Introduction: How to Build Dirt Cheap Houses

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Ever wonder how to build a simple home for very little money, without going into debt? The key is to use low-cost, locally available natural materials such earth, small diameter wood and straw to keep expenses to a minimum. The real fun is incorporating all of these methods into an optimum, comfortable, affordable home.

Our earthbag projects have confirmed what I’ve known for a long time – that building at $10/sq.ft. (materials only) or thereabouts is possible. Other aspects of earthbag building -- strength, durability, sustainability, etc. -- are all important. But perhaps the most important point is affordability, because building at $10/sq. ft. makes housing affordable to virtually everyone on the planet. The last page of this Instructable includes a list of $10/sq. ft. projects built by others.

A big reason for the growing popularity of earthbag building is its low cost. You can build shelters for under $1,000. For $1,000-$5,000 you could have a nice, small home that would outlast most conventional wood-framed houses, and be quieter, non-toxic and more comfortable.

Are you on an extremely tight budget? (Ha, who isn’t nowadays.) Then I suggest building small using local natural materials, building in stages and adding on as you can afford it. For instance, build one roundhouse and live in it until you’ve saved enough to build another. You could join the roundhouses with arched or gabled covered walkways, vine covered pergolas, enclosed passageways or additions, or just leave them free standing. Extending rectilinear structures (adding one room at a time) would be even easier. Building a little at a time like this requires planning ahead for future doorways and other considerations, but it enables you to build debt free.

Step 1: Potential Savings

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The following list summarizes some of the potential savings from using natural building materials and alternative construction methods. If you’re wondering why they’re not more widely used, it’s because contractors, banks, realtors and others in the housing industry make more profit from the current system. It’s up to you to get informed and switch to a sustainable lifestyle.

1. Foundation: Insulated frost-protected foundations do not have to be as deep as standard foundations and therefore use fewer materials, require less excavation and backfill, less form work and less labor. Earthbag foundations – polypropylene bags filled with gravel, scoria or pumice on a rubble trench – make an excellent foundation. They also reduce long-term energy costs because they are very energy efficient. This type of foundation is well within the scope of most owner-builders. Potential savings: $2,000 (more in cold climates where foundations are typically very deep), and lower energy costs.

2. Earthen floor: Earthen floors last indefinitely and eliminate the need for other floor coverings. (Earthen floors in Taos Pueblo are over 600 years old.) They also provide thermal mass by absorbing heat from the sun and releasing it gradually at night, which reduces energy costs. Adding insulation under the floor can produce even greater energy savings. They are very comfortable to walk on. Pigments can be troweled onto the surface to create any number of designs. Some of the most beautiful resemble leather. Flooring products such as linoleum and synthetic carpet need to be replaced regularly and usually off-gas harmful fumes. Earthen floors are well within the reach of most do-it-yourselfers, although you might want to hire a couple of semi-skilled laborers to speed the process. Major savings come from not hiring a contractor and not building the floor with wood floor joists, beams, subflooring, and eliminating the need for finish flooring materials such as carpet. Potential savings: $4,000 (much more in many cases), and lower long-term replacement costs. Tamped Earth Floors  

3. Radiant floor heating: Radiant heating uses hot water that flows through plastic tubing in the floor (for example, inside an earthen floor). Radiant heating is the most comfortable and efficient form of heating. The floor is always warm and comfortable and the air temperature is always uniform because hot air rises. Insulation under the slab (scoria, perlite, etc.) insures that most of the heat radiates up into the home. Forced air furnaces contribute to cold and allergy problems because they create dust and dry out the air. But radiant heat is clean, safe, and quiet. The savings here come from installing it yourself, which is very feasible. You may need assistance installing the mechanical systems, but most homeowners could easily install the tubing. Suppliers often design the system for free if you buy the parts from them. Potential savings: thousands of dollars over the life of the home in energy savings.

