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Understanding Alternative Building Products

As home builders throughout the United States grapple with building material price surges, and shortages or delays for certain orders, many are exploring alternative products to complete or start projects.

Some builders are constructing homes from natural materials such as:

  • Rammed earth
  • Adobe Brick
  • Volcanic Rock.

Using these alternative materials, however, may come with added challenges, such as:

  • Higher costs due to a need for skilled labor
  • Delays by home inspectors who may be unfamiliar with the techniques and methods of construction
  • Energy consultants who might have difficulty calculating the value of homes with these materials.

In addition, the long-term effects and unintended consequences of material use should not be ignored.

For instance, there are reports that earthen materials are known to contain numerous organic substances and can harbor mold. Not long ago, mold was a high liability issue for builders and property owners. The use of rapidly renewable materials — products that can be produced naturally and quickly from nature — is a key component of green building. These are cellulose or carbohydrate-based products and as such, are typically optimal food sources for mold in the presence of moisture. To avoid mold, it is important to understand the relationship between construction materials and their susceptibility to mold in the presence of moisture.

In a 2007 study for his Master’s thesis at Texas A&M, Aaron Cooper exposed samples of rapidly renewable materials used as exterior wall insulation products to different moisture levels in an encapsulated environment, representing the environment within a wall cavity when exposed to water from pipes, leaks, condensation, and absorption, or from initial construction. Samples were monitored for mold growth. Mold-related issues are just one example of the potential for unintended consequences from the use of alternative materials. Carefully reviewing building material choices in advance may help eliminate non-conforming building materials, returns, and possible disputes.