How can we build better houses at a lower cost?
We have created a system to use the oldest building material in the world in a new way, so that we can build better houses, yet at a 20% lower cost than any other builder.
That sounds like a big claim. After all, it appears we are only building our walls in a different way, but walls typically make up only 20% of the total cost of a house, so even if we can reduce the cost of our walls by 50% (which we can, even up to 75% compared to exterior siding) this still only translates to a 12% overall saving.
The beauty of our system is that our new technology to build better walls has a lot of side-benefits:
- it also allows us to use a new radiant heating technology that reduces the cost of our HVAC system (typically about 7% of the total house cost) by 50% as well
- We created a new type of ultra light foamed cement that reduces the cost of insulation by 50%
- Electricity and plumbing installation is much easier compared to traditional drywall construction, reducing labor costs for those by at least 50% as well
- …and we’ve got a few other trade secrets we can’t disclose just yet.
So we can reduce the cost significantly. But what about the benefits? Better sit down…The list is quite long, and rather impressive.
- Safer – Fireproof, and far stronger to withstand hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods
- Thermal inertia – houses stay comfortably cool in summer
- Low cost Radiant heating & cooling…and a 50% lower energy cost
- Moldproof – houses that last forever
- Non toxic building materials
- Electromagnetic field radiation proof
- Houses built according to architectural principles to promote health and happiness.
- at a 10-20% lower construction cost
1. Safer – Fireproof, and far stronger to withstand hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods
A simple technology to make our houses ridiculously strong.
We build our frames with a double frame that is spaced apart, and typically build them prefab, for two stories at once (for the average two story house).
At each corner of the house we then create wooden columns that we fill up with rebar reinforced concrete, tied to the foundation.
We then run fiberglass rebar rods from one concrete pillar to another, creating a kind of x bracing pattern that is insanely strong to withstand shear forces from earthquakes or hurricanes (each fiberglass rod has a breaking strength of 16,000 lbs, and we’ll typically use about 20 of them in an average house).
Here’s a 3d sketch of how just the columns would look, if we’d remove the wood.
Extra costs: $300 for concrete, $200 for fiberglass, and a bit of extra work but it allows us to later remove the wooden concrete pillars at the corners, saving us over $700 in wood. So basically this is a simple trick to make the house a lot stronger, but without a real increase in cost.
Clay doesn’t burn…ever. Even if we use a wooden frame, the wood is never exposed. Even the fiercest fire won’t penetrate 2.5″ of solid clay.
For our exterior walls, we not only use a double layer of 3.5″ clay blocks, but an additional layer of 8″ a special kind of foamed concrete which is not only fireproof (far more than regular concrete, even), but is also a very good insulator.
For our roofs we put 14 to 16″ of foamed concrete.
Exterior walls and roof structures with foamed cement
Stronger to withstand hurricanes
This one’s simple. Imagine putting a paper folded house in front of a ventilator. Then imagine putting a bag of sand. Our walls have 30 times more mass per sf ft than drywall covered lumber frames. It takes a lot more power to blow them away. At the same time our walls are much thicker (outside walls are 14″ thick), and we’ve got our additional x-braced concrete columns to create additional strength.
Stronger to withstand earthquakes
One of the major downsides of traditional claybrick adobe buildings is that they don’t do well in earthquakes. In our case the blocks are supported by a wooden frame, where the shear forces are all absorbed by our x-braced concrete columns, giving the walls far more stability.
Better flood resistance
Adobe houses also don’t do well with floods, and neither do traditional lumberframe/drywall houses, simply because both clay and drywall can’t handle long-term exposure to water. About 50 years ago, it was discovered that adding a small percentage of either cement or hydraulic lime to the clay, before it is pressed, makes the bricks fully water proof, and even resistant to long term flood exposure. Coupled with our waterproof foamed cement and the moldproof quality of clay walls (see below), our houses will survive floods much better than traditional houses.
2. Silence & privacy – better soundproofing between rooms
The moment you have multiple people sharing the same house, soundproofing and privacy become an important factor of everyone’s quality of life. Think of having an important private conversation, without having to worry that the person in the room next to you is listening in, or think of wanting to go to sleep, or just wanting some silence, while others prefer to play music or watch television.
