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How To Build An Off-Grid Home, Essentially For Free

Image source: montanaliving.com

Image source: montanaliving.com

There is nothing quite as promising and exciting as purchasing bare acreage with plans to turn it into a working homestead.

But building a traditional home, even one considered to be small by most standards – say, a 2 bedroom, 1 bath — is extremely expensive. Many people go this route not realizing that there are alternative ways of building a home that can save you money — and even lower house maintenance costs over time. The money you save can be used for interior designing and decorating, or allotted to other projects on the homestead.

Here are three inexpensive housing materials that can be used for off-grid and other self-sufficient homes.

1. Straw Bales

Straw is a common building material in some parts of the world but generally it’s being used for thatched roofs or added to a clay-like mix. Whole bales are actually a great inexpensive housing material for creating solid, well-insulated walls. You then can add a thatched roof or go with something more traditional like metal.

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Building with straw bales is ridiculously easy, as they can be used just like bricks. Usually these bales are light enough in weight that one person can move them, although two people is a better idea. They are safer to work with when it comes to climbing up a ladder to stack as well. Due to the thickness and density of good bales, they are great for keeping heat and cold out — thereby lowering energy costs. Ironically, straw bale construction is more fire resistant than traditional building materials, again, due to the density.

Straw bale construction is best for very dry climates, and constant high humidity can cause structural issues. Construction must also be done during warm, dry weather, as you do not want any moisture getting into the bales while building. Naturally, you also need to be certain that the bales you use have been properly dried.

2. Cob

There is nothing quite as picturesque and quaint as a cob cottage nestled into the countryside. Cob is one alternative building material that uses some straw, as alluded to above, along with earth and sand to create a moldable clay-like blend. This mix can then be used to build structures with just your bare hands. Adobe is essentially the same thing as cob but instead the mixture is formed into bricks and dried in the sun before being used.

Cob and adobe are both very strong building materials that are fairly versatile in terms of where they can be used, as you can tell by the popularity of this clay-like mix in wet areas of the UK to hot, dry climates in Africa. Cob is more structurally sound, too. Both are particularly suited for regions that experience a lot of inclement weather and earthquakes.

A downside of working with cob is that it can be quite labor- and time-intensive. Cob structures will also need time to properly cure and dry. Adobe is quicker to work with after the bricks have been dried. If you are concerned about the labor involved building with cob or adobe, you may want to just do the interior walls and structures with it. A very good mix of natural building materials would be straw bale exterior walls and cob/adobe interior walls.

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3. Earth Bags

earthbag homeEarth bags, sometimes called sand bags, are another way to build a solid, structurally sound home. They are not as popular as some other natural building materials but are worth exploring. Using earth bags is similar to cob in the sense that you don’t really need special skills or tools. You’re essentially filling bags with earth or sand, stacking them like bricks to form your walls and tamping them down.

Earth-bag buildings are resistant to fires and to many natural disasters like flooding, hurricanes and earthquakes. Due to the density and materials filling the bags, rodents will not be a concern, which is a worry some people have about straw bale buildings. For the most moisture resistant building, use polypropylene bags, but you can really use any type of recycled bag for building, which naturally helps reduce waste.

A downside of this material is that the structure won’t be totally biodegradable, since bags are being used. The biggest disadvantage of using earth bags is how much labor is involved. Moving buckets of earth, filling bags and especially stacking can be very tiring. You will definitely want the help of a team of people if you plan to get the building done in a timely fashion.

These three building alternatives are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what inexpensive materials are out there for building. There are a ton of resources on the Internet about using natural or alternatives materials for building homes. Homes made from natural or recycled materials have a lot of character, and when built well will outlast pretty much any traditionally built home. They offer far superior insulation and less negative impact on the environment. Using natural materials also eliminates the dangers of toxins that are so prevalent in traditional building materials.

Do you have experience building homes with alternative materials or have plans to do so? Please share your stories and any ideas for inexpensive housing materials in the comment section below.

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10 comments

  1. I am a firefighter in Texas. A couple of years ago we responded to a structure fire in a residence constructed with bales of hay. The house was well-built and I’m sure it was an awesome home.
    Unfortunately, once fire gets into hay the bales must be pulled apart to isolate the heat. Just spraying water onto the hay isn’t enough to extinguish the bales. The walls of the house smoldered for three days while workers meticulously pulled every bale apart with a front end loader.
    The house was a total loss.

    • Were they hay bales or straw bales? I don’t know if there is a difference in flammability, but building with hay is not recommended.

    • no one builds with hay………and studies done by Nebraska State U. on very old straw homes show that they neither rot nor do they burn….smolder yes but covered with shotcrete will not catch and would get no O2. Heat with a candle …cool with an ice cube……….straw is the way to go.

  2. Your comment about polypropylene bags not degrading is intrue. When building they have to be protected from the elements as uv rays degrade them rather quickly. I believe many are actually rated for how uv resistant they are.

  3. Straw bales homes are amazing. My partner and I built one for ourselves and he has a natural building business. However, the reality is that straw bales cost money. Trucking the straw bales to a building site costs money. Plaster materials (which are used to cover the bales) are inexpensive but very heavy so trucking them to the site is rather costly. And the straw bales are only a tiny portion of the overall cost of a building. So everything else costs the same – site work, roof, foundation, finishes, bathrooms, kitchens, electrical, plumbing, etc. Labor is expensive and straw bale homes are labor intensive. Sure an owner/builder can do it all and can spend years learning how to do it well or they can really screw it up – but they will spend years learning and building and their time is valuable and truly should be counted in the cost.

    It is responsible to use straw bales to insulate and it feels amazing to be in a straw bale home, they are beautiful and have a very special feel to them, but the reality is that building with straw bale (or cob or earth bags) ends up costing the same as, and sometimes even more than, conventional custom building of similar quality.

    I suspect the bales in the home mentioned in the comment from the fireman were not plastered or some other mistake was made. If they were plastered, they should have basically turned into ceramic in the fire, and the fire should not have gotten to the bales in the first place. When built properly straw bale homes do, as the article mentions, out-perform conventional homes in a fire. Those who live in bale homes should alert their fire department to the fact because in the event a fire does occur, they may need to use a different strategy to fight it.

    One last note about the article. Straw bale homes need not be built in very dry climates, mine is in relatively soggy Vermont and it is ideal for our climate and performs beautifully. There should be no structural issues if the building is designed properly.

    • Hello Carly, just read your post regarding straw structures & how they’re good IF properly designed.
      Question is how does one learn “how to” design properly for safety & economy so our family can have a successful experience off the grid??
      Thanks.

  4. We live in an area where termites are very aggressive, they’ll eat hay, straw, lumber, cloth, sheet rock paper and just about anything else which has organic fibers. It would be impossible to seal the straw bales adequately enough to prevent termites.

  5. I would love to learn more

  6. When I think of building with straw I think of the story of the three little pigs. I remember what happened to the straw house and I can’t get past that feeling.

  7. I built a permitted hybrid straw bale home in N. Ga in 2012. We are covering our bales with 3 layers of clay plaster, the scratch coat which contains straw, the smooth coat which has no straw, and then a gypsum coat on the interior and a kaolin layer on the exterior as final coats. We figure it will take us 5 years to get to the finish line, maybe a couple years longer. It does become tiring working on the house all of the time – I miss kayaking and gardening as I have so little time to do any of it. The trade off is time for freedom. We were able to build our off the grid straw bale home for about $55 a square foot. We built it using cash and now enjoy mortgage and utility bill free living. I was actually able to semi retire at age 43. I will be able to enjoy my activities more fully than I ever could once the house is completed.

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