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Environmental cost of building materials

Choices in building material and construction methods for your house can vary widely as to their environmental cost. Energy use, pollution and habitat destruction are key considerations but the indoor environment created is also a consideration. The following is a comparison of common building materials.

Factors that are relevant to the envirocost (did I just coin a new word here) of materials are, transportation, raw material used, energy required in manufacture, longevity, carbon storage, recycle-ability, renew-ability, and sometimes the insulating value of the material. Recycled and reused material rates highly if it is locally available.

A rammed earth home has a low environmental cost
A rammed earth homeLsbentz / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

The use of locally available material can dramatically reduce environmental damage and usually reduces costs as well. Transportation is a major contributor to pollution, carbon emissions and costs. It follows that the less distance a product travels and the lower its weight, the less its cost, both financially and environmentally. The one caveat is that it must be commonly and easily available. Ideal are products that may normally be burned or land filled.

One of the best examples is earth that is available right at the building site. The soil in many areas is suitable for the construction of rammed earth walls. This method is well suited to warmer drier climates, but is also a possibility for much of Canada. For more detailed information,follow any one of the three following links.  About rammed earth homes.  Pictures of rammed earth construction.  A more technical discussion of rammed earth construction in Canada.

In agricultural areas, straw is usually readily available and easily transportable. Straw bale construction is the most commonly known but straw is also sometimes used to manufacture panels that are commonly used as flooring underlay. Panels made from waste straw are also now being manufactured as an alternative to MDF, plasterboard and chipboard. Wheat straw is often used but many other types of straw could be utilized. Emphasis should be placed on waste straw. Straw in many areas needs to be incorporated into the soil to maintain or improve fertility. Proximity to manufacturers and cost would be considerations. Another alternative to straw bale construction is emerging. Straw formed into rope or cable is used to form columns or walls.

Using papercrete blocks has a low environmental cost
Papercrete blocks used in the construction of a shoprabble / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Paper can be recycled into building products such as panel board or papercrete. The practicality of the board would depend a lot on freight costs. Once again the environmental cost is probably closely related to the cost of the board delivered to you.  In the case of papercrete it is possible to make your own. This link provides one papercrete recipe. Most papercrete recipes utilize a proportion of cement in the mix. Cement has a relatively high environmental cost but the proportion is usually small  One persons method of making papercrete blocks.  An intriguing building material but it may be better suited to farm outbuildings, sheds and garages than to homes. There is no shortage of information about it on the internet.

Much of North America and the Northern parts of Europe and Asia are in close proximity to sources of wood as a building material. Wood is a renewable resource and a versatile building material. The carbon storage in wood products is considerable. Virtually every part of a log is used and many species once considered weed are now used to manufacture building material. OSB (oriented strand board) can be manufactured using fire or insect killed wood. Distribution networks for lumber and wood products are well established and efficient, reducing the impact of transportation somewhat. A well designed wood frame house has an excellent life expectancy.

PVC pipe
Plastic pipe is used extensively in home constructionThirdangel / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Petroleum and natural gas provide the raw material for plastic. Cheap and light it is used in for the manufacture of many building products including flooring, siding, insulation, counter tops, plumbing and wiring, and in doors and windows. It is used extensively in appliances and to some degree in furniture.. Most of the environmental damage from plastic comes from single use packaging and recycling to date is not extensive. It’s lifespan in building materials is good. It’s use for piping in housing is such an improvement over metal that it has replaced metal almost entirely The environmental cost is probably less than the metals it largely replaces. It’s low-cost, low maintenance and light weight make it practical to replace wood in some cases such as siding. The use of plastic has made housing affordable for many more people. A disadvantage is that the smoke from some plastics is very toxic in case of fire.  The construction industry is the second largest user of plastics after packaging.  Follow this link for more information on the use of plastic in building and construction.

