How About A Steel Home? Easy on the Wallet, Easy on the Planet Green homes of the future will contain a lot less wood

Dear EarthTalk: What are the environmental benefits of a steel home? What other kinds of “green” homes are on the market today?

—D. Hudson, Park City, UT

In the past, ecologically sound new homes have been costlier to build and maintain than their traditional counterparts, but recent innovations in green design coupled with smart materials sourcing have allowed builders to create not only efficient but also affordable green homes. Many of these homes are on the cutting edge of building design, making use of steel framing, modular and panelized construction techniques, and energy efficient insulation.

steel homes
This eco-friendly prefab all-steel home from EcoSteel on South Carolina’s Coastal Barrier Island survived Hurricane Florence three days after a family of five moved in. Credit: EcoSteel.

While the criteria for what is considered a “green” building are not set in stone, most such structures offer good indoor air quality, reduced energy use, and resource conservation via the use of recycled, reused or sustainably-harvested virgin materials. Furthermore, green buildings are often sited to minimize water use and run-off while taking full advantage of the sun for solar heating and/or shade for natural cooling. The initial costs of a “green” home might be more than for a traditional house, but the buyer’s return on investment comes in the form of energy and maintenance cost savings over a lifetime.

While a wide range of construction materials passes the test as environmentally friendly, steel is king in the new generation of affordable green buildings. What makes a steel home so great? Besides its strength and resistance to weather and fire, steel is ultimately recyclable; two-thirds of all the steel in use in the U.S. today comes from recycled stock. Additionally, by framing houses with steel instead of wood, green builders save millions of trees every year.

Beyond steel, other materials, such as adobe, straw bales or “rammed earth,” can make for some of the most energy-efficient and affordable structural elements. Each provides excellent insulation, and can save on both materials and transportation costs if available and procured locally. Some designs include walls made by “stressed skin foam” panels, rigid foam that is sandwiched between oriented strand boards. More scaled down green homes might use recycled newspaper for insulation in otherwise traditional walls. Also, salvaging materials—such as old windowsills, floorboards or light fixtures—from existing or teardown structures epitomizes the green motto of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” while saving money.

Those inspired to build a green home on a limited budget today have a wealth of information at their disposal, notably a plethora of websites devoted to green building practices, techniques and materials that offer free information online. Also, Building Innovation for Homeownership, a publication of the federally funded Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing, profiles 63 award-winning low-cost housing developments that incorporate materials and techniques on the cutting edge of green building. Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers free access to its online “Energy Star” database of “green” builders. The EPA site also includes a database of both lenders and utilities that offer special incentives to buyers and builders of energy-efficient homes.