Codes for Alternative Building

Jeff Ruppert is a registered Professional Engineer in the State of Colorado. He has over 15 years of experience in the construction trades from laborer to general contractor to engineer, and he prefers to work on projects that will offer some aspect of reduced impact or consumption of our natural resources. From early 1996 to late 1999 Jeff worked as part founder and owner of a straw bale construction company in Boulder, Colorado, called StrawCrafters. During that time he oversaw and participated in the design and construction of 11 custom straw bale homes and provided professional assistance on well over 50 additional straw bale and natural building projects. To date, Jeff has consulted on well over 400 straw bale and natural building projects around the country. He has given many presentations to groups, such as the local AIA chapters and he sat on the Structural Panel at the 1999 International Straw Bale Conference in Marin, California. He is regarded as one of the leading structural engineers in the field of straw bale construction, and continues to participate and expand the breadth of knowledge and understanding at the national level.

Questions and Answers

Q: I live in the Pacific Northwest and we have earthquake issues, since most areas are considered "zone 4." Are there any issues involved with earthquake stability of any of these building methods? I am guessing that rammed earth, stucco, papercrete, earthships, earthbag, cob, and many other of these building methods simply turn to dust in a seismic event. Are there any building methods that you would recommend for a zone 4 building zone?

A: Any type of system that is reinforce-able will perform ok in an earthquake, assuming it is designed correctly. Earth construction methods are not easy to reinforce because the earth does not bond to rebar, and other methods become prohibitively expensive. Straw bale construction is probably the best bet. It is very reinforce-able and has been tested with success in the lab. We designed a natural food store in Montana recently in Zone 3. When designing a bale structure in a seismic area, it is important to get the amount of wire mesh and connections (staples, nails, etc.) correct. You will probably need to use cement plaster due to it's superior strength and predictability. This also means you need to pay extra-close attention to details around openings and flashing.

C: (Kelly) I would add that while earthbag construction has not been fully tested over time for earthquake resistance, those tests that have been conducted, primarily at the CalEarth site in southern California, have come through with flying colors...the buildings being tested actually broke the testing equipment! The fact that there is an effective bond beam every 6 inches with the two strands of barbed wire, and that the entire envelope can be reinforced with wire mesh and stucco, makes this method of building quite resilient. Also, it can give in ways that rigid masonry structures cannot.

Q: I plan on building my own papercrete house for the first time. But How can I build one if building codes will not allow such a house? And what things on the house would I need to have inspected or built by a professional if I wanted a full functioning house with electricity, water, etc.?

A: (Kelly) You pretty much have to follow the building codes for your locality, but there are ways to incorporate alternative methods and materials into code-approved houses. It is up to the particular inspector what he will allow, and he can accept alternatives if he is convinced that the sprit of the law is being followed. This might mean that you would have to build the structure as a framed post and beam building, and use the papercrete as "infill" to fill in the wall space. I know of one code-approved papercrete building that was accepted because the papercrete was allowed to be classified as if it were adobe, because of the clay content in the paper! What needs to be inspected is up to the particular building department where you live. If you have the skill to do electrical and plumbing work, then you as the owner/builder can usually do this...but it must pass inspections.

Q: My husband and I are planning on purchasing rural land in Pierce County Washington. In doing some preliminary research I have found that this county has never approved a home built out of any alternative materials (strawbale, etc). From the conversation I had it doesn't sound as though a building permit would be issued for anything other than a typical home. Are there any ways around this? What happens if we build without a permit? We'll have acreage so our home will not be visible from the street or other homes. We're willing to work with inspectors but we're not willing to give up our dream and build a typical home.

A: If the County uses one of the model codes (Uniform Building Code, BOCA< CABO or IBC) each of them has an appeals process. If you submit something they don’t like, but you have ample supporting evidence that it will work, you can appeal their decision and they must put together a committee of peers, not including the building official, who will review your submittal, ask questions and make a decision. I have gained one approval by telling the building official I would appeal. The point is, you have rights and when they realize it may be out of their control, they may agree to what they would otherwise refuse to approve.

As for building without a permit, I can’t condone it in a forum like this. If the building department hears about it, they will red-tag your project and serve a cease-and-desist order. There could be additional fines along with the permit fee, which they will make you pull in order to continue. Then you will really be on their “radar”!

Q: I am planning to start my own home building construction company. Is it possible to do so only building green homes in Ohio with our climates? Would it be too difficult dealing with the problems you deal with concerning the building codes?

