As concern about human impact on the environment grows, many people are seeking out greener alternatives for the products they buy and the lifestyle decisions they make. Given that purchasing a home is one of the biggest financial commitments in life, it makes sense that sustainability is becoming a big factor in homebuilding and renovation too. Besides choosing environmentally friendly building materials, many people are opting for alternative housing options that have a less detrimental impact on the planet.
Of course, sustainable materials are always a smart choice, however, totally rethinking the concept of what a home can be and what it can be made of is key to exploring alternative housing. Unique constructions made from waste materials, reused structures and natural elements are among the examples of how people are creating eco-friendly housing.
Here are 25 examples of unique options for alternative housing. Some are more mainstream than others, and a number of them are suitable only for certain types of climates. Moreover, there are a few that may appeal only to die-hard environmentalists. Regardless, they demonstrate a very wide range of options.
No, it’s not a house made from corn cobs. Cob is actually an ancient clay building material — similar to adobe — that uses materials such as straw, bits of sticks or other fibrous material mixed with subsoil, water and sometimes lime, sand or clay. The resulting material is great for home construction because it is cheap, fireproof and resistant to damage from earthquakes. It’s also easy to mold and can be used to create houses that are curvy, thatched-roof style or more modern versions that look like a typical residence. Because cob is easy to mix and manipulate, it’s an ideal material for people who want to build a small house with their own hands. Even those new to construction can learn to use this material quickly and easily.
Building with cob is like sculpting with clay and it can be augmented or reshaped even after it has dried. It has excellent resistance against rain and cold, meaning it is suitable for all but the coldest climates. “Cob walls one to two feet thick provide immense thermal mass and adequate insulation, ideal for passive solar construction,” the company says.
These beehive-shaped homes are made of exactly what is in their name: bags of dirt. To say the material is easily obtained is an understatement, making this type of alternative housing especially cheap. Plastic bags of earth are simply stacked to create walls that can be straight or curves. Often barbed wire is used in between the layers for extra stability and to keep the bags from shifting. They can be built up tall to create a roof without the need for trusses or other supports. In addition, long tubular bags of soil are sometimes used, stacked up in coils to create another, sturdier variation. Once finished, the outside is typically covered with some sort of plaster or adobe to preserve the bags holding the earth. According to Insteading, the shape is aerodynamic and holds up against hurricanes and are resistant to fire and floods.
Although they are still made of wood, log houses can be an eco-friendly type of alternative housing. The large logs don’t go through the milling and treatment process and are very good for energy efficiency. Studies have shown that logs absorb heat during the day, which helps keep the home warmer at night in the winter. Greener options for wood stains and the chinking — the material that seals the gaps between logs — are now available, increasing the home’s sustainability factor. Last, but certainly not least, sometimes log homes can be built from dead trees instead of using living trees. These houses also have the option of being rustic or being a greener version of today’s high-tech homes full of amenities.
They may be most often associated with the hobbit Bilbo Baggins and the Lord of the Rings, but hobbit houses are not uncommon. These underground homes — also called earth-sheltered houses — are energy-efficient and environmentally friendly options for alternative housing. Earth Homes Now reports that there are more than 6,000 of these subterranean houses in the United States. From an energy-saving standpoint, a Hobbit house is naturally cooler than a standard house because it is built below the surface. The low profile also means they are safer from hurricanes and tornadoes, as well as soundproof. Those who build these homes and also use solar panels could potentially eliminate most all utility expenses.
Taking the concept of the earth-sheltered house a step further, underground homes go completely below the surface. These houses are totally protected from storms and inclement weather and have all the environmental benefits of earth-sheltered houses, especially the temperature control. Typically, the facade of the house faces outward and offers views of the outdoors, while other types take advantage of slopes to add windows to other parts of the house. Still others incorporate skylights to bring in more natural light.
Homes made from shipping containers first came to popularity among those who were looking to live in a tiny home because the smallest ones are about 100 square feet. Since then, more and more people are opting for this type of alternative housing because they see it as a great method of recycling. Larger homes can be created by combining and stacking the containers in different configurations.
In some instances, container houses can be cheaper than traditional ones, but in most cases, you will have to add insulation and perhaps a stronger roof in areas where there is much snow, in addition to the usual fixtures, doors and windows. Homes from shipping crates can generally be built rather quickly and can be even more environmentally benign with the use of sustainable insulation, solar panels and water conservation systems. Many people interested in this type of home are partial to the modern, linear look that these industrial containers have.