4. Strawbale or earthbag walls: The main benefit of straw-bale construction, in addition to the environmental aspects, is the energy efficiency of thick, super-insulated walls. Strawbale is especially practical in cold, dry climates, and is very fast and easy to learn. Earthbag is ideal for many regions, especially hot climates and areas subject to tornadoes, hurricanes and flooding. Both are well suited for seismic areas. Potential savings: lower cost for DIY versus hiring contractors, and thousands of dollars over the life of the home in energy savings. Straw-bale Construction , Earthbag Building

5. Small diameter wood: As a result of poor management, US forests are choked with small trees. Thinning this excess wood improves the health of forests, reduces risk of forest fires and provides a nearly unlimited source of wood for those who harvest it. These small trees can be used in the round (which is inherently stronger than milled lumber) for pole trusses, posts, beams, etc. They can also be turned into door and window bucks, studs, plates, rafters, cabinets and furniture using a portable sawmill or an inexpensive chainsaw guide. Potential savings: thousands of dollars, depending on how much you use instead of milled lumber.
Small Diameter Wood – An Underutilized Building Material

6. Earthen plaster: Using earthen plaster on walls has proven effective for many thousands of years. With wide roof overhangs of 36" or so, earthen plaster will hold up very well in most climates, requiring only minor maintenance. Earthen plaster is a favorite among DIY natural builders. People of all ages and skill levels can participate with almost no training. Potential savings: thousands of dollars, depending on what materials are eliminated.

7. Passive solar design: Solar energy is free from the sun, so it makes sense to maximize its potential. Proper siting of the house is necessary. Locate the longest axis of the house towards south (in the northern hemisphere). Install additional high-efficiency windows on the south side and use fewer windows on the east, west, and north walls. Balance this with other factors such as daylighting, ventilation, curb appeal, etc. Protect south facing windows with a properly sized roof overhang. You want to block the hot summer sun but allow the lower winter sun to shine into the home. The main benefits of passive solar energy are lower long-term energy costs and a brighter, more pleasant living space. Potential savings: thousands of dollars over the long term in energy savings.

8. Lower mortgage rate: It’s best to build small, build in stages and pay with cash. But if you decide to get a mortgage, some lending institutions will charge a lower rate on homes with energy saving features that are rated by a recognized source such as Energy Rated Homes of Colorado (ERHC). ERHC is a state sponsored organization whose ratings are accepted by every bank and lender. Potential savings: $2,000, plus thousands of dollars over the life of the loan.

9. Metal roofing: Metal roofing is one of the most cost-effective, durable and practical roofing materials. It will last several times longer than asphalt shingles and is resistant to hail. It is probably the fastest and easiest roofing material to install. Because metal roofing is fire resistant, you may be able to get a discount on your home insurance. There is less chance of leaks and water damage in comparison to asphalt shingles. It is also a good choice environmentally. Metal roofing contains recycled steel and can be recycled again in the future. Additional savings can come from using white or light-colored roofs to reflect heat in hot climates. A properly designed and well insulated home often will not need a cooler or air conditioning system. The estimated savings here assume you will install your own metal roofing, but would have hired a contractor to install the heavier asphalt shingles. Potential savings: $3,000 initially, plus long term energy savings and lower maintenance costs.

Step 2: Additional Savings

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Miscellaneous: There are many other ways to reduce the cost of the home and cut energy bills. Here are a few additional ideas:
• Heat with wood scraps from sawmills, cabinet shops and tree trimming companies. You can also use coppiced wood and pallets. No need to buy wood in most cases. And no need for an expensive wood stove. For about 10 years, we heated our old farmhouse in Colorado with an old $50 Ashley stove, and then sold it when we moved for $50.
• Using recycled materials can save you a small fortune, and add unique character to your home.
• Blown-in cellulose insulation has a higher insulation value per inch than fiberglass, and maintains a higher value due to less settling.
• Get free cost estimates if possible from lumber yards and then shop and compare prices – typically no one lumber yard has lower prices on everything.
• Only hire contractors who come highly recommended by those you know and trust, and whose work meets your standards.
• Add ceiling fans to help circulate air and cut utility costs.
• Use energy-efficient windows, doors, lighting and appliances such as solar or on-demand water heating.
• Ventilate your house on hot summer nights by opening some windows.
• Be diligent on caulking and weatherizing – high rates of infiltration will greatly increase utility bills.
• Choose low maintenance materials whenever possible (stucco, metal roofing, windows that don’t require painting, etc.).
• Affordable roof options such as domes, reciprocal roofs, living roofs, pole construction, pallet trusses, thatch, etc.
• Provide adequate attic ventilation with soffit and ridge vents.
• Earth-berming and earth-sheltering for improved energy performance.
• Grow your own food. This can include a small indoor kitchen garden or attached greenhouse. Potential savings: thousands of dollars and additional energy savings long term.

