Ideas for building a self-sufficient, environmentally friendly home?
May 9, 2015 12:24 PM   Subscribe

I have this pipe dream of settling down somewhere extremely rural and building a self-sufficient, environmentally friendly home. I've got a lot of ideas floating around in my head, but I'm always looking for new ones. How would you go about setting up such a dwelling? (Or how did you do it, if you've done it yourself?) I'm ideally looking for ground-up plans, but all ideas are welcome.

So OK, I know that there are lots of great arguments to the effect that building an off-grid, new, freestanding house in a rural area is inherently worse for the environment than retrofitting existing high-density housing in an urban area with access to public utilities and infrastructure. I get that, but I still have this dream of moving somewhere fairly remote, buying a medium-sized patch of land (something big enough to grow food on and maybe raise some small livestock), and building my perfect home. I have a lot of ideas kicking around in my head, but I'm looking for new ones and I'm particularly curious about what ideas are kicking around in the collective head of the Hivemind. Here are the basic goals for this thought experiment:

• Environmentally-sustainable construction materials
• Maximally efficient use of energy, water, etc.
• Appropriate for local environment/climate (both the structure itself and the landscaping of the surrounding property)
• Produces its own electricity and water
• Produces as much of its own food as possible
• Long-lasting and durable, with minimal maintenance needs
• Comfortable to live in throughout the year (i.e. not too hot/cold, lots of natural light)
• Spacious enough for a family of four, with both private and common areas

For the purposes of this thought experiment, I'm ignoring troublesome issues like building codes and finances; let's assume that we can get whatever variances we need, that we have ample funding, and that we have access to whatever construction expertise is necessary for our chosen methods. I'm A-OK with non-traditional aesthetics and radical designs. I'm also fine with things like composting toilets, graywater reclamation, etc. that some Western folks might think of as kinda weird or gross. Furthermore I accept the idea that my perfect house may require me to make some adaptations of my own, changing my behavior and lifestyle a bit in order to better match the needs of my little homestead and the natural cycles of day and season. I'm not set on a particular location, though this would probably be done somewhere in the continental U.S. and I'd want to capitalize on local climatic and environmental factors in the design.

What I'd really like is a sort of Master Plan for how to go about building a home like this, though any and all ideas are welcome. Feel free to get fairly radical with your suggestions. I know people have a lot of different takes on how to achieve the above goals, so I'm intentionally leaving this fairly broad. Thanks much; I'm really curious to see what y'all come up with.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Countryside Magazine is full of articles about all these things, and does have building plans from time to time.
posted by Melismata at 12:27 PM on May 9, 2015

To fuel my own pipe dream, I have copies of all three Earthship manuals.
posted by cmoj at 12:52 PM on May 9, 2015 [4 favorites]

Relatives of my in-laws used to be largely off the grid in VT. Their appliances were either propane or solar. Both had disadvantages. The propane appliances left a ring around the cieling of their kitchen. You could see what you were really breathing in. Likewise, the solar panels were woefully inefficient, not able to reliably provide enough power to appliances, so they had to do things like strategically plan vacuuming. In addition, the batteries had to be replaced more frequently then they would have liked, and the solar panel was surprisingly large for producing so little space. Shorter daylight hours in the winter should also not be ignored.
posted by Nanukthedog at 12:52 PM on May 9, 2015

A friend moved to Montana and built a concrete dome house. He and his family are quite happy.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 1:38 PM on May 9, 2015

I would say "do less with more", and plan for a smaller house. Once you have a location in mind, start searching for property, and at the same time, have a storage area (rental or on site) where you can start collecting recycled materials, cast offs, items from architectural salvage stores, so that you can start with what is basically cast-offs and trash and store them up. When you know a location, take the climate into account to see if you can come up with a design that has a good energy balance. Plenty of "Earth Ships" cook in the Summer because they didn't realize too much sun can be just as much a problem as being cold.