A: "Green" homes can be built anywhere. Whether you can make a living at it or not will depend squarely on your ability to sell your services and products. If you have a background in construction, it will be less difficult than if you do not. Codes are not an issue anymore. It is just a matter of education in a professional manner. Most building officials know about bale construction. You must talk like you know what is going on and use what language they use. For example, there are a number of municipalities and states that have adopted one version or another of a straw bale code. These adoptions are actually amendments to the code that the building department has adopted. So let's say the building department has adopted the 1997 Uniform Building Code. If they adopt a straw bale code, it will be in the form of an amendment. These are subtle pieces of info that let's them know you know what you are talking about.

Q: I live in NJ and dream of buying a few acres here for natural construction. I am having difficulty, however, finding out if building codes will prohibit me from doing this. Do you have any advise? Any tricks or loop holes to beating the system?

A: Not really necessary to "beat the system." All codes have alternative methods sections which allows the building official to approve different things not prescribed in the code. Usually they will ask for an engineers stamp on the plans to approve them. They might already be familiar with what you are thinking. Have you asked them? Building officials should be approached like a partner rather than an adversary. They are more receptive to people involving them rather than shunning them or treating them like the enemy.

Q: I am researching building an earthbag home in Las Animas county and was wondering what the codes about this might be in this area. Any idea?

A: I am not sure off-hand if there is a building department in Las Animas County, but if there is, I am doubtful they have any code amendments that would address earthbag construction. Unless they are very lax in the enforcement arena, I would guess you would need an engineer to stamp your plans. You will need to actually ask the building department to answer this question. Otherwise they will tell you when you try to submit your plans that you will need an engineer prior to them accepting plans for a permit application.

Q: I live in South Africa, Johannesburg. I studied Fine Arts and somehow got involved in the booming property industry over the past few years. Sadly, I am surrounded and faced by new and horrible looking property developments every day and they're becoming more and worse looking, probably because of the need to make lots of money in a short amount of time, using very little if any creativity when it comes to designing and building these houses.

I basically know nothing about earth building methods YET, but I am fascinated already. I have visions of well planned, beautiful and definitely more eco-friendly cob house developments every day. If property development is inevitable, why not take a different approach. My father, mother and my brother is involved in property development on various levels and I don't think it is completely far fetched thinking in this direction.

The problem though, as you probably know, to build houses within developments you need bank financing, and for that you need approved building methods. I have heard that in certain countries they have existing building guidelines drawn up as approved building methods. I have spoken to a few people who have said that there would be too much opposition from big construction material companies who would never allow these earthbuilding methods to be approved in our country. This seems unfair but unfortunately possible. Is there any advise or lead to advise that you can give me in order to approach this process in a sensible way.

A (Kelly): The problem you describe is all too common. Banks will finance certain types of alternative construction these days in the US...especially strawbale, rammed earth, and adobe building. Codes have been developed regarding these in some states of the US. You might check these links  for more information.

Q: I'm looking for plans for a 1 room earthbag building that I could build that meets all general building codes. Essentially we'd like to add a separate building on our property that we could use a a guest quarters. My family and I would greatly appreciate any information you could give us.

A: (Kelly) Unfortunately building codes in general do not address the use of earthbags, and so it is impossible to assure that any given design would be allowed. While it is often up to the discretion of the particular building inspector or department to determine if an alternative technique, such as earthbags, meets the requirements of the the codes employed, they often defer to traditional methods because it is more conservative to do so. Sometimes they will allow alternative construction if the design bears the stamp of a licensed engineer. I suggest that you talk to your local building department to see what their requirements are.

Q: I have property outside of Los Lunas (off the grid) New Mexico. I would like to put something like earthbag construction on this. Plus, it is something I can build by myself... "lots of sweat equity". Is New Mexico "friendly" to this sort of building technique?

A: (Kelly) The building codes in New Mexico are mandated by the state, rather than local jurisdictions. The state does use the International Residential Code as the basis for its requirements, but they also have an "alternative" set of codes for some fairly common technologies, including strawbale, adobe, rammed earth, etc. As far as I know earthbags have not been accepted into these alternatives yet. This means that you will likely have to convince the officials that this is a viable approach, and they may require some engineering stamps. This will be a worthy test of what is possible...keep me posted.

