Alternatives for Wood

single story residential home

Written by KS

February 24, 2022

The cost of lumber, since mid-2020, has been rising.  At first it was slow and steady.  But then in September 2020 lumber saw a big jump.  For instance, comparing lumber prices from September 2019 to September 2020, there was a 138% increase.  And initially the high costs of lumber were due to factory closures and supply chain problems caused by the first Covid wave.  However, increased demand and persistent high Canadian tariffs have driven costs to $1,290.40 per thousand board feet as of February 17, 2022.  Thus, in order to deal with these issues in the residential housing sector, we should look at alternatives for wood.

digital art of wallet with money and credit cards going out of it, indicating money spent

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There are several options that can be substituted for wood.  But it isn’t just the cost that I considered when coming up with this list.  I also compared uses, advantages, disadvantages, sustainability, and the availability of each item.  Since 90% of new homes in the US are wood framed, it’s important to examine other choices.

Alternatives for Wood:  Bamboo

Bamboo construction as an alternative for wood

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Bamboo is the first option.  And it’s been around for quite a long time, particularly in construction.  You might be familiar with bamboo furniture, rugs, or art.  However, in construction, bamboo has its own uses, such as:

So you might be wondering about the benefits of bamboo construction.  There are over 1,000 bamboo species, and more subspecies.  I suppose that’s how this alternative can create sheets and floors.  Not only is bamboo versatile, but other benefits include:

Unfortunately, there are disadvantages of using bamboo in construction.  For instance, if it’s used as a roofing material, then it will need to be waterproofed.  Also, bamboo floors are more water resistant than hardwoods, though if they suffer water damage, they can swell, warp, discolor, etc.  And if the bamboo wood isn’t properly treated, it could end up with problems due to fungus or insects, like termites.  Furthermore, since it isn’t widely used in the US, there aren’t standards or codes yet.

Alternatives for Wood:  Hemp

Cannabis plant

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Hemp is likely one of the first plants to be propagated to make clothing, shoes, ropes, and even paper.  And yes, there were ancients who also used the plant for its psychoactive properties.  But Hempcrete is a mixture of hemp fiber, lime, sand, and water.  And it was first made in the 1980s, in France, in response to issues they were having repairing medieval buildings with common Portland cement.   Thus, because of hemp’s vapor permeability, the buildings were able to remain in good health.  Also, in the past it had only three uses:  flooring, wall coverings, and insulation.  Though it still had a lot of advantages:

Then in 2019 hemp wood was produced.  And it was all in order to be beneficial to people and the environment.  Additionally, hemp wood has its own key uses for construction, such as:

  • interior construction
  • floors and furniture
  • and cabinets

One of the benefits of hemp wood is that it’s more sustainable than wood.  Though it’s more fiber than actual wood.  Additionally, it was scientifically engineered to be 20% harder than oak.  And it grows 100 times faster as well.  Therefore, it’s also renewable.  Other benefits of hemp wood include:

  • non-toxic and contain no VOCs
  • strong and durable
  • and less expensive to produce than traditional lumber

There aren’t many cons of using either hempcrete or hemp wood except:

  • the major drawback from using hempcrete is that it isn’t as strong as concrete
  • and the only negative of hemp wood is that it isn’t as widely used currently

Alternatives for Wood:  Cork

Cork as an alternative for wood

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Using cork in construction dates back to the 18th century BC in Italy as flooring and insulative lining for the walls in the stone village huts.  But when you see cork, you might automatically think wine.  Or a cork board that you attach notes or pictures onto.  And then in the 1800s it was used to make natural linoleum.  Also, in recent years, the uses of cork in construction include:

  • insulation
  • flooring
  • acoustic wall coverings
  • exterior finish
  • and countertops

There are plenty of merits for choosing cork as a building material.  For example, cork is:

  • sustainable, because it’s 100% natural and recyclable
  • easy to install
  • carbon negative
  • durable, lasting ~50 years
  • if damaged, can be repaired
  • fire and bug resistant
  • water resistant
  • does better in humidity than wood
  • and slightly less expensive than wood

However, there are some negatives with cork, such as:

Substitutes for Wood:  Metal

metal construction as an alternative for wood

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The construction of metal-framed buildings were observed as early as the 1700s.  Furthermore, the Industrial Revolution and the use of steel made it possible to build skyscrapers.  Therefore, metals are a top choice in construction.  In addition, they can be used for:

  • framing structures
  • siding
  • reinforcements
  • roofing
  • window frames
  • wiring
  • oil and gas lines
  • heating
  • and plumbing

Additionally, the pluses of using metal in construction include:

  • versatility–steel, aluminum, copper, iron, and titanium are the metals commonly found in buildings and houses
  • durability against termites, rot, mold and fire
  • sustainable, by being 98% recyclable
  • lightweight
  • less expensive than wood

Although, the negative aspects of using metal are:

  • higher maintenance costs
  • subject to corrosion
  • due to its inherent conductivity, metal can start fires elsewhere, so extra costs are involved to fireproof a metal building
  • susceptible to buckling if steel buildings are not reinforced adequately
  • and a steel building may not be aesthetically appealing

Alternatives for Wood:  Wood Effects Tiles

toddler sitting on rug over wood-effects tiles

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Porcelain tiles that look like wood are just that.  And they go by many names.  Also, they’ve been around for at least a decade to replace hardwood floors.  And wood-like porcelain tiles were the most popular flooring option up until recently.  Furthermore, the only other use for wood effects tiles, other than flooring within construction, is wall coverings.  Yet they have many advantages, including:

