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Book Review

ALiernative Construction

Edited by Lynne Elizabeth and Cassandra Adams Reviewed by Richard Engel

©2001 Richard Engel

As an energy nerd, this book won me over early on. Right after the introductory material, and before the editors start throwing us chapters on specific techniques, there's an entire chapter devoted to the energy performance of alternative construction technologies.

The main idea I took from this chapter was that there is no single alternative technology that shows top thermal performance across different climate zones. The authors show that hybrid structures, such as adobe inner walls surrounded by straw bale "siding," will provide the optimal combination of insulation and thermal mass. Their computer modeling of different material combinations shows that it is generally best to concentrate thermal mass on the indoor side of exterior walls and put the insulating layers on the outside.

Following the opening chapters, which also tackle building codes and structural engineering issues, we get into the heart of the book. Authors with terrific sustainable building credentials treat us to a chapter on each different technique—adobe, cob, rammed earth, modular contained earth, light clay, straw bale, bamboo, and earthen finishes. Bear in mind that this book is not a detailed how-to manual on all of these techniques. What you do get for your money is a balanced, thorough overview of the major alternatives to today's lumber-and-sheetrock homebuilding mainstream.

Real World Experience

The last section of the book is made up of a number of case studies of alternative construction projects in real-world settings, many in developing countries. Here we get past the theory and learn what really is and isn't working in the world of alternative construction.

You can learn from Habitat for Humanity builders that the best way to get poor people in the Third World to continue using traditional building methods is to encourage their wealthier neighbors to return to building with these methods voluntarily. This helps to remove the "poor folks' housing" stigma from these sustainable and time-honored techniques.

Or you can bone up on the latest variations and combinations of alternative and conventional methods, such as incorporating non-structural straw bales into concrete exterior walls. At the very back of the book, you'll find a generous bibliography and a long list of resource centers for the alternative builder.

Cheers to John Wiley & Sons and the editors and authors who pulled this impressive book together. Again, this is not a step-by-step guide, but if you're intrigued by alternative building and want to see which of the many existing techniques is right for your application, this book makes a great starting point.


Alternative Construction: Contemporary Natural Building Methods, edited by Lynne Elizabeth and Cassandra Adams, 2000, ISBN 0-471-24951-3, 392 pages, hardcover, US$59.95 plus tax and shipping from John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Distribution Center, 1 Wiley Dr., Somerset, NJ 08875 • 800-225-5945 or 732-469-4400 • Fax: 732-302-2300 [email protected]

Reviewer: Richard Engel, Schatz Energy Research Center, Arcata, CA 95521 • 707-826-4345 Fax: 707-826-4347 • [email protected]

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