Great Britain is in a housing crisis. Everywhere you look, some version of that headline is making the rounds. In some places, it’s a daily conversation. Of course, as we all know, it’s not just a matter of not building enough new houses, but the fact that housing prices are well out of proportion to most people’s income. In London, the crisis has reached such levels that 80% of the new housing built is only affordable for 20% of the city’s population.

Of course, this isn’t a new problem; it’s an escalating one. We can look back several decades and see where the seeds were planted, and how exploitation has exacerbated an issue already compounded by recession and skill shortage.

Today, we are building far fewer houses than are needed. We are creating poorer quality homes that are undersized and over-priced. In the rental market, we have landlords who overcrowd and advertise storage closets as flats and living rooms as bedroom space. We have renters spending 40% of their income on housing.1 We have houses being built and put on offer at much higher prices than the community around them can afford. The problem that began years ago is now coming to a head. The question is what are we going to do about it?

While the government is busy looking for solutions and creating schemes – to greater or lesser success – in this two part series we are going to take a look at some alternatives to the traditional home: different materials, innovative designs, and unique approaches to community that just might be a part of the wider solution to the increasing question of: Where are people going to live?

This time, we investigate some unusual construction materials.

A different kind of construction material

In an effort to come up with more sustainable, eco-friendly, cheaper housing, designers are turning to non-traditional materials. Some of these are widely used elsewhere; others draw on ancient building practices. All of them deserve consideration.

Rammed earth

Whilst still not overly popular in the UK, the exploration and use of rammed earth is on the rise, particularly with environmentally-aware architects.


Rammed earth is one of humanity’s oldest sustainable building materials, with some of the earliest evidence of use coming from China and dating back to 5,000 BCE.2 In the UK, the building method was reintroduced in the late 18th/early 19th century as the result of a rammed earth revival in France. Buildings made from rammed earth during that time include a five storey rammed chalk building in Winchester and a property in Amesbury, Wiltshire.3


There are several benefits in using rammed earth: excellent thermal mass, minimal carbon dioxide emissions, strong load bearing qualities, natural fireproofing, good acoustic qualities, and their colouring matches the local surrounds, which tends to make them aesthetically pleasing4. Rammed earth structures are also highly sustainable, as illustrated by the numerous ancient structures still standing in various locations around the world.

While the initial process is labour intensive, once rammed earth elements are formed, construction is simple. This could work to shorten on-site building times.

Production methods

To produce rammed earth, aggregates and clay are combined, with the exact mixture varying according to climate and what is available locally. In modern production, cement is often added for increased durability and strength. In areas where intense weather is a factor, rammed earth can be supplemented with rebar, bamboo and/or wood reinforcements to make it hardier against events like earthquakes and heavy storm events. It can be used for walls, floors, and foundations.

Modern day examples

A recent example of a unique and beautiful structure using rammed earth can be found in Australia. When asked to design temporary housing for seasonal ranch hands, architectural firm Luigi Rosselli turned to rammed earth and subterranean build. A rammed earth wall zigzags along a sand dune to create a 230 metre façade, while 12 individual en-suite bedrooms are set at an angle beneath a sand bank. The façade and subterranean design provides natural cooling and protection from the hot Australian sun5. Here in the UK, recent examples of rammed earth construction include The Genesis Project in Somerset, Durham’s Rivergreen Centre at Aykley Heads, and CAT’s WISE conference centre6.


Another alternative to traditional build materials is timber frame. Ecologically, timber has several benefits:

  • Trees are one of our best defences against the build-up of CO2. Timber frames not only lock the CO2 we emit into its wood, the use of timber encourages the building and expansion of forests
  • The industrial process used in timber production is also less CO2 intensive than for other materials
  • Timber walls serve as more efficient insulators. Timber both heats up and cools down more quickly than masonry, making it easier to regulate indoor temperature
  • Timber is robust. If built properly, a timber frame structure can last for hundreds of years.

With modern day timber framing, issues like rot and beetles are not generally a problem. This is largely due to modern building methods and the fact that modern heating tends to keep the damp necessary for these occurrences at bay. Fire is also less of an issue than one might think.