Step 3: Additional Savings From Building With Earthbags

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Here are just a few ways of saving money by building with earthbags:
- The answer may be right under our feet – the earth. Building with earth is a timeless building tradition with some structures lasting many hundreds of years. Over a third of the buildings in the world are earthen structures. Earth is probably the least expensive building material (literally dirt-cheap), and therefore holds enormous potential for solving our housing crisis.
- Recycled bags are readily available in most places. Polypropylene or burlap bags are ubiquitous, being used for all types of grain, fertilizer and animal feed, and sometimes for concrete, plaster and other products. Talk to local farmers and feed supply outlets.
- Misprinted bags are often available direct from manufacturers at greatly reduced prices. Between misprinted bags and recycled bags (in good condition) you can cut the main expense of earthbag building to almost nil.
- No special mix is required. Most soils, including those on or near most building sites, are adequate or can be adjusted with sand or clay to create an appropriate mix. This makes the other primary material for earthbag building basically free or close to it.
- You can order special mixes of earth from sand and gravel producers, such as road base and reject fines at very low prices. The main expense is delivery, but this has to be weighed against your time and effort to dig it from the ground. Spending $200-$300 for delivery of an excellent mixture that’s free of large rocks and roots can save a great deal of hard labor. And, they'll dump it in piles around the building site to speed construction and save even more work.

Step 4: Conclusion

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The two largest obstacles to home ownership are expensive building materials and overly complex construction methods that require specialized skills and equipment. The problem is so acute that over 70 percent of Americans are unable to afford contractor-built homes. With the current downturn in the economy and the loss of millions of jobs, the housing situation in the U.S. is definitely taking a turn for the worse.

Everyone needs a place to live - shelter is a basic need. But since the current system is bypassing the vast majority of the population, it's time to turn to simpler, more affordable building methods.
Using dirt-cheap building materials -- earth, sand, gravel, straw, recycled materials, etc. -- and eliminating expensive contractors and specialized equipment, the cost of construction can be slashed to a fraction of conventional housing costs.

***Natural building – using locally available, minimally processed natural materials – is the logical solution. There is simply no other way to create affordable housing for all those in need.***

Step 5: Links to Other Low Cost Projects

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Here are a few links to show what others have done using earthbags and other low-cost natural building methods:
- Simon Dale, Low Impact Woodland Home , Pembrokeshire, UK: Reminiscent of a Hobbit house, this incredibly beautiful home offers inspiration for those seeking a simpler, better way of living and building.
- EarthDome House at TerraSante Village, Tucson, Arizona: This small, 12′ dome is right at home in the desert. It is made of earthbags with a ferrocement roof insulated with recycled styrofoam.
- Tony Wrench and Jane Faith, That Roundhouse , West Wales: Author Tony Wrench and his partner have enjoyed the good life in their sod-covered roundhouse for many years. They have become internationally recognized champions for their efforts to create more equitable housing rights.
- Pedro and Christina, House Alive cob house in Xipolite, Mexico: House Alive does great work through their workshops and seminars. This particular structure demonstrates the use of cob and thatch to make a beautiful, affordable home in Mexico.
- Simone Swan, Adobe Vault in Presidio, Texas: Trained under the renowned Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy, Simone Swan carries on the timeless tradition of building vaults and domes of earth. The vault shown on this web page could be built almost for free by an owner-builder (excluding mechanicals, permits, etc).
- Penny Livingston, Straw Bale Vault , Permaculture Institute of Northern California: This vault utilizes straw bales for both the walls and roof. This minimizes materials and labor, and creates a superinsulated structure.
- Akio Inoue, Earthbag Domes , Tenri, Japan: One of the most experienced and knowledgeable earthbag builders, Professor Inoue has completed at least 23 earthbag buildings in 7 countries.
- Khimsar Sand Dunes Village, Adobe Guesthouses , Africa: These strikingly beautiful guesthouses are based on centuries-old indigenous building techniques that enable them to blend in to the environment seamlessly. See also this link.
- Loei Leela Wadee Resort , adobe vault and thatch roof in Loei, Thailand: Simple yet elegant, these guesthouses are designed to stay cool in the summer and comfortable in the winter.


