The Ultimate Guide To The Best Building Materials

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There are so many factors to consider when buying materials for your building projects that the process involved can be very overwhelming. Before anything else you need to consider your finances and how much every element will cost you.

Although you may want to concentrate on the building materials, it doesn’t matter which materials create the “tightest envelope”, if they are outside of your budget.

In construction, a tight envelope refers to the structure’s ability to keep out weather, like rain and wind. Ideally you want a super tight envelope, to create a sturdy and long-lasting building. But if something is long-lasting, it should also be good for the environment because, in a world where nothing decomposes, our creations should actively help the world around them.

With all of these ideas to consider, it makes sense to become lost on how to start. But that’s where we come in.

Today we are going to walk you through the ultimate guide to building materials, so you can consider everything before starting your project.

What Are The Best Building Materials?

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In general, there are 4 types of material that your building will be made out of. When looking at the average house, most are built out of wood, which is why our examples above didn’t leave any wiggle room for these additional materials we are about to talk about.

Wood is the least expensive and is the best for the environment if responsibly sourced, however, it is not your only option.

Wood

Before we dive into the other three types of materials, let’s explain why wood is still the most common despite it being the oldest type on our list.

Wood is not only the affordable choice but is also the most lightweight choice for builders to work with. This means they can be carried around the working area without needing additional tools or lifts to do so, creating another layer of affordability.

Due to its natural components, wood is a very good insulator. This means that warm air will be locked into your home, and cold air will be pushed out. This is perfect for most homes and again creates another layer of affordability.

Although cutting down trees to create wood might seem very non-eco-friendly, wood has the lowest carbon footprint out of all of the other materials below and uses less water and energy to create. If you really want to make sure that your home is as eco-friendly as possible, be sure to source your wood from responsible timber suppliers. This means that the supplier will be committed to farming the wood in a way that keeps the forest alive and thriving and will stop production if they cut down too many trees.

As with everything, there are downsides to wooden frames, too; for this material, the negative is around how much weight it can carry. Wooden frames cannot hold too much weight, which means that if you are building a structure with more than three floors, you may need to choose a different material.

Wood is also extremely flammable and can be harmed dramatically by water damage. If you are planning to build in an area that is prone to wildfires or flooding, you may again need to use a different material.

Steel

Steel is the most popular framing material for multi-story buildings, car parking lots, or offices. This is because they are extremely strong and can handle extraordinary weights.

Unlike wood, steel is water-resistant, fire-resistant, and will not be torn down from termites. This means they are the perfect replacement for those living near dangerous locations.

However, all of this security and durability makes steel more expensive.

Read More: Metal Home Building Kits

Concrete

Concrete has most of the same pros as steel, but the cheapness of wood. It is made out of cement, stone (or sand), and water. When the materials are mixed together, they create a liquid, which can be easily manipulated. After some time, the mixture dries and hardens to form a sturdy wall or frame.

Like steel, concrete can hold a lot of weight and is resistant to water, fire, and termites. It is also a low-maintenance material that doesn’t require any after work once it has been erected. Like wood, concrete is also good at regulating temperature creating an energy-efficient building.

To create concrete buildings, you will need to hire someone with the correct skills as wood builders, and concrete builders require different training.

However, unlike wood and steel, concrete does not have an eco-friendly path. Wood can be decomposed if the building were to be torn down, and steel can be recycled. Concrete, however, will live on forever, making it the end of the material’s life cycle.

It is also an ugly material, which is why many builders only use it for functional buildings like garages.

Masonry

Masonries are materials like bricks, stones, concrete blocks, and more. They are the construct of squares placed on squares with cement in between.

Because of their layering design, masonries can hold a lot of weight. When reinforced with steel beams, they can even rival concrete buildings. Great against water damage, fire damage, and termites, masonries are also excellent at keeping you cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

Their patterned designs are wonderful and pretty, and you can make them out of almost any stone of your choosing.

However, all of these stones are very heavy and expensive. They cost a lot of money to ship around the country, and they need expert crafters to build the structure. Although masonry is the prettiest choice, it is also the most expensive.

Other Energy Efficient Building Materials

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Being energy efficient isn’t just a great choice for the environment and our world’s longevity; it is also the best way to create a cheaper bill without switching providers all the time.

Energy-efficient products will cost you less in the long run, which is why they should be on everyone’s mind.