Q: Do you think that a policy should be created and added to legislation, either local or state, requiring new buildings or renovations on older ones to be forced to turn towards "green" standards?

A: (Kelly) In general I am not in favor of establishing "rules" for building; building codes have stifled much innovative and potentially green construction around the country. Actually, there already exists some requirements in many locales that new construction (and some renovations) comply with certain standards for energy efficiency.

I do support incentives for energy-efficient and sustainable building. The best reward is in greater economy and comfort, and as more people realize this, there will be more interest in building this way. I think that the key is really in education.

Q: I'm an editor at Countryside Publications. I'm working on a story about cob housing. I'm trying to determine what resources are available to help people inform municipal government officials about alternative building materials. I have contacted several non-profit organizations, with no luck at all. A spokesperson for one group advocating cob housing told me they tell people not to get permits. Do you share this position?

A: (Kelly) No, I do not share this position. We obviously need to work within the laws of the land in regard to building, and make every attempt to educate both the public and the building authorities about the ecological reasons for considering many alternative techniques. Most building codes do allow alternatives to the conventional, as long as the underlying safety concerns are met, and the officials have the authority to accept these. If the codes are no longer appropriate regarding sustainable architecture, then we need to change those codes...not disregard them.

I  suggest that would-be cob builders come up with well-drawn plans for their project and take these into their respective building department to get some input from them right away about what is acceptable and what isn't. It might be necessary to have a local architect or engineer sign off on the plans, so this could be another step that needs to be taken. But enter into the discussion with an attitude of "How can we make this work for everybody concerned?"

Q: What natural building options are possible for NE Florida, meeting codes, etc.?

A: Part of the definition of "natural building," in my opinion, is that it is also appropriate to your area or region.  In a humid and warm place like Florida you would do things similar to people in places that deal with maritime climates, humidity and moderate temperatures.  For example, straw bale construction may not be the best choice, but earth construction could be.  Large porch overhangs and lots of natural ventilation would be wise. You need to look at what people have done in climates similar to your own and begin there.  Look for what materials are available locally.  Don't be exotic by importing systems and materials.  Spend your money on efficiency and value, not on size.  Then you determine the level of work necessary to gain approvals and hire the right designer(s) who can play a beneficial role.  Keep it simple and design problems out of the building, not into it.  Your question was very general so I am trying to answer with big answers rather than get too specific. 

Q: I'm hoping you can direct me to any Building code adoptions across the country that have integrated reasonable modifications allowing quality alternative building methods. We will be adopting the 2012 family of codes soon and would like to incorporate a good straw bale code, and any others. We have allowed variations in the past, but I feel if the building public had clear direction for the alternate methods we would see more houses constructed in a more sustainable manner.

A: (Kelly) Building codes for some alternative building methods have been adopted in a few places. In particular I know that strawbale, adobe and rammed earth codes are available in some of the Southwestern states. You might check the resources accessible from www.dcat.net, in particular there are Straw Bale and Earthen Building Codes:

Austin Straw Bale Code (20K pdf file)
Boulder Straw Bale Code (16K pdf file)
California Straw Bale Code (144K pdf file)
Tucson/Pima County SB Code (24K pdf file)
Tucson/Pima County Earthen Code (176K pdf file)

Q: I live in NW Florida, Pensacola area and want to build using alternative building methods and materials, where would I look for permits/codes that will help me decide what I need to do with respect to legalities? What would the thing, book, website, whatever, be called? Where would I find the info? What would the chapter be called? I am look for generalities to aid me in finding the correct path.

A: (Kelly) You need to get in touch with your local building authority, whether that is a city or county agency. Once you know once you know what their requirements are, you can do further research regarding the possibilities. For instance, if they strictly go by the current International Residential Code, then you can find reference material for this at your local library or possible find a book that covers that material elsewhere....see this page. You might also ask some of the local contractors, especially any that have experience with alternative building, what needs to be done.

Q: I am very interested in this kind of creative enterprise but how is it done in the USA with all the standardized building codes in existence? Does one pay as much for an engineer's stamp of approval as for the materials to build the structure? Or do you find areas like Missouri where there are no codes and people generally live in broken down trailers?

A: (Kelly) Jumping the hurdle of building codes is always a challenge when building alternatively...but it can be done. Some people do seek out locations where codes are not a factor, and there is even a book that outlines places around the U.S. where this is true (see this page) The solution in other areas often is to have an engineer stamp the plans, as you suggest, but this will certainly add to the expense. Others choose to ignore the regulations, but that can lead to anxiety or ultimate failure, so I don't recommend it. I live in a code-free county of Colorado, where most of the homes are quite nice by any standard, so this doesn't necessarily lead to derelict neighborhoods.