Home Power magazine is my go-to material for armchair green homebuilding needs. Plenty of people who have done exactly this, and they don't shy away from actual numbers and calculations.
posted by nickggully at 1:42 PM on May 9, 2015

How about a shipping container home?
posted by mmiddle at 1:54 PM on May 9, 2015

There are so many possible directions that you can go in with something like this. I'm sure many will disagree, but I think the best house is simple, small, and constructed with normal building materials. People get excited to about rammed earth or domes or tiny houses on trailers or whatever the sustainable flavour of the month is, but all these new designs tend to have big tradeoffs and are fairly risky as we don't have much experience with them.

Most of the energy that goes into a house is to heat or cool it, plus all the various appliances and electrical devices. Construction is just not that significant. How you actually build is highly dependant on climate. Can you give some indication of where this might be built? Appropriate in Florida is way different than appropriate in Maine.

In most climates, a small, rectangular box of a house with plenty of south windows, plenty of insulation, heat recovery ventilation, and a little thermal mass will get you where you want to be. People build efficient houses all the time.

Off-grid is still quite expensive (because you need a lot of solar panels to supply enough power in the winter and you need a lot of batteries (and to budget to replace batteries)). Grid-tied solar makes a lot more sense. You can still plan for net-zero (i.e. you put into the grid as much as you take out), but you'll be able to achieve it at a much lower cost if you are grid-tied. Off-grid often means that you use propane, which is really just another system like the grid (a far more environmentally damaging one, in many places).

Otherwise, you can achieve most of your goals with a few acres of good land, a well and a septic system, and a greenhouse and root cellar (in colder climates).

Bear in mind that living in a remote area tends to involve a lot of driving and that's hard to make sustainable unless you can use an electric car.
posted by ssg at 1:59 PM on May 9, 2015 [9 favorites]

I am an environmental studies major and I used to subscribe to magazines about solar power and that type thing. I have read articles on this and wrote a project on exactly "what would be your solution to living in the middle of nowhere and supporting yourself, given these parameters?" An earthship was part of my answer on that paper. So I will second Earthships.

I will also suggest passive solar design In case that is a new idea for you: passive solar keeps electricity use down and is generally more comfortable than conventional American housing. I will also suggest you find some means to track your current power usage. One of the personal changes you likely need to make in order for this to be successful is you need to wean yourself from unthinkingly using gobs of electricity. I have read articles written by people who made the transition and drastically reducing their electricity use before making the move was part of the standard advice for how to find a path forward. If you significantly reduce your dependence on electricity, it gets a lot easier to go off-grid.

The other thing you can try to do is take up vegetable gardening now. One way to avoid driving all the time once you are remotely located is to grow part of your own food supply. Additionally, figure out how you are going to support yourself while living remotely. Can you do freelance work online? Will you be a farmer or rancher or whatever and try to make that profitable? Finding some way to work from home as part of the answer will make this a lot more do-able.
posted by Michele in California at 2:19 PM on May 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

Don't recommend livestock as something environmentally friendly, for many reasons. It'll always be more efficient to use resources (water, food) directly than use those resources indirectly via livestock. The impact is probably less pronounced at the scale we're talking about here, but it's still there.
posted by Gymnopedist at 3:54 PM on May 9, 2015

I think they are generally directed toward on-grid construction, but you might look at the Passivhaus standards to reduce energy consumption.
posted by sapere aude at 5:31 PM on May 9, 2015

On the topic of "Produces as much of its own food as possible," I heartily recommend The Resilient Gardener. Also look into permaculture/forest gardening.
posted by katya.lysander at 5:43 PM on May 9, 2015

Don't forget about garbage disposal. You may be able to haul a load of garbage into town periodically; no fun, but at least it goes somewhere. Your other options are likely to be less satisfactory.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 5:54 PM on May 9, 2015

Consider Straw Bale construction.
Design for passive solar and take advantage of cooling winds.
Minimize energy needs right from the beginning.
Utilize Grey water systems.
posted by Mac-Expert at 7:00 PM on May 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

I believe that the structure and kind of materials you'll want to use will depend on the climate you live in. Do you have a climate in mind?

