs when putting up a home made from SIPs will be no greater than for a conventional home built entirely of wood. SIPs are the tightest form of construction, and they will save you up to 50 percent on energy costs if a home that features them is designed and put together properly. Incredibly, SIP homes only comprise about 2 percent of all the new homes being built in the US, which proves just how stubborn tradition can be even when fantastic alternatives are available.
If It Has Been Used Before, Why Not Use It Again?
Recycling saves money because it eliminates the need to mine or harvest raw materials and cuts down on the number of steps required to process and manufacture new products. But if you want to use recycled materials for building, there is no need to wait for someone else to collect them and remodel or rework them into something useful. It makes much more sense to simply purchase or salvage these materials yourself, and re-process them in whatever way is necessary to make them suitable for reuse in new construction.
Take scrap metal or reclaimed wood, for example. And when we say “take” them, we mean that literally – go to local salvage yards or local construction companies and see what they have laying around and what they are looking to get rid of; and if you are living in the countryside, you should certainly visit your neighbors and ask around to see who has old buildings they need torn down or piles of waste metal they no longer need. If you are going to recycle your own wood or metal, you will have to do some work to make it presentable and usable – pulling out screws or nails, kiln-drying used wood, pounding bent metal back into shape, cleaning or polishing your salvaged materials to remove toxins or stains, and so on. But there is so much valuable “junk” out there that no one is using (have you seen the History Channel TV show “American Pickers”?) and you will be absolutely amazed at the mountains of the treasure you will be able to find once you start sifting through other people’s piles of trash.
Here are a few suggestions for aspiring recyclers looking for cheap materials that could conceivably be used (and have been used by many others) in a construction project:
- Aluminum cans: They can be flattened and then joined together and used as siding, or they can be stacked flat and mortared together to make solid metallic bricks.
- Glass bottles: When added to walls and fixed in place with surrounding sand, stucco, plaster, adobe, etc., bottles can refract light in interesting ways without compromising structural strength.
- Wood pallets: These protective shipping products are frequently and regularly discarded by companies after just a few uses, and many of them are made from salvageable hardwoods that are just perfect for building.
- Shipping containers/crates: These boxes can be salvaged and moved from shipyards just as they are and can later be stacked with cranes and joined to form all sorts of interesting and functionally-efficient structures. Shipping containers could be described as a sort of poor man’s SIP.
- Straw bales: Stack them up, cut them and shape them as needed, cover them with stucco or plaster to keep them dry and protected from moisture, and you will have a structure that can last for centuries. Square straw bales generally weigh between 50 and 90 pounds, and it will take about 300 medium-sized bales to construct an entire 2,000 square foot home.
- Tires: When fully packed with rammed earth, old discarded tires (which are not exactly hard to find) can be converted into powerful and extremely strong building blocks that can be used to make walls that are unshakeable and impenetrable – and when covered with adobe or another similar material, their ugliness can be transformed into something beautiful.
- Grain silos: With the collapse of the rural farm economy – or its intentional destruction at the hands of agribusiness interests, take your pick – many old grain silos have now become superfluous. You can probably find a disused one somewhere in your area, and a local farmer who would glad to have it removed from his property. If you were to take on that salvage job, you could find yourself with more high-quality scrap metal than you would know what to do with, or with a structure that can itself be turned into a visually-striking circular home.
- Houseboats or yachts: Once they are no longer considered sea-worthy, lake-worthy, or river-worthy, decommissioned or discarded houseboats or yachts can be fixed up and converted into a homes, vacation cabins, or guest houses. Unfortunately the folks on Gilligan’s Island never realized this, which is why they built those those crummy huts when they could have had something much better.
Essentially, almost anything that once functioned as a building material but is no longer in active use can be salvaged and reused, and the only limits on what you could do with such materials would be the limits of your imagination.
Shop Till You Drop
Each year, 136 million tons of construction and demolition debris are sent off to US landfills, and this massive quantity of abandoned material wealth represents about half of all the waste these dumping grounds take in. Fortunately, more and more people are becoming aware of what a senseless waste – no pun intended – this all is, and there are now a number of outlets available for prospective homebuilders or remodelers who are searching for high-quality construction materials that can be bought, picked up for free, or secured through trade.
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Two excellent online sources are the Freecycle Network and Planet ReUse, which match up sellers/traders with buyers/traders in markets all across the US. These outlets work the same way as Ebay or Craigslist (both of these have sections devoted to building materials, by the way), except they cater specifically to people who are looking for or are looking to get rid of raw or salvaged materials or manufactured but abandoned products that are suitable for reuse in new building construction. So if you would like to reclaim old windows or doors for your new home, for example, there is a pretty good chance that someone in your area will have something available for barter or cheap purchase that will fit your needs perfectly.
Basically anything you might want or need is out there somewhere, and thanks to the Internet, your chances of finding it are much better than they ever were before. Of course you will always want to keep an eye out for any demolition projects that are scheduled or have already taken place in your area, as both property owners and demolition companies might have some useful materials they are anxious to get rid of. Auctions are another place where it is easy to pick up building supplies and materials on the cheap, and this includes both traditional auctions and those of the online variety (these are very common now).
Following the business model of Goodwill, the charity Habitat for Humanity operates a chain of home improvement stores all across the country called ReStores, which sell donated home and building supplies and materials at a discount in order to raise money for the charity’s building projects. Pretty much anything you might want of need for a home construction or remodeling project can be found at some ReStore somewhere, and since there are now thousands of these fantastic outlets operating throughout the United States and Canada, you should have no trouble locating one or more very near you. The discounts you can get at a ReStore can be quite significant, presenting just the sort of money-saving opportunity you need to help your building project come in under budget.
If You Are Going To Build It, Build It Right!
Many, many excellent alternatives are available for off-the-gridders looking for building materials that can really deliver the goods. You can of course play it safe and stick with the usual sources and the usual materials. But if you do, just know that you will not be maximizing your efficiency in the way you build or live, and if you are serious about making a go of it off the grid, you cannot afford to be so cavalier with your choices.