Live in a Greenhouse




Introduction: Live in a Greenhouse

Need a temporary, affordable, all-season, and comfortable dwelling?
Try building a greenhouse with a tent inside.

The idea stemmed from my love of modern backpacking tents. They use a 'floor-to-ceiling' rainfly that covers the tent. The tents themselves are made primarily of screen to keep insects out and stay well ventilated. My rainflys are a greenhouse cover in the winter season, and an opaque, heavy-duty tarp (used billboard) in the summer months.

Like most inventions, this was born out of necessity. I needed a dwelling that was temporary, but solid enough to withstand the harsh climate of northern Minnesota. I was saving to purchase my own peice of land, so the idea was to build something that could be dissassembled and moved easily(being that I was squatting on family property). The project started as a canvas tent on a wooden platform, but quickly transformed into something completely unforeseen. I took inspiration from seeing hoop houses used as storage sheds, and the availability of a used billboard supplier in Minneapolis (cedar ave & E. 28th st), not to mention the crazy, backwoods ideas of some good friends.

The Nitty-Gritty:
-The Frame: of the greenhouse is 18 gauge chain link fence top-rail, available at any hardware store. I bent the hoops myself with the help of a jig I bought ( and purchased the connecting hardware from  Hoops are doubled towards the middle in 2 places: the stove pipe exit, and the peak of the canvas tent. Each end of the hoops are secured directly to the sides of the floor.
-The Spine: is a 1/2" steel cable (dumpster score) that is anchored fore and aft, runs through the maple logs on either end, and is anchored on both sides. The idea was to stop a tree from crushing me in my sleep during our epic november storms (think edmond fitzgerald).
-The Floor: is built like a house. Green-treated 4x4's, and a platform of 2x6's and 3/4" plywood. This rests on concrete discs I made by pouring quick-crete into 1 gallon ice cream pails. I wanted this to be semi-permanent, so pouring pilings was out of the question.
-The Rain-Flys: consist of 6 mil translucent greenhouse fabric in winter and covered by a 15 mil cross-stitched tarp ( in summer. I used grommets to create folded pockets on all side of both materials in which I inserted toprail through the length and rope at either end that is cinched and tied off to the platform. Both of these have withstood gale-force winds without a budge.
-The Tent: is a GP Army canvas tent. It was a purchase of convenience. Some friends of mine had lived in it for a number of seasons, and were getting rid of it. This tent is a hexagon shape, however a square shape may be more space efficient, but not as heat efficient. I attached it to the platform by using 8' 2x2's along the bottom of each wall and screwed them down. The center pole is replaced by a threaded dowel attached to the Frame and bolted from the inside until taught. All of the guy lines were then attached to the frame in appropriate places to alleviate the need for internal poles. 
-The Lonely Window: was the greatest thing I did to this thing. After a long winter without one, it made a huge difference. These tents are made to be blacked out (no light in or out) so depending on electric lights in the middle of the day sucked and made it feel very cave-like. I framed one of the south facing walls and added a single pane window (garage sale score, $1). I also wired an outlet and light switch, and hung a fire extinguisher while I was at it.
-The Gable Ends: are a simple 2x4 frame using lots of 45 degree bracing. The aft looks similar. I think my design is pretty, but there are all sorts of ways to do it. Browse greenhouse photos for awhile and they all start to look alike. The main entrance door is on 2-way hinges (dumpster score) so it feels very saloon-like. The big door is hinged from the top to create an awning when extended.
-The Stove: is run through an existing high-temperature rubber pipe hole in the tent and through a thimble attached to the frame (where the hoops are doubled 1 foot apart). I used a tar-tape from growers supply to adhear the greenhouse fabric to the thimble that's made for just that purpose.
-The Rain Collection: is a vinyl gutter mounted on and under an 'angle iron' shaped 2x4 and 2x2 that run the length of the tent (it's better just to look at the picture). It pours into a 40 gallon water barrel and overflows into a 55 gallon former-bbq-sauce barrel. Allows me to wash clothes and dishes without hauling water (just the potable stuff needs to be hauled).

The Performance:
I will preface by saying that this is a tent. It wouldn't be fair to compare it to a permanent structure.
Wind:The structure of the tent has withstood 70 mph winds without a budge, which leads me to believe it could take even more.
Snow: loads were a large concern, however, the warmth of the greenhouse keeps the snow from sticking to the peak and it slides right off.
Humidity: was another concern, but running a wood stove (even within the canvas tent) is enough to alleviate most of the dripping from inside the greenhouse plastic.
Fire: has always been on the top of my safety concerns, and the stove pipe/stove setup is safer than alot I've seen in wooden structures. Aside from the floor itself, there are not many combustables in the surrounding area. The tent, greenhouse plastic, and carpeting (dumpster score) are all fire retardant and the stove rests on a tile patch work. Plus a fire extinguisher on hand.
Insulation: value is probably 1/2 (maybe 1/4?). The outer shell is quite wind proof which reduces alot of drafts, but does little for heat retention. The canvas tent has an inner cotton liner that I also suspend comforters from for added insulation, but it's definately not an insulated house. An oversized woodstove it necassary to keep warm on cold February nights.
Solar Gain: from the greenhouse can be quite powerful. On a clear day at 10 degrees, it can be upwards of 45 degrees within the canvas tent. 