Below is a list of excellent energy-efficient building materials to help you decide which one is best for your new home.

Recycled Steel

Steel is a 100% recyclable material. If you liked the idea of a steel frame for your build but are worried about the environmental impact, know that steel can be recycled again and again without losing any of its value or strength.

If you choose to use recycled steel, then you will be saving the material from landfill while still receiving all of its benefits!

Steel isn’t the best material for insulation by itself and like all building structures you will want to use proper insulation methods. We wrote an in-depth article on steel building insulation here or you can read about the insulation costs of metal buildings here.

Insulating Concrete Forms

Concrete is a wonderful insulator which means that it is amazingly energy efficient. You could end up saving around 20% of your energy bills if you used concrete instead of wood or steel.

The difference between concrete blocks and these insulating concrete forms comes from the way in which the concrete is being manipulated. Insulating concrete forms are created by pouring the liquid version between two layers of insulating materials like polystyrene. This additional protection gives you added regulation.

Both versions of this concrete method will be beneficial, but using the forms and added materials will build an additional layer creating a truly warm and cozy home.

Plant-Based Polyurethane Rigid Foam

After a surfboard company used toxic chemicals in their materials and was eventually shut down by the Environmental Protection Agency, a man named Ned McMahon invested in a plant-based foam material for the surfing world.

These foams would be a great eco-friendly alternative to the polystyrene and other plastic foams used for insulation, like the concrete forms above.

Their rigid nature is why they are often used on surfboards, wind turbines, and buildings. They are also heat resistant and water-resistant. This means that you don’t have to worry about the materials’ strength or durability.

Although these foams shouldn’t be used by themselves, they are the perfect accompaniment for insulation extras.

Straw Bales

Straw bales are such good insulators that they have been used for advanced levels of temperature control for centuries. You can see their historical value by looking at thatched houses that are still around in the UK and the beautiful buildings found in Native American communities.

Straw bales have a wonderful cottage-core aesthetic, and although they are natural materials, they can last for thousands of years if treated properly.

Used as insulation, they are stuffed into the walls of your building as a buffer to trap heat. However, as you can expect, straw is a pest’s best friend. If there are holes in your walls, you might expect a mouse nesting in the bales.

The saying “it’s raining cats and dogs” actually came from the slippery nature that thatched roofs created while it was raining. If the rain was very heavy, it could be easy for creatures living on the roof to fall from their perch and into their home space.

Cool Roofing

Cool roofing is designed to reflect the heat from the sun on super hot days to keep your building cool. The idea is to allow less heat to travel into the building at all. Cool roofing tends to be a white plastic-like material, although you can find darker materials too, and they are used instead of tiles on your roof.

They work well in hot climates but are not needed in colder ones. They are a lot more expensive than traditional roofing, coming in at a whopping $80 extra per square foot, however, your electric bill will be dramatically decreased as your air conditioner will not be needed as frequently.

However, if you don’t use your air conditioner frequently, then this purchase will be more expensive than it’s worth.

Structural Insulated Panels

Structural insulated panels, also known as SIPs, are made by sandwiching a layer of foam between a hard structure frame like wood or cement panels. The technique is essentially the opposite of insulating concrete forms. It is more expensive but works better, saving up to 50% of your energy costs.

You could replace the foam with plant-based foam to create the same hard structure or just plants themselves and use straw bales instead. Either way, this will create the same insulation effect but by using more eco-friendly materials.

Some people are not a fan of the standard sliding board design of a SIP, but it should be noted that you can add more aesthetically pleasing materials like bricks and stones to the panels to create a more visually appealing effect.

Recycled Wood/Plastic Composite Lumber

One of the many places that recycled plastic bags end up is on a construction site. They can be used as a bouncing material in a playground or, like in this case, as an insulation material to live in your home for the next 100 years.

Because recycled plastic has been cleaned and reshaped, it is less toxic than first used plastic, which means that it is the perfect material between the two suggestions. If you throw recycling wood or lumber into the mix, though, you’ll be adding strength from these natural materials.

Composite lumber is made from a combination of recycled plastic and wood cut-offs,   making it a great source for recycled materials and allows us to reuse plastics that would otherwise stay in landfill. The durability of the plastic elements means that the composite lumber is resistant to both mold and rot, which is why it is more expensive than traditional and treated lumber alternatives.

