Eco-friendly alternative housing

This article first appeared in City & Country, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on June 1, 2020 - June 07, 2020.
Eco-friendly alternative housing
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Growing concerns about high property prices and one’s carbon footprint have caused many people to turn their attention to green and sustainable options that cost much less to maintain. When you think of a green building, the first thing that comes to mind would probably be features such as solar panels and rainwater harvesting systems attached to a conventional brick building. But there are alternative materials that can be used to build a home that is as good as a conventional house, and which is more energy-efficient and truly eco-friendly.

Some of the materials can be quite unusual and you may doubt their durability and usefulness. But there are houses that have been built around the world with sustainable, economical and possibly odd building materials.

Here is a list for you to consider if you are looking to build your own eco-friendly house.




Photo by Øyvind Holmstad

Straw bale house

A straw bale house will invariably remind us of the story of The Three Little Pigs. In the fairy tale, one of the pigs built a house of straw and the big, bad wolf blew it down. Rest assured, the straw bale house is nothing like that. Finished off with plaster, it is airtight, pest-proof and fireproof, making it sturdy and impossible to be blown down. Moreover, it provides great insulation and can easily keep heat in or out. Straw is easily sourced, being a by-product of growing grains. Instead of letting the straw go to waste, it can be used to build houses.



Photo by Thomas Quine

Log house

Log houses are made of large logs that do not go through a milling and treatment process and can be built from standing dead trees — remnants of forest fires that have destroyed the outer branches and needles. Studies have shown that logs absorb heat during the day and help keep the house warmer during winter. Many people have the misconception that log houses are susceptible to termite infestation but they are actually less so than stick-frame homes. Just take good preventive measures during construction and the risk will be reduced to a minimum.



Photo by Dameon Hudson


An Earthship is not a type of alien spaceship or UFO, though it may look like one. It is a type of eco-friendly and sustainable house mainly built out of recycled items such as dirt-packed used tyres, bottles and tin cans. The Earthship is perfect for off-grid living as it is self-sufficient, producing its own electricity, heat and food, and offers sustainable water harvesting and sewage systems. For example, power can be generated through solar panels and wind power, and water can be collected from a rainwater harvesting system.



Photo by Mat Tyrrell

Tiny house

Living in a tiny house is not for everyone. But it is a good alternative if one wants to downsize and does not mind the limited space. A tiny house is said to be economical and environmentally friendly as the cost of building it is low and it does not leave a lot of carbon footprint. Any kind of building material — brick, stone or wood — can be used. Due to its size, maintenance is kept to a minimum and it requires less energy to heat and cool. Some tiny houses have wheels, which allows the homeowner the freedom of travelling, bringing his home along with him!



Photo by Andres Garcia Lachner

Shipping container house

Using shipping containers to build a home or a building for other uses is becoming more popular. Since they are readily available, building a house out of containers is faster and possibly cheaper. A shipping container is built to handle heavy loads and harsh climatic conditions and is handled by cranes. Hence, it is sturdy enough to be transformed into a house that is safe enough to live in.



Photo by Archi0780

Earth berm/hobbit house

An earth berm house is a type of earth-sheltered dwelling with earth covering one or more walls. Because of its design, these houses are often associated with the hobbit Bilbo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings movie series. It is storm-proof, earthquake and fire-resistant, as well as soundproof and less susceptible to extreme temperatures. As it is built below the surface and surrounded by earth, it is naturally cooler than a standard house. Hence, the temperature indoor is consistent all year round, reducing energy consumption.



Photo by Ramon F Velasquez

Bamboo house

To build a bamboo house, one must acquire the right bamboo species, such as Guadua, Dendrocalamus and Phyllostachys. The species Guadua angustifolia, which is native to South America, has the best properties for construction. As bamboo contains a high level of starch, it has to go through proper treatment. Its strength-to-weight ratio is similar to timber and it is said to be able to withstand earthquakes, making it an eco-friendly building material.



Photo by Antti Salonen & Titus Tscharntke

Stone house

Stone is easily available and is one of the most durable natural building materials in the world. It is fireproof, bug and vermin-proof and rot-free. As natural stone comes in many shapes, sizes, colours and textures, stone houses do not require additional painting. The natural beauty of a stone house is timeless and maintenance-free. Constructing a stone house using a passive solar design would give it the ability to store heat within its walls. The heat absorbed during the day will slowly radiate throughout the night, creating a warm environment on a chilly night.



Photo by Gerry Thomasen

Cob house

Cob houses are not made out of corncobs. Cob is a natural building material made of straw and other fibrous materials mixed with subsoil, water and, sometimes, lime, sand or clay. It is low-cost, fireproof and resistant to seismic activity. A cob house is durable and sturdy and can withstand the rain provided it is properly protected by a good roof. The thick walls allow thermal regulation — when the weather is hot, the walls will keep the inside cool and on cold days, they retain heat. As cob is easy to mix and manipulate, it is an ideal material for those who want to build a small house on their own.