mthornton13 (author)2018-01-08

Hi. I have built a handful of un-permitted structures over the last 18 years. Cob, wattle and daub, pounded tire foundation, solar arrays, water catchment. Some experimental, some more to code. I am about to enter into the world of permits for an owner built home, most likely strawbale, and I'm having anxiety about being watched during every step of the process. Any advice to ease my mind?!

WayneD56 (author)2017-01-17

Hi! My wife & I have moves to a fairly large spot of land in the Ozarks where we are hoping to live a "sustainable" life. I must admit that while we have the heart & strength to endure it we lack the knowledge. We are on a shoe string budget so unfortunately error could cost us the farm. Or maybe not but advice is surely welcome. Floor foundations are super expensive. Im trying to find a way to get around that high cost.
Thanks plenty for any advice. Cheers. Wayne.

Owen Geiger (author)WayneD562017-01-18

Always practice on a small building first such as a tool shed.

Do you mean wall foundations? Use poly bags doubled up and filled with gravel. Search for details with keywords 'gravel bags' plus my name.

KamiH3 (author)Owen Geiger2017-11-20

I've built sheds i have remodled my house I've built decks on my houses but all the red tape you have to go through anymore is unreal

Owen Geiger (author)WayneD562017-01-18

Always practice on a small building first such as a tool shed.

Do you mean wall foundations? Use poly bags doubled up and filled with gravel. Search for details with keywords 'gravel bags' plus my name.

misplacedsouthernbelle1 (author)2017-02-27

I never built a home before, however, looking at everything here, it looks very do able. An in my budget! I agree at Cleareye10, individual people's business is NOT gov business, they need to loosen their grip on homesteading, we have a right to live as much as they do. Just because we know alternative living is better, does not mean we should be controlled! I also agree on the coding, (which is half of what my comment is about.) Cities are only made to cram us all in like farm animals in a meat market.

Cleareye10. (author)2016-12-26

People have to demand that local government butt out of the building code and enforcement business. Let individuals decide for themselves what they want and how to build it. We would have real communities that way, not the fake, look alike subdivisions controlled like condominium complexes.

In fact, our insurance companies should be holding the bag on code enforcement. They should come to your house, look it over and offer a price to insure. The city should not be involved in the risk.

Verlaat1 (author)Cleareye10.2017-01-27

Sure if you live in butf...k nowhere, we live in miami and I would hate to see your house blown all over my yard next time a hurricane hits. I also wouldn't like my property value to be affected because of my neighbors shack. Don't get me wrong it is a good idea for rural areas preferably not here.

Owen Geiger (author)Cleareye10.2016-12-26

Things are slowly starting to change. Our Natural Building Blog is documenting areas that are now providing more lenient building codes. You can search our blog for keywords "areas with few or no codes". Here's the latest story about Upstate NY:

I'll post your message on this blog post. Thanks for commenting.

Owen Geiger (author)Cleareye10.2016-12-26

Things are slowly starting to change. Our Natural Building Blog is documenting areas that are now providing more lenient building codes. You can search our blog for keywords "areas with few or no codes". Here's the latest story about Upstate NY:

I'll post your message on this blog post. Thanks for commenting.

vincent7520 (author)2016-06-23

Nice, but this does not answer modern issues in housing.

This type of housing is great in many aspects (environment etc… ) and could suits places where space is NOT a problem in such countries such as United States. But in most other continents, especially Asia, but it becomes true of Europe the correct response to housing problems is collective housing, not individual : takes less space, makes huge savings in transportation, fluid networks (water, electricity, sewage…), zoning, etc… All in all : an urban environment.

