8 Low-Cost Building Materials for Your Pandemic-Era Construction Project

Over the last several weeks, the cost of some traditional building materials have finally started to fall after months of unprecedented price increases. Lumber and concrete are now much less expensive than they were at the beginning of 2021. However, the costs of other materials like PVC and paint are still climbing. Impacted by growing demand, continuing shortages and other consequences of climate change and the global pandemic, costs of traditional building materials are currently unpredictable. As such, many design-build firms and homeowners have turned towards alternative, more affordable building materials like bamboo, cob and autoclaved aerated concrete. Follow below to learn more about eight low-cost building materials that could help make your pandemic-era construction project more affordable.

Why Are Traditional Building Materials Like Paint and PVC So Expensive Right Now?

High Demand and Slow Pandemic Production Pump Up Prices

From steel to lumber, many building materials cost quite a bit more this year than they did in 2019. Market watchers blame the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts on global supply chains. Materials with the largest price increases over the last year and a half include softwood lumber, hardwood lumber, plywood, iron, steel, millwork, concrete plumbing fixtures, plumbing fittings, hardware, paint and cut stone. Unfortunately, these are not the only materials to have experienced a surge in list price. When their June 2021 article for Bloomberg was published, Marcy Nicholson, Dave Merrill and Cedric Sam noted that “the cost of almost every single item that goes into building a house in the US is soaring.” For some traditional building materials -- such as lumber and concrete -- “the prices have topped 100% since the pandemic began.”

Demand for these materials is still high and supply is still relatively low. Quoting Jim Peters -- the CFO of Whirlpool Corp. --, Nicholson, Merrill and Sam wrote that “‘right now, demand is just so solid in new home construction, in remodels, in replacements [that] all areas are really strong.’” According to Lance Lambert in a September 2021 article for Fortune, this demand could “drive prices up again.” Still, many assumed that once the rate of infections slowed and the economy recovered, building material prices would return to normal.

Extreme Weather Due to Climate Change Cripples US Supply Chain

Unfortunately, the pandemic is not solely responsible for continuing -- and worsening -- shortages. Climate change has also become a major disruptor. According to Merrill, Sam and Nicholson, the winter storm that killed at least fifty-seven people in Texas earlier this year inhibited production of PVC, paint and some other materials. Merrill, Sam and Nicholson noted that most of the United States’ supply of PVC and the chemicals needed to formulate house paint is produced in the South west state.

 

An exceptionally destructive wildfire season in Washington State and western Canada has also limited supply of some building materials. Fires in British Columbia shut down a number of sawmills that sell to the US.

Climate Change Will Continue to Impact Access to Traditional Building Materials

Sadly, destructive wildfires like those on the West Coast, bizarre cold snaps like those in Texas last winter and unprecedented heat waves like those in the PNW this summer are likely to become more common in coming years. The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions noted that “climate change has been a key factor in increasing the risk and extent of wildfires in the Western United States.” Robert Hart referenced a study recently published in the journal Science. The study found that “February’s killer winter storm [was linked] to human-driven global warming.”

The heat waves that plagued the Pacific Northwest earlier this year are also linked to climate change. Writing for Climate.org, Rebecca Lindsey notes that these heat waves “would have been at least 150 times rarer before global warming.” Given this, manufacturers anticipate similar disruptions in the future. As such, many design-build firms and homeowners are searching for alternative building materials that cost less and are more durable in the face of our changing climate. To learn more about climate change resilient building materials, read our article here.

8 Alternative Building Materials for an Affordable Home

1. Bamboo

Inexpensive, lightweight and incredibly strong, bamboo functions as an incredible building material. Bamboo is currently used in residential construction as both a framing and a flooring material. According to Beau Peregoy in the article “Bamboo Might Just Be the Construction Material of the Future” for Architectural Digest, bamboo is “two to three times stronger than steel.” In fact, writes Tim Hanrahan in his article write for Dwell, bamboo is “strong enough to withstand typhoons, earthquakes and floods.” Jan Bredenoord elaborates in his 2017 paper “Sustainable Building Materials for Low-Cost Housing,” Bredenoord identifies bamboo as “an alternative, cost-effective and seismically sound building material.” In Latin America and Asia, bamboo is so plentiful and affordable that it is known as “‘the poor man’s construction material.’”

Despite this taboo, architects and builders across the world have embraced the materials and are contributing to “promising technological innovations concerning the construction of homes with bamboo.” Even without these new innovations, traditional bamboo homes built properly “can stand thirty to thirty-five years.” While bamboo is durable and sustainable, it is also healthier than many other building materials -- especially those with sealants and adhesives that tend to off-gas. In their article “How Much Does Bamboo Flooring Cost?” for Forbes, Nick Gerhardt and  Samantha Allen explain. According to Gerhardt and Allen, “bamboo can actually deter dust and pollen in some cases and reduce household allergens.” Furthermore, bamboo can also “keep mold, mildew and dust mites away.”

