Construction Methods

Historically, people used whatever material was available locally to build with, and the style of construction was adapted somewhat to the climate.  Modern construction methods, and cheap transportation has eliminated both of these aspects, at least in the US.  While these traditional building methods have much merit, they were mostly far from ideal, and so a compromise of new and old makes a better building.

There is nothing inherently better about building with one material than another, and although different materials have different environmental impacts, buildings are complex enough that a straight comparison is difficult.

No matter how a house is built, the structure of the house must accomplish four things:

  1. Keep the weather out: it provides a continuous barrier between inside and out
    How much it has to keep out the weather depends on climate: in a tropical climate you may only need to keep out the rain, in the desert only the hot or cold, but in most climates you want to keep out both.
  2. Hold itself and the contents of the house up
    Each story needs to hold up everything above it, all of the buildings contents and its occupants, and any snow load on the roof.  It also needs to hold up when all the occupants are dancing!
  3. Hold itself up under the duress of wind and earthquakes
    Unlike the load due to the weight of things, these forces push the walls over one way or another.
  4. Adequately deal with moisture movement, which generally means there is both a moisture and air barrier, and often some way for the interior to dry out.

Depending on the building system, each function can be accomplished by separate materials or multiple functions can be accomplished with one material.  Construction is simplified when one material does multiple functions, but the properties of materials (strength, water resistance, heat resistance) often make this difficult or impossible.

Building Systems

Building systems at the techniques for using building materials and creating foundations, floors, walls and roofs.  This is a big topic, and the various choices and their tradeoffs are all described in the building systems section.  See below for the materials themselves and structural considerations.

Once the structure is there, it needs to be insulated and air sealed, then surrounded in a water proof layer. Details on air sealing are in the air sealing section.   Insulation choices is under energy in insulation.  Details on moisture movement is in the moisture section under healthy houses, and the condensing potential of walls is here.

To be added:

utility layers

Weather barriers


There are unique challenges in remodeling even for those with no green considerations, but of course re-using an old building is often greener than building new, even if re-using means taking the existing building apart and just reusing the materials.  More details are in the remodel section (currently only a stub).

Building Materials

All the descriptions of construction methods assume a familiarity with standard construction materials and methods, so for those who aren't familiar, the building materials section contains background info on these materials and standard building methods using them.

Understanding Structural Engineering

While you don't really need to know structural engineering, at least a vague understanding of it helps you see why things are built the way they are, and it also explains terms used in the following sections.  So here it is:  structural engineering without math.


Building with Vision: optimizing and finding alternative to wood, Watershed Media (2001).

Buildings of Earth and Straw,  Bruce King covers all the structural issues of these alternative buildings.

EEBA builders guide series (one for each climate),  Joseph Lstiburek, 2004-2010 (depends on climate).