Do remember that for the first time in the history of humanity the number of people living in cities is bigger than those living in rural areas.

However there are environmental responses that answer modern urban needs although few of them are implemented, simply because of mental laziness of authorities.

MarcioWilges (author)2016-02-04

It would be great to be able to build your own dwelling at such a cheap price-tag which comes with easy removal and demolition. Nevertheless, not all localities permit the construction of your own properties. There are many steps and approval processes which you would have to go through before finally receiving the green light from the authorities to start building.

YueR1 (author)2016-01-10

Any particular hints on hot, wet and windy climates (I'm thinking brazil)?

DavidJ117 (author)2015-11-20

I'm living near Canada in northern New York, what would best suit the climate here where it is wet and cold?

Owen Geiger (author)DavidJ1172015-11-21

Post and beam with straw bale walls on gravel bag foundation. Use metal roofing, standard trusses, south facing window wall, lots of roof insulation and recycled wood.

Zdaddy (author)2012-01-09

The problem I am facing is where to build. I've seen countless of very cool and interesting alternative home building methods. So I know I am capable of doing it and I'm not ever going to be out of ideas.

I bought 0.25acres of land in the mountains about 45 mins away...only to find out there is no where in my state that you can get away with this kind of living. Luckily I was able to back out of the deal due to the seller not disclosing certain things to me as the buyer, I got my money back. That was a close call!

There is a case right now in San Diego of a man that is being evicted from his land even though he is paid in full and paid his taxes for over 20 years, the new neighbors just dont like that he lives in a mud hut on his acreage. It devalues their home. The city is backing up the neighbors.

I've been running this through my mind for years now and unless I leave the state or build in secret away from prying eyes (which wont ever happen, too much risk and at least in CA there are eyes everyhwere) or buy property and submit building permits (ha! Good luck!) then I can't build my own sand bag home. All californians are doomed to live strapped down to rent (100% interest home) or a mortgage which makes you a slave to the bank.

What we really need is an instructable on how you can make it possible to build homes like these.

Owen Geiger (author)Zdaddy2012-01-09

We have a blog post on Counties with Few or No Building Codes. It's our most popular topic, so obviously people are interested in learning more about this.

The blog post lists some of the best areas and some general advice. Be sure to read the comments. In general, there are lots of areas in the western US where you can build with earthbags, and other areas too.

California is probably the most difficult state to deal with. Any highly populated state is difficult. We always suggest building in rural areas with few or no codes. I don't know how else to explain it. It's more of a personal journey one has to go through. Everyone's opinion about climate, geography, town size, etc. is different. You'll have to figure out what works for you.

TIGERHD1 (author)Owen Geiger2013-09-22

Where did this blog/url go in your above response , Owen? I copied and pasted , and looks like it has been moved. Did a search , found it in older posts and still cannot open. Would love to read up on this and see where may be the best place to go! Thanks!

Owen Geiger (author)TIGERHD12015-08-08

Here's the correct link:

If you see a broken link on our blog just google or search our site with a few keywords and you'll find the missing article. Some articles got lost when we moved to a different server.

Zdaddy (author)Owen Geiger2012-01-10

Thank you for the links Owen! You seem passionate about this, its an inspiration. I wont give up! :)

Owen Geiger (author)Zdaddy2012-01-09

The other alternative is hiring an engineer to stamp your plans. The only engineer at this time is Precision Structural Engineering, Inc. Their engineer stamp will enable you to build virtually anywhere.

However, be forewarned. Code approved structures will cost significantly more than ordinary earthbag houses. Way more. About several times the cost.

bryan.taylor.33483903 (author)2015-02-28

I'm continually wondering why the building code mafia has any say over what I do on private property, especially if I build a house that is not connected to the electric utility, or sewer utility or water utility. If I have solar power, my own well/water supply, and composting toilets, where's the hook? I know the building code people fly under the guise of wanting to make sure the next people who might buy my land and house are "safe", but realistically, even if it isn't safe, the code people don't take responsibility for their bad approvals and inspections...they put it all back on the owner. So again, what do they really do besides collect fees and wield power? Answer: Not much.