Here's one thing about rural: are you sourcing all materials from the land, or are you driving the materials from far away? This is why me and my partner ended up with a small lot in a major US city instead of several acres somewhere rural.

If there were no budget/location restrictions, I would want to put clusters of free-standing rooms around a common kitchen/dining building. I would want enough land to have dozens of clusters, and I would design bike/ped paths and edible landscaping between the lot of them. The design I would most want to try out first would be earthbags; it seems easiest. Again, I think everything is location dependent! Maybe earthbagging wouldn't make sense if the soil were really rocky, but a rock house could. I would want to be somewhere where I could get just about all the water I needed for household use, landscaping & vegetation from the sky. There would probably need to be access to the Internet to lure people to join me on this land. And I would need people to join me, because I would not want to be biking to the urban center any time I needed something I couldn't find or grow on the land, so I would need to develop a small rural car-free community.

Read through the 2011 Oregon Reach Code. Me and my partner cite this code in our application to build a single family residence in Portland, Oregon. If you would like a copy of our full building plans, I would be happy to email them to you. At just under 400 square feet, it would probably need an add-on to meet typical US standards for a family of four.
posted by aniola at 8:24 PM on May 9, 2015

I've done this, though I didn't end up going off the electric grid because it was cheaper and less hassle to stay on it.

I designed a super-insulated small house, passive solar, in deciduous woods -- shaded in the summer and sunny in the winter. I lived on the land for 10 years, and then I sold everything and moved back to urban life.

Lessons I learned:
- A big garden is a ton of work, especially in an area with lots of deer and other garden-eaters. Before I moved out, I had a big garden in the city, and it was far easier and more productive than my rural garden.
- Heating by wood is a ton of work, especially if you're cutting down the trees yourself as it sounds like you'd like to do. I enjoyed it but if you get the flu or hurt your back or whatever, you'll be using your backup heat.
- Thermal mass rules. My house had a southern exposure and concrete slab floor, and that plus the super insulation made the temperature magically steady.
- I got heartily sick of driving. My friends in town rarely visited me because I lived "so far away" (20-30 minutes for most of them). I almost always ended up driving to meet them, several times a week. And a heavy snow was a major problem because if I didn't have enough food stocked up I was going to go on an unintentional diet for several days.
- I enjoyed the freedom from restrictive city rules. I could cook over an open fire, keep chickens and ducks, collect pallets and other useful "trash," etc.
- Choose your area well. My neighbors had some issues in their lives and as a result I picked up an idiot stalker who harassed me thinking I was one of my neighbors. He snuck onto my property, sabotaged my car, shot at my house from the road, etc.
- I was in great physical shape, thanks to all the ax-swinging and garden-digging.
- Permaculture concepts work. For example, my garden was slightly downhill of the house, so I could collect rainwater in barrels from the roof and water the garden by connecting a hose to the barrel.

I left and moved to a city for these main reasons:
- I was very very very tired of depending on my car
- I was tired of the social isolation
- I could make way more money sitting at a computer than I could save by swinging an ax. I neglected my business so I could spend a lot of time doing basic things like heat the house and eat, and I decided that actually a big pile of cash would be more useful in my old age than an isolated homestead where if a tree fell on me, no one would know.
- I was tired of feeling responsible for so much space -- not just a house but acres of woods.

You might consider renting a rural house with a big garden for awhile to see how you like the lifestyle. If you do decide to build, consider the impact that the materials will have on a future buyer's ability to get a mortgage. I was paying cash for my little house and originally planned "natural" materials, but I learned that a future buyer would have a lot of trouble getting a mortgage for something built of, say, straw and cob with a greywater system. So I went for a more conventional but super-insulated style with a slightly less conventional yet still easily approved "green" septic system, and when it was time to sell, I had no trouble.