Timber is at most risk to fire during construction; once fire protection has been built over the frame, the likelihood is greatly reduced. In fact, it has been speculated that the threat to life from steel failing due to high temperature is near equivalent to the risk posed by building with timber.

When it comes to addressing the housing shortage, one highly important benefit of timber framing is that it can be pre-fabricated, thus reducing on-site construction time7.


Bamboo is a sustainable building material that can also replenish itself very quickly, being one of the fastest growing plants in the world8. As a building material, bamboo is extremely hardy and water-resistant. It’s also highly flexible and lightweight. As an added bonus, bamboo also has anti-bacterial properties, which makes it an attractive material for facilities that cater to children or the ill9.

Unfortunately, bamboo must be imported, and there are issues surrounding that. Bamboo cannot be sustainably grown on a large scale in the UK, Europe or North America – all places where there are more stringent regulations surrounding organic production. Currently, the primary producer of bamboo is China, a country where the lack of focus on sustainable practices and absence of regulations create concerns regarding the use of pollutant chemicals, should the demand reach high level10. So while bamboo is a viable option for sustainable housing, there are still hurdles to overcome if it is to be more widely used.

Shipping containers and wooden pallets

Shipping containers

Not just a part of the self-build movement, shipping container homes are being created by home builders who see it as an opportunity to efficiently and quickly create affordable, innovative housing.

A good example of a larger shipping container home is located in Texas, USA. Known as PV14, this home is built from over 14 containers, comprises 3,700 square feet, with three bedrooms, three and a half bathrooms, and an outdoor swimming pool11.

Opposite of this mammoth sized home, is a home in New Zealand that consists of a single container. Due to its small size, it doesn’t require planning permission or council consent12.

In the UK, location plays a big part as to whether a shipping container home requires planning permission. Also important is how the owner/occupier plans to use it.

Wooden pallets

In 2012, the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants stated that there were more than 33 million refugees worldwide. At the same time, and in the US alone, there was 700 million wooden shipping pallets being produced, 150 million which ended up in landfill. By putting these two seemingly unrelated facts together, the idea of creating cheap, eco-friendly, housing was born13.

With the current housing crisis in the UK, this idea could take further shape and provide housing for people currently homeless or staying in bedsits due to lack of social housing.

Using both

In Chile, the Manifesto House uses both recycled maritime containers and recycled wooden pallets. Created in 2009 by architects James & Mau, this eco-friendly home comprises 160 square metres, with a total cost of €79,000 (approx. £58,000).14 The project relied on bioclimatic architecture, which means the house’s form and positioning is based on energy needs, making it 70% autonomous. The pre-fab, modular design also means that construction was quick, and the home can be easily modified in future to adapt to the changing needs of the residents.

In addition to the recycled containers and pallets, Manifesto House externallinkuses recycled cellulose and cork for insulation, recycled iron, aluminium, and wood, other woods sustainably sourced, and eco-friendly paints and ceramics15.

Green roofs

Green roofs and living walls are growing in popularity; you see them featured in a lot of new architectural designs, and councils like Newcastle Upon Tyne’s are actively integrating greenery into their urban plan in order to reap the many benefits, which are several fold.

Environmentally, having a green or vegetative roof is beneficial on several fronts: nearby air quality is improved, the building’s heating and cooling needs are reduced, and there is less surface water runoff. The durability and lifespan of the roof itself is also increased. Further, it has been shown that having natural elements within an urban setting provides a psychological benefit to the population16.

Green roofs also help to mitigate the urban heat island (UHI) effect. UHI is the term used to describe the higher temperatures (when compared to green spaces) associated with urban environments. The UTI effect is caused by replacing natural surfaces with hard ones, which usually absorb significantly more solar radiation. Seeing as pavement and roofs make up an estimated 60% of the urban environment, replacing those hard surfaces with a natural one can have a positive impact on thermal comfort levels which, in turn, has a positive impact on mood17.

While green roofs and living walls don’t address the lack of affordable housing, their addition to a housing project could serve to help create a happier, healthier community.

Next: Alternative housing: a different approach to materials, styles and community thinking (Part two)