Are there any eco-friendly substitutes of wood?

With similar attributes (such as strength, rate of biodegradability, safe for the environment, etc.).

My long-term intend is to save our environment from pollution (e.g. by using plastic) and the Rainforest devastation (including wildlife) by using alternatives eco-friendly substitutes of wood.

  • 4
    In what ways do you consider wood to be eco-unfriendly? Knowing this will help us work out better substitutes. – EnergyNumbers Feb 8 '15 at 6:37
  • 2
    Are you looking for something more biodegradable than wood? In what way is wood's biodegradability insufficient? In what ways is it unsafe for the environment? – EnergyNumbers Feb 8 '15 at 12:18
  • -1 (for now) for no definition of waht you actually want. – mart Feb 10 '15 at 8:09
  • I'm reading it as "We can't always use wood (for whatever reason). What else can we use that's acceptable from a sustainability perspective?" – Flyto Feb 13 '15 at 11:20
  • 1
    Not all wood is from clear-cut rainforest. Wood from well-managed local forests is probably better than most or all of the alternatives. – aucuparia Jul 24 '18 at 9:17

Wood is close to the most eco-friendly building material around:

  • It's renewable.
  • It's production overall pulls carbon out of the atmosphere.
  • Material tied up in construction is carbon that isn't in the atmosphere.
  • A lower fraction of its cost is transport since the building grade wood is sourced locally when possible.

The issues people have with the growth and harvest of wood:

  • Logging is ugly.
  • Done badly on steep slopes it causes erosion.
  • It's disruptive to the local wildlife.

But let's take your question at face value: To be be more eco-friendly than wood, it requires the following attributes:

  • Even more local than your neighbourhood forest.
  • Renewable, or be from a very large resource not currently in signficant demand.
  • Low in energy to gather, process and use.

Wall Construction

Option 1. Dirt.

You are digging a hole for the basement anyway. Use that dirt to make adobe, or cinva-ram blocks, or cob. These materials give you high thermal mass, which in hot dry climates averages out the high daytime and low night time temperature swings. All of these have to be protected from rain. See option 2.

Option 2. Strawbale.

Pioneered in Nebraska shortly after the first horse drawn balers appeared, the oldest strawbale buildings are over a century old. Currently big in the alternative construction crowd, it is the easiest and best (IMHO) construction method for small buildings in dry climates. In much of North America building material is within 50 miles. Walls are coated with lime, earth, or cement based plasters on inside and outside walls. Google 'strawbale construction' for details.

Option 3. Leichtlehm.

This is a sensible infill system for post and beam construction, so it doesn't eliminate wood, but reduces both the amount, and the processing required. Leichtlehm uses straw dampened with a clay slip, and packed into forms made between the posts. Traditionally a small amount of barley is added when filling the forms. The process is fairly rapid. The forms can be moved to the next bay immediately. One level a day is easily done.

The barley sprouts, drawing water out of the straw. Eventually the barley dies, but its mat of roots helps hold the straw together. The wall is finished with lime plaster.

Option 4 Stone

Go look at Scotland, especially the highlands. These people take a nuisance (stones in field) and turn it into a resource.

Stone construction is slow, requires mortar (high embodied energy) but the buildings last. Stone is also a bad insulator. Even a 2 foot wall does little more than average a chill day with a cold night. Most stone buildings have an interior wood lining which uses nearly as much wood as a conventional stick built house.

Floor construction

While we pride ourselves on no longer living with dirt floors, a earth based floor can be quite workable.

Option 1. Clay on grade.

Mix up using typical adobe mixes. Mix as dry as possible, and pack HARD into place. Screed, and fill to get a flat surface. Allow to dry. This can take a couple of months. Oil with boiled linseed oil. Repeat, allowing each coat to polymerize before adding the next coat.

In some cases the floor has cracked -- too much clay in the mix. Apply a contrasting colour of clay mix as a liquid slurry and wipe. The net effect will be of an incredibly even job of laying grouted flagstone.

Option 2. Clay on on insulated slab.

