Why I’m constructing alternative buildings

Vaulted roof work

Vaulted roof work

A war against flammable, mold prone building technologies. Plus: rigid foam kills.

I moved to rural, southeastern Arizona because the high desert climate agreed with me and there were no building codes here, which allowed me to try a variety of alternative construction projects on my property. My experience and observation about building codes is that they are first and foremost developed to make speedy/easy construction safer, but not erradicate burnable, mold prone structures insulated with things that can and do kill people regularly. (More on this, later.)

My first experience with alternative buildings was via my neighbor out here in the middle of nowhere, who built a strawbale house which burned to the ground inside of half an hour. They had not yet coated the inside of the structure with stucco, and although numerous individuals and websites swear that well compacted straw simply doesn’t burn, my neighbor still lost her home and most every physical object she owned. Also, I’ve been to the Burning Man festival where they used straw bales to build a pyramid solely because they knew it would burn like an inferno guaranteed and leave no debris to clean up afterward, just drifting ash.  Best case scenario, straw is compacted almost as densely as wood- which burns just fine. In old construction, massive wooden beams often survive structure fires because the flames only char the exterior before the fire is extinguished, but even very thick logs burn fine in a fireplace given enough time.  If there’s fuel to support a fire in the materials of which a home is built, that home and everything you own as well as your loved ones, are in jeopardy. There is no fire district where I live, meaning no fire department will respond to a structure fire here- so I determined that building with anything that was even possibly able to burn down was simply not a rational option. Personally, I don’t think living in a timber frame house anywhere on the planet is such a great idea, especially now that most of the plywood sheathing is offgassing formaldehyde into the structure for years, and is ultimately a flammable box that can also be rendered uninhabitable by flooding: take New Orleans as a case-in-point. A wooden framed structure that gets soaked with standing water inside the walls begins to support mold and the whole building generally needs to be torn down- and sheetrock provides ample opportunity for mold growth, too. Other drawbacks so far as I was concerned regarding strawbale are that if they get wet during or after the construction process, they mold and make the structure uninhabitable. There’s a vacant strawbale house a few miles from where I live, because the bales got wet somewhere along the way and mold started growing in the walls. A less familiar scenario for strawbale destruction is if the stucco on the outside cracks and enough moisture builds up inside the wall, it tries to ferment and spontaneous combustion can take place, explosively so- that happened over in California during the winter of 2005 because it was so unusually wet there.  Take a flooding situation such as New Orleans and add strawbale construction, and you’d have walls fermenting and some ultimately burning unless the rot filled structures were bulldozed first. Also, rodents love the bales and any little crack or crevice can let them or insects in. Strawbale is alternative and neat looking and has great R value, but my experience with its flammability and rot issues ruled it out in terms of a viable alternative to wood frame construction.

Here in the desert its K value (also known as the thermal flywheel effect, a property of thermal mass) that makes structures such as old adobe so much cooler than the surrounding desert without any air conditioning whatsoever except that drawn from the cool of the earth. The only drawbacks of building with adobe bricks or blocks, are that if they’re not reinforced, they can collapse on you during an earthquake. We don’t get many in SE Arizona, but we’re overdue out here and the last one destroyed local communities a hundred years ago. Sand bag walls flex with an earthquake without falling down, and give a lot of thermal mass for storing heat or cool without the need for heating or cooling with machines and fuel or electricity bills- and they don’t cost much. Sand bag wall systems have passed building codes in the California desert, for example.

The ideal situation would be thermal mass with insulation on the outside, but not rigid foam as is used throughout the southwest- it creates a vapor barrier which is destructive to earth based structures such as adobe, rammed earth, cobb or earthbags. Its also a bad idea to use with a plywood skinned building for the same reason: a vapor barrier traps moisture by its very design, and trapped moisture behind the foam or tar paper, against the earth based or wooden walls leads ultimately to rot, which can damage the structure (even leading to structural failure in earth based wall construction), as well as give rise to mold and mildew which can drive people out of their homes. Again, I have no idea what people are thinking when they approve building codes and decide to live in burnable, rot prone, poison offgassing boxes than can collapse on them in a quake or burn down around them, or even if they escape unscathed, they still won’t have a home or possessions, and these homes require lots of heating and cooling. So there. With the earthbag shop structure, I built a test oven out of the paper/adobe/lime material I used as stucco to coat the earthbags, to make sure it didn’t burn. I built a roaring fire inside the oven for an hour-and-a-half and the oven didn’t smolder, crack, or become charred.

Even at its hottest, I could rest my hand on the stove very comfortably- this stuff adds a tremendous degree of fire rating, meaning it just doesn’t burn. The lime in it should inhibit any mold or bacteria from forming even if it stays wet for a long time as in the case of flood or unnoticed water damage. Another very cool feature of this stucco, is that holds screws and nails, and unlike cement or concrete it can take a sledge hammer blow and simply dent instead of shatter.

As for rigid foam insulation: NO.  I realize its popular, and effective as an insulating material, but it burns and offgasses large amounts of asphyxiating carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and even hydrogen cyanide gas which can overcome a home’s inhabitants within 30 seconds after catching fire. No. That’s literally stupid. Even more so than wood frame construction, plywood sheathing, or strawbale. Fire fighters across the nation have for years been concerned with rising rates of heart attack among their ranks and blamed poor physical training, but it turns out that hydrogen cyanide gas causes symptoms which mimic or induce myocardial infarction (heart attack.) This gas also causes nervous system damage. As for ‘blow in’ foam insulation, the propellants used for that are described as sometimes causing temporary blindness (a couple of days). Also, once polyurethane foam has begun to burn, its temperature escalates to three times that of wood and will burn at something near 1,800 degrees and causes quick flash over and intense heat dynamics in a fire. Here’s an excerpt from a rigid foam building materials discussion site:

“Polyurethane materials are organic and — like other organic materials such as wood, paper, cotton, wool, and many other materials — can ignite and burn if exposed to a sufficient heat source. Organic foam insulation, regardless of whether the foam contains fire retardants, should be considered combustible and handled accordingly.”

I realize in this country that buildings are considered as part of our throw-away culture, are built with shoddy materials and techniques so that they will need to be replaced like the particle board furniture and plastic car parts we’ve become accustomed to. In Europe, homes last generations upon generations. Here in order to bolster the economy after WW2 it was a government sponsored program of planned obsolesence for goods that has so permeated our culture, that we accept it blindly along with building codes that supposedly keep us safe, but in fact prescribe rotting, burning boxes that offgass deadly fumes during combustion. Its insane, and very literally stupid. I live in one of the few areas that doesn’t require building codes, which means its one of the few places in America that allows people to make the choice to NOT live in homes designed to disastrous standards.