Low-E Windows

Low emissivity windows are windows that emit a low level of thermal energy. This means they give off small traces of heat. All materials give off some layer of heat, but Low-E windows reduce the amount using a three-pane glass method where the element Argon is placed between each layer.

Using these window types instead of regular ones will allow you to save 70 percent of your overall energy loss, meaning you can save money on your energy bills.

These types of windows are often found in the homes of people who live in storm locations, as the additional layers also create strong and durable materials for long-lasting protection in dangerous weather.

Because of both of these reasons, Low emissivity windows can be rather costly, coming in at around $100 each. However, you will soon get that money back through the high amount of savings you’ll achieve.

Vacuum Insulation Panel

VIPs are an acronym for vacuum insulation panels. They are spaniels of materials that have been designed and placed to create a vacuum of air in the space between them.

This means that you don’t need to plan ahead for large gaps between your panels to make sure you include insulation. Instead, you can create thinner walls to save space while also protecting yourself and your home from the heat or cold.

These methods are more often used in workplace situations like shipping containers, temporary builders, or refrigeration rooms. This is because these such rooms care more for thermal insulation than soundproofing.

As you can expect, smaller frames will mean you have larger rooms, but you will be more likely to hear movement throughout your home.

Earth

This might seem a little left field, but using the earth beneath your feet to insulate your home is a tried and tested method that has been around for centuries. It might seem like an old-fashioned method, depending on where you live, but many countries, including New Zealand, Peru, and China, continue to use this naturalist material in their construction. They even have building codes to keep the practice regulated and safe.

Unfortunately, in the US, UK, and most other western countries, this method isn’t seen as the eco-friendly answer to housebuilding. This means that there aren’t any codes or restrictions to the building process, which in turn suggests that there won’t be many specialized crafters available to build the structure.

Many researchers have found that earth-rammed houses are amazing at regulating heat.

Let’s take this economic evaluation into the construction and usage of the materials too. You’ll find that earth is an abundant resource that is easy to ship around the country. This means that the real cost to your project will come from the labor and not the materials.

Main Costs Involved In Building A House

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According to Home Guide, the average cost to build a house is between $155,310 and $416,250, which is $100 to $155 per square foot.

A lot of these charges come from the 7 main points below. You may need to weigh up your pros and cons of cheap work versus expensive prices when you talk to a contractor. Knowing how important and expensive each of these 7 points are, can help you determine if or when a more affordable change is worth the dip in quality.

Foundation

The foundation isn’t just the bottom layer of your house, it is also the soil leveling and excavation of the plot you’re working on.

Lifting the ground and leveling it out is a heavy-duty job that requires high-class materials and skilled workers. If the ground under your home isn’t worked on properly, then the building may begin to fall or collapse after years or decades of use.

More importantly still, the contractors will be able to avoid any pipes or structures that are hidden under layers of soil. If these wires or pipes get knocked or broken, your fee will increase.

If you want to cut the cost of the foundation down without putting your house in danger, you should pick a landscape without massive rocks buried underneath, and you should avoid adding a basement.

If the environment is littered with stones and rigid materials, more durable equipment will be needed to safely remove the obstacles. Depending on the severity of the ground’s condition, this could double the original cost.

Although it is very common for American houses to hold basements, the additional labor and building work to dig deep into the ground will cost you more.

On average, foundation work can cost anywhere between $30,000 and $50,000.

Roof And Framing

The frame of your home will be the most expensive part of the building process, with its only competition being the interior.

When a house is first being built, timber is used to sketch out the skeleton of the building. This will include the layout of the rooms, where the doors will be, and more. A lot of timber will be used in this process, so before you can even lay down the concrete, you can expect a cost of $35,000 to $60,000 already.

Luckily the roof is often charged along with the framing, but again this will not include the finishing touches, which creates the tight envelope effect we are after.

You may be offered trusses or covering boards to protect the frame and steel materials. We advise that you accept these suggestions as they will make your home more sturdy and will protect the bones of the building.

However, these additional protection materials will cost you extra.

Plumbing

The price of plumbing often depends on the material you use. Copper is the best material on offer, but it can cost around $10,000 per 1,5000 square feet. If this is too expensive, you can opt for PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride), PEX (Cross-Linked Polyethylene), or CPVC (Chlorinated Polyvinyl Chloride).