  • they look like wood
  • versatility–many styles of wood to choose from
  • water resistant, because it’s the least porous flooring material
  • can be used in any room, on the floors and walls, in the shower, and even outdoors
  • less expensive than actual wood
  • very durable, compared to wood, with regular foot traffic
  • easier to maintain than wood, making it allergy and pet friendly
  • and eco-friendly and sustainable

Now the disadvantages to using wood effect tiles are:

  • if something gets dropped onto the tiles, the item will likely break, as can the tile
  • hard on feet, legs, and back when standing on tile floors for long periods of time
  • if you don’t have radiant heating under the floors, the tile flooring will be very cold in the winter
  • tile floors are prone to be slippery, especially if wet
  • if the grout is a light color, it can be difficult to clean compared to alternative flooring
  • and professional installation is highly recommended

Substitutes for Wood:  Plywood

plywood as an alternative for wood

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Plywood is a panel-shaped wood-based material manufactured from thin layers, or plies, of wood that are glued horizontally (at 90° to each other) along the grain.  Evidence of plywood has been found in tombs of Egyptian pharaohs.  And in 1905, ready for the World Fair, softwood plywood was first developed in Oregon.  Even though there are different types of plywood, today I’m only mentioning the uses of softwood, hardwood, and tropical plywood.  To continue, the combined uses of all three types of plywood are:

  • roof and wall sheathing
  • subfloors
  • eaves and soffits
  • general purpose shelves
  • attic flooring
  • built-in closets
  • kitchen cabinets
  • doors
  • indoor paneling
  • doorframes
  • molding
  • and decorative panels

The benefits of plywood are that it’s very multipurpose, as you just read, and durable.  But there are still some cons, such as:

  • it contains formaldehyde
  • not as eco-friendly or as sustainable as the other options I’ve listed
  • and cost is comparable to wood

Alternatives to Wood:  OSB

oriented strand board as an alternative for wood

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Oriented Strand Board was first patented in 1965, but didn’t become commonly accepted with builders until the late 1970s.  And it’s another type of engineered wood-based panel for construction.  Additionally, it’s more popular than plywood.  And the uses of oriented strand board are:

  • wall sheathing-indoor and outdoor
  • structural insulation
  • subfloors
  • floor underlayment
  • rim joists
  • and roof panels

Because of the cost of hardwood, the use of OSB is expected to continue for the next few years.  The following is the list of advantages of using oriented strand board:

  • more sustainable – currently there are OSB options made with formaldehyde-free resins
  • traditionally less expensive than hardwood
  • manufactured from small, fast growing trees, so it has a low impact on the environment
  • panels of OSB can be made bigger than plywood panels
  • they’re more uniform and there are fewer soft spots
  • water resistant-takes longer to get wet than plywood
  • and stronger than plywood

As you can see, there are many uses and pluses of this wood substitute.  However, there are some disadvantages as well, including:

  • strands in OSB are prone to swelling if the panels get wet; so even though the panels are water resistant, they aren’t waterproof, unless properly sealed
  • also, if boards get wet and swell, the proportions will change
  • furthermore, OSB takes longer to dry out than plywood, which could lead to mold
  • and then, the OSB industry felt the same pressures from Covid and the resulting labor shortages-high prices but increased demand

Substitutes for Wood:  ICF

concrete building

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Insulated concrete forms are said to have been developed around the Second World War.  However the man often credited with this invention is someone else, and in the 1960s.  This construction material is made of blocks of polystyrene foam with space around them for a concrete wall.  And they can be used as:

  • walls
  • roofs
  • ceilings
  • and pool walls

You can pretty much build a whole house out of insulated concrete forms.  And they can last at least 100 years; some say more.  Other benefits are:

  • extremely insulating
  • stronger walls due to concrete and steel
  • more fire and disaster resistant than wood
  • energy efficient
  • homeowner’s insurance premiums might be lowered if you have an ICF built home due to its resistance to disaster
  • low maintenance
  • soundproof
  • naturally mold and rot resistant
  • not as expensive as it once was, initially, to build an ICF home
  • materials are re-usable
  • and design flexibility

Insulated concrete forms have some of the most benefits in construction.  Although, below you’ll find the negatives, like:

  • not termite resistant–building codes in certain places require the use of ‘below grade’ ICF
  • can be more expensive up-front if you’re working with someone who isn’t experienced with ICF; (it’s not the standard compared to wood-framed houses)
  • don’t even think about remodeling; because ICF is basically concrete and Styrofoam, (think more concrete than the latter).  So it’ll be way too difficult to cut into and renovate than a traditional home.  Thus, when designing an ICF home, use a skilled architect, who’s also familiar with ICF homes.
  • initially after construction, there could be issues with humidity in an ICF home
  • also, walls made of ICF are thicker, so square footage can run smaller

In Summary

aerial shot of stacks of cut trees

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Covid, flooding, labor shortages, and high tariffs have all played a part in both the high prices and low supply of lumber.  However, there are many examples of alternatives for wood, not just what I listed.  Though, most of the examples I covered demonstrate sustainability, cost effectiveness, durability, and versatility.  And some of these options might even be better than traditional wood-frame homes.  So, if you’re building, or even remodeling, your home in today’s market, just remember you’re going to wait.  But how long?  Nobody knows.  And it’s going to cost you more if you’re building a traditional wood-framed home, or using wood to remodel your existing home.  Therefore, the best choice would be to pick an alternative to wood.

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