Reflexions in glass
Glassx1klima / Foter.com / CC BY-ND

Glass is a component of nearly every home. The energy requirements in manufacture are quite high but carbon emission would depend on the energy source. The raw material used is abundant. It is heavy and fragile which adds to transportation cost. It does have a low thermal resistance and requires special methods to improve the insulating value. Even the best windows are several times poorer than the surrounding walls at preventing energy transfer. Strategically placed, glass can be used for passive solar heat gain. This can offset much of its poor performance. Glass should be used carefully to prevent undue inefficiencies in the building envelope. An inert material, it is easily disposed of in land fills. Considerable amounts of glass can be recycled into new glass, but collection and transport can be a problem because of weight. For more information on glass production click here. 

The short lifespan of asphalt shingles create an environmental cost. They are very heavy and recycling facilities are few. Most end up in landfills at the end of their lifespan. Newer types have life spans that are much longer without a significant increase in cost. Considering the cost of replacement alone should  make you insist on the longer life choices. Lifetimes can vary considerably depending on location and roof styles.

The longevity of concrete is evident in Roman archetecture. Longevity can reduce environmental cost.
A very old concrete structureFoter.com / CC BY-SA

Concrete is probably the most commonly used building material. The raw material for its production is usually available reasonably close. It is very heavy and transportation can add considerably to its cost. In my area concrete is usually delivered for about $150.00 per cubic meter. Some areas have prices of $250.00 and more. The production of cement is highly energy intensive and is responsible for considerable carbon emissions. Not a very environmentally friendly material choice, but a big winner in longevity. Some structures built with concrete by the Romans are still standing and even sometimes usable after more than 2000 years. Carbon cost of concrete manufacture has one estimate of carbon emissions. For a technical comparison of concrete and steel environmental cost follow this link.

Heat energy used adds a high environmental cost to steel
Heat energy being used is evident in this photo of the interior of a steel millPayton Chung / Foter.com / CC BY

Steel is another building material that is energy intensive in production. The thermal resistance of steel is very poor. It’s longevity, however, is very good. It is almost 100% recyclable and a high percentage of steel used today has been recycled. It is also quite heavy which adds to carbon footprint through transportation.

Other metals are similar to steel, but some are becoming very costly due to scarcity and increased mining costs..

Aluminum is highly energy intensive in production. The carbon foot print may not be very high, though, since much of the manufacturing is done where low-cost hydroelectric is available. It is also considerably lighter than other metals, lessening its carbon cost through transportation. To recycle aluminum requires less than 6% of the energy as producing new aluminum from bauxite. Recycled aluminum accounts for at least half of the product produced in North America.  This article discusses the energy cost of aluminum production, and ways to reduce it.

Any building material has an environmental cost associated with it. The environment is best served by using the least material possible, It is worth considering the use of lower cost alternatives wherever possible.

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Cost to Build Our House

I think it is time to explore the cost to build our house to date. We are close enough to completion to get a fair estimation of the final cost. About all that is left to buy is gutters, deck material, steps and walks.

Final cost to build can be estimate when completion is near

Close enough to completion to estimate the final cost

Yes, the weather is getting colder, and I am more inclined to work less, and to spend more time on this blog. From now on I should be able to get back to doing a couple of posts or more per week. It is about time, as my mother used to say, when I dragged myself from bed.

We are not quite within our original cost expectations, although we did not completely blow our budget. This, however, is not unusual or unexpected so does not create any major problem. I was prepared for overruns of up to 20%. The importance of planning for the unexpected is emphasized. As I have mentioned before, it is important to have as much as a 20% buffer.

Our original cost to build estimate was 85,000 dollars (Canadian), which included the cost of land.. I am not certain of the accuracy of my accounting, but it appears that our cost to date is just over 90,000 dollars.There is still some cost to go, but our final cost to build will be considerably less than 100,000. This is for a 1008 sq. ft. house, with a 16 ft. by 24 ft. detached garage, on a 100 by 120 ft. lot. For most of the world that is a 93.6 m^2 house, a 4.9 m by 7.3 m garage, and a 30.5 by 35.6 m lot. Approximate conversions of course.

Related posts you may find interesting. – A house for less than 100000 dollars – The footing ,foundation and floor is in progress – Buying wisely, buying for less, buying early – Installing Water and Sewer .

The house is on a crawl space. Adding a full basement would have increased the cost by 10 to 20 thousand, mostly because I am to damn old to pour a concrete floor and would have been forced to hire a contractor. .

