Alternative Housing: Advantages and Disadvantages

Stimulated by environmental principles and/or the need to save on costs, alternative housing is alive and well. Here are just a few examples of the types of housing that are pushing the limits of residential construction.

Passive houses


Passive housing is typified by extreme energy efficiency. Houses of this kind are highly insulated and can allow the homeowner to save up to 90% in energy costs!

This is made possible by an extremely efficient use of the sources of heat present inside the building, such as body heat, or heat generated by sunlight coming in through the windows. The walls and roof can have insulation a foot thick and the structure also has to be very well sealed.

See this technically detailed example. Passive construction can be applied to a new house or to an existing one.

Other Alternative housing

A Hayhouse

Homes using hay bails as insulation/wall structures. Hay bails are inexpensive and naturally have a high insulation value, up to R-30 or R-35. Once framed, the walls are then very quick and easy to fill in.


Homes made with from clay or earth, or a mixture of these with straw. These materials are cheap and easy to repair. Clay is non-toxic, mold resistant and highly fire resistant. Clay and earth are also excellent for passive solar heating, absorbing heat from the sun during the day and radiating it at night. Clay is still a commonly used material for homebuilding throughout the world.


Homes made of shipping containers. These can be seriously engineered and include high-tech ventilation, solar panels, water collection systems and green roofs. Shipping containers are also extremely sturdy and can be stacked to create multi-story buildings.


All of these examples of alternative housing have appeal as they can provide cost savings either in construction or in long-term use. They also succeed in reducing environmental footprint compared to traditional housing, either through the materials or resource consumption. This type of housing is highly customizable and can be a stimulating challenge to build.


Looking at it from the other side, the unorthodox use of materials or equipment may result in unexpected problems. Manufacturers simply can’t help people who are using their products for unintended uses. Long term dwelling in such buildings can be a gamble if the engineering and design are not very thoroughly thought out. Resale value? Very difficult to predict. Local zoning laws can also prohibit many types of alternate housing.

That said, there is no doubt that these kinds of explorations are beneficial to housing at large since the really useful innovations can trickle into mainstream housing.



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