Dig Baton Rouge

Handcrafted homes: Team of LSU professors, students studying a new sustainable material for homes

Sustainable living comes in many forms. You can put solar panels or wind turbines on your roof. Compact fluorescent bulbs — you know, the weird curly ones — and low-flow toilets can cut your utility usage.

But these are all fairly expensive investments to make. They also require you to own a home — most rental properties wouldn’t allow such drastic changes, with the exceptions of small things like the lightbulbs.

Owning your own home is a great investment, but one that is becoming more difficult for people to make. Be it a negative socioeconomic background or being too young to have the assets necessary, buying or building a home isn’t in the cards for many people.

A small team of professors and students from the LSU AgCenter, Department of Architecture and Department of Engineering worked together through the Coastal Sustainability Studio to tackle this problem. How can you make more cost effective homes that are also more environmentally sustainable?

Their answer was earthen homes. Not unlike the adobe structures and clay huts in more arid climates, the team wanted to see if structures made from soil indigenous to Louisiana would work in the wet and windy climate.

The team got the maximum grant from CSS of $35,000 to conduct a study on Baton Rouge soil. The strategy was to test the soil to see if it could stand up to being compressed to make bricks.

Once they found the soil could be compressed and be structurally sounds without needing to be fired, making the process more expensive and harmful to the environment.

According to Associate Professor of Engineering Michele Barbato, there were three major hurdles that needed to be cleared for the idea to even be remotely possible.

“Is the structure able to resist strong wind? Is the soil able to stay together with the humidity and heavy rain?”

Barbato explained that most earthen homes were only ever built in dry, arid climates to specifically avoid this problem. Could the soil in Louisiana hold up in a climate that is built for erosion?

“From a structural point of view, [the bricks] can take winds up to 135 miles per hour,” Barbato said.

This would make a structure made using the earthen bricks would be able to survive a category 3 hurricane, maybe even a category 4, he said.

As for the rain, the team constructed a small wall with the bricks, protecting half with a thin coating of cement and soil. After leaving the wall out for several months, the protected side was completely unaffected.

“A very positive result,” Barbato said. “Then there was the architectural problem. People [in Louisiana] are not used to this type of structure, so how can we make this appealing?”

No matter how sound or sustainable a new technology may be, there’s no accounting for taste. If no one wants to live in an earthen home because it looks strange, no problems are solved.

“[The structures need] to work with the culture, the way of life,” said Assistant Professor of Architecture Robert Holton. “That’s where the Shotgun urban typology and Dogtrot rural typology came in… can this technology work with the local and regional cultural heritage?”

The dogtrot and shotgun style of homes are very familiar to residents of Louisiana. The designs stemmed as a reaction to Louisiana’s climate, so they’re very comfortable – and more economical, not necessarily needing central air conditioning.

“And then,” Barbato said, “there is the third question — which really makes it or breaks it—will this technology be economical?”

After all, the entire point of the project was to make a home that would put a roof over more heads while impacting the environment less, Holton said.

The environmental impact would already be low — without needing to fire the bricks in a kiln, there doesn’t need to be any extra fuel, and there’s less chance of losing materials. Plus, there’s a significant lack of transportation cost; the plot of land should provide all the soil you need to make your home. This all, of course, also cuts down on costs.

“From an economical point of view,” Barbato said, “we compared [our system] to mobile homes and the cheapest way of building a traditional wooden house. We ended up with a price that is around $48 to $56 per square foot over a model home of around a thousand square feet.”

The mobile homes are a little cheaper, but obviously not as safe. The wooden homes quote for around $80 a square foot, according to Barbato and Holton’s research. So, the economics are right where they need to be.

Holton claims that, were you to build it yourself – and everyone on the team insist this is totally feasible with a small team of maybe five people — a home would cost around $27,000 — not counting the cost of land or other additions to the home. Barbato is a little more conservative, estimating around $48,000.

Either way, this price is much lower than your average new home being built. It of course all depends on how fancy and complex you want to get, but for a simple and no-nonsense home that you can own, it’s very sustainable and affordable – something that seems to be in fashion for those in the market for a home currently.

While the team is still a ways off from building their first room, and then moving on to building an actual home, the actual reality of the home market may be less appealing.

Vice President of GMFS Lending Tony Moore said via email that a smaller loan would be tougher to secure. In addition, the fairly unproven nature of a new home style can scare off many lenders.

“… the more typical a style or design of home is in a certain market, the more acceptable it is to any lender,” Moore said. “… the more unique the home is for the market, the harder it is to value. When the value of a home is uncertain, financing becomes more and more difficult.”

This of course is all getting very speculative; while all the numbers clear these homes as being safe and sound, according to the team, nothing is set in stone until the stones are set, so to speak. There is no real reason to assume they wouldn’t work, however, said Holton and Barbato.

“[These homes] are designed to be very simple. There are no complicated details,” Holton stressed. “Excluding the blocks, everything else is from Home Depot.”

All things considered, these structures could have a great impact on the future of Louisiana and the rest of the Gulf Coast. It will be interesting to see the team’s findings and if this technology is made available to the public.

Photo by Sean Richardson

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