Natural Building: Low Cost Homes for the Off Grid Homestead


For many of us with the dream of moving off grid, the idea of building a house seems daunting.  Not only is it a lot of work, but it is also one of the major expenses of starting up your homesteading dream.  

There’s not much you can do about the labor involved with building a house, but what if I told you that there are ways that you can practically build a house for free!!

How do you do that?  Start by looking at what’s around you.  No matter where you are, there are natural materials begging to be used to build your dream home.  Let’s go over some of the possible methods that you could use to build your off grid home.

Cob: Building with Dirt

Did you know that you can build a house out of dirt?  We all have dirt don’t we?  Well if you’re resourceful enough you can turn that dirt into a beautiful home.

Cob is a building method that originated in England utilizing sand, straw and clay.  By mixing those materials in water, you can create a “brick” of earth that is as strong as any concrete brick.  In fact, this is what adobe buildings are, made from earthen bricks.

Cob is more of a single mass of sand, straw and clay rather than individual bricks making for a much stronger structure.  They hold up well in earthquakes and are fireproof.

When using cob to build a home, you can build practically anything in a house except for a roof, windows and doors.  However, the the scrounger in you can search online marketplaces to find free windows or doors and even roofing material.  If done right your home can be built with zero dollars!

I really like cob as a building material.  It is easy enough to figure out for a beginning builder and is available almost anywhere.  I say alomost anywhere because I was really excited to build my home out of cob only to find out that there was no clay soil where I lived.  

That is the exception, not the rule though.  Most locations have sand, straw and clay in abundance, making cob a great way to build your off grid dream home.


Related: My favorite book ever on cob building is called “A Hand Sclupted House” by Ianto Evans. In it, he shares how to build with cob, but also why it is so important. A must have Cob Builders Bible.

A Hand Sculpted HouseOpens in a new tab.


Strawbales: Grass House That The Big Bad Wolf Can’t Blow Down

I know how the old fairy tale worked, when the big bad wolf came to the little piggies house made out of straw, the wolf was able to blow the house down.  That was before they learned how to build with strawbales the right way.

Now strawbale homes are built throughout the US that can withstand tornadoes and hurricanes!  If only the little piggie knew how to build.

There are two types of Strawbale buildings: Load bearing and Non-load bearing.  Load bearing strawbale structures hold the weight of the roof up by strawbales alone.  Non-load bearing structures use a wooden frame to hold the roof with the walls filled in with strawbales.

There are hundreds of examples of non-load bearing strawbale homes leagally permitted in states across the country.  You might even have one next door to you!

When building, strawbales are stacked like bricks, pinned together from top to bottom with a long wood stake or bamboo (non organic materials tend to encourage the strawbales to decay).  

Once stacked, the strawbales are further keyed together by applying a clay plaster across the surface of both sides of the bales.

Wow!  Once again we have a house made off straw, sand and clay.

Strawbales offer great thermal insulation and have a natural beauty due to the depth of the walls.  

Where ever you find fields of straw being cut every summer, you’ll find a great place to build a home out of straw.

Bamboo: Renewable Building Material For The Tropics

There is a building material that grows 5x’s faster than trees and is stronger than steel, but rarely gets used in the United States.  

Bamboo has long been known by cultures throughout the world for its variety of uses.  It’s time for it to be recognized as a viable resource in the tropical parts of the US too.

There are many types of bamboo that can provide a whole host of products from building timbers, wall panels, floorboards, fencing, roof shingles, cups, pots, cutlery, the list can go on.

With a simple treatment process and some time for harvested bamboo poles to dry, buildings constructed out of bamboo can last just as long as any conventional stick frame home.  That’s a process traditional lumber already undergoes.

Bamboo can be built using traditional peg and lashing techniques or connected with specialty attachments designed specifically for bamboo. 

It can be used to make some of the most amazing structures that you have ever seen.  Too bad it hasn’t received much of a chance in the US.  Areas like Florida and Hawai’i could put bamboo to good use if the building codes were allowed to change.

Related: Bamboo Construction: Beginner Guide To Building With BambooOpens in a new tab.

Earthbags: Simple Home Design

Earthbags are a really simple building technique that almost anyone can use.  The method of building is very much like filling and stacking sand bags to create a home.  Earthbags differ slightly in the size of the bag and the materials they get filled up with.

A typical earthbag can be up to 8’ long.  When used on the bottom layers near the ground, they can be filled with drainrock and act as a foundation.  As you run higher up the course the grovel is replaced by high clay content soil or if that is not available a mix of any soil and concrete.

Earthbag houses are typically built round for increased strength.  Each bag is placed, one on top of the other with a strip of barbed wire between each layer to key them in.

Once the Earthbags are stacked, a plaster is applied.  The plaster can either be a clay based plaster or concrete based plaster.  When finished building, you can have a home that cost less than a couple of hundred dollars.  Not bad!

Cordwood: Homes Made From Firewood

Cordwood is a great building technique for anyone who lives in an area with a lot of trees.  By using wood from hardwood trees and cutting it down to the size of wood you would use for a fireplace, you can build your self a beautiful home.

Cordwood homes are built utilizing two methods, as stand alone load bearing structures or strictly as infill for the walls.

A concrete slab is required for this building process.  Once complete you can begin stacking cordwood like bricks with a course of concrete between each course.

When all said and done, a beautiful home can be completed with less money than a conventional home, but with way more character.

