How to Build Dirt Cheap Houses


Introduction: How to Build Dirt Cheap Houses

About: 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 of the Geiger Research Institute of Sustainable B...

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

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

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

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

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

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.



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    123 Discussions

    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?!

    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.

    3 replies

    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.

    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

    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.

    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.

    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.

    3 replies

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.


    2 years ago

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

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

    1 reply

    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.

    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.

    4 replies

    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.

    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!

    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.

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