These acronyms are for plastic pipes. CPVC is the most durable when put up against strong temperatures, so if you plan on keeping the pipe near the same area as the central heating pipes, then this plastic alternative might be your best choice. However, CPVC is not as water-resistant as the other plastics.

PEX is the most flexible, which makes it perfect for old-shaped homes. However, it cannot handle hot temperatures very well and will need to be replaced if used for hot water too often.

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HVAC

HVAC stands for Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning. These three systems are often grouped together. Although they use different piping and technologies, they all create the same overall effect, which is to keep you at the proper temperature and humidity level.

Despite their invaluable use to keep us comfortable, their cost is often more moderate than our other prices, but that does depend on where you live.

Hotter and colder climates often have to pay extra for HVAC in comparison to moderate climate locations due to the additional need for temperature regulation. On average, you can expect a price tag of between $6,000 and $15,000.

If you were already planning on adding a fireplace or another beautiful furnace, the cost would likely be the same due to the additional pipework needed. However, fireplaces are considered so aesthetically pleasing (and difficult to install once the building has been completed) that they instantly pump up the overall value of your home.

Electrical Wiring

The cost of electrical wiring is often reflected in the number of outlets and switches you require. Once these factors are determined, the electrician will also need to know how complicated the floorplan is and the type of wiring you are planning for.

In our increasingly technological world, we would advise you to add in as many outlets as you can, as they will undoubtedly be filled no matter what you are planning to install.

The type of wiring used will likely be determined by your floor plan and need, so you don’t need to worry about the technical differences in the process. However, the electricians will need to complete their wiring through two stages. The first is known as the “rough-in” stage and is completed while the frame is still out in the open without additional support. The second is known as the “finishes” and is completed at the same stage as the drywall phase. The builders construct the drywall phase.

Because both groups of contractors need to work together to build your home, they will need to talk to one another to keep your building schedule on time.

Wiring often costs around $3 – $10 per square foot.

Interior Finishes

The interior of your home is more than just your couch or your refrigerator; it is also your flooring, your dry walls, your lighting, and everything else!

Because there are so many little bits needed to make your home less of a “four-wall building” and more of a “home,” it can be easy to lose track of your finances during this stage.

On average, you will need roughly $60,000 to $90,000 to complete this part of the build, and that doesn’t necessarily include the finer details like pictures or bookshelves. This summary is designed with the bare minimum in mind, as you can save up for more furniture once you have moved into your new home.

Exterior Finishes

The exterior includes the bricks of your home, the tiles on your roof, the types of windows and doors you will need, and the details of your garage, if you have one. Although all of these items are important in the tightness of your home, they are less fiddly than the interior finishes, which is why the overall price is often cheaper.

You can expect a price tag of around $20,000 to $30,000 total for the exterior. The range in price depends on the size of your home and which materials you choose to use.

Calculating The Costs For Building A New House

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Using the averaged information above, you can calculate that the average newly built house will cost roughly between $145,000 and $270,000, however, this information is just based on average sizes. If you want a more accurate estimate, you can either use online calculators like CostToBuild or talk to a local contractor about your suggested designs.

Using our suggestions above, you can weigh out the additional or lessened costs offered to you in comparison to the average build price.

Remember that the average American house size is approximately 2,400 square feet, so keep that in mind when looking through the above figures.

Read More: Consider Building a Barndominium

What Materials Are The Best For You?

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So now you know what the best materials around are, you need to take a look inward to estimate which of these materials will be the most beneficial to you and your project.

Are you planning to build a structure with 20 stories? Then you’ll need steel frames. Are you looking for the most eco-friendly materials? Then you can build using earth and straw bales but is that really the best way? Are you looking for a cheap design that will stand strong in a landscape that often deals with wildfires? Then you’ll want a concrete frame with low emissivity windows.

Make a list of what makes your structure unique and what specific needs you will be expecting. Once you’ve done that, you should go through our list again to see which materials seem to benefit the points on your list.

Now your personalized list has been created, you can go through the materials you have chosen and consider the financial impact these choices can make. Once you’ve weighed everything up, you can go to your construction company and show your research.

Summary

Each of the materials on this list will be fantastic at keeping you warm and creating that tight envelope that every construction company aims for. You may like to look through all of these materials like we have suggested and go to a construction company to start your build, or you can wait for the company to give you your narrowed down options.

The latter might be more realistic as the workers will need to be skilled in the job you are after. There is no point wasting your time on an epic mud house if no one around can build it.