As others have pointed out, there's a lot of information out there. I was a fan of Countryside magazine, in particular because it accommodated a wide range of views (I don't know what it's like these days). You might listen only halfway to the more righteous natural builders, because they can get into a kind of groupthink that limits their options and can make them seem ignorant and dismissive of the lives of the rural people that they supposedly want to emulate. For example, some natural builders in my community insisted on spending thousands on a cold, appliance-free yurt for their temporary housing, although the local area was full of cheap trailers. I spent $3k on a used trailer with an actual kitchen and bathroom (and furnace!) and was far more comfortable than the yurt-squatters. However, I was seriously uncool as a result, although (or because?) I was living the way my neighbors lived.
posted by ceiba at 7:25 AM on May 10, 2015 [7 favorites]

My childhood was pretty much exactly what ceiba describes, with the exception of passive solar and good insulation.

The solution to the one major problem that ceiba mentions - unintentional dieting when it snows and you run out of food - is canning, freezing, and a potato cellar. A lot of canning and freezing. And a lot of potatoes. Basically, you preserve the food for an entire year in a few weeks in the fall. (Just after you finish spending a couple of months sawing all the wood you'll need all winter, as it happens.) It's a lot of physical work, and, as ceiba says, it'll keep you in good shape.

Addressing ceiba's points about companionship: It works best if you're either an extreme introvert and love being by yourself for months at a time, or an extreme extrovert who'll put in the effort to visit all your far-flung neighbours. If you're somewhere in between - you like a fair amount of human contact, but don't like to put in a lot of effort to get it - it can be difficult.
posted by clawsoon at 11:48 AM on May 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Since you mentioned a composting toilet..definitely need to read the humanure handbook. You will wonder how it's possible we still take drinkable water and make poop tea with it.

We have no running water and collect from a spring. Not saying I would recommend no running water!...but do keep springs in mind when considering options for water.

An often-not-mentioned building method: wattle and daub - wooden frame, woven wooden panels pack with clay-straw mix. Also research rammed earth and cob!!

I'd echo the thing about it being a little isolating in places like this. Which I personally love. But, probably not for everyone. Also, how do you feel about rural people? I've heard too many people talk disparagingly about rural folks, rural communities/attitudes/etc. and then in the next breath talk about how great it would be to live off the land. If you have a job in town, you'd be able to socialize easier/more regularly...but if you're coming from the city...remember that social life/people are different in rural communities.
posted by hannahelastic at 1:59 PM on May 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

+1 to Earthships!
posted by town of cats at 8:54 PM on May 10, 2015

We had pretty much exactly the same dream about a decade ago. We now live in a small solar passive strawbale house in a rural area and love it.

There's a lot of good advice here already, but I would add:
- I think people tend to focus a little too much on the exact building materials (e.g. rammed earth or strawbale etc.) whereas I think it's the application of smart design principles that are actually more critical.
- If you want to grow a lot of your own food, you need to be able to evaluate potential properties (soil, aspect, rainfall or water sources, frost, slopes etc.) because a good location will make growing your own food a LOT easier than it might otherwise be. You've got a lot of choice if you're considering *anywhere* in the continental U.S..
- You can only learn so much from magazines and websites. We went to some sustainability festival type things where people would open up their eco-friendly houses for tours. Actually being inside these houses was incredibly valuable, as was being able to talk to owners about what worked and what didn't.
- Our solar PV produces about twice as much electricity as we use on average but as other have said, grid tied just made more sense for us.
- We're entirely on rainwater, no mains. We have a worm-based treatment system (combination of worms, microbes and filters) which allows all water to be reused for sub-surface irrigation of fruit trees.
- I actually disagree about heating with wood being a lot of work, but it may depend on your climate. For us with an efficient solar passive house - the sun does most of our heating and we actually only need a fire occasionally in the depths of winter. When we do, we burn a tiny about of timber because the heat stays inside our house. As a result, our overall consumption is a fraction of what some of our neighbors might burn.
posted by gooddoggy at 12:30 AM on May 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

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