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Cheap (potentially free) to build & free to run houses

Mark Boyle
Friday, 8th February 2013

Mark Boyle takes us through some of the most cost effective and environmentally-sound options for housing

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Theoretically, you could build any house for free, especially in a model such as the resource-based economy that participants in the Zeitgeist movement propose. Realistically, a dwelling could only be built for free to the degree that it was made from local materials. Therefore any design that involves imported materials will very likely have some level of financial (and ecological) cost attached to it in most instances, though as we will see throughout this chapter this is not necessarily so, as we can often use the detritus of industrialised society to produce the sustainable homes of the future.

I will look at houses that could be built for free but are likely to cost something, even if it is a fraction of what you would spend on a modern bricks and mortar house. To keep costs to the absolute minimum, use your imagination and try to use what you have at hand, as much as you possibly can, in the construction process. In all cases, once they are up they can easily be free to run on an ongoing basis. For inspiration, Lloyd Kahn's books Shelter, Home Work and Tiny Homes are excellent sources.

Passive solar designs

If you want to eliminate heating bills, and your corresponding ecological footprint into the bargain, then one of the best things you can do is build using a passive solar design, ideally using a locally sourced material such as cob, which has high thermal mass, as a means of storing the energy created. Designing in a greenhouse, where you propagate and grow whatever plants you want to eat or use, onto the south facing side of your house is one of the best methods of doing so.

The sun shines in through these windows throughout the day, heating up the dwelling behind the greenhouse. If you want a house that heats up quickly in the morning, but are happy for it to cool down in the late evening, then fitting your interiors with wood may be a good option within such a design. However, if you would prefer to have a house that takes a little longer to warm up in the morning (for example, if you are out of the house until evening) but which then stays warm throughout the evening until the following morning, then cob may be a much better alternative, as it slowly radiates the sun's warmth that it stored throughout the day.

Earthships

This is one version of a passive solar house, developed in the US by pioneering architect Michael Reynolds, for parts of the country that can get as cold as -20ºC. Passive solar homes can be made using a variety of materials, and usually are. Earthships are a specific variety that are made out of recycled and natural local materials. Rainwater harvesting methods, used car tyres rammed with earth, glass panes (which you can pick up for free from your local double glazer, who often are burdened with glass that they've cut wrong or that a customer no longer wants), wind turbines, solar water heating systems, photovoltaic panels, even beer cans and glass bottles (used to create wonderful lighting effects inside), all constructed using methods that very much chime with permaculture principles.

The result is that you have a model of home that will enable you to be self-sufficient for energy and water, and with a little bit of elbow grease, food also. Given that 40 million tyres are disposed of every year in the UK, the Earthship is a solution that simultaneously solves two problems: what to do with all these tyres, and the ecological impact of importing all the building materials that we currently use to build our homes, materials these otherwise useless tyres could come to replace. The fact that this untapped resource would provide high levels of thermal mass just adds to the notion that the Earthship design, adapted to use less complex equipment than they currently are designed with, really could be the model of a sustainable, moneyless future.

Earth bag construction

As an alternative to the rammed earth tyres of the Earthship model above, which pay great long-term dividends but which require a massive amount of time and human energy to begin with (each tyre can take approximately 40 minutes to an hour to fill, though numerous friends and acquaintances have told me that the weeks they spent ramming the tyres had a powerful bonding effect on their group), there is the option of using earth bags instead, which only take a few minutes to tamp depending on how strong and energetic you are feeling.

For this purpose you could reuse the rice and grain sacks that your local wholefoods and organic retailers and/or wholesalers may have. Depending on how simply you want to build these, they could be done without money, but it is more likely that they will be low cost in their construction. In the wake of the earthquake, the Haiti Christian Development Project built around a dozen such dwellings at the cost of £1,400 each, which included wage costs.

To bring that figure as close as you can to zero, and as a transitional strategy, you could instead employ a bunch of volunteers to help, whom you'll find are often enthusiastic about getting involved, whether to learn some new building technique or apply those skills they already have to help others build the sustainable homes of the future. With such a model of working, the volunteers get to learn all the skills which they can then pass onto others or use to build their own dwelling, whilst you get some much needed labour and morale boosting support, without any financial cost.