There are three principles of soundproofing through which we can easily explain why lumber frame walls covered with drywall are the worst possible soundproofing option, while our massive clay walls with a loose sand infill are the best possible solution, while they actually cost a lot less to build.
- More mass = better soundproofing. The more mass, the more the soundwaves get blocked
- soft surfaces = better sound absorption. Soft surfaces tend to absorb soundwaves, while harder surfaces reflect them
- Hollow spaces = sound amplification. Think of a guitar case that amplifies the vibration of the strings.
Standard lumber frame walls covered with drywall create hard surfaces with very little mass, while creating a hollow space in between the drywall boards…all contributing to the worst possible soundproofing.
Our interior walls, on the other hand, have a double layer of 3.5″ solid clay blocks (weighing roughly 40 lbs per sq ft), with another 2.5″ of loose sand infill in between them. This creates a mass that is 30 times higher per sq ft compared to a standard drywall covered frame.
At the same time loose sand is a soft yet high mass material, absorbing sound better than almost any other material. This is because the energy of the soundwaves will displace the sand particles, causing them to rub against each other, but completely breaking the energy of the soundwave. This means there are also no hollow spaces in the walls. Our exterior walls also have double layer of 2.5″ clay blocks plus typically 8″ of foamed cement, creating even better soundproofing against outside sounds.
Typical solutions for to improve soundproofing for standard drywall walls involves putting insulation material in the hollow spaces in the walls and putting a double layer of drywall. These all significantly increase the cost, however. With our system, the results will be far better still, while the costs are far lower. The material cost of our claybricks is virtually zero, while the cost of loose sand is very low as well. (filling up standard drywall frames with loose sand doesn’t work, because drywall isn’t strong enough to hold the weight of the sand.)
3. Thermal inertia – houses stay comfortably cool in summer
Ever visited an old castle in the middle of summer, or any house that has thick brick walls? Did you notice that, even though it was hot outside, the temperature inside was remarkably cool, even without air conditioning?
As outside temperatures fluctuate between day and night, the temperature inside the house will follow, but the more mass in the walls, the longer it will take to follow. As our walls have 30 times more mass than standard lumber frame houses, it will also take 30 times more energy to warm up all this mass. As a result the temperature inside usually barely fluctuates at all beyond the average between the high of the day and the low of the night. This means far less heating costs in winter, and little to no airconditioning in summer.
Clay has a particular property, however, that enhances this effect even further. Clay is a phase change material, which means that it will hold temperatures around our comfort zone much longer than just the mass would suggest. This is why people have known for thousands of years that adobe houses stay remarkably cool, even in the middle of summer.
4. Low cost Radiant heating and cooling…and a 50% lower energy cost
Our building system allows us to create a unique type of radiant heating at a very low cost, which also influences the quality of life in significant ways.
There are 3 different heating systems.
- Forced air heating warms the house by blowing hot air into the rooms,
- Convector heating circulates hot water in a radiator, which then warms the house, partly by warming the air and partly by radiating warmth.
- Radiant heating systems circulate warm water in a large body of mass (usually the floor), which then radiates the heat, warming up other bodies of mass.
As anybody who has experienced the difference between these 3 systems will know, when we rank the systems, both in terms of the level of comfort in the rooms and in terms of energy use, radiant heating is considered by far the best heating system, while forced air is considered by far the worst.
Blowing hot air into the rooms creates a number of uncomfortable side effects.
- it is noisy.
- the air gets very dry when it is heated up, which often creates discomfort,
- warm air rises, which often results in temperature differences in the room.
- the forced air ducts tend to be a breathing ground for bacteria. They regularly have to be cleaned by a professional, which is expensive.
- the air circulation tends to blow dust around in the rooms.
- a lot of the heating energy is lost in the ducts, often resulting in a 10 to 30% energy loss.
- There’s no zoning, for example if we want to warm up one part of the house but not another. It’s all or nothing.
Radiant heat, on the other hand, warms up your body, rather than the air around you. This results in the fact that the temperature in the room can be 4-5 degrees lower, while you still have the same feeling of warmth (=significant energy savings). There’s also no noise, virtually no energy loss, no maintenance, no bacteria growth, no dust blown around, more even temperatures in the rooms, possibilities to create different zones in the house (for example warming up the bedroom at night more than the rest of the house).