I actually built an addition to my house after talking to the the building code people and being passed off to supervisor after supervisor all the way to the county attorney who still couldn't answer my question: "How can you legally issue me a valid building permit if I am not a contractor? You say that I have to get a permit from you in order to legally build an addition, and you say that I can build it as the owner of the property, but if you read the building laws in this state, a permit is not valid unless it has the very specific contractor information that is required. Issuing a permit to me, a guy who is not a contractor would make the person who issues the permit personally liable for a $5000 fine; which the law says is a mandatory fine." The county attorney couldn't answer that question and said that if I built without a permit then we would settle the matter in court. I told him that he knew my name and address and that he should stop by and watch me put hammer to nails. I also told him that he would look really stupid in court after I recount my conversation with him to the jury. I never saw or heard from them, even. They removed that part of the building code now, there is no specific provision requiring contractor information on says that part of the information can be filled in when available.

I think building codes have a place with respect to public access to public and privately owned large businesses. There is some merit there. But to make every Tom, Dick and Harry subject to their fees and approvals on private property is nothing but a tax to play scheme.

People have been building home for thousands of years, some of them still standing, and now you'd think that any structure erected without a government official tossing his blessings around and collecting his fees would fall instantly or poison the whole countryside.

Just my 2 cents.

I agree and have written about this many times on our Natural Building Blog. It's a money making scam, and a way to control/intimidate people = wielding power. After complaining about it for years I moved to a rural area with no codes, no harassment, no problems. Now I can build whatever I want. Vote with your feet and your wallet.

The main reason for building codes initially was to prevent fires in cities. The initial codes were very short and simple common sense steps like "Wood chimneys are not allowed."

gullinvarg (author)Owen Geiger2015-07-25

My understanding is that codes are to provide minimum standards for life safety, welfare and sanitation. I think codes that truly do this and only this are reasonable. I also think the current codes are often too narrowly defined. Requiring someone to build such that their home isn't a firetrap that may set a whole neighborhood alight is one thing. Requiring them to use frame housing instead of cob or earthbag is another.

I'd add another caveat to the "businesses and public areas" should have codes caveat. There's also shelter for rent. There's plenty of people who already rent places that are barely (or not at all) safe who'd probably be thrilled to be able to do whatever they want on land they own with no codes.

Owen Geiger (author)gullinvarg2015-08-08

I agree. This is what I've been saying on our Natural Building Blog for years. The original codes, which made sense, were contained within a little pamphlet (50 pages? or so). Now there are monstrous books for each aspect of construction -- plumbing, electrical, etc.that are written in technical language that 99% of the population can't understand. That means people in code areas end up having to hire building professionals to do most things. Very few now go the DIY owner-builder route unless they have prior building experience.

I really think there are three routes, move to a code minimized place, challenge their legal authority knowing you will be fighting your own tax dollars, or be as nice and friendly as you can to the local authorities and try to work with them. If you challenge them, do so in a "I'm stupid and just wondering sort of way" so that they don't just start throwing their authority around. But while doing so, use the actual law and words contained in the law. Ask them where definitions are, etc. That's all I did, and they couldn't defend, quote, or explain the law.

I'm not against building codes for commercial, industrial or government buildings where the public visits or works, but it makes no sense to put codes on private individuals, especially in light of our Constitution and rights. If we have to ask and pay for permission to build on our own land, and only build how government wants us to build, then it's not really private property is it?

I checked out your website and really like it. I can see we are cut from the same mold. Thanks. I'm sure it will be a great resource going forward in life. We are moving internationally soon and my goal is to be as debt and utility unenslaved as possible. We'll cross paths in life I'm certain!

thank you Brian! spot on, the building codes (particularly in Europe) serve to maintain a certain price level per M2! In Germany they will tell you the colour and material of your roof shingles.......if they would allow "cheap" they wouldn’t do their job right as all they want is to upper the price for our dream.....having a home and being in as much depts as possible!!!