The above doesn't work well in cold climates. The floor stays too cold. Lay down 2-6" of closed cell foamboard first, followed by 4" of crushed stone "road

  • Your 'issues people have' list is ... odd. I mean, they are correct, but really, the key problem people have with logging is habitat and biodiversity loss (of fauna and flora). Native forest clearing usually leads to replacing native forest with farmland or monocultural forests, which can't support anywhere near the biodiversity of a mature forest. The issues you list are completely secondary to that (especially the aesthetics). Of course, careful selective logging can avoid all of these problems to a large extent, but it's pretty rarely done... – naught101 Feb 12 '15 at 0:48
  • Wildlife disruption is close enough to diversity loss. I am basing my list on local logging practices: Patches of 40 to 200 acres are cut. 50 meter corridors left for streams. Adjacent patch not cut until reforestation has created a closed crown. Most structural wood in north America is grown either this way, or on plantations. Yes, there is less diversity than an old growth forest. My experience is with forests that don't have 'old growth' The natural forest is a fire succession every 50-100 years. – Sherwood Botsford Feb 12 '15 at 16:10
  • I think it's a godd answer (to a question I don't understand at all), just one nitpick: none of your alternatives comes close to the tensile strength of wood AFAIK, so you could see them as not a replacement but supplementary materials – mart Mar 2 '15 at 8:45
  • @Mart Good point. You are correct. None of them are really suitable for roofs for that reason. I was looking the more general idea of alternatives to get the floor and walls up. – Sherwood Botsford Mar 2 '15 at 10:07

Coconut tree and Bamboo are two alternatives of timber i can think of, if you want wood's characteristics you mentioned.

  • strength

  • rate of biodegradability
    you'll worry about how to preserve it instead

  • safe for the environment
    just chop em up and burn (as fuel)

However it only work if the source is near your place (plant them yourself or with your neighborhood), and it can live in your environment.



Advantages over wood:

  1. Bamboo is fastest growing plant, it was so fast that cutting some to make a small all-bamboo building just like weeding your lawn.

    Certain species of bamboo can grow 35 inches within a 24-hour period, at a rate of 0.00003 km/h (0.00002 mph)

  2. It spreads its root, so you can get even more bamboo without replanting it.

  3. More elastic than wood, and hollow, so you can make pipe out of it (or water container). Just search "bamboo structure" and be amazed
  4. Bamboo shoots are yummy
  5. Can be used for lots of stuff starting from basket to wall. It's easier to process than wood, you just need a machete and knife to make it into ANYTHING, except composite bamboo.
  6. Costs less energy in processing.


  1. weaker in supporting weight. However can resolved by adding the quantity or use coconut tree's wood instead for support
  2. small in size, so you need to do workaround to make flat structure, like making "gedeg" (javanese).

Coconut Tree


Advantages over wood:

  1. Relatively fast-growing, easy to plant.
  2. You can use every inch of the tree, literally
  3. You can get other resources while waiting it to grow, like coconut, leaves, young leaves, palm sugar, etc. (ask me later if you interested in this section)
  4. strength wise, it's getting more strong overtime.


  1. Very heavy, harder to process than bamboo, or small-caliber woods
  2. Bad processing may hurt you, since its needle like part of the log can pierce and stuck beneath your outer skin (trust me hurts).

Actually both material are more widely used in my country (at least my ethnicity - javanese) since it's a lot cheaper than using wood, and have a lot of alternative use rather than just as building material. Sorry if there's some unclear stuff because i can't easily explain some part that i don't know the English word of it.

  • Your post would be easier to read if it had uppercase in appropriate places. Do you have information you can link to, to support your assertions? – andy256 Feb 13 '15 at 4:58
  • yes, sorry. typed this in phone, i'll edit it later. – Fathin Luqman Tantowi Feb 13 '15 at 5:00
  • edited, @andy256 – Fathin Luqman Tantowi Feb 13 '15 at 7:39

A good sustainable substitute for wood is Clay and Stone as they are renewable and stronger than wood. Although it is costy, it is worth it

  • What do you mean "Stone is renewable"? Iron is too in that case, it is produce on large scales over the entire universe... – J. Chomel Aug 17 '18 at 6:46

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