Niche Market: Green Building with Earth
Only a tiny fraction of homes, nationwide, regardless of construction materials, incorporates conservation elements like water catchment and reuse, low-flow toilets, over-insulation, and south-facing windows. All good, but in terms of the structure itself, these are green amenities. "Green," when it comes to basic things like walls, really means the same stuff, just more of it.
I know of plenty of municipalities that have ordinances requiring builders to follow water-conservation guidelines, but I don't know of any that mandate water conservation or do anything more than passively encourage the use of local materials. Green building in general, and earth building particularly, is for homes that are built by organizations or individuals who are committed to it. Try to sell compressed earth block (modern mud) or adobe (archaic mud) to Centex Homes, Sivage Thomas, or any of the other nationals and see how far you get. Not very, because masonry, mud or otherwise, is more expensive than framing and these folks know their markets.
There are three issues at work: policy, cost, and perception.
In the realm of public policy, there has been a long struggle to legitimize earth as a building material because it is still viewed as marginal in terms of modern testing standards. We are addressing this issue, and both New Mexico and Santa Fe are in the vanguard by developing and adopting state and local codes that encourage anachronistic materials like earth.
The next issue, the pure, bald economics of the enterprise, is a harder nut to crack. In Nigeria, to take a junket, the issue is not "green," just efficient. There I can put a modern mud, compressed-earth block in a wall for a cost to the consumer of six to 10 cents.
In Santa Fe, if I am going to build with the same material, I have to charge at least three bucks a block if I am to make a profit. I know this because I have done it in both places.
The difference between the two is the cost of labor and the fact that in Nigeria the state governments subsidize a large percentage of the monetary burden. Here, public policy encounters cost with the result that, to put us on an even footing with Sub-Saharan Africa, one would have to impose subsidies. That would mean implementing tax credits or some other form of assistance for earthen building and I don't see that happening on a significant level even at glacial rates. I don't have a problem with that. Let the market rule. I just got notice of 20 percent increases in steel products; concrete hasn't exactly been stable either, and the cost of lumber isn't just reflective of creeping inflation. That can't be bad for local materials, including mud.
The final problem is that "green" earth building, certainly around here in the recent past, developed a really crummy reputation because it was promoted with passion and hyperbole. (Actually, scratch that, it was promoted with downright fabrication.) Costs were hidden, and suspect energy-conservation results were submitted from "model," partially subsidized homes that, when attempted on the openmarket, soured it for both builders and consumers. That, fortunately, has changed for the most part.
Faced with all of the above, it is not surprising that the market retreats to the trusty and predictable: read economical, read wood-frame with lots of insulation.
Those clients for whom we have built with earth are a breed apart and are willing to be both iconoclastic and to spend more money on their homes, by far, than the average consumer.