So with all these obvious advantages, why doesn’t everybody use radiant heating systems then?
Because radiant heating systems also have downsides that make it either very expensive or simply impractical, specifically in the traditional lumber frame houses.
- They are more expensive to install.
- They need a large body of mass to work, and are usually installed in the floor slab on the ground floor, but for houses that have a second floor, as most houses do, a concrete floor slab on the second floor is usually not practical. This means a separate heating system is needed for the second floor, which significantly increases the cost.
- In forced air systems, the same system can be used for heating and cooling, while a (traditional) radiant heating system will require a separate A/C system, which significantly increases the cost.
Through our system we can get all the advantages of radiant heating, without any of the downsides.
As we have a significant amount of mass in our walls, we can put the radiant heating in our walls, rather than in our floors. We created a system to do this at a very low cost.
Our bricks have a groove on the top and bottom side that exactly fits radiant heating tubes,
This allows us to place radiant heating tubes as we build up the walls. There’s almost no additional labor costs involved, and very little material costs.
This simple solution makes radiant wall heating systems practical, whereas normally they would not be. Builders are usually reluctant to place radiant heating systems in walls for one obvious reason: What if somebody wants to drill a hole in the wall to hang up a painting? If we accidently drill into one of the tubes we just destroyed our heating system. In our system, however, the radiant heating system is covered by a 2.5″ of solid clay, which is more than thick enough to hold almost any screw, so as long as we don’t drill deeper than 2.5″, there’s no risk to damage the system. But even in the rare case where we do have to drill deeper, we can clearly see where the tubes are in the wall based on the pattern of the bricks.
The really cool thing about this particular heating system, however, is that it can also be used for cooling the house.
Because our houses have such a high thermal inertia, coupled with a really good insulation in the walls, very little additional cooling (if any) will be needed. But in case we do need it, we bury a circuit of pipes underground outside. At about 5ft dept the temperature is around a stable 50 degrees, no matter how hot or cold it is above ground. We circulate water there, cooling down the water, and then we circulate this cool water into our walls.
We just created a way to cool down our entire house, with just the energy to run a pump. (these systems are usually used for geothermal heating, but we use it for geothermal cooling)
Usually, whenever we cool down the air, condensation is always a concern. For condensation to occur (on the walls, for example), we do need specific parameters, like a large temperature drop and a high air moisture level. With our thermal inertia (keeping any additional cooling to a minumum) and the natural moisture regulating properties of clay (see below), we can generally stay outside of these parameters, so we don’t have to worry about condensation. This is how a concept of geothermal cooling really only works in combination with our unique wall system.
Overall because of the combination of our thermal inertia, our superior insulation, and our radiant heating system, our houses will require at least 30 to 50% less energy for heating in winter, and up to 80% less energy for cooling in summer.
5. Breathing & hygroscopic walls – preventing molds
Molds are a disaster, both for our own health and for the longevity of our houses. Yet most people seem to have accepted that they are simply an unavoidable part of life, and that they will form in our walls sooner or later.
This is one of the most significant downsides of lumber frame/drywall construction.
Whenever there is a temperature difference between inside and outside, the temperature will drop as air moves through the layers of insulation. As the temperature drops, the air sheds some of its moisture. The point where this happens is called the dew point, and very often this point is inside of our walls. This causes moisture to accumulate inside the walls, and, yes, this is unavoidable. It’s just a law of physics.
It also doesn’t have to be a problem. We make it a problem with our choice of building materials.
Most of our houses are covered with drywall on the interior side, and OSB sheathing on the exterior side. Both of these materials are non-breathing materials or, in more technical terms, they have a very low vapor permeability. Most houses are then also covered with a plastic housewrap, which often is also non-breathing.
This is like wearing a cheap, non-breathing plastic jacket. It prevents the rain from coming in, but it also prevents the moisture, from the perspiration from our skin, from going out. Anyone who has worn a plastic jacket for a while knows that eventually you just get wet from the inside. This is what our houses do to us, and this is what causes molds to form.