2. Fly Ash Bricks

Still somewhat uncommon in the United States, fly ash bricks are another alternative building material with the potential to reduce construction costs and carbon footprints. In her article “Towards a greener construction, one fly ash brick at a time” for OneEarth.org, One Earth Fellow Vaishnavi Rathore defines the material. Rathore writes that fly ash bricks are made from fly ash -- “the powdery by-product of burning coal.” Fly ash is then combined with lime and water to create a compound that is similar in appearance and function to Portland cement. Made primarily from a waste product, fly ash bricks are much more eco-friendly than traditional red clay bricks. According to Rathore, the production of red clay bricks “contributes to 5 to 15 % of national emissions” in India. Fly ash bricks also cost less. Buyers can expect to purchase fly ash bricks for about 60% the price of red clay bricks.

In a recent article for The Spruce, Juan Rodriguez elaborates on the “uses and benefits” of fly ash bricks. According to Rodriguez, fly ash is cost-effective and environmentally-friendly as it is “a byproduct and has low embodied energy.” Other benefits of using fly ash outlined in Rodriguez’s article include “cold weather resistance,” “high strength gains” and “great workability.” Fly ash is also “considered a non-shrink material” and is capable of producing dense concrete “with a smooth surface and sharp detail.”

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3. Recycled Materials

Recycled building materials have become much more common across the United States in recent years. In her article “Benefits of Using Recycled Materials for Your Construction Project” for Million Acres, Lena Katz notes that there are many repurposed building materials other than “glass, wood, and plastics.” These include timbercrete, ferrock, newspaperwood, denim insulation, ecobricks and recycled cork. While most recycled building materials are referred to as such, they might also be termed “landfill-diverted,” “salvaged” or “reclaimed.” In addition to reducing the environmental impact of your build, Katz notes that incorporating recycled materials can limit costs, expedite permitting -- depending on your area -- and reduce your tax burden.

According to Katz, “it’s usually less expensive to salvage materials or buy leftovers from other contractors rather than buying all new.” Furthermore, because many cities are prioritizing sustainable development, those who chose to use recycled materials “may have an easier time getting...expedited permitting from city planners.” Lastly, Katz notes that “there are many green building incentives available at all levels of government jurisdiction.” The cost of your construction project could be mitigated by “tax incentives, loans, bonus density, and even grants.”

4. Straw Bales

In our recent article “5 Best Climate Change Resilient Building Materials for Your California Home,” we pointed to straw bales as an alternative affordable construction material. Cascone, Rapisarda and Cascone determined that “straw bales can provide significant benefits in terms of costs, human health, and environmental sustainability.” While straw bale constructions “do not have a significant place in current building practices,” they are gaining steam in some parts of the United States. Writing for Architectural Digest in her article Dakota Kim explains.

According to Kim, straw bale construction is “gaining popularity inparts of California” because “straw bales have proven themselves not only worthy fire adversaries, but also relatively stable during tornadoes and seismic shaking.” Though straw bale homes can be more expensive to build, they offer incredible energy cost savings over time. Djinni Yancey explains in the press release “Straw Bale Homes More Than a Dirt-Cheap Option” published by the US Department of Agriculture’s Office of Rural Development.

5. Cob

For those unfamiliar with the ancient building material, Rima Sabina Aouf defines cob in her article “Researchers re-engineer cob into sustainable new building material CobBauge” for Dezeen. According to Aouf, cob is a “building material made of a mixture of water, soil and fibres like straw and hemp.” Cob was used widely in home construction “for centuries in southwestern England, Wales and northern France.” Because cob “does not need to be heat-treated and is made from soil sourced from site,” the ancient material can help homeowners both save money and “build more sustainably, with reduced carbon emissions and construction waste.” Though cob construction is fairly uncommon throughout the United States, Doug Johnson believes the building material “has modern potential.” He explains in the article “It’s Time to Rethink the Cob House” for Discover Magazine.

Johnson writes that “though the technology is old-school compared to modern building techniques that require power tools, cement and costly lumber, there’s a growing interest in the material for its environmental benefits and ease of use.” In fact, during the construction phase of cob structures, the building material “required 75 percent less energy than more conventional wall systems.” Not only are cob structures dirt cheap -- pardon the pun -- and sustainable, but they are also incredibly durable. “fibrous plant materials lend tensile strength, sand provides compressive strength and clay-rich soil binds it all together” to offer cob superior structural strength.

