Green Builders in North America

Green builders“Green builders” is the term used in North America to describe people who build in a environmentally friendly manner. At the end of April around 300 green builders met at a conference of the Colorado Straw Builders Association in Aspen, Colorado. The interesting mix of people share the common bond of ecological awareness and build houses where straw and clay are major building materials. They assembled in a beautiful school built with straw bales and plastered with clay and lime. Many publications carried picture of straw and earthen houses, some of them new and luxurious, others more than a hundred years old and rather simple.

They really exist, builders who specialize in ecological buildings in the USA!  EcoSouth was invited to a conference of the “Colorado Straw Builders Association” (COSBA) near the ski resort of Aspen. A lively crowd of some 300 builders and owners of straw bale houses assembled in a beautiful school, built with straw bales and plastered with clay and lime. In this harsh climate, the thick straw walls provide a cozy and warm environment and the earthen tones of the building set a good mood.

The public was an interesting mix of “down to earth” country folk and urbanites, carpenters, masons and university professors, elegant ladies and men with cowboy hats.  But they all have something in common: they build or own houses where straw and clay are major building materials. The mood was not unlike the meetings of the German Earth Builders Society that has been reported previously on this website.  A bookshop displayed many beautiful publications with pictures of straw and earth houses, some of them new and luxurious, other more than hundred years old and rather simple.

Green builders

We were treated to excellent presentations from many different points of view: good “green” architecture around the world, constructive systems used in the USA and, of course, lively discussions about quality and durability of straw bale houses, a major concern for all involved.

Every family who decides to build with straw bales or with earth is somehow worried about the effect of humidity in the long run, and it was interesting to see how the builders have a very careful approach to this theme; we did not meet anybody who simply said “there is no problem with humidity”.  The builders do not just have to respond to the future house owner, but also to the officials from the building department who give the construction permit. In the absence of clear codes and standards there is often much room for interpretation and what is being approved in one place will not be allowed in another. Also, insurance companies play a major role, as was discussed extensively. Some companies are open to insure “green buildings”, others are not.  This is a problem being faced in many developing countries, where even traditional adobe buildings are often outlawed.

Green buildersOut of this discussion it was possible to find support for the EcoSouth project of writing codes and standards for earth building. Two of the most important personalities in the ecological building movement in the USA, David Eisenberg who is an expert  in writing codes and standards and Bruce King who has directed an extensive testing program on straw and earth construction took up the idea and after the conference we worked out a strategy to prepare ASTM standards  for earth construction.  Such an official USA standard could potentially become an ISO standard and it would be a powerful argument to support the establishment of national codes and standards in Latin America, thus assuring that traditional adobe and tapial is not going to be outlawed.

EcoSouth had a presentation about the concept of EcoMaterials, and Dr Bernard Amadei, president of the USA chapter of “Engineers without Boarders” made a powerful link between “green builders” in rich countries and the need to support the developing world. His intervention led to a meeting of a group of people representing institutions active internationally. Immediately a number of themes were identified to work together and a first action was actually decided upon, to take place in northern Mexico within an ongoing development project. Another outcome of this discussion is the possibility of broadening the base for the EcoMaterials Conferences with the plan to organize one every two years.

Green Builders

At EcoSouth it is considered that straw bale construction is generally not suitable for the humid tropical areas, and where they might be a good idea, there are likely no suitable straw bales available. However, the concept is valuable, and what was encouraging at this conference is the fact that everybody discussed with an open mind. More than the discussion around straw bales, it was exchange of ideas around ecological materials in general. One very interesting experiment will likely be investigated: Use the straw bale technology, but with bales made of waste plastic, a raw material that abounds in all cities and towns, and is almost indestructible and long-lasting. However, we do not want to “re-invent the wheel” and have asked the straw bale experts to assist EcoSouth in the testing phase.

By the way: Most of the people mentioned in this article will be making presentations at the EcoMaterials Conference in November this year!

Green Builders

You are here: Home Past editions Edition #13, June 2005 Green Builders in North America


Martín Meléndez
Civil Engineer
Spanish and English
Microconcrete roofing tiles (MCR), CP 40 (alternative cement), adobe, tapial, burnt clay bricks, social organization, workshop planning for MCR and alternative cement, setup and implementation of housing projects, disaster prevention in construction


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