Clay, on the other hand, is a fully breathing material (and so is our foamed cement insulation). It has a very high vapor permeability. This means that whatever moisture accumulates in the walls can also immediately dry out.
Breathing walls are one of the best qualities a house can have, both for our comfort, our health, and the lifespan of your house but clay has an additional property which makes it even more ideal as a building material: Clay is also hygroscopic, meaning it “attracts water”. Whenever there is an elevated moisture level around it, the clay will start to absorb this moisture. It literally sucks the moisture from the environment.
This means that clay acts as a natural moisture regulator in our house. Whenever the moisture level in the air is too high, the clay in our walls will absorb it. Whenever it is too low, clay will release it. This significantly increases our comfort level, especially in areas with a high air moisture level.
This hygroscopic quality is especially important when we combine clay with wood as building materials, as we do with our system.
This is clearly visible in the traditional German houses. These houses were built with a lumber frame and a clay/straw infil. The wood in these houses never decays or never rots, because whenever there would be any moisture building up, the clay will first absorb it through its hygroscopic qualities, and then gradually breathe it out.
These traditional German house are still standing (and still inhabited) after 500 years. How many of our current lumber frame/drywall houses do you think will last 500 years?
6. Non toxic building materials
Ever heard of VOC’s? You should, because they are one way to explain how our houses can have a significant detrimental effect on our health.
VOC’s or Volatile organic compounds, are materials that have such a low boiling point that they kind of evaporate into the air at room temperature. Most perfumes have VOC’s, that is what creates their scent. Several of the building materials we use also have them, with less enjoyable effects.Chemical insulation foams in our walls are known to have a lot of harmful VOC’s, and often the house needs to be aired for several days after such foam is sprayed (and the one spraying it needs to wear a gas mask), but even then the foams keep releasing VOC’s for years after this. The biggest source of harmful VOC’s, however, are usually paints, as anyone who has stepped inside a freshly painted house knows.
Health effects from long term VOC exposure include eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, loss of coordination, nausea; damage to the liver, kidney, and central nervous system, and increased risk of leukemia and lymphoma.
With our building system, we can keep the house free of most damaging VOC’s. Our bricks can be used in their natural clay color, which means they wouldn’t need to be painted at all, though if people do prefer a different color then the best paint for clay is a natural limewash (which is just water mixed with hydraulic lime and a color pigment). This is not only significantly cheaper than traditional paint, but it’s also completely natural and free of any VOC’s.
7. EMF blocking qualities of clay
If you made it this far you’ll probably start to understand why we called our system “Better Natural”. Some things, like the building materials we use to build our houses, are just better when they can be completely natural.
Here’s another unique property of clay as a natural building material, the fact that it blocks Electromagnetic Fields (EMFs).
More and more health experts are becoming aware that our constant exposure to the bombardment of electromagnetic fields from our electricity net, radio and cell phone towers, wifi routers and smart meters, might not be all that ideal for our long-term health. Current estimates are that already around 5% of the population is “EMF sensitive”, which means that the subtle effects that long term EMF exposure has on our health is everything but subtle for them. They immediately feel the effects as soon as they are exposed to EMF’s, and see the effects immediately disappear when they shield themselves from exposure.
The main effects from long term EMF exposure appear to be an increase in inflammation and suppression of our auto immune system. Other effects that have been reported are sleep problems, digestive problems, infertility and depressions. The World Health Organisation also classified EMF radiation from cell phone towers as a possible carcinogen. A recent German study found that people living within 400 meters of the cell towers were diagnosed with cancer at a rate that was three times higher than those who lived much further away.
Like soundwaves, electromagnetic waves are to some degree blocked by mass, and the higher the mass the more it can block the radiation. Clay seems to have qualities that make it particularly effective. Research in Europe has shown that a wall of 12″ of solid clay appears to block 100% of EMF radiation.
Inspired by this research, we did started doing our own research, measuring the strength of both electrical fields (from the electricity net, and RF fields (from a wifi router) after they were blocked by a single and a double layer of our bricks. We then did the same measurements with drywall. We compared the results to the limits that were set by the Building biology institute, above which a signal is considered unsafe for our health.
