Cheap cheap house construction.
January 17, 2010 6:50 AM   Subscribe

Free or cheap or scavenged or used building materials in the GVRD or BC. Where? How?

Creative and non-traditional solutions to this problem get bonus points.

If you wanted to house a family somewhere off in the boonies, for as close to free as possible, but in comfort, how would you do it? What would you build?

Assume this is not for any official residential construction, and will not be done to code or with permits. If that gets your panties bunched up, please also assume that I am just building a tree house or kid's fort or the like, for purely decorative/testing/educational purposes.

Also assume this is on your own land, so the construction is meant to be permanent and long term.

If there is some glaring error in the premises I have described or further detail needed to properly answer please just ask.
posted by Meatbomb to Home & Garden (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Don't know what or where GVRD is but if BC is British columbia, you should have access to plenty of trees which, when hewn and cut to length, can be turned into a log cabin or a cordwood house. The cordwood construction is lengths of wood (12", 16" - forming the thickness of the walls,) laid up like stones in mortar. Old bottles can be inserted in decorative patterns for added light and beauty.
posted by Hobgoblin at 6:59 AM on January 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Low Impact Woodland House site may give you some ideas.
posted by Jorus at 7:06 AM on January 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

Live in a greenhouse, maybe a small greenhouse built inside another greenhouse: the double layer of plastic film should insulate you well while letting in lots of light. Use opaque materials for privacy and shade. The garden shed of Eden.

I have absolutely no idea how much a greenhouse would cost, but I'm betting it's not too much money compared to other construction methods.

If it doesn't work as living quarters, you still have a greenhouse (extended growing season for food) right next to whatever the hell it is that you do end up living in.
posted by pracowity at 7:08 AM on January 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Have you considered a Yurt? Or maybe a straw bale house?
posted by Sailormom at 7:24 AM on January 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

GVRD is Greater Vancouver Regional District.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 7:49 AM on January 17, 2010

If you wanted to house a family somewhere off in the boonies, for as close to free as possible, but in comfort, how would you do it? What would you build?

For me, the "in comfort" part would entail not just a structure itself (I'm betting there are salvage yards somewhere around a city like Vancouver where you could pull together a bunch of used crap to get a roof over your head, although I'm not familiar with exactly where) but also things like plumbing, electricity, and heat (if not AC, depending), all of which require (or should) certified experts to install - experts who usually think in terms of building codes, permits, and the like, since they have licenses, insurance, and overall reputations to worry about. So, decent contractors would probably pass on a DYI structure built from leftovers.

There are contractors who wouldn't care, of course, but when it comes to any of the utilities, not having it done right can mean much bigger problems than a leak in the roof from a salvaged piece of plywood....

As an alternative, what about finding a used mobile home? Although not very stylish, these can be had on the cheaper side, and if they haven't been completely trashed by the previous owners would probably less expensive (and less of a hassle) to get up to code for comforts such as utilities.
posted by 5Q7 at 9:33 AM on January 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sorry, just to clarify 5Q7: this is a hippie family, and they would be doing all the work themselves. Maybe the "in comfort" part was a distraction... People that want to talk about certification, building codes and insurance would not be welcome at the table.
posted by Meatbomb at 9:56 AM on January 17, 2010

I like 5Q7's suggestion of a mobile home. It's not creative or non-traditional, as you requested, but when you're dealing with problems like keeping the rain off your head, keeping the chill from your bones and the bodily wastes away from your living space, "tried and true" trumps "creative and non-traditional."

But if you really, really don't want to do a traditional house, here's my suggestion:

why don't you do a little research on the building designs that the local Native peoples used before white settlement? In all likelihood, those building patterns will be economical, use locally available materials and built to withstand local weather conditions.
posted by jason's_planet at 10:00 AM on January 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Find a house or building that will be demolished. Jack it up and move it. Or salvage materials from buildings scheduled for demolition. I've seen this done for a traditional home, at huge savings.

Some googling will find interesting buildings made of shipping containers. I haven't seen this in action, but the idea is that there are many spare shipping containers for free.

Cutting corners on electrical work, construction material and quality, plumbing, will end up costing more and potentially making life miserable or dangerous. But you may not want a standard suburban home, so build it as a garage or workshop. Choose materials that are interesting, but not necessarily in fashion. Plywood makes pretty good flooring, for instance.

In my area, the local technical school builds buildings to train builders, and sells them at auction. There may be an apprenticeship program that will do supervised building.

Use salvaged materials, build with green principles - superinsulation, designed for efficient cooling & heating, heat with woodstoves and salvaged wood. This takes time and some cash, but the payback is huge.

