Scarcity and inflation are the grandparents of throwing your hands in the air and saying, “Well, what can I order?” But unfortunately, material shortages and volatile material prices have brought many projects to a halt in recent years. As a result, contractors and property owners are increasingly considering alternative building materials to traditional materials. And, while these materials occasionally defy convention, they are frequently just as good — if not better — than conventional materials.
Below, we’ll look at some of these lesser-known building materials, how they’re used, and their benefits and drawbacks. These alternative construction materials could open up possibilities for your next project if the designer is creative, the client is open-minded, and the building department approves.
Concrete is the world’s second most widely used substance, trailing only water. It is used in the construction of residential foundations and driveways, as well as hospitals, schools, and bridges. It’s also the preferred material for restraining Mother Nature in the form of levees and dams.
While concrete is a dependable and reasonably priced building material, it accounts for approximately 8% of global emissions. Project owners who want to avoid the adverse effects of concrete can use one of the following materials.
Coal has advantages and disadvantages, but one advantage of burning coal is that it produces fly ash. Fly ash is a fine powder that is produced by mineral impurities. When fly ash is mixed with water and lime, it forms a material that is very similar to Portland cement, making it ideal for concrete blocks or bricks and poured concrete.
It is environmentally friendly, requires less water to mix than cement, and is less expensive than Portland cement. However, its color consistency is difficult to control and takes longer to cure.
Ferrick is a cementitious product that is composed of up to 95% recycled materials. This concrete substitute comprises recycled steel dust, iron-rich ferrous rock, and recycled glass silica. When combined with water, it creates a compound up to 5 times stronger than concrete, more flexible, and resistant to oxidation and corrosion.
Straw bale buildings have been around since the late 1800s as an old-school concrete alternative. A machine compresses straw into dense bales as a byproduct of wheat production, and the constructor uses them for walls.
Post-and-beam frames with straw bales sandwiched between framing members are standard in modern structures. Once the bales have been satisfactorily compressed during the construction process, the installer coats the walls with a mud and clay mixture, smoothing the bales. Buildings made of straw bales can last for over 100 years if properly maintained and kept dry.
For thousands of years, some form of rammed earth has been used in construction. The Great Wall of China is, in fact, one of the most well-known rammed earth structures.
Layers of silt, clay, sand, and water are poured into forms and compressed with power rams to create this building material. The result is a beautiful, long-lasting material similar to concrete but much less expensive (as long as there are on-site materials).
Rammed walls have a high thermal mass but could be better insulators.
ByBlocks are 100% recycled plastic concrete block replacements. They are made by gathering recyclable and non-recyclable plastic, heating it, and compressing it into cinder block-sized bricks. While they are not yet easily accessible to contractors or homeowners, they propose a solution to the earth’s plastic problem, suggesting that they may become more popular. While ByBlock walls necessitate threaded rods and compressive wood top and bottom plates because mortar will not adhere to them, they are easy on drill bits and tools.
Lumber pricing volatility has made more headlines than one could imagine in recent years. As a result, contractors, do-it-yourselfers, and craftspeople have looked everywhere for alternative materials.
Steel studs and tracks have been used in the commercial building industry for many years. It’s lightweight and incredibly consistent in size and wire and plumbing pass-through locations.
The building process is quick, and the material’s apparent fire resistance makes it a good substitute for traditional lumber (though metal studs can be more expensive). Steel studs with a higher gauge can even be used as exterior walls or in load-bearing applications.
Large metal beams often visible during the early stages of construction or in industrial-designed buildings are referred to as structural steel. Steel can withstand tremendous weight over long distances, making it helpful in constructing open-concept homes or garages free of posts.
Structural steel beams almost always require special ordering and are rarely light enough to be installed by hand — regardless of crew size.
Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs)
SIPs are modular wall sections made of foam sandwiched between two pieces of OSB. They’re incredibly strong and energy efficient because the foam inside the OSB provides both web and insulation. SIPs are more than adequate for load-bearing walls in most cases, and because they generally arrive on-site ready for installation, significant labor savings can be realized.
While concrete does not solve any of the world’s environmental problems (and, as previously stated, can have its supply issues), it can be a valuable alternative to framing lumber. This is because concrete materials, such as poured slabs or concrete blocks, are strong, dependable, and long-lasting, outlasting most other materials in terms of rot and corrosion resistance. Yes, the manufacturing process emits many harmful emissions, but concrete is often less expensive than wood and lasts longer.
SCL (structural composite lumber) is a wood product made from strands or veneers of wood products (typically byproducts of the lumber industry) and adhesives. Engineered wood is considered more environmentally sustainable because each length uses less tree material than a piece of traditional lumber of the same size or strength.
These materials are far more durable than regular wood and can be used for support beams, rafters, headers, joists, and columns. While they are more expensive than traditional wood, when used as a carrying beam, they require less support over the same span, requiring less material.
