Living in a sustainable, off-the-grid community is the dream of many, but few actually take the steps to making something of that ambition. One of the reasons is being unable to find or construct off grid housing that covers the necessities of life without breaking the bank.
The world is already seeing the negative effects of human consumption. Housing prices are rising. The cost of maintaining these residences is also rising – probably even faster than the global average temperature.
That’s why today I’m introducing some of the best alternative construction methods for off-grid communities like mine in New Mexico and elsewhere.
The Top Sustainable Alternative Construction Materials.
All of these alternative building methods use eco-friendly materials and many can be self-sustaining, as long as you plan effectively. Let’s have a look:
Rammed earth is made from exactly what you’d think: earth. Frames are comprised of wood, which separates this style from adobe and cob. Because the manufacturing costs of rammed earth is low, this material has become the prime choice of sustainable architecture. Aside from that plus, rammed earth has fantastic thermal mass and control (meaning internal temperature won’t fluctuate), strength, longevity and durability, is low maintenance, and also has noise-reduction, pest-resistance, and fire-resistance.
New ‘Crete Variations
No cons in this ‘crete. Jokes aside, the futuristic variations like papercrete, grasscrete and hempcrete have garnered some attention over the years for being much more earth-friendly and sustainable than regular concrete. Though you probably won’t be constructing an entire house from these materials, they can be used in unique ways to fabricate the residence of your dreams.
Similar to a log house, a cordwood domicile will be fabricated from stacked firewood or split logs within a wooden frame. Each log is glued together with environmentally-friendly materials like sand, lime, sawdust, and concrete. Since cordwood homes are very easy to build, those with a creative blueprint can explore the potential of these houses. For example, you might see some examples of cordwood buildings that have glass bottle ends in the walls. Cordwood is also highly energy efficient, provides excellent insulation without any need for additional materials, and doesn’t cost a lot of money.
Not to be confused with Cob construction, which is made by piling mud up. Adobe refers to homemade bricks that contain ingredients like clay, dirt, and other raw materials that are blended and softened. This mix is poured into brick molds then dried out so you can build with them. Adobe is efficient and eco-friendly. Another advantage to using adobe is that it is strong enough for flooring as well.
The downside to adobe construction is that while it has decent thermal mass for maintaining a comfortable temperature, it doesn’t insulate well. Therefore, you will have to use a secondary form of insulation, which is typically done by building a double wall with some air space or placing another alternative on the outside of the adobe, such as cordwood or a concrete variant.
Asian populations have been right all along—bamboo is perfect for off-grid living and alternative construction. Why? Bamboo not only produces oxygen, it consumes carbon dioxide faster than many other plants and trees. Furthermore, bamboo grows in a number of climates, is easy to harvest, and is aesthetically appealing.
One example of superior bamboo building designs would be IBUKU, created by Elora Hardy. Though the company is currently based in Bali, you can definitely get some inspiration from how IBUKU uses bamboo to create elegant architecture.
Shipping Crate/Container Houses
If you know about the minimalist movement, then you’ve probably heard about people refurbishing shipping crates into studio apartments. Another name for shipping container homes is Interlocking Steel Box Units (ISBU), and this method has been around for over 23 years. Openings for windows and doors are cut through the metal. Inside, a wood frame is installed, fitted with insulation then dry-walled. Construction is fast and the final result as an industrial-looking residence.
However, I can’t stress enough the importance of finding the right container. These are essentially building blocks for tiny homes, so you can think of a 40-foot long container as a tiny studio with 320 sq ft of living space. Some containers have higher walls, giving you more head space (up to 8 ft), which can be ideal if you’re tall or if you’re setting up somewhere that requires extra insulation. One of these extra high shipping containers will cost anywhere from $2,000 to $8,000, depending on the condition. For example, buying a container that’s only made a single trip will be much more costly than one that’s been on several voyages; but while you might be paying more outright, those older containers might have dents and other structural damages that could cost more money down the road.
While you might think dirtbags are good-for-nothing, there exists two kinds that can build you a sustainable home. Earthbag construction has been around since the dawn of warfare and sandbag fortifications, but instead of building defenses, you’re building a home. You can purchase the special bags and stuff them with a mixture of clay, dirt, and other organic materials and work with that as you would adobe. Then, you fill the bags with your adobe mixture, shape the bags to your liking, and let them dry. That’s Earthbag 101.
Groups like New Mexico Dirtbags have a number of bags to choose from, such as different sized polypropylene bags that are UV treated; polypropylene tubular bags; all-natural burlap bags (slightly expensive); treated burlap bags that meet US military specifications; and if monofilament bags that can filtrate and control water and ballast.
Once you’ve built your earthbag home, you then plaster the walls with another sustainable material, such as lime, adobe, mud, papercrete, or an earthen plaster. After the initial base of plaster has dried, you can then add texture and color just like you would a conventional structure.
Pioneered by the architect Michael Reynolds, Earthship is a truly unique system that features a passive solar system alongside natural and upcycled features to build a home. The Earthship philosophy is based on addressing 6 needs sustainably:
This all comes together into awesomely crafted homes with multi-colored windows, greenhouses, natural light, and all the comforts you’d want to stay happy. Outer walls are built with materials like earth-rammed tires, earthbags, adobe, concrete, wood, and so on. Another special feature would be the non-load-bearing partitions built in a honeycomb style with cans and concrete, also called “tin can walls.” Earthships also gather their own energy by using photovoltaic solar panels, built-in wind turbines, or deep-cycle batteries. These are combined together in the Power Organizing Module (POM), a premade system that’s built by Earthship Biotecture. The POM is used to power household appliances, like computers, washing machines, vacuums, and printers.
