Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Homesteader's Home

Living where I live now, I was limited by city ordinances, lot size, environmental restrictions and a whole host of other items, not the least of which was financial, so I built a home that was wood frame, extra strong and flexible (hurricanes), super energy efficient and roomy enough for a big family without a lot of extra rooms no one uses. It matches my neighborhood theme and I like it. Good ending, yes?

Ehhh..not so much when you think about it.

Someday soon I'll be retiring and moving to the country, whether it is to the property I own in NE Arkansas or some other lovely few acres I find, I'll be building a house on it too.

Deciding what to build as a homesteader who is also trying to be sustainable, trying to embrace the human values that made us a successful species, ensure continuity for the future, able to age in place and on top of it forever, is a tall order.

Maybe you all can help me out.

I've considered the low cost things that are totally natural like the famous Hobbit House. I've considered the ultra-efficient and low impact Natural Home. I've perused the offerings for Underground Earth Homes. I've spent hours combing over the available concrete home plans in search of more permanent homes. I've even finally found articles on the increasing trend in Multi-Generational homes, yet plans remain sadly lacking in realistic living.

The bottom line on all of that is that they are hopelessly flawed in one way or another. What is a self-sufficient, sustainable, homesteading, multi-generational living, comfort loving girl to do?

While the Hobbit House is cute and, in theory, lightly living, it isn't at all a really permanent home no matter what the former inhabitants say. Too flimsy and too vulnerable. Also not a good idea for aging.

The Natural Home and Underground homes both have the appeal of concrete, which is much more permanent, but they are drastically limiting in terms of normal family sizes and multi-generational living. Both also tend to have significant problems after 20 or 30 years that just don't pass the permanence test for me.

Concrete home plans seem to be geared almost entirely toward those who want to build huge monstrosities in areas where houses probably shouldn't the Florida coast along Hurricane Alley. And current multi-generational plans usually really mean it has 2 ginormous master suites or a mother-in-law cottage/suite somewhere in there.

So let me run past you all what I think I want. Maybe you can offer me some sage advice?

1) Permanent - Homes are generally built for a 30 year life. Surprising but true. They say more, but no, not without a lot of work. Concrete is a sure and certain way, if properly done, to ensure your house will be there for hundreds of years of continuous occupancy. Minor maintenance needed, of course! Look at some of the simple middle class homes from Rome, almost 2000 years and still safe and sound, albeit buried under the new city. Heck, the Colosseum is still there.

2) Sustainable and gently built - Believe it or not, much of the concrete and cement materials are sourced locally to their use. Fossil fuels for creating it are often counted as the bad guy, but nowadays, many use old tires and other industrial waste for that process without contaminating the concrete itself. Good deal. Sustainable to me also means lasting. If a house has to be rebuilt every 5 years like the Hobbit House, then it really doesn't matter that only a tenth of it came from manufacturing, it is still a waste in the long run. Permanence is a part of sustainable, I think.

3) Multi-generational - Personally, I think the idea of every nuclear family unit living a totally separate life from the rest of their family is going to wind up being a fairly short lived norm, relatively speaking. It leads to so much instability, so much waste and so much expense that it really isn't super wise. I'd like to be able to ensure a reasonable and comfortable existence for all who live there. (I lived multi-generationally for a while and it isn't an unknown concept to me. I rather like it; no scratch that, I love it.)

4) Flexible Over Time - Any house that ties me to one type of wiring or permanently fixes some "modern" need in time won't work. Part of the reason our homes have a true life of 30 years is because of these ancillary issues. Any house has to be able to be changed, modernized (or de-moderized) and be generally flexible.

5) Appropriate to the climate - Most houses are not at all built that way. Same house plan in muggy South Carolina can be seen in Wisconsin. The dependence on artificial means to force it to work is a hallmark of today's homes. I'd like mine designed to take advantage of sun angles, prevalent wind conditions and all that good stuff. That includes protection from common negative environmental happenings normal to that area. Ever seen how many houses are now built in tornado alley that have no basement or storm shelter? No thank you, I say.

6) Stage-able - By this I mean that it doesn't have to be done, inside and out, to the last floor tile before I move in. I'd like to savor the experience of putting in shelves, the non-concrete interior walls (if any), the fixtures for all the bathrooms (but one, of course!), the cabinets, tiles...well...all of it over a period of time.

I'm not asking too much, am I? Nah..I didn't think so. So why is it that architects look at me in horror and simply say that is too complex a set of requirements in a less than 1 Million budget (for NE Arkansas!). Prices for design on a house like this are truly astronomical. I could buy a house with that much. Seriously.

I've considered that altering an existing plan might be better and, believe it or not, I found that the most likely one to be altered was in a luxury home plan book and I've found it online for you. It is ridiculous and all of it has to be changed, but it has the bones it needs, if you know what I mean.

So, what do I do? Where do I compromise? How do I find, commission or buy plans that will suit that? Who exists that will be my willing accomplice and design a home that is truly meant to be the right home for me and those who come after me? ::sigh:: Okay, I'm ready for your words of wisdom!


Laughing Orca Ranch said...

Hah! I seriously have no clue, but I thoroughly enjoy your heartfelt, thoughtful post inspiring one to think beyond the box (no pun intended!) lol!

As for me I am wanting to move into a simpler lifestyle away from the 'rat race' once my children are grown. I want to wait as my homeschooled children benefit from living with 30 mins to a city and all it's field trip locales, classes and opportunities.