Straw bale homes and guest houses

For a localised (and hopefully moneyless) straw bale house, the type of straw you would use is country specific. In the UK that would be rye, oats or wheat. For more information on how to do this, I recommend Barbara Jones' book Building with Straw Bales: A Practical Guide for the UK and Ireland. A very useful take on the straw bale house is a mini-model which I stayed in whilst visiting a well-known self-sufficiency project in the UK.

The owners built a little straw bale guest house for visitors and volunteers,which was effectively a pimped up tent, but much warmer and cosier. It consisted of old wooden pallets on a base which they levelled out, covered in sheep's fleece (though any insulating material you can get your hands on for free could be used), with a recycled mattress on top, surrounded on three sides by load-bearing (and small) straw bales, with a south-facing wall of windows (constructed using waste glass and free reclaimed wood), with a green roof to help it blend into its landscape. Alternatively you could use the roof for water collection, depending on other factors in your unique situation.

Subterranean houses

This underground model was popularised by Mike Oehler in his book The $50 and Up Underground House Book, which shows you the basics you need to know in order to build one. The benefits of these include:

• Due to their subterranean nature, they do not impose on the landscape they exist within, a point that is especially advantageous if you do not have planning permission.

• They require no foundations and only half the building materials.They are energy efficient due to the fact they benefit from geothermal mass and heat exchange by their very nature; with good design they can stay warm in winter and cool in summer.

• Subterranean homes can also make best use of space if you are trying to be completely moneyless and your land is under an acre.

• The materials you gain from the excavation can be used in the building process.

• They are resistant to everything from earthquakes to the much more common threat of wind. The folk down at the building regulations department may have a few thoughts on it; that is, if you tell them about it!

Circular houses

Whenever a child draws a picture of a house, it always involves straight lines, such is the ubiquity of the rectangular or square house. Such dwellings haven't always dominated, however, and some circular models are still used as low impact and moneyless homes today. If round structure appeal to you, I'd recommend looking at Circle Houses: Yurts, Tipis and Benders by David Pearson or Simple Shelters: Tents, Tipis, Yurts, Domes and Other Ancient Homes by Jonathan Horning for more information and inspiration. Four main types of round dwellings spring to mind:

Roundhouses

These are regularly made from a number of locally sourced materials, including cob and cordwood, wooden posts, wattle and daub panels, all finished with either a thatched or reciprocal frame green roof.

A great example of one of these exists in Tinkers Bubble, an ecological community based in Somerset. Tony Wrench, who has built a well-known roundhouse, has written a very good book on the subject.

Yurts

A standard yurt is usually made up of a circular, wooden lattice frame covered in canvas. The roof is composed of a transparent crown, which allows light and heat in, held up by poles. You can add to their ability to retain heat by stuffing old rugs and duvets, or other insulating materials, in between the frame and the canvas. If this design appeals to you, I would recommend investigating geodesic domes first as a similar option, but one which you are more likely to be able to construct using zero money.

Tipis

These dwellings, traditionally used by Native American Indians and adopted by hippies worldwide, consist of wooden poles covered by some waterproofing material. Animal skins were traditionally used, though these days many people use canvas. The main difference between a tipi and other circular dwellings is its conical shape and opening at the top end, enabling the dweller to cook and heat themselves with an open fire. If you decide to use animal skins then tipis can be made 100% out of locally sourced materials and can easily be done without money. If you use canvas, they can still be made for free but you will need to mine the vast amounts of waste at our disposal.

If you live in the UK, all of these round structures will require planning permission; again that is if you inform the authorities. Due to their fairly mobile nature, many people just erect them and hope for the best, safe in the knowledge that they are easily moved if they get caught. In other countries such as Greece, which I spoke about earlier, many of these temporary structures do not require any permission, and given their climate and land prices, it can be a tempting place to go for anyone who wants to live outside of the absurd story of money and credit and debt without having to attempt to navigate the minefield of bureaucracy that exists in the UK.