Part of the purpose of building  was to prove a point. The goal was to build a good quality home for less than 100,000. As a result, a lot of time was spent bargain hunting. A lot of used tools were purchased, All the appliances were used. As much material was repurposed as possible. Care was taken to purchase only what was necessary, at least until time became more important than cost.

An unexpected expense was the cost of installing a sewer main extension. Estimated extra cost-7000 dollars.

ICF foundation a sinificant partof the cost to build

ICF foundation

A change from a planned wooden foundation to  an insulated concrete form foundation (ICF) cost, very roughly, about 3000 extra. This type of foundation took less labor and considerably less time. Important, since we were delayed about a month in starting.

I somehow managed to order about 300 dollars worth of unneeded drywall. I can use it on other projects

I paid extra to have drywall and shingles delivered and placed where needed. Worth every penny when you do not have help.

No time was available to bargain hunt for siding, soffits and the like. I do, however, believe the local store gave me a very fair price.

Several hundred dollars worth of extra electrical, plumbing, and gas fitting material was purchased to reduce travel time making up shortages. The time saved was the primary motivation, but travel is a major consideration when much of the material is not easily available locally.

The natural gas installation cost about 600 dollars more than I had guessed.

All the utility suppliers were different from those I had used before and required substantial deposits. This is not an expense, but still requires cash.

I used a standard of construction somewhat higher than normal. This cost a few hundred more. Examples are, heavier than required wall and roof sheathing and higher rated shingles. Weather conditions may be a little more severe in the future, and I wanted a little extra strength.

All these items added up to substantial extra cost, but I was able to save more than half this amount in other areas. For example, I had planned for the cost of hiring a little extra labor for jobs that cannot be done alone. Friends, family, and neighbors were all there when I needed them, and I spent nothing at all on labor.

We did find tremendous savings in many areas which greatly reduced the cost to build.

All our light fixtures were purchased used from yard sales and habitat for humanity. Cost was likely only about 10% of new retail.

Kitchen appliances

Range and dishwasher— total cost $200. microwave—$75.

All our appliances were used and cost a total of 625 dollars. The surprising part is that we ended up with far higher quality units than we would normally buy. The style in favor right now is stainless steel. Good, nearly new, white appliances are easily available, very cheaply. We purchased almost all ours through Kijiji.

Sink and faucett

Sink and faucet—total cost $150

We found a new kitchen sink for 100 dollars. This one retails for over 600. We acquired a new kitchen faucet for 50 that usually costs about 400. Lavatory sinks complete with faucets cost only 50 dollars each from Habitat for Humanity Restore.

My water heater, which retails for as much as 2700, I found for 600. About 200 worth of extras was included.

Similar bargains were found for windows, flooring and cabinets.

Since I had disposed of most of my construction tools at retirement, I had to repurchase many. Almost all were found on Kijiji or at yard sales,for a  very a  low cost. Their cost is included in the cost of the home.

Our old living room suite was getting shabby so my wife, Bobbi, spent a couple of months watching ads for a good used set. She found a set for free. We only had to travel, about 80 km (about 50 miles to my American friends), round trip to pick it up. It is in new condition but a little dated in style. Included was a hide a bed, love seat, swivel rocker and cushions. The colors suit us perfectly. We didn’t care that it is a little out of style since myself and Bobbi are a little past it too. We gave our still usable old set to a family that could use it.

mitre saw

an almost essential tool—cost for saw $40 cost of stand $50

I think I have proven that the cost to build a home can be less than 100,000. Of course I am reasonably adept at all aspects of home building and have had considerable experience. I am good with my hands and familiar with the tools of the trade. My wife and I are adept at bargain hunting and bargaining. Remember, however, that I am nearly 71 years old and not nearly as quick and tough as I once was.

If you do not have at least some of these skills, or feel you can not acquire them, then a project like this could be considerably more difficult for you. You may need a couple of years for planning, and acquiring knowledge and experience.

Total cost includes the purchase of the land. We acquired our site, which included the garage, for 35,000 dollars. This leaves the total cost of the house alone at about 60,000.