Green roof home
Homes that have a green roof — also called a living roof — are gaining popularity in urban areas as well as suburban locales. This type of alternative housing is beneficial in a number of ways: Besides helping to insulate the home, a green roof absorbs water and provides a natural habitat for birds and small wildlife. In more densely populated areas like inner cities, a green roof has a cooling effect on the temperature and a calming effect on the people who are around it. In addition, plants help clean the air, which is a great benefit, particularly in the city.
Typically, these roofs consist of a waterproof layer, soil or another growing medium, and then the vegetation chosen to grow there. These types of roof can be installed on an existing home with some modifications, and can also be used on commercial buildings.
Wood pallets have been showing up in DIY projects for years, so it’s no surprise that they have made their way into alternative housing choices. While they started off as being mainly used by those who want a tiny house who want to go off the grid, wood pallets are now featuring in houses of grander construction. Ideal for recycling, pallets are themselves very cheap to buy, but it’s important to make sure they have been treated to resist rot and insects. Thanks to their ease of construction and low cost, they are also being considered for disaster-relief housing in various areas.
Beloved by those who want to downsize and leave a smaller footprint on the earth, tiny houses are economical and environmentally friend in many ways. This type of alternative housing has grown wildly popular in recent years. The small homes are coveted for the low cost involved in running it and the freedom that comes from the enforced simplicity of living in a very small space. Tiny houses come in an endless assortment of sizes, styles and degrees of ingenuity. Besides requiring less energy to heat and cool, tiny homes use less water and often have compostable toilet systems instead of regular plumbing. These diminutive homes are very popular among certain segments of the population but have too many limitations for a larger percentage of people.
Tiny house on wheels
Much as some people used to turn to recreational vehicles — RVs — to live on the road, today versions of tiny houses on wheels are becoming the popular route to logistical freedom. This type of alternative housing has all the benefits (and drawbacks) of living in a tiny house, but with the added bonus of mobility. Want to move? Hitch up the house to a vehicle and off you go. This style of home often eliminates property taxes and creates extra savings by not being permanently sited. These homes rely on expertly designed multifunctional spaces and plenty of creative storage to make life comfortable.
From waste product to wonderful building material, straw bales are an excellent environmentally friendly building material. Besides being inexpensive, the straw is a very efficient insulator. When used for a house, the bales are generally plastered from both sides, making the structure something the big, bad wolf could never blow down: These houses are airtight, pest-proof and fireproof. When combined with other types of energy saving additions such as solar panels, the amount of energy that this type of alternative housing uses is very low. Besides, when completed, they look like any other house — you’d never know the walls were made of straw.
A far cry from the childhood plaything, treehouses are now a stylish form of alternative housing. From rustic versions for living off the grid to magnificent modern, professionally designed houses that have all the comforts of a regular home, treehouses are attracting a good deal of attention. A desire for novelty or a yen to be closer to nature often brings homeowners to these homes, which can be very eco-friendly. Large trees are stable, long-wearing foundations for these structures and can withstand weather and the effects of the environment. In combination with other green building materials, these houses are very sustainable.
Using the cordwood method to build a house is just as the name suggests: Using short sections of trunks and tree limbs — usually destined for the fireplace — the as structural material that is held together with cobb or masonry. This alternative housing building method is very sustainable because it can use all sorts of logs and wood that would not usually be used for construction.
Cordwood walls are also an excellent insulation and provide the natural balance between the thermal mass and insulation, without the need of using any further methods inside or outside the house.
Similar to a tiny house on wheels, a camper trailer provides instant mobility to its residents. As a form of alternative housing, camper trailers are ideal for people on the go who want the lowest level of home maintenance possible. Living in a camper trailer is a lot like a tiny house on wheels because space is limited and organization key. With these homes, it’s easy to spend the night in a park, campground or in the wild. Living in a camper trailer is also a wonderful way to travel while keeping expenses down by eliminating hotel costs and allowing greater enjoyment of the outdoors.