I have seen these homes built in New England mostly, but also as far away as Hawai’i too.  It can work in almost any environment, except the desert or grasslands of course.


Related: If you are thinking of building with Cordwood, the best tool you can get for yourself is a chainsaw. Why not get the best chainsaw you can while supporting this awesome blog. I have had the same Husqvarna Chainsaw for years now, and I use it all the time.

Husqvarna 16″ Chainsaw


Timber Framing: Beautiful Homes For The Skilled Builder

If you know what you are doing and have access to a local mill, a timber frame home can be a great option for you.  These homes are beautiful and very well made.

Typically, milled lumber that comes in larger dimensions than found at your local hardware store will be joined together using mortise and tennon joints or bolts, depending on your skill level.

A mastery of construction skills is needed to do a good job building a timber frame home.  This kind of work takes exact calculations.

It can be paired with cordwood, cob or strawbales to build a hybrid home that is stunning to anyone who comes across them.

The only way this method can be economical is if you have the trees to mill on your own and you or a friend have the skills to join them all together.  Otherwise the price can creep up quick due to the specialty labor and materials that go into this type of project.

Rammed Earth

Rammed Earth is another great way to build a natural home that would require very little money.  It mostly consists of clay based soils and perhaps some concrete for the soils that need a little extra help.

By using a form that creates a cavity about one foot thick, you can fill it with the proper soil mix and tamp it down using a numatic tamper.  As you build up the layers you are creating a monolitihic earthen wall.

It is similar to cob, but slightly different in the methods used to build up the walls.

This technique is great for areas with the right soil mix and in areas prone to fire.  Earthen walls do not tend to burn up the way that a typical stick frame structure would, so if you are out in the west, consider this building method.

Stone

For those of us who don’t have an endless supply of clay soil, straw or wood, you can create a home out of stone.

This technique requires masonry skills and lots of stone and concrete.  Each stone must be placed by hand in a way that keys in with the stone laid before it to create a strong wall that will not crumble over time.

Stone homes are very beautiful, but not easy.  Working with stone is hard back breaking work that not anyone can do well.

However, wehn built, these homes retain a natrual beauty and work to keep the temperatures cool inside of the home.

If all you have are rocks on your property, this could be a good option for you.

Earthships

Earthships are an alternative building method designed by Michael Reynolds out of New Mexico.  The idea was to take the waster products of our civilization, tires, old bottles, etc and turn them into an eco friendly home.

These homes were designed to be passive solar, to produce their own water, energy and food and to be comfortable places to live in, even in harsh environments.

Tires are rammed with earth and stacked on the north side of the building while the front is faced with windows.  They are usually sucken into the earth alittle bit to take advantage of thermal cooling and heating.

Earthships have an intricate design that require plans from Michael Reynolds himself.  They are not the easiest structures to get right for the uninitiated.  If you do attempt to build one of these, I’d advise checking one out in person first.

Wattle & Daub

This is a very simple technique that has been used by peasantry the world over.  Utilizing interwoven sticks and clay soil, beautiful walls can be built.

This method is mostly used in conjunction with any of the other methods mentioned above.  On their own, they are not very strong, making it unsafe to use wattle and daub walls to hold up a roof.

Small round wood poles about an 1” in diameter are used to construct the frame.  Start by placing your upright pieces into the ground about 1 to 2 feet apart.  Next you weave more pliable wood such as willow through each upright.

Once the frame of wood is made, it can be plastered over with a plaster made of sand, straw and clay, creating a beautiful wall that cost zero dollars.

I like using this method because it is a lot faster to construct than the other methods mentioned above.  I will usually use these walls as interior walls and build the exterior wall out of something more sizeable.

Aircrete

Aircrete is a new technique that is gaining traction in the alternative building world.  It utilizes concrete, mixed with air, to create a lighter, stronger and cheaper structure for you to live in.

Utilizing special tools that can be fabricated by most people with simple tool knowledge, a soapy mixture is pumped into concrete that creates air bubbles inside the concrete.  This increases the volume of the concrete allowing it to go farther.

Typically these structures utilize the dome shape for increased strength.  Forms are used to lay the aircrete down on.  The aircrete is applied with a sprayer or by hand like normal concrete jobs.

While not as easy and intuitive as some of the other methods, learning how to build with Aircrete can be achieved by attending a weeklong workshop.  The cost of the workshop more than pays for the savings in building with Aircrete.

Traditional Construction Based On Location

Lastly, if you are looking for low cost methods of building your next home, look no further than how the original inhabitants of your area lived.

In Hawai’i, homes made of roundwood poles lashed together and thatched were made.  In the southwest, wooden structures known as hogans were built.

Our ancestors have a lot that hey can teach us on how to live light upon this earth.  They built homes for thousands of years that provided shelter and cost no money.  All it took was time and labor to gather the materials and put them together.

When their homes were finished and ready to return back to the earth, no waste remained.  They were masters at living with what they had available.  Don’t you think they might just have something to share?

Conclusion

Whatever method you choose, make sure it is right for your area and that the building code enforcement will not shut you down halfway thru construction.

Constructing an alternative building is a fantastic way for you to build your next home.  It is easy on the environment and easy on your pocketbook.

Good Luck with your next project!

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Sean Jennings

Sean has been living simply Off-Grid in Hawai'i for over 18 years. He lives debt free on Hawai'i Island with his family and over 40 chickens. When he's not tinkering around the homestead, he's off exploring the shorelines for fish & surf.

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