Building Inefficient Homes, Efficiently

Who has ever been in the situation of walking by a construction site?  I am not talking about a small home reno, I am talking about a massive buildings made of concrete, that houses millions and millions of people all over the world.  If you could use one word to describe your experience of walking by these massive developments on a Tuesday morning when everything is in full swing, what would that word be?   I would use the word NOISE!!!



All that I can hear is jackhammers, yelling, saws, banging, clanking, all types of noise. I will go into more detail about this in a future blog about conventional construction sites vs natural building sites.    The construction industry has high rise concrete building construction down to an art.   As human beings I can say that we have got very efficient and putting together inefficient structures.   You may be asking yourself what does he mean by that?  I will give you a prime example of something most people are familiar with.  Concrete.   Concrete is a building material consisting of aggregate and Portland cement. Some industry professionals may say that concrete is not a very sustainable material. I am still in the process of figuring out my opinion on concrete.  There is arguments on both the sustainable and unsustainable side of the fence.  The manufacturing of Portland cement is extremely carbon and energy heavy.  However it is very  popular and  used extensively in residential, commercial, industrial and civil construction industries.

Lets create a scenario.

Lets say you are interested in building your own homee.  When you decided to start , and whatever material you use to build your home, you need a foundation of some sort.  Let me define foundation, it is the part of your structure which connects the building to the ground.  In all aspects of the construction industry, the most commonly used material is reinforced concrete. Reinforced concrete can be installed in a number of different forms such as slab on grade, poured in place,  cinderblock foundations, or Insulated concrete form(ICF).  These are currently the most readily available systems used when constructing in Vancouver, BC.  Different locations throughout the world may vary, however I would venture to say that concrete is definitely the number one material of choice in the industry.

I just “Google’d” Concrete Company Vancouver and found over 10 concrete supply companies within an hour of the downtown core.  The benefit of concrete is that it is widely used, industry accepted, and formulated to perform the same every time you use it.  As long as it is installed according to the specifications.

So what other alternatives are there?  Some of the more popular techniques in the Natural Building world are rammed earth tires(Popularised by Earthship Biotecture), hempcrete,  compressed earthblock, or drystacked stones.  I have also seen something called “Urbanite” which is still considered concrete, however is large pieces of concrete leftover from a demolition.  So where is the connection between efficient and inefficient building?  We are good as a society building with concrete.  As I mentioned there are over 10 companies that could deliver a full concrete truck to you tomorrow.  Lets say you want to used rammed earth tires, or hempcrete as your foundation?  Both of these techniques have been proven to be less carbon heavy than conventional concrete, and have also been proven to be just as strong.  However not as widely accepted.  So what does that mean?  That means if you are building a house with rammed earth tires as your foundation and you bring the designs to the city for a permit they are going to be asking a lot more questions, and you will need to be providing a lot more information about the strength, and performance of a rammed earth tire foundation.  This kind of information is not as readily available as concrete information is.  This is what I mean by that we are efficient at using an inefficient and unsustainable material such as concrete, and we are not as efficient at using less carbon heavy products such as rammed earthtires or hempcrete.

What I mean to say by this, and why I give this example is to show that we have become efficient at using a material, that isn’t very efficient.  We need to start putting the systems in place for using more efficient materials, just as efficiently.   We are definitely a long way away from having 10 rammed earth foundation companies within an hour of the vancouver area, however we can start moving in the direction.  The only way this will happen is using the studies we have for these alternative solutions such as hempcrete, and helping to bring them to the mainstream.

How do you do this?  Do your research, learn about the alternative products you want to use.  Connect with the people who are doing it so they can help you and offer advice.  Talk with your local building officials.  Discuss options, and share resources with them.  Over the next few months I will be publishing a blog posts on talking with building officials about alternatives to conventional construction.









Currently in Vancouver BC  where I live I would be able to take you on a 20 minutes drive, and we would see a minimum of 15-20 buildings currently under construction.  This doesn’t include the ones that have been built in the last 5 years, nor does it include the ones that are currently in the development and permit stages.   That is a lot of poorly built buildings.  In that same drive we would see a 0.85 availability rate on rental housing, skyrocketing real estate prices, and homes being torn down an average of 3 per day.   How is this working?  How does this happen?   I am currently living, and working on some of these houses in Vancouver.  I am one of the people trying to make a name for myself in the industry and really trying to shift the way the industry works and operates. I am currently working as a project manager and I have worked on these types of buildings that I am talking about.  This is where I learned about building, processes, budgets, costs, carpentry and much else.   What inspired me to write this blog post, is certifications such as the Passive House Standard or The Living Building Challenge.   I personally believe that a shift in the building industry towards the Passive House and living building challenge principles would be a huge step for all of us.  Incorporation of community, and natural buildings products are also an integral part of the future way we build.  We can already start to see in different cities throughout BC that there is an opportunity for these types of buildings.   The municipalities are becoming  open and encouraging towards efficient buildings.  Now all we need to do is learn how to building Efficient Building, Efficiently.


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