The first results of our tests were encouraging, to say the least.
Drywall had very little effect on blocking EMF’s. A single layer of our bricks already brought the signal strength below the Building Biology safety limits, while a double layer decreased the signal strength by another 50%. As a result a double layer of our bricks in our test blocked 83% of AC fields, and 98% of RF fields. (these tests were done with a double layer of 2.5″ bricks. We currently use a double layer of 3.5″ bricks, which should improve the results up to another 30%.
The body appears to be most sensitive to EMF’s during sleep, which is why it’s especially important to shield at least the bedroom from EMF radiation at night.
EMF’s, a growing concern with the future 5G rollout.
If people are concerned with all the cellphone towers that are radiating EMF’s all around us, this is nothing compared to what is coming in the near future.
5G, the next generation of mobile internet, uses high frequency waves that can carry a lot more information a lot faster (up to 100 times faster than our current 4G network) but that don’t travel as far. As a result it is estimated that we’ll need 10 times more 5G antennas than we have mobile phone antennas now. 5G antennas are smaller, more like a shoebox than a regular antenna, but they’ll be everywhere.
5G is expected to become an important part of our hi-tech interconnected future. It will be the basis for everything, from self-driving cars to the Internet of Things, all kinds of electronic devices communicating with each other. In fact, the 5G network will be prepared to connect up to 100 billion different devices in the future.
Not everybody is going along. The city council of Mill Valley, just outside of San Francisco voted earlier to block deployments of 5G towers due to health concerns. But they are a minority. The drive to get this network of the future out on our streets is so strong that mobile carriers are rushing to get it out, while ignoring more and more warnings from health experts about the potential dangers, or the calls to do more testing before rolling out the network. One danger that health experts are warning about is that we will not only be bombarded by these waves from many more sources, but because they are much smaller wavelengths, our bodies will absorb these waves much stronger than current 4G radiation.
Because of these smaller wavelengths, 5G is much more sensitive to mass than current RF frequencies, (that’s one of the reasons they need 10x more antennas) so given our success in already blocking 98% of current RF frequencies, we can assume an even better result with 5G signals.
So even if we head into the seemingly unavoidable future of being bombarded by 5G microwaves everywhere, at the very least people living in our houses (or other adobe or compressed earth block houses) will be more safe.
8. Houses built according to ancient architectural principles to promote health and happiness.
This is the property of our houses that may very well have the biggest effect on the quality of life, but it’s also the most difficult to explain.
Better Natural houses are built according to an ancient form of architecture that promotes health and happiness of the inhabitants.
You don’t have to believe in any of this, in fact, we’d expect you not to. It doesn’t matter. Using this form of architecture doesn’t increase the cost of the house (quite the opposite, we can work with standardized house designs according to this system, which would actually reduce the cost). When we build houses for people, however, we’d want people to feel exceptionally good in them, as we want this to be the trademark of a Better Natural house. We believe that using this form of architecture will assist in our goals. So if you will experience any of the benefits that are listed below, then this will be an added benefit.
Sthapatya Veda (or Vastu) is one of the oldest systems of architecture in the world. It is a part of the larger collection of Vedic knowledge, a body of knowledge on how to live in harmony with Nature. Yoga, Transcendental Meditation and Ayur-Veda all come from this same tradition.
This form of architecture is mainly based on specific formulas related to orientation proportion and room layout (see more detail below). It is not tied to any specific architectural style, and can, in fact be combined with any style. These formulas have gone through thousands of years of interpretations (Feng Shui is one such interpretations), until about 30 years ago, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of the Transcendental Meditation organisation, and considered one of the greatest experts on Vedic Knowledge alive, spent several years restoring this system in its purity. To distinguish this system from other interpretations this is now called Maharishi Sthapatya Veda (MSV).
Since then over $500 million worth of houses and office buildings have been built using this system, and inhabitants do seem to clearly notice the effects, though we’ll come back to this after we discuss the principles of MSV.
Principles of MSV
The first principle of orientation of MSV is that houses should be built perfectly (within one degree precision) of the cardinal directions.
