Book Reviews: Three Sustainable Building Essential Books

By Jeff Ruppert

This book review is unique in that we’re reviewing the first three volumes of a series of books being published by New Society Publishers called the Sustainable Building Essentials Series (SBES).  At the time of publication of this article there will be a total of 16 books in the SBES covering everything from prefabricated straw bale construction to rainwater harvesting.  New Society is going all out by commissioning the best and brightest in our industry to share their knowledge in an easy to understand and consistent format.  This review will cover the first three publications within the SBES, which are:

  • Essential Hempcrete Construction
  • Essential Building Science
  • Essential Prefab Straw Bale Construction

At the time of publication, there appears to be two more books out as part of the SBES, which are:

  • Essential Light Straw Clay Construction
  • Essential Sustainable Home Design

We will review these last two in upcoming issues.

Essential Hempcrete Construction

As hempcrete attempts to take hold in North America, New Society has given us a complete guide for those who want to explore this relatively new insulating system.  They have brought in Chris Magwood, our well-known natural building friend, to author this book based on his many years of experimenting with this building technique.

We wouldn’t categorize this book as an exhaustive compendium on the subject of hempcrete, but it is complete in that it touches on all of the most important aspects of the system.  There are some inclusions and exclusions that allow for a shorter book than other ones on this topic.  An example of this is that they do not cover foundation options under hempcrete walls.  This makes sense to those of us that have worked with different wall systems.  The statement that it works with any foundation system is included, which is sufficient.  There is really no need to delve deeply into foundations if the reader has a good understanding of building construction.  It is clear that there is an assumption that you should also be reading other resources in addition to this one if you are building a house.

Essential Hempcrete Construction has a couple valuable sections that are not in other resources on this subject.  These include building science and code acceptance.  Both of these topics are covered in what we would call medium depth, which is about how far you need to go without getting a consultant involved for special situations.

Overall, this guide will set you on the right track.  The experience that Magwood draws from is apparent.  He has been experimenting with various types of materials and systems for years, and implements them on his project through the Endeavour Centre in Ontario.  You will not be disappointed with this one as a part of your natural building library.

Essential Hempcrete Construction: the complete step-by-step guide can be purchased from New Society Publishers for $34.95 USD and CDN (print version) or $22.70 USD and CDN (e-book).

Paperback – 128 pages
ISBN: 9780865718197

Essential Building Science

This book is full of the kind of stuff geeks like us love.  While each of the other two books in this review deal with a particular wall system, this one is broader in scope, and therefore covers all light construction, regardless of materials.  This is necessary knowledge for all professional designers, builders and homeowners alike.  It is so easy to make a systemic mistake during the design and/or construction process without a solid footing in building science, there is no excuse anymore for anyone to allow their buildings to be damaged by moisture.  A book like this can be understood by almost anyone.

This book is not only about wall systems either.  It covers all parts of the building, from foundation choices to the roof systems.  In addition to these components, it offers explanations on moisture and hygrothermal dynamics, ventilation, thermal mass and insulation.  There are plenty of details of things like various foundation options and eave venting.

This book is one of those resources that, as a design professional, you want all of your owner-builder clients to read.  In many cases, people with little building experience will develop a picture in their minds of how a building works without really doing the research.  We have seen many building failures not as a result of the type of wall systems they use (i.e. straw bale vs. wood frame with fiberglass insulation), but as a consequence of poor window detailing or a leaky roof.  Even a little bit of the knowledge in this book would go a long way in sparing many otherwise well-built structures from moisture damage that ends up giving entire types of wall systems a black eye.  How many of you have heard someone say that straw bale walls mold.  They obviously are not objectively making an observation of the vast majority of bale buildings that perform as expected, but they latch on to the one time they heard of mold in a bale wall due to a leak in the wall cladding.

The point here is that resources like Essential Building Science are what keeps us safe from ourselves and allows us to instill confidence in those entities that support our work, such as insurance companies and banks who finance our work.  The information that Deva Racusin shares is golden and should be required reading for everyone who undertakes a construction project.

Essential Building Science: Understanding Energy and Moisture in High Performance House Design can be purchased from New Society Publishers for $34.95 USD and CDN (print version) or $22.70 USD and CDN (e-book).

Paperback – 160 pages
ISBN: 9780865718340

Prefab Straw Bale Construction

Chris Magwood returns with a full-length summary of one of the fastest-growing trends in the straw bale construction industry, which is pre-fabricating bale walls prior to placing them on your building project.

The book begins with an introduction where pre-fabricated walls are given an acronym – S-SIPs (Strawbale Structural Insulated Panels).  Personally, I hope this convention sticks because it places way of building bale walls in a league of a conventional wall subsystem of structural insulated panel (SIPs).  It a familiar acronym that anyone in the trades understands, and clearly defines them as a subset, which they are.  We’ve been designing bale wall systems as rigid-skin panels for many years so it only makes sense to classify them as they really are.  Good on ya Chris!

This is really one of those exciting book to read these days, from the perspective an engineer and builder.  It appeals to the need for in-depth explanations of the various techniques of building S-SIPs if you’ve only been able to try one or two of them yourself.  Magwood brings his extensive experience with all types of SIPs to the table and lays them out in a wonderfully objective fashion.

Included in this edition of the SEBS is a nice discussion of engineering considerations for these wall systems by two very skilled engineers, Tim Krahn and Kris Dick of Canada.  While much of their discussion centers on Canadian building codes, they do translate much of it to U.S. codes.  This discussion alone is essential reading for engineers who want a clear and concise distillation of the governing aspects of designing S-SIPs.  While they don’t provide calculations, they make up for it in discussing code-based approaches to your analysis.

We recommend this book to anyone in the bale construction industry because it provides not only S-SIPs techniques, but it overlaps with conventional bale wall-building techniques, thereby enhancing your understanding of bale wall construction and behavior.

Essential Prefab Straw Bale Construction: The Complete Step-by-Step Guide can be purchased from New Society Publishers for $34.95 USD and CDN (print version) or $22.70 USD and CDN (e-book).

Paperback – 160 pages
ISBN: 9780865718203

 

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