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How To Build A Dirt-Cheap, Off-Grid House

How to build a dirt-cheap, off-grid house

Image source: wikihow

Are you thinking of building a new house, renovating or expanding an existing one? Looking for ways to dramatically cut costs and leave less footprints in the environment? Consider building “green.” Not only is it the environmentally friendly way to go, but also the socially responsible thing to do.

“Green” homes are dwellings that use resources from the earth in such a way that if you put them back into the surroundings, they wouldn’t cause any harm. “Green” building is often associated with “sustainable” architecture, which seeks to minimize the negative impact of buildings on the environment by maximizing energy, space and material efficiency, while minimizing their use so that the needs of future generations won’t be compromised.

The features of a green building are many. One of the most important is energy efficiency – using either solar, wind or geothermal power to operate an edifice. A sustainable home is also well-designed and laid out in such a way that it takes advantage of passive heating and cooling.  According to builder and editor Mike Reynolds, a house with 60 percent of its windows facing south (passive solar) may have its heating requirements reduced by as much as 25 percent for virtually no cost.

Another is the economical use of water. “Greywater,” or wastewater from bathing, dishwashing, bathroom sinks and washing machines can be used to flush toilets, wash cars or, if treated, to water plants. Collecting rain water from roofs and gutters is also a good way to make a home “green,” as is the use of drought-tolerant, indigenous plants for landscaping.

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But another green building feature that I’d like to focus on in this post is the choice of building materials. There’s a wide variety of alternative and highly sustainable resources that we in our modern world are not tapping into, which many of our ancestors across the globe had used for centuries. The advent and popularity of cement in both developed and developing countries has somehow taken over these traditional methods of building. But in times of economic downturn and the rising global outcry for things “eco-friendly” and “sustainable,” it’s high time we took a second look at both traditional methods as well as post-modern, unconventional, even eccentric ways of building our houses.

According to, cement production requires an astounding amount of energy and results in water and air pollution and industrial waste that is usually not recycled.Using natural materials that require minimal processing reduces these environmental impacts. Furthermore, they are non-toxic and don’t pose any harm to human or animal health.

Natural Materials

We in the off-grid community have all heard about natural building materials like straw bale, reeds, woodchips, sawdust, sticks, and anything earthy: earth bags, cob, rammed earth, adobe, rocks, sand and stones. But have we heard of papercrete, paper adobe and hemp-crete? These are gaining attention and recognition in the green-building community, and yes, are reported to be just as workable and dependable — yet more versatile — than other building materials are.  Bamboo, coconut, cork, sisal and other fast-growing plants are easily renewable and sustainably harvested, and therefore meet the “green” qualification, too.

As you make tentative plans for your building project, check to see what is already available and naturally occurring in the area you are building. What kind of earth is there? Clay? Sand? Lime? Rocks? Even compost or vermiculite will be useful if you’re going to go with cob. All these are renewable and non-toxic. They also require little or no embodied energy – or the energy that goes into producing, transporting, deconstructing and decomposition of materials used in construction. Best of all, they’re dirt-cheap (pun intended), or absolutely free.

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Trash Turned into Treasures

Most of us are also familiar with the use of repurposed materials: old tires, soda cans and PET bottles packed with cement to make sturdy, hard-as-brick walls known as earth-ships. Pallet houses are on the rise as well.

But what I find most interesting is the use of salvaged debris from demolition projects. If you’re renovating or restoring an old structure, you can save and reuse some of the existing materials instead of throwing them away. Old doors, windows, bathtubs, roof tiles and kitchen countertops might still be utilized. This is “reclaiming” — taking materials from one project and reusing them as they are, or modifying them slightly. It’s different from recycling, which completely reconfigures items through meltdown and re-processing, which would require even more energy, time and costs.

Pallet home

Pallet home. Image source:

There’s actually a whole design industry behind it called “architectural salvage.” Companies that buy and sell salvaged items from deconstruction areas act as clearinghouses for reusable building supplies. You’d be amazed at what they’re able to recoup: rare and highly sought-after lumber (old growth hardwoods, wide plank lumber and knot-free, fine-grain woods); marble mantels, vintage architectural trimmings, antique doorknobs. If you fancy vintage, colonial-period designs, these are great places to do your treasure hunt. Many of them are in good quality (some even higher quality than newer ones, as in the case of lumber), and even if some have slight dents or marks, they can be easily patched up or else attributed to “character” — which by itself makes a piece more unique and priceless. But take note, not all reclaimed pieces are cheaper than their current and brand-new counterparts. The aged, “shabby chic” look is increasingly becoming popular, not just for reasons that more and more builders are pursuing sustainability, but also because consumers are always on the look-out for cheaper things ever since the recession.

So what are other items that can be reclaimed from demolished buildings? The website lists some of them:

  • Wooden beams, cladding, panelling, moldings and baseboards
  • Hardwood flooring
  • Concrete tiles
  • Bricks
  • Steel columns, beams, lintel, fencing
  • Galvanized iron sheets
  • Slate, clay or asphalt roof tiles
  • Stairs and railings
  • Radiators and fireplaces
  • Glass
  • Plumbing and bathroom fixtures
  • Furniture, and many more

These items can be found in oft-ignored places: salvage yards, second-hand stores, on-site demolitions, the town dump, the used section of the classified ads, and maybe even your neighbor’s garage sale. There’s also a marketplace online for companies that buy and sell these items —, and even eBay. For a directory of warehouses, check the website of The Building Materials Reuse Association, or those of the non-profit organizations like, the and the ReStores division of cause-oriented group Habitat for Humanity.

The EPA actually encourages the use of green building materials, including demolition debris.  For guidelines on their use in residential construction, visit the EPA website.

Smaller Spaces May Bring Bigger Benefits

Finally, rethink your size options. According to, the average American home in 2009 was 2,343 feet, well more than double the average size of houses in 1950. But does an average American really need this much living space? Size just doesn’t really equate with efficiency. How about downsizing your living quarters and upsizing your garden instead? Remember, bigger houses mean bigger land to excavate, more materials to use, more space to heat and cool, more rooms to clean and yes, more taxes to pay. Thankfully, many are realizing this, as proven by the growing tiny house movement and the increasing use of shipping containers and modular housing designs.

If these alternatives sound feasible to you, do some further research and discover what the world of green building has to offer you. The final choice would ultimately depend on your specific location (including climate, terrain and available materials), your family’s lifestyle and needs, your budget and overall aesthetic preferences.

What tips do you have on building a green home? Tell us in the comments section below. 

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