Six Alternative Building Methods For a Custom Home – Log, Post and Beam, Ram Earth, ICF, and Tire

By Otis Bradley

Do you live in a “typical” American home? Or do you want something different.

Looking at alternative ways to build your home? Most homes – over 90% – according to a recent NAHB (National Association of Home Builders) are stick built – meaning out of 2 x 4’s. As a custom home builder, I never build anything that resembles the “standard.”

According to a survey done by the NAHB in 2005, the “typical” home built in America is approximately 2200 square feet, 2 stories, 3 – 4 bedrooms, 2 full baths, powder room built on a concrete slab, uses gas forced air heat, is stick built on site (vs. modular), has a 2 car garage, vinyl siding (second place stucco), porch and a fireplace. Many “typical” practices are unique to each area of the country, such as a typical basement in the Northeast vs. a slab in the Southwest, but the overall numbers show the above example.

Do you want to live in a “typical home” or something different? 

My definition of a custom home is:

A unique home built according to the custom plans and specifications of an architect or designer, working with a client, and a unique piece of land. This plan takes into account the clients wishes and dreams, the unique environment, and a particular budget. All materials are delivered and assembled on site by a unique set of craftsmen consisting of 200 or more unique trades, suppliers and specialists. This home is built one time!

Although we predominately build homes of “stick frame” (meaning 2 x 4 or dimensional lumber), there is growing interest in special homes built of new materials.

Stick Frame Home

The most typical type of construction by far – the stick frame is largely composed of “dimensional” lumber or “engineered” lumber (I-joists or other types of framing that are comprised of various solid and plywood combinations)

1. Log Home

Log home enthusiasts are devoted to their logs! In the style of the “pioneer” homes, log homes are literally logs that have been stacked up on top of each other to construct the walls. The end result is a solid wood wall. Log homes are currently available in a wide variety of pre built kits. Although log homes have a terrific look and style – solid wood is not a very good method of insulation nor a very efficient way of using wood.

2. Post and Beam or Timber Frame Home

An advanced method of using the “log, ” post and beam homes are beautifully crafted frames of solid timber often exposed on the interior of the home. The finely crafted joints showcase the builders talents. Although still probably not the most efficient way of using wood – a hybrid home using a “SIP” (structural insulated panel) skin creates a super efficient home. Using this method of construction, a home can be largely manufactured off site – assembled quickly on the site (think of the Amish farmers erecting a barn) and covered with the high insulating and efficient skin.

3. Rammed Earth House

An age old technique has been modernized so that a newly constructed rammed earth home is very similar in structure to a solid reinforced concrete wall yet with the beautiful colors of the soils that are mixed into the rammed earth. These homes benefit from thick thermal mass.

4. ICF – Insulated Concrete Form Home

This relatively new technology combines several techniques to construct highly insulated, concrete structures. Although several unique, hybrid products exist such as Rastra, Performwall, the typical ICF wall consists of two layers of EPS foam insulation which create the form for a reinforced concrete wall. Various thicknesses are available. The walls not only have very high insulation values (R values 25 or higher) but they also benefit from the “thermal mass” of the concrete and the fact that the wall does not suffer from the “thermal bridging” effect (the interruption of an insulated stick frame wall by the wood itself- which has a poor insulation quality) and the ability to create a very air tight shell.

5. Straw Bale Home

A “natural” building technique, straw bale construction creates a massively thick wall – 24 inches – using a waste product (straw). Popular with “do it your selfers,” this technique can create very comfortable, natural looking homes. I have seen straw bale homes using natural clay based floors as well. I also toured a “green home” in southern California built of straw bale. At almost 8,000 square feet, the two story house actually had a custom steel frame that provided the structure required by strict southern California building codes and the straw bale was used as in fill for the walls. Check the code requirements in your area.

6. Rammed Tire Home

Another hybrid made popular with the Earthship home, rammed tire construction consists of ramming earth into old tires to create walls. Not only does this remove a worthless waste product from landfills but it creates a super high insulated wall. Pretty unique!

When considering working with an alternative building technique – pay special attention to the details. Find an architect, designer or specialist who can advise you on the nuances of the product you want to use. Pay attention to where your material meets other materials – such as roof to wall connections and window and door placement. Many builders, after building with more traditional methods, have common practices that will not work well in specialty applications. Good luck with your dream home!

Otis Bradley is an addicted custom home builder for over 30 years!

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