Other Green Alternatives

Technologies considered alternative today are the source of the innovations that will produce big economic and environmental benefits in the near future.

1 Insulated concrete forms
2 SIPs
3 Natural building materials
3 Innovation!

Sustainability is a growing part of the building industry, and an area where every project can make a contribution. Thirty years ago, passive solar design was considered "alternative"; now it is a basic assumption of high–performance buildings. Your opportunity to pursue alternatives can result in big rewards for your project and many projects that follow.

Goal: Use creativity and innovation to build more sustainable environments

Take the opportunity to use your creativity — and the creativity of architects, engineers, and designers — to use new products and find new solutions to familiar problems. The outcome can save resources, save money, and add to your satisfaction in the building process.

area one

Use insulated concrete forms

What is this?

Insulated concrete forms (ICFs) replace typical wooden concrete formwork with rigid insulating foam (typically expanded polystyrene) that is left in place after the pour. ICFs can be used for foundations and above–grade walls as well. The resulting walls are ready for a finished surface application such as stucco.

Why do it?

ICFs are an easy way to insulate concrete while also saving the wood used in conventional formwork. ICF walls give high levels of insulation without the thermal gaps and air leakage typical of stud construction. Additionally, some (although not all) varieties of ICF use a substantial amount of recycled material in their products.

How to do this?

Current ICF systems are proprietary, so work closely with each specific product's manufacturer to make sure that the system is specified and installed as recommended.

Who does this?

Architects, contractors, product manufacturers, local representatives and distributors.


area one

Use structural insulated panels to replace wood–framed walls

What is this?

Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) are a sandwich of plywood or oriented strand board (OSB) glued to a center slab of foam insulation. They come as panels 2 to 4 feet wide and 8 to 24 feet long, and can be used as walls, floors or roof planks. The use of OSB, made from wood particles from small trees or wood waste, also reduces the use of large trees needed to supply regular framing lumber.

Why do it?

SIPs create a super–insulated building exterior with few air gaps, are fast to install, very strong, and made with relatively low impact materials as compared to dimensional lumber.

How to do this?

SIP manufacturers provide engineering data and detailed support for using their products. Consultation with manufacturers is central to working with these systems, especially to make electrical and plumbing systems fit with SIP walls.

Who does this?

Architects, structural engineers, SIP manufacturers.


area one

Use natural building materials and techniques

What is this?

"Natural building" refers to building with relatively unprocessed, locally available materials such as straw bales, rammed earth, adobe (earth bricks) and round wood, among others. Natural building also encompasses finishing techniques such as hand–applied plasters, earthen floors, and hand-built furniture.

Why do it?

Natural building makes direct connections between the earth, its living systems, and how we build. Natural building offers some of the lowest environmental impacts in building methods and often utilizes vernacular or indigenous building techniques. Natural buildings also often use low–cost or free materials and are labor intensive, making them suitable for owner–builders or group projects where labor is volunteered or otherwise low–cost.

How to do this?

Natural building is most suitable for small buildings, although some medium–sized examples exist. Learn about natural building from the numerous books, magazines, web resources, and videos on the subject, and through meeting local groups that practice various techniques. You may choose to build your project yourself, or hire a contractor familiar with natural building techniques. Additionally, some natural finishing techniques can be applied easily to portions of a conventional building.

Who does this?

Building owners, specialty contractors, natural building groups.


Straw House Image Straw House Image

The Straw Bale Classroom - view the building process!

San Mateo County Office of Education's Outdoor Education Program built the county's first permitted straw bale building using a local contractor and five weekend volunteer workshops. The straw is covered with earth plaster on both the inside and outside. The passive solar design includes correct site orientation, double–paned windows and overhangs. This allows the classroom's temperature to remain comfortable all year without additional heating or cooling.

area one

Other sustainable materials and practices used. Please describe.

What is this?

Innovation is by definition an ongoing process — we'd like to know what new ideas you are bringing to your project.

Why do it?

You and your project team understand the needs and goals of your project best and may think of a way to achieve those that we have not listed. These new ideas are essential to the progress and improvement of green and sustainable building techniques.

How to do this?

While no one can teach creativity and innovation, we encourage you to "think outside the box," talk to other knowledgeable individuals in relevant fields, and continue to learn about sustainability and buildings. Then share your innovative ideas with San Mateo County's Green Building staff.

Who does this?

Building owners, architects, engineers, contractors, other project team members.


More Information

Ecological Building Network
Insulating Concrete Form Association
California Straw Building Association
Structural Insulated Panel Association