6. Rammed Earth

Rammed earth construction is another ancient home building method. Once pressed by hand, rammed earth was traditionally made from clay-rich soil, plant fibers and other natural stabilizers. Today, rammed earth structures contain very little clay, are pressed by machine and are structurally reinforced with modern materials. In her article “Cheap, tough and green: why aren’t more buildings made of rammed earth?” for The Conversation, University of Western Australia lecturer Daniela Ciancio explains why rammed earth is an excellent option for modern custom homes construction. She begins by noting that rammed earth “as a construction technique, has stood the test of time.” Ancient buildings “like the Alhambra in Spain and the Great Wall of China, both of which were built more than 1,000 years ago” were constructed from rammed earth. Though the material has yet to become widely popular in the United States, Ciancio notes that “in Europe, especially in France, Britain and Germany, traditional rammed earth is enjoying a resurgence, and several modern buildings have been constructed using the technique.”

Benefits of Building with Rammed Earth

In his article “What Is Rammed Earth Construction?” for TreeHugger, Lloyd Alter outlines the benefits of building with rammed earth in our modern world. Not only are rammed earth homes beautiful -- “with a wide range of colors and textures” -- but they also “have tremendous thermal mass,” cost very little and contribute to a healthier home. Alter writes that the impressive thermal mass of rammed earth structures keeps homes cool during the summer and warm during the winter. This makes rammed earth structures “useful in places with a big diurnal swing in temperature.” As for the expense of rammed earth, Alter notes that “most of the cost is in labor, which can be mostly unskilled if well supervised.” Lastly, rammed earth structures are “all-natural,” so homeowners do not have to worry about the “off-gassing of organic compounds.”

7. Earth Bags

Writing for Mother Earth News in his article  “Low-Cost Multipurpose Earthbag Building,” Owen Geiger identifies the benefits of building with yet another natural earthen construction material. Geiger explains that earth bag construction refers to “bags filled with earth and stacked like bricks,” usually in a dome configuration. According to Geiger, building with earth-filled bags is “faster and easier than other earth-building styles — including cob, rammed-earth tire construction, and adobe (if you have to make your own bricks).” For example, “earth bag buildings are more water resistant than those made with straw bales, making them suitable for earth-bermed and below-grade structures.” In our article “Climate Change Resilient Building Materials for California Homes,” we identified superadobe as one particularly durable and sustainable version of earthbag construction.

According to Kamal and Rahman, superadobe is low in cost and low in environmental impact, making it an incredibly sustainable building choice. Unlike other earthen building materials, superadobe is airtight. This makes superadobe structures well-insulated and energy-efficient. Furthermore, Rahman and Kamal note that superadobe is “statically strong, durable, and resistant even to extreme weather conditions and natural catastrophes like flood, windstorm, hurricane, fire, and earthquake.”

8. Autoclaved Aerated Concrete

Last on our list of affordable alternative building materials is autoclaved aerated concrete or AAC. In his article “Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (AAC)” for This Old House, Jack McClintock writes that AAC was originally designed in 1924 by Swedish architect Dr. Johan Axel Eriksson. AAC is made of common, easily obtained ingredients like “portland cement, lime, silica sand or fly ash, water and a dash of aluminum powder.” According to McClintock, benefits of AAC include exceptional acoustic insulation, energy conservation, ease of use and resistance to fire, pests and general decay. Like rammed earth, “Europeans have built a million houses and buildings with AAC, but attempts to introduce it [in the United States] have failed until recently.”

During the pandemic, the tide changed when “energy concerns and high lumber prices started opening minds to its possibilities.” Though AAC cost more before pandemic and disaster-related shortages contributed to high costs of traditional building materials, it is now a more economical choice. The comparably low weight of AAC also makes shipping the material far cheaper than shipping “poured concrete or concrete blocks.”

Learning More About Alternative Building Materials with Element

As a local California design-build firm, Element can help homeowners harden their homes against wildfires, floods, heat waves and other consequences of climate change while prioritizing sustainability. Having worked on projects up and down the coast of California -- from San Diego to San Francisco -- the Element Homes team is uniquely qualified to aid California homeowners concerned about our changing climate. Because Element is a design-build team, the firm handles every aspect of each build -- from drawing up plans and submitting permits to hiring subcontractors and installing furniture. Given this, homeowners need not worry about shipping delays or labor disputes. Furthermore, Element offers all clients access to our project tracking software -- through which clients can monitor the progress of their new home build. To learn more about alternative building materials, read our recent articles “Building Climate Change Resilient Homes in California” and “Climate Change Resilient Building Materials for California Homes.” For more information about the Element design process, get in touch here.

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