I'll be happy to field any questions, and thanks for reading.



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    88 Discussions

    Shades of The Mother Earth News! Love your project, even if i'll probably never do it.

    This sounds and looks great and I am definitely going to show and talk about that with my bf... sounds great... :) thanks a lot for sharing... I bet I will come back with my pics to you.. :) take care!

    I always find interesting to imagine new and smart ways to build a home. Using different cheap,light weighted and efficient materials is a good idea and no need to think about real durability when you have to build a shelter for you or people in need. CongratulationsBravo


    2 years ago

    Great idea! I'm sure it'll be very inspirating for the ideas of other outdoor people!

    Very interesting! Thanks for sharing!


    2 years ago

    homeless has a new look.

    I had a friend in Wyoming with one of the large agricultural hoop houses (probably 20 feet tall in the middle). I was amazed at how that single-layer fabric structure mediated the outside temperatures and wind. It struck me that a large one could be built as a shop (all homes are surrounded by ancillary functions and "works in progress") that needs shelter from wind, rain and snow but not quite the temperatures humans prefer. Then inside the shop you could build a simple "tiny house", just a box really, that is well insulated and needs no fancy roof at all (just a flat roof, 2x4s and plywood with rigid insulation simply laying on top) because there is no rain or snow load to deal with. You also could dispense with most of the house foundation because there would be no frost heave and so forth; just a platform of 2x4s directly on the ground or on bricks. Or just lay some of that rubber sheeting down and call it done! Could stack straw bales around the house too. The end wall of the shop should be a solar collector of sorts. It is separating the usual house functions into two zones that make sense.

    2 replies

    What great insight! Update: in the past 12 months I have built a small cabin (4 solid walls and a roof!) and reappropriated my hoophouse as a shop. I didn't use an internal rigid frame (however, that thought was definitely on the forefront of my mind in the 36 months I spent living in it), I instead lifted the floor joists 18" and used the crawlspace as lumber storage. With a wood stove, I can maintain a reasonable temperature inside, although building an insulated space would be quite nice. I suppose it came down to investment of resources. The amount of lumber, plywood, and insulation needed to supply such a shelter would probably be better spent on a permanent structure (a roofing system isn't that much more in the end). This hoophouse has been good to me so far, and I won't give up on the concept; I guess I'll just see what the next form it takes will be. Thanks for the comment.

    Update: The wood frame I have double-sided stretched with plastic (that I've used for insulation every winter) got loose at the top and releases heat into the room through the slit at the top when the sun hits it. Amazing. :) So any frame double-sided with plastic and a slit at the top might work. Like every side of your structure. :)

    This is it, I'm moving to North America! Great project mate, I just love it!

    Looks nice and cozy--I want to make one of those someday. The photos are especially nice. After seeing those images, I miss the woods back East in the Fall. Well done!

    I saw your project a year or so in either MEN or a homesteading magazine and really liked it. I found you here from a rocket stove build., "where do you put the mag in at" .Are you still living in your greenhouse?

    hi, everybody, my first post. Try glueing crisp packets shiny side in on the North racking side ( shiny side in). try putting your hand inside - good emergency winter gloves. you can also find loads of free bubblewrap in skips (dumpsters if your in USA). look behind mattress stores. pound land sell a great space blanket tunnel with ridge cord as seen on eBay for twice the price. consider the nylon? strapping off pallets. good for reinforcing in the IKEA blue bag sack. if you soften it you can tie knots in it that don't loosen. Makes great dog leads. bout time did a project. happy camping folks! you can get fireproof card behind laser cutting workshops ( insulation for wood stoves etc) not asbestosy.


    5 years ago

    Just wanted to mention something that you might be able to work with. If you open up one of the older rear projection tvs they have 3 parts that make up the screen. Somewhat of a polarizer that only allows light from one angle, plexi glass which would function as a nice window, and a fresnel lens which at the right focal point in the sun can heat things up to 2,000 degrees F. I don't know if you could work with those, but its something to look into


    5 years ago

    Just wanted to mention something that you might be able to work with. If you open up one of the older rear projection tvs they have 3 parts that make up the screen. Somewhat of a polarizer that only allows light from one angle, plexi glass which would function as a nice window, and a fresnel lens which at the right focal point in the sun can heat things up to 2,000 degrees F. I don't know if you could work with those, but its something to look into

    I'd love to see more detailed construction photos and materials lists and specifications especially for the spine I cannot quite visualize that system of construction

    My email is

    Thank you

    This reminds me of a P.A.D. or a "TINYHOUSE" re Portland Alternative Dwelling