The ideal home is one which makes the most of the best elements of all the above designs. As long as you have a sound understanding of the materials you are working with, and the landscape and climatic conditions you are working within, you can do a pick-and-mix with all the materials and designs above. A large part of your decision may simply come down to what materials grow locally to you and what you already have at hand. 

The Moneyless Manifesto by Mark Boyle is available at the special price of £11.20 (click here for e-book edition) from www.green-shopping.co.uk or call us on 01730 823 311.

Photo creditshttp://strawworks.co.uk 

Recommended resources

For more information on building on non-development land see 'How To Get Planning Permission on Non-Development Land'

Watch Tony Wrench, author of Building a Low Impact Roundhouse, build a wood and cobwood roundhouse. You can buy Building a Low Impact Roundhouse from our Green Shopping site at a special price of £9.71. It is also available as an eBook.

Ben Law's Roundwood Timber Framing - building naturally using local resources is a very popular book for sustainable building. It is also available as an eBook and DVD

Permaculture teacher, Patrick Whitefield's Tipi Living, is available as an eBook for just £3.70 from our Green Shopping site.

Check out our Green Building section on Green Shopping for more useful books.

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Wendy |
Sunday, March 31, 2013 - 10:43am

Why do so many articles on natural building omit stone? In the right situation, it can be much more effective than cob as thermal mass. Cob is partially insulative (although not recommended as insulation since there's much better materials) so the entire mass changes temperature very slowly. Stone in general conducts heat much better than cob, so where you want to take advantage of daily temperature gains rather than seasonal ones, eg. in a trombe wall, stone can work better than cob.

Although I appreciate the general point of this article, it's also important to point out that there's a trade-off in using natural and cheap/salvaged materials which is that they need more maintenance, repair and replacement than 'conventional' building materials. So though such homes might cost little in financial terms, they have hidden costs in personal energy expenditure (especially if you haven't used materials in a way that makes them easily replaceable). Since money is ultimately just an energy token, it comes down to a choice as to how you want to spend your energy.

As for the ecological angle, much of the original development of 'conventional' building materials was driven by the desire for longer-lasting, lower-maintenance building components. Since these require processes (mostly involving high temperatures) that are most efficiently handled on an industrial scale, they're more energy-intensive in initial production, but over the life-cycle of the material, probably balance out pretty evenly against the continual replacement of more short-lived materials. So again it appears to be a matter of choice.

The fact that it's been easy for people to profit from or otherwise exploit the development of industrial-scale building materials manufacture is in some senses a separate issue. As is the massive amount of waste in conventional building. Really, it's not so much the materials or the processes themselves that are the environmental problem. It's the SCALE on which they're produced - massive over-production - driven by the profit motive. It seems important to me that we consider these things carefully so we don't throw the baby out with the bathwater when we reject conventional building materials and techniques. Otherwise we'll just end up going round in circles again.

(I should add that I'm an avid natural builder, but that's out of choice. I like living with these materials much more than 'conventional' ones, and I'd rather spend the rest of my life tending my house and garden than work in slavery for my energy tokens.)

JamesBull |
Sunday, October 13, 2013 - 10:50am

Just a little comment on Geodesic Domes. Whilst Lloyd Kahn in his earlier books (Domebook 1, 2 and Shelter) was a strong advocate of geodesic domes, in his later books he has moved more towards other designs. Domes look great, and technically due to reduced surface area and inherent structural strength they are most economical in terms of amount of materials used. However Kahn says that the reality is they are difficult to build correctly, and even more difficult to weatherproof and insulate, due to the large number of joints involved in the construction.

Jais World |
Wednesday, December 25, 2013 - 12:07am

We chose to build our house using mud bricks as it was the cheapest due to being highly labor intensive, saving on costs. You could consider the rammed earth method which is quicker, or straw bales which are popular at the moment too, or all wood. There are several building methods to achieve similar ends, you can even use the standard conventional ways like timber and fired brick. But each method provides varying degrees of satisfaction, advantages and energy use, and requires various amounts of your own labor which effects the total cost. It is also worth looking at some of the ‘Permaculture’ principles of living and design.

Please see .... http://fleurcom.org/blog/owner-builder-news-and-resouces/

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