Presently, there are Earthships in the USA (New Mexico), South Africa, Belgium, United Kingdom, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, The Netherlands, France, Spain, Portugal, Czech Republic, Guatamala, Belize, Uruguay, and Argentina. You can learn more about Earthship houses, where to rent one, or get more information about the Earthship Biotecture Academy on the official Earthship website.
If you haven’t heard of bermed houses, don’t worry, you’re not the only one. Bermed houses are the second type of earth-sheltered designs, with the first being an underground unit. While an underground earth-sheltered house is usually completely covered by earth with a single atrium or courtyard that expose the dwelling to solar heat and light. This can be, understandably, not preferable to many people, which is why the bermed earth-sheltered house is an inviting option.
A bermed house is built above or below grade, with earth over one or more of the walls. Some elevated bermed designs will show the front edifice of house while the other sides, and sometimes even the roof, are protected and insulated by earth. An example of this would be a hobbit house. The front of the house typically faces south, allowing sunlight to heat the interior. The floor plans are created so that dwelling areas are exposed to the light and heat, but if you’re looking for more sunshine, skylights and ventilation can be strategically placed to allow daylight in more northern sections of the structure.
Earth-sheltered structures aren’t affected by extreme temperature changes as much as traditional homes, and they also require much less exterior maintenance. This means that you’re going to save big time on insurance, since you rarely have to worry about strong wind, hail, and other natural damages that occur overtime. The bermed design also provides excellent soundproofing. On the downside, bermed houses are rather costly to construct and sometimes even more expensive than a conventional design. Plus, because the structure is buried underground, you have to take special precautions against moisture.
Sustainable Tiny Houses & Prefabricated Sheds/Garage Kits
I’m putting these two together, because while tiny homes can be constructed without a kit, there are so many prefab options out there worth mentioning. Tiny houses are wonderful, because they are full of whimsy and charm and look good anywhere. Plus, most of them are easy to relocate. Whether you choose to revamp a prefabricated shed into a tiny home or choose one of the many sustainable prefabricated tiny house plans on the market, the main advantage is the same: during construction less waste is generated.
You might be thinking, “Why buy prefab when I can just build my own?” Well, that’s easy: quality-control, craftsmanship, and consistency. These pre-made homes are delivered to you, wherever you are, and are designed to be put together hassle-free. If you’re not skilled with construction or don’t have someone to help you out, a prefabricated tiny house ensures you are getting a problem-free shelter.
Additionally, green prefab homes integrate several eco-friendly methods that make going off-grid simpler. You can choose from energy-saving lighting fixtures, solar panels, large windows, green roofs (grow grass), air-source heat pumps, and even composting toilets. Here are some of the best tiny house and prefabricated kits available right now:
Honorable Mention: Cob and Straw Bale
Although straw bales and cob somehow always make their way on the top alternative construction lists, these materials are not all they’re cooked up to be.
Cob houses that you see on the internet are oftentimes adobe houses, because the two look similar. But they are actually very different. Cob is built with a mixture of straw filaments and earth, and you construct the walls by apply large handfuls, piling it up over time. In the end, a cob house will look like it’s made of clay. These layers take a long time to build up, because you have to wait for them to dry.
Straw bale construction also presents some challenges that, honestly, you’re better off not getting caught up in. One of those difficulties would be keeping the straw bales dry. While places like New Mexico have dry heat, when the rain does come, the moisture will quickly damage the hay bales. This includes humidity. Aside from that, you have to worry about the size of the walls. Since most bales have a typically thickness of 18-20 inches, you lose a lot of interior liveable space.
In short, there are better methods than cob and straw bale houses that are stronger, cheaper, and easier to use, but you can try them out if you want.
Tips for Building & Living in an Off-Grid Home
Alternative construction methods for more sustainable homes are everywhere. Whether you choose the earthship route, prefabricated tiny home, or build an adobe house out of organic materials, there are ways to make the transition to living off-grid much more streamlined and comfortable. Every home and region is going to have a unique set of challenges that you need to think about.
1. Simple and Effective Design
One of the reasons you’re going off-grid is to be more efficient, so stick to the designs that are proven to be efficient and easy to construct. You can find a number of blueprints available online that show the simplest alternative construction methods. Furthermore, while having a creative interior is great, remember that you want something easy to clean and ventilate. Avoid creating too many angles and over-stuffing the space.
2. Sustainable Community
This, to me, is huge. Some people go off-grid to get away from civilization, but a sustainable green community is the cornerstone of a more satisfying experience. Share and cultivate land, build houses together, and develop a group of people devoted to living more naturally and free. Once you’ve gotten your household up and functional, it’s going to take some time to work the land and get comfortable with the change, so it’s important to have a support group close by.
3. Let Nature In
If you’re using a natural material, considering a bermed house, or seek to settle down amongst nature in the least disruptive way possible, then you need to consider your surroundings. You can optimize your location by thinking about the direction the sun comes from, where shade is produced, how the seasons affect the land and the weather, soil conditions, topography, and so on. If you plan on using wind energy, for example, you’ll want to keep in mind the wind direction so you can optimize window placement and orientation for the best ventilation and air flow.
Conventional building methods are going out of style. With the future of our planet on the line, we all have to begin considering alternative construction methods to reduce energy consumption, decrease dependence on the grid, and create a more sustainable way of life. With existing natural materials, such as adobe, rammed earth, cordwood, bermed housing, or more modern modular homes made from shipping containers and other recycled items, there are a number of ways to construct an off-grid home to begin your low-cost, low carbon footprint sustainable lifestyle. The last thing you need to find, though, is an amazing sustainable community like mine to truly make you feel at home.
Have I missed any alternative construction materials? Have any to recommend? Tell me what you think in the comments section!
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