The principle behind this is that we live in a grid of energy lines. There are magnetic energy lines going from the north pole to the south pole, and while we feel we are standing still, we are actually constantly moving at roughly 1000 miles per hour due to the earth’s rotation. This creates energy lines that go from east to west.
Recently it was discovered that every cell in our body has a kind of built in compass. We have a natural sense of direction, according to this grid of energy lines we live in. If we then live in a house that deviates from this grid of natural directions, it creates a feeling of discomfort and disharmony. This feeling is subtle probably even largely subconscious and people usually won’t notice it, (though they often do notice an effect of feeling good if they enter a properly oriented MSV house, even if they can’t explain why), but in the long term, if they are being exposed to this disharmonious influence 24/7, year after year, it will influence their health and happiness according to the ancient vedic scriptures.
The second principle of orientation according to MSV states that the main entrance of the house should be on either the east or the north side of the house. This is explained according to the influence of the sun, which influences life on earth more than anything else. When the sun rises in the east, it has an awakening (positive) energy. When it is in the south it has a burning (negative) energy, and when it is in the west it has a going-to-sleep lethargic energy. So MSV states that either we should preferably invite the East energy into our house through our front door, or otherwise the energy from the north, but west and especially south entrances should be avoided.
There are specific proportions in nature which appear to be more harmonious or creating a pleasing quality than others. The “Golden Ratio” is probably the most famous of them, though the Vedic Texts describe others as well. MSV houses are built according to these proportions.
The golden ratio (1.68 to 1) is found everywhere in nature, from the proportion of the limbs of our bodies to each other(as famously outlined in Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man) to the arrangement of parts of plants in nature such as leaves and branches along the stems of plants and of veins in leaves. The Golden ratio is known to have pleasing qualities when it is used in art, which is why artist throughout time have used it, and it is often used in ancient architecture, like in the Patheon in Greece or the piramids in Egypt. Some even claim that how beautiful a face of a person is perceived to be can be directly related to how close the different parts of the face are to the golden proportion.
When the length, width and height of the house as a whole, as well as all the rooms in the house individually are designed according to these harmonious proportions, the ancient Vedic texts claim, it will have a pleasing effect on life as a whole, a positive effect on health, happiness and success of the inhabitant.
3. Room layout.
The layout of rooms in the house according to MSV is again designed based on the different qualities of the sun during the day. When the sun is in the south, for example, it has a burning, destructive energy, which is bad as a main entrance, but the ideal location to have the dining room, as it will promote digestion of food. Likewise the bedrooms are ideally placed on the west side, etc.
Do people notice an effect? The research says yes
These principles may appear far-fetched to some, but the people who moved into a house built according to MSV principles do seem to clearly notice an effect. 147 people who moved into an MSV house replied to a survey asking them if they noticed a change in quality of life compared to living in their previous house (read the full results of the study here)
- 92% reported an improved comfort of home
- 90% reported an improved overall quality of life
- 78% reported improved family relationships
- 85% reported less stress
- 60% reported better sleep
- 80% report an improved mental health
- 92% report more success in life
- 88% reported that their children are happier.
This is only a preliminary research with promising results, rather than a solid scientific study, which should be confirmed by far more research in the future. The founder of Better Natural, Joachim Claes, is definitely one who experienced these same effects, and only wishes for more people to have them. He also believes that more research will confirm these effects, and provide a more solid scientific basis for them in the future, and that houses built according to MSV will have a higher market value.
This research was done with houses built according to principles of MSV, but most of the houses themselves were still standard lumberframe houses. When the house will be an MSV better natural house, the perceived improvements should be much better still.
While we can’t force people to build houses according to these principles, and it might not always be practical (the plot of land and local building codes might not allow you to build a properly oriented house, for example) from our side, we do give priority to people who want to build a Better Natural house according to MSV, as we feel this will be an essential part of the Better Natural brand in the future. We want to build houses that people feel good in, and want that to be what sets our houses apart.
As mentioned earlier, there is no additional cost to build a house according to MSV. There’s even the potential to decrease the costs by working with one of the standardized MSV designs rather than a custom design. We have a wide range of standardized house designs available, which saves on both architect costs and building costs. Standardization means the potential to optimize building processes, which leads to decreased costs.
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