It should be noted, though, that our end result is considerably more than just a basic house. We are very happy with it, and feel it suits our needs very well.

We do live in Alberta which has no sales tax. Our national sales tax, the GST, is partially recoverable when building a new house. Taxes could be considerable in other jurisdictions.

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Buying wisely, buying for less, buying early

Buying material and tools at the best possible price, is where you can reduce the cost of your new home considerably..

One popular do it yourself talk show host used to classify material, methods and tools as good, better and best. I think he missed one classification. There is quite a bit on the market that could only be considered “junk,” or practically worthless, and should be avoided when building your house.

I am not an advocate of the old adage, “you get what you pay for,” because I have seen that you often do not get what you pay for. I have purchased tools that did not last through their first use, and material that I found nearly unusable.

I once bought a skid of utility grade studs because of a very good price. When I cut the strapping, I found that the only good edges were to the outside of the skid. When freed, they immediately sprung into multiple configurations, none of which were near straight. It took me about 3 years to use up that skid for small pieces and firewood.

I will sometimes buy cheap tools, and material depending on the usage, but I still try to make sure the quality is adequate for the job. I will very rarely buy the most expensive, as I believe you are often paying extra, for no more than a well known brand name. I guess I am saying, that I buy the product that makes the most economic sense for the situation. Don’t cook four eggs for breakfast if you are only going to eat two.

There has been a lot of talk in the past about the environmental cost of packaging.

I agree to some extent, and am not a fan of bubble packaging. I will buy bulk when I can, and likely at a far lower cost. I am a advocate of hardware stores, and lumber yards, that sell bolts, screws and nails by the pound (or gram). I usually buy more than my immediate needs, just to have some on hand. On the other hand, it is difficult to get 50 lbs. (or 20 kg.) of nails home without the box.

ReStore outlet

There has been considerable concern with the off gassing that may occur from composite material used in your home, and the effect this might have on indoor air quality and your health. The rub is that, even natural material such as wood will off gas for a period of time, and may be even more likely to promote mold growth. Unless you have special health problems, I would spend more time and money on good ventilation, and filtration, rather than agonize over the properties of common materials. This is not to say that some products will not give off unpleasant and possibly dangerous fumes. You can be less certain of material made from recyclables, as it may be impossible to determine exactly what goes into the mix. Best to be careful, and to check reviews when possible.

All in all, most manufacturers are very conscientious, and do their best to provide the best product they can for the price. The exceptions do not usually stay in business for long, or have to change their name often.

One of the most important considerations is your own taste. There are literally thousands of choices out there, and you are almost certain to find something you like that you can afford.

Restore outlet

When buying material or tools, don’t spend extra on something that does not provide some degree of extra safety, durability or beauty. Don’t spend extra, for durability if the product will be rarely used, or on beauty that no one will see. Don’t spend money on a bunch of bells and whistles that you will rarely use, they are just added maintenance issues. At the same time, do not skimp on things such as strength, if there is any reasonable chance it will be needed.

Always hire the best tradesmen you can find and afford. Don’t take the advice of any tradespeople without a grain of salt. They may want to sell something, and they usually have a bias.

We began buying items for our current project some time ago, watching carefully for opportunity buys in both new and used. We have so far purchased light fixtures, a one piece tub surround, a four foot walk in shower, house wrap, sinks and faucets, kitchen cabinets, and much more. Much of this was new, but all was purchased at one half, or less, of new price. Yesterday, we were able to purchase a tankless water heater that had been installed but never fired, so essentially new. List price on this unit is over 2600.00, but can be purchased on sale for around 1800.00. Our cost was 600.00 with about 200.00 worth of fittings included.

Kijiji, or other free internet classified ad sites, are good sources for finding new or used bargains. Internet shopping sites are a good place to check prices, before going on your buying trip.

This is just one example of savings you can effect with diligent searching of the web, and by buying at outlets such as ReStore. Restore is an outlet for new and used building material that is operated by Habitat for Humanity, a very worthwhile charitable organization. You have the added satisfaction of knowing your buying is helping a good cause.

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