Transforming a barn into a home is another example of an environmentally friendly way to repurpose a structure as alternative housing. The large, high-ceiling buildings are perfect for the open floor plans that most people favor these days. Rather than tearing it down and building anew, converting a barn into a home offers unique design possibilities thanks to the wide open space inside. Whether the barn is large or small, it can be turned into a comfortable and highly liveable family home, especially if the rustic details of the original structure are left intact whenever possible.
Rather than lapsing into disrepair, former industrial buildings are finding new life as stylish factory homes in the hands of creative homeowners and cutting-edge architects. Highly durable structures with plenty of open space, these buildings make a great base for alternative housing. The industrial interiors offer a range of original details and design options for creating a modern, comfortable residence that can easily include home office space and plenty of room for space dedicated to hobbies and activities.
Transforming old grain silos into homes is one of the newest trends in alternative housing. Using one silo can make a small yield a small home and those who want more space can use multiple silos. Aside from being a more affordable type of housing to build and maintain, silo houses offer interesting options for decorating and design thanks to the round shape. And while the outside might be plan corrugated metal, the insides of these homes offer just about every comfort you might want in a home. And, if the idea of having your whole family in a silo home is not appealing, these structures make great guest quarters.
Maybe you’ve dreamed of living on a boat but have you considered a floating house for alternative housing? Different from a basic houseboat, a floating home is a real house that is constructed atop floats and anchored to a location on the water. A house barge is another type of floating home that has a hull built for towing or moving down the river. Its advantage is that because it fully floats on the water, it does not have to meet local building and utility codes, making them popular in some coastal areas. Floating homes can be modest constructions that minimize living costs, or they can be grand, budget-busting luxury abodes. Whichever kind you choose, it will let you live on the water — literally.
Water Tower House
As towns grow and old water towers are abandoned, creative homeowners are turning what could be eyesores into stunning, comfortable residences. The round base structure and large section at the top are both ideal for creating a modern home that offers great views too. Water towers are very unique home-building opportunities because the supply of old ones is limited, making them a real conversation piece. Of course, they’re also a great instance of upcycling.
In another twist related to the tiny house trend, more and more people are rescuing retired buses for another form of alternative housing. A bus house can be like a motorhome, allowing for an easy life on the go with no utilities or property taxes. Or, a bus house can be stationary, attached to local services on a private lot of land. Just like tiny houses, these leave a very small environmental footprint thanks to the upcycling of the vehicle and the small size of the house.
Spawned by the rise of glamping, tent houses are now a form of alternative housing for some who really want to go off the grid for a period of time — or even permanently. These tents have plenty of creature comforts that are installed atop a wooden platform to help keep the base dry. Some companies even offer tent bungalows, which combine the tent with a wooden platform and some other more permanent features such as a real door and windows.
Mongolian herders have been living in yurts for centuries, so it’s no wonder they are gaining popularity as alternative housing in many other countries. The engineering of the basic round shape makes it strong and durable and the exterior material is weatherproof. As with any type of housing, the inside can be as basic or luxurious as your desires and budget allow. Yurts are also great for use as a guest house or separate home office or studio.
First devised by architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller, the geodesic dome has been around since the late 1950’s. While they are not terribly common, you do see them dotted around the landscape here and there. Made up of triangles, geodesic domes are known to be one of the most efficient typed of building systems. It’s a relatively inexpensive thing to build and is extremely energy efficient, disaster-proof and can be built with a kit if so desired. Contrary to some beliefs, they do not need to be a single dome and can have separate sections coming out from the central dome.
Used widely around the world — except in the United States — hemp concrete is one of the most sustainable types of building materials. Dating back to Roman times, the mix combines the plants woody fibers (not the same as a marihuana plant) with lime to make a light concrete that is great for building. It is lightweight, a good insulator, pest- and mold-proof, and creates good acoustics. Moreover, a hemp plant grows quickly to maturity in just about 4 months. The stucco-like material can’t be used for foundations or come into contact with the ground. Although it needs to be coated for protection, hempcrete helps contribute significantly to energy efficiency.
Millions of plastic bottles are discarded every year and in many places, they are being transformed from trash into totally usable building materials. Developed by Ecotec Environmental Solutions from Germany the bottle wall technique is already widespread in countries where there are millions of homeless people. To create the homes, discarded bottles are filled with sand, stacked sideways and plastered into place with mud or cement. The resulting walls are reportedly 20 times stronger than brick, fire resistant and well insulated. The cost of these homes is generally about 25 percent of a conventional house.