What about in Mexico? Do you know of any groups doing this down there?

Yes, it is generally fairly easy to build alternatively down there. Many places don't keep track of building enterprises at all, and if they do, it is usually because they want to add them to the tax rolls, not because they want to control how they are built.

Q: I'm planning on building an earthbag home in New Mexico and I want to know if you have any information on the type of "Code Enforcement" New Mexico has. I live in Rio Arriba County. Are they strict or could they care less? I know that there are New Mexico codes for adobe building, but how does that apply to me and earthbags? Any info you have would be greatly appreciated.

A: (Kelly) My understanding is that, unlike most states, New Mexico has state-wide building codes for all jurisdictions. They do have some specific codes for adobe, strawbale, rammed earth, etc, but nothing for earthbags yet. What they do have is a code for all "alternative" or "experimental" projects, and I think that this requires a state licensed engineer to sign off on the plans.

Q: My husband and I are planning on building a house and have been toying with the idea of using strawbale, since we live in an area that always has ample amounts for sale. Plus being able to use cob o on the inside is very desirable. We've done ample research and have drawn up a plan that has good boots and a hat, since we're located in Eastern Washington. Right now, the only thing keeping us from finding a location is how confusing codes are here. What do the codes say about strawbale houses in Washington?

A: The current building codes do not address straw bale construction in general. However, that is about to change. The International Code Council recently adopted an appendix to the building code that addresses straw bale construction, however it will not be available for adoption by local jurisdictions until later this year. Even then, most places do not adopt the latest version of the codes, so this may not help you directly.

There are two issues here you need to be aware of. First, the existence of a straw bale code at the national level, regardless of adoption by your local jurisdiction, is great news and can be pointed to as an example of appropriateness. Second, the newly adopted code is prescriptive and actually describes in detail the structural system you are allowed to use. In many cases this is not the most efficient or best way to build a bale structure. So not having it adopted can also be beneficial.

What you should do is visit the building official and ask them if he/she is familiar with bale construction. Chances are they will be familiar with it, but they’ll want an engineer to stamp the plans. This will alleviate any concerns they may have about the structure and allow you to design your home as you want. I recommend hiring a design professional familiar with your location with straw bale experience. The money spent will save you much more down the road as you hire a contractor or try and figure out how to build it yourselves.

Q: How do I find out what cities and towns in Colorado will approve a rammed earth dwelling?

A: Most alternative building materials, means and methods are not specifically addressed in the building codes. But most of them have been accepted in various jurisdictions around the State of Colorado and are therefore known by the building officials. You could ask a specific building department if they are familiar with rammed earth. If they are not familiar with it they will likely ask that an engineer be involved in the design of the structure, and that the plans be stamped and signed by that engineer. It would be a big undertaking for each county to list all of the materials, means and methods that they have approved, or even for an entity to track all of it. Building officials tend to talk to each other and share information about what they see in their jurisdictions. Just because they don't explicitly advertise that they allow a certain material does not mean they won't accept it under certain circumstances. The best first step is to ask.

Q: I live in New Mexico and just inherited some land near Edgewood and in Grants, NM. I am interested in building a sandbag/cob home on both plots of land but do not know where to start with regards to permits/licenses. I called planning and zoning but no one had any idea what I was talking about. ANY help from ANYONE who is knowledgeable about natural building would be much appreciated.

A: (Quentin Wilson) You can't get a permit to build a sandbag home in New Mexico unless you can find someone to coach you on a special, experimental permit from NM Construction Industries Division. Good old adobe bricks made on the ground and dried by the sun can be put together with adobe mud mortar. It's been done for centuries in NM and there is a fine code, The New Mexico Earthen BuildingĀ Materials Code. It is statewide and has been in effect in one form or another for sixty years. Takes about twenty minutes to learn to lay adobe bricks to get a good wall.

Q: I live in Los Angeles County. Is there any kind of natural building material, like rammed earth, that is acceptable to the codes and rules here?

A: (Kelly) The best way to find out what is acceptable is to ask your local authorities. Often it is possible to use various alternative techniques or materials as long as the plans are stamped by a state-licensed architect or engineer.

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