Other wood alternatives
Until now, the wood alternatives mentioned were solely to replace framing lumber. There are, however, other options for replacing wood trim, siding, and flooring materials.
- Bamboo is a type of grass that multiplies. It can be harvested in 3-5 years, significantly less time than trees. It can be used to make flooring, trim, and other materials.
- Cork is another environmentally friendly material. It is derived from the bark of the cork oak tree. Cork is most commonly used as a flooring material because it is long-lasting, moisture-resistant, and comfortable underfoot.
- Fiber cement is a wood-replacement product composed of sand, cement, and cellulose fibers. Originally used to replace asbestos siding (which was initially used to replace wood siding), its most common application is cladding homes to protect them from the elements. These boards have the appearance of wood but are much more durable and last much longer.
Sheetrock. Drywall. Plaster of Paris. Different names for the same substance. But what other frame-covering alternative construction materials are available for interior wall finishing?
A veneer is an option for people who want more texture or dimension in their wall finishings. These finishes, made from natural stone and brick, make the wall appear excellent masonry, but it’s just an inch or two thick layers. Remember that these layers require something to adhere to, such as a concrete surface, concrete board, or drywall stretched across studs, but they provide more depth than a drywall surface.
Plaster and lath
Plaster and lath walls have a place, as old-fashioned as they may appear. Metal mesh lath is stretched across the framing of today’s plaster walls, and coats of gypsum, sand or cement, and water are applied on top. Plaster walls are more durable, insulated, and fire-resistant than drywall walls. In addition, plaster walls will not harbor mold growth because there is no organic material like the paper that faces drywall. These walls will look as smooth and flat as drywall if done correctly, but they are more expensive because they are labor-intensive and require experience.
3D panels are another option for contractors or clients looking to add depth or style to plain interior walls. These wall coverings are available in sheets with raised patterns or textures. They can quickly transform the appearance of a wall and are available in a variety of styles and designs. They’re typically made of polystyrene or medium-density fiber boards. In most cases, the panel alone is insufficient to meet the fire code, so a substrate such as drywall, concrete, or concrete board is usually required underneath.
When most people think of insulation, they instinctively picture mounds of itchy pink fiberglass. While fiberglass insulation is the most popular type (and one of the most eco-friendly, since it consists of recycled glass), it can be a pain to work with, requires lots of protective gear, and must be kept free of moisture. Fortunately, contractors have a variety of alternatives to explore.
Mineral wool isn’t actually wool, but an insulation material made from extruded lava rock. The manufacturer spins the lava rock at high speeds, causing the rock to form thin strands that are then used to make a material very similar to fiberglass insulation.
It’s an expensive material, but its moisture-resistant and fire-resistant properties exceed that of fiberglass. It’s also better at dampening sound transference.
Spray foam insulation is becoming increasingly popular. When wet, this polyurethane-based insulation adheres to the surfaces it touches and then expands, filling voids and gaps for improved insulation. Because the foam acts as both a thermal and a moisture barrier, installers can complete two tasks with a single application.
While spray-in insulation is extremely effective at insulating, many of the chemicals used and released during the curing process are hazardous to the environment.
Cellulose is a type of insulation made from recycled paper products, primarily newspaper. To improve fire resistance, the material is shredded into small pieces and treated with a chemical. It is available in a loose, crumbly form that is ideal for blown-in insulation in attics and walls. While it initially provides substantial insulation, it can compress over time, reducing its insulation value and necessitating the addition of more cellulose.
Rigid foam insulation is a popular substitute for fiberglass batts. These insulation sheets are frequently adhered to concrete surfaces, but they can also be cut to fit between rafters, joists, and studs in some cases. The ability of rigid foam to insulate is dependent on its thickness, but it is moisture-, rot-, and mold-resistant, making it an excellent choice for below-grade or moist environments. However, it is more expensive per square foot than fiberglass.
Reflective insulation has a metallic coating on both sides, similar to bubble wrap. When properly installed, this type of insulation can achieve an R-17 insulation value. It is slightly more expensive than fiberglass insulation, but it is less susceptible to rodent infestation and water damage.
Reflective insulation, which comes in pliable wraps and more rigid panels, works best in layers with a four-inch air gap between them. Furthermore, a thermal break between the reflective material and the framing aids in energy transfer prevention. HVAC tape is used to seal the seams, so no special tools or equipment are required for installation.
Alternative building materials may keep your project on track
Material shortages can manifest themselves at any time. Any disruption in the supply chain will have an impact on the entire industry, so keeping your options (and your mind) open may allow you to stay nimble and make informed game-time decisions.
While these alternative building materials are unlikely to be anyone’s first choice for a long time, knowing they exist could mean the difference between keeping a project on track and failing.
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