Non-standard design and salvaged material require more work, thought, planning and time. If you have that, and can/will do a lot of the work yourself, you could cut the cost a lot. Building materials of all sorts show up on Craigslist all the time. Be willing to pick stuff up with little notice for the best choice.

I can't do this stuff(not physically able, don't have time), but would if I could. Even so, I've done substantial work on my home at great savings because I was willing to wait for the skilled carpenter to have evenings free, bought the tub at ReStore really cheap, months before it was needed, and would have ended up getting one free if I'd really had patience, don't want or need conventional design. Post to Craigslist for stuff you're looking for; people will make great deals to get you to pick stuff up.
Building a really cheap house
posted by theora55 at 10:32 AM on January 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

Seconding a yurt. They're relatively cheap, depending on how much you choose to make yourself. They are also much less costly to maintain and very DIY friendly. And you can scale your living space as needed simply by getting more yurts. They can be easily rigged to connect to each other (or to other structures) as well. My wife and were traveling through Oregon recently and we checked out a manufacturer there. On the day we went it was 46 F and raining hard and the 30' diameter yurt we checked out was warm, dry, comfortable and well appointed, with 700 s.f. of living space, indoor plumbing, kitchen with marble countertops, etc. We're thinking about buying a big piece of property and living off the grid in one of these. I have no commercial interest in the company, though I can say they were really quite nice and helpful when we visited. You can see some pics of different implementations on their site:
posted by Pachycerianthus at 11:15 AM on January 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

"If you wanted to house a family somewhere off in the boonies, for as close to free as possible, but in comfort, how would you do it? What would you build?"

If your land has straight trees a simple log cabin can be built with no more investment than an assortment of hand tools that wouldn't fill a job box and an insane amount of sweat.

Without knowing anything else* I'd look for an end of life quonset hut (or other metal building) at least as big as my minimum must have size that could be acquired for free (if you dismantle it) or even better get paid to take away. Be warned that dismantling it will be hard work some of it dangerously high above the ground. Your major expense is going to be trucking to the new site.

Once your hut is at the new site it will need to be prepped. The reason you got it for free is because the galvanizing on the exterior is completely wore off. So the panels will need to be prepped for a finish (said finish depends on what you can manage to get for free or next to). At a minimum you'd want to sandblast(fast but costs) or wire brush (slow but essentially free if your labour is free) the exterior of the panels to bare metal and then coat with a primer and exterior paint.

Pour your foundations (this can be completely free except for the cost of concrete) and assemble your hut.

Finishing, insulation, fixtures etc. ad naseum are now up to what you can scrounge. Limitless possibilities. Keep in mind that you aquire a unit that maybe barely adequate in size. Quonset huts can be added onto on the flat ends pretty simply so keep that in mind when you site your first one.

Another alternative is containers. Instant weather tightness and pretty cheap cost means finishing out after initial placement can proceed as materials become available.

However remember the *. It's crazy to embark on this project without first figuring out, at least in general, where your land is. The needs of Port Renfrew (where temperatures are relatively moderate and rain falls all the time), Dawson Creek (where temperatures are brass ball freezing but access to cheap straw and reasonable precipitation mean straw bale is an obvious self builder choice) to Kamloops where extreme heat in the summer and medium cold in the winter with lots of sun make earthsheltering a viable choice are all pretty different. Distance to major centres is also very important. Shipping to remote places can be very expensive so less ideal but local choices can win out over better choices available in Vancouver.

Finally, and this is very much IMHO, I'd stay away from cordwood. Performance in many areas is ridiculously poor in a heating climate compared to many, many other "alternative" choices. Cordwood is wasteful even compared to convential log construction, it doesn't control moisture very well, it is unusually vulnerable to insects and mold because of the moisture, and considering the thickness of the walls it isn't even all that energy efficient. If you're getting the cordwood already cut to length and the binding material for free then maybe it's worth the investment but otherwise pass.
posted by Mitheral at 6:21 PM on January 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

I made the original cordwood house suggestion, but I second Mitheral's caveats. The funk-factor is tremendous, I think, but in practice, there is lots wrong with a residence made from cordwood. There are some good suggestions above and you should be able to find more in old copies of Mother Earth News, or The Whole Earth Catalog.
posted by Hobgoblin at 7:04 PM on January 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thanks very much to all of you, some great ideas and links here to get my imagination into gear.

I will not mark any bests yet to try to keep people answering, but I hope you will not object that pretty much all of you will get that distinction.

Especially thanks to the details from Mitheral... yes, the question of "where" is the big one that needs to be made first, but good to consider the question of "what" and "how" in abstract just to know what the possibilities are.
posted by Meatbomb at 8:42 PM on January 17, 2010

Just saw a bunch of container home links.
posted by theora55 at 3:52 PM on January 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

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