Owen Geiger (author)cazblush2015-03-27

Good point. Real estate agents benefit also. If you think about it, what we have now is just a giant artificial bubble in housing prices. The prices do not reflect reality. Can you imagine paying 1/4 million for a box made out of 2x4s and sheetrock? Yeah, the builders make them look pretty good, but it's still just a grossly overpriced box (that also gives off toxic fumes, burns like crazy, needs endless maintenance, etc.).

cazblush (author)Owen Geiger2015-05-30

Hey Owen, it seems to me that the problem with VOCs, toxicity levels, electro smog, EMR safety etc you just mentioned are utterly underestimated here in the States. Do you think there is future demand for consultants in this area here? I have been reading over years quite a bit of what you had to say on diverse construction topics. Do you think one could build an urban dwelling on 40$/Sft (high thermal mass) here in San Antonio?

Owen Geiger (author)cazblush2015-06-08

Sadly it seems most people don't care about their health. Just look at what people buy in the supermarket. Most people just blow it off after hearing about hundreds of hazards. They figure everythiing is hazardous so why worry about it. But this is an obvious mistake because you can see people in near perfect health running marathons in their 70s (those who made wise health choices) and about 99% of the rest of the population who have heart disease and many other chronic health problems who are in and out of the hospital starting in their 50s.

Move to a rural area with few or no codes if you want to build for $40/sq. foot.

I'll concede that in most places the process is ridiculous and overpriced (though in my own area it's all pretty reasonable). But I'd argue that future owners aren't the only ones at risk of shoddy work. A few years ago it was all over the news here locally when a deck collapsed during a family reunion. No one was killed, luckily, but there were severe injuries among both adults and children. It was discovered during the investigation that the owner-built deck was not up to code, there wasn't a permit issued, and hence, not an inspection done. The number of people on the deck was not at all unreasonable, had the deck been up to spec. Having previously worked in construction, and having dabbled in real estate investing, I can tell you I've seen a LOT of terribly executed owner construction. Sometimes the design itself is faulty (such as the aforementioned deck) and sometimes the design is fine, but the execution is faulty (wrong fasteners, wrong materials, etc). Philosophically, yes, it shouldn't be anyone's business what I'm doing on my own property. But when some shoddy work hurts or kills someone, that casts a whole new light on things. I know if I was hurt on your property due to some sort of accident like this, I'd have a very different perspective if your work was to blame rather than it simply being a bizarre accident or a materials failure. A jury would certainly view it in a different light.

I think that is the entire purpose behind tort claims and criminal negligence laws. It's nice to want to prevent any and all accidents, but who gets to draw the line at cost vs. risk? Maybe there should be insurance incentives instead of codes? Anyhow, I've also heard of code approved decks and houses and commercial buildings failing, burning, flooding, etc., is that liability, being approved by code inspectors, now on the country or the city? Nope, it stays with the owner and his insurance (if he has it) -even if the inspector was negligent. I'm more with Owen on this, I think freedom and disclosure and buyer beware are the best solutions we have... it sure beats the tax racket that building codes sure appear to be today. (I'm talking about private residential property here only, not commercial or industrial, or government buildings that the public frequents.)

A simple solution is to offer homeowners the option of not getting a permit for their home and small projects around the house like decks. This would have to be declared if they ever sold the property. Future buyers would be alerted and have the choice of either not buying or hiring a home inspector to see if everything is safe. This option would slash housing costs and enable many poor people to afford homes. It's particularly appropriate in poor areas and rural areas. Another option is to go back to what was done 100 years ago. Create a 25-50 page set of building guidelines instead of all the complex codes of today. It worked then and could work today. Again, give people options.

Varghese PaulK (author)2015-06-03

amberdawn80 (author)2015-04-02

I'm trying to turn a very old garage into a house. Why didn't I think about this before a bought the place

Owen Geiger (author)amberdawn802015-04-02

It depends on your situation. Converting an older structure can be an excellent, low cost way to go. It can be much faster and easier than starting from scratch.

0m1kr0n (author)2014-09-22

Frost lines change sometimes by city or smaller

All US States have residential zone structure requirement changes even down to city level, but at least by county

You have to have licensed contractors for every stage of building and approval everywhere else you can be legally made to stop or even demolish construction. At the very end every stage needs a licencor. Even if you're rural and finish the structure, contractor records are referenced by anyone who wants to research you or your property, and if it's a blank you can be forced to destruct.

These are the things the 'green' type blog posts on escaping society tend to totally ignore..

Owen Geiger (author)0m1kr0n2014-09-23

There are places in the US with few or no codes. There's even a book you can buy that lists them. Everything is explained in this blog post called Counties With Few or No Building Codes:

0m1kr0n (author)Owen Geiger2014-09-24

In most places you can actually build a structure with ANY foundation and design as long as it has no electrical or plumbing and is around 120sqft or less..

The trailer type houses are a DOT problem and once you get them legalized they are considered RVs. Which in best case scenario from the codes I've came across for different state, are only allowed temporarily and on a time-limit bases where there is a perminant structure being constructed and requires an additional permit that costs, unless you go through a commercial based application for recreational zoning the deeded lot.

I've yet to come across any city or county that has no codes and I've spanned the country.

I forgot to add in my original comment: Your contractors licenses are audited by a final inspector in most places and even if they are all legit it's super easy to fail.

there are no building codes in Dent county Missouri unless you live in or near any city or town.

0m1kr0n (author)0m1kr0n2014-09-25

Just to add: I'm no expert by no means, I'm a owner/builder who has dug into city and county laws with the help of some agents and attorneys in various states. I'm interested in what others know on the subject and love to be told I'm wrong with explanation.

Also, I'm an engineer but not licensed to build. I may be looking in to getting the licenses to do a complete home build on my own. I know I won't be able to do electrical though because you need to be licensed for that which takes a four-year apprenticeship and you have to basically beg electricians to do do that and they are typically grumpy.. You would be amazed what you can do by just learning foundation design and concrete work though(there is only like one quality book in existence on the subject).

kaboomx4 (author)0m1kr0n2014-11-07

in texas there is no restrictions if building is under 1000s and on owned property.

Owen Geiger (author)kaboomx42014-11-07

There are lots of places with lots of exceptions. Read our blog post Counties with Few or No Building Codes.

BenniGholami (author)2014-12-11

There are some village areas in the Phuket area which are reminiscent of cheap housing, although definitely not as well built as some of these. If these houses are for sale or at least the techniques of how they were built are shared, these people might get a good chance at a better and cleaner standard of living I think!

Owen Geiger (author)BenniGholami2014-12-12

Good, common low cost housing methods in Thailand include recycled wood, CEBs, bamboo, thatch and adobes. A family built a small but nice adobe home near Khon Kaen for $100. My girlfriend saw it on TV and called me to come watch. Keep looking around and you'll find projects like this.

Owen Geiger (author)2014-09-09

Put a layer of gravel under the floor with a perforated vent pipe that vents through the soffit or roof, then plastic sheeting on top then your floor. Talk to local builders for details if necessary.

kathy.liu.3720 (author)2014-09-08

In some places the building code involves a gap between the foundation and the ground in case of radon gas. How would you solve this?

wmlaveck (author)2013-04-09

Sounds like a great way to build a home, however in Indiana, USA we have to deal with building codes and permits.

Owen Geiger (author)wmlaveck2013-04-09

Contact They can supply plans or tweak my plans at Earthbag House Plans to meet code.

cking34 (author)Owen Geiger2013-11-26

please can you advise,,Im in the process of selling my place,ready to buy a piece of land but the money to build a regular house is not there,in other words,the budget is very tight,I want to build some thing around the 1200 sqft including in it two porches and no garage,,,I would like to either build or have some one build one of your earth bag houses,but there may be a problem with the county codes etc,,please advise,how can I have one of your houses build.,thanks

About This Instructable




Bio: Owen Geiger is the former director of Builders Without Borders, a Mother Earth News Green Home Adviser, The Last Straw Journal Correspondent and the director ... More »
More by Owen Geiger:Earthbag Water TanksInsulated Bamboo WallsInsulated Earthbag Foundations for Yurts
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