But I am researching and making plans right now, for the future. My hubby doesn't see the word self-sustainable in the same way. He sees small house as being cramped and less room for his stuff (he's a pack rat, gah!).

He also wants to live near the beach in South Carolina (read: bugs, humidity, hurricanes, lots of A/C) while I want to remain in New Mexico, where it is much easier to live a more self sustainable lifestyle due to our friendly climate.

I also must have beauty, peace, and nature all around. Hubby doesn't seem to appreciate that as much. sigh.

I'll be following your housing ideas as you plan for your own future. Best of luck!

He didn't like my idea

Melissa ~ Wife to 1, Mom to 5 said...

I don't know if it'll help at all, but have you looked into straw bale construction?! We have - and we found that it's easy for a family to build, straw bales can be found just about anywhere and are increasingly popular. Do a google search - there's even a group that can help you with the zoning restrictions. They are incredible energy efficient and you can build in stages. Just thought i'd toss my 2 cents in. :)

Ruralrose said...

hi - the best sustainable house i have ever seen is an earthship house, here is the site look around, if i were to invest in a new home it would be this one - peace

Storm said...

Have you looked into Mike Oehler's PSP method for building underground? The $50 and Up Underground House, especially when combined with the design seminar, shows why other underground homes, including the concrete forms, end up failing, and at the same time describes the method he has used for the last 30+ years with great success. I am currently building my own underground home using this method in pretty well the same area in which you are considering building. I am harvesting the timbers from the woods on the property, relying upon snags and fallen dead timbers, so that I am not even taking down any living trees, except the few I had to remove for the placement of the house itself, and I am using those in the construction as well.

I fully expect this house to be here long after I am gone, and for it to require FAR less maintenance than any other housing option I have looked at myself.

Chicago Mike said...

I have a few comments here. I did building permits in an environmentally sensitive community for a couple of years and saw some pretty interesting things.

1) One individual, a local environmental activist, spent about 7 years working with demolition crews to salvage timber, flooring, pipes, conduit, everything, to build a house. He used a barn he rented for a couple hundred dollars a year to store it, and when he calculated he had enough, he built it himself (literally, his own bare hands). He started with the garage, put in a stool, shower, sink, and lived in it while he went about framing the rest. The house is pretty nice, super low impact, and ended up costing him around 20K including the lot. It took patience, perseverence and determination, but he did it. The other thing is that the quality of most of his materials was very high because of the age of the homes. He also had the cabling issue, so he used 2 inch pipe and ran that to outlets then ran roamex (not legal in all areas) and phone cords, etc and could rewire at will. Pretty slick.

3) The longest lasting home I have ever seen in person constructed was a rammed earth home. The walls are thick, they are installed with conduit in the walls, basically you build a form like a concrete form, drop the earth in (various types will work, then you compact it, add more earth, repeat. It evens heat out between day and night, and there are ancient examples in China. It withstands weather. You can impress stone or tile for floors, and it will support steel spans for large rooms.

Just my first thoughts.

With Best Regards,

Chicago Mike

Chicago Mike said...

Search Wiki for "rammed earth", the history is there, as well as the green nature of it, as well as techniques and issues.



hickchick said...

Wow-great ideas, I don't have anything better. My father just built a 750 sq foot poured concrete house with a small woodstove and in floor heat. It's wonderful and cozy. We joke that i we want it to be multigenerational we will have to build a yurt! Good luck!

Chiot's Run said...

Very interesting. Mr Chiots and I want to "semi-retire" in 10-15 years (we'll be 40-45) to a small homestead on a few acres. We've been mulling over what kind of cottage we'd like to build. We live in a rather small home now and definitely want to go as small as possible. I'll have to look into these. Very interesting.

It's interesting that many of these options aren't seen more, particularly here in Ohio.

Jennifer said...

Great ideas! I enjoyed reading your post.

katecontinued said...

I have always like the idea of a compound with an array of diverse building types. I would include straw bale (I helped build a demo straw bale structure and loved it.) This site has some good ideas and images.

I'm visiting via One Green Generation.

Walter Jeffries said...

What you want is all very doable. We build our tiny cottage all ourselves and it is much along the lines of what you're thinking.

In the current form our cottage is tiny - small enough that we could get it quickly built and closed in in under two months all by ourselves. Yet the cottage is designed for expansion later when we want more space. I should say 'if' as we're finding that tiny living is actually great - far less to clean. We joke that it is our space ship. But if our parents moved in with us or our children stay on the farm we can easily add more spaces to expand the cottage.

The cottage is very permanent. It is made of concrete, stone and brick - virtually all locally sourced so it's green construction. The hard materials makes it very low maintenance. It should last for hundreds of years even with hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes. I anchored it to the mountain on the ledge using keys into the angles so it floats in place thermally isolated from the colder stone.

Since we used massive masonry walls with insulation on the outside of the thermal mass the cottage stays warm all by itself. It will stay above freezing in our cold northern Vermont winters. With us living here, adding a little heat from our bodies, cooking, etc, the cottage gets quite comfortable needing only a little extra heat from our tiny wood stove during the coldest weeks of the winter. This also keeps the cottage cool in the summer although our summers are never particularly hot, tending to the 70's and low 80's at most.

Unlike our old farm house which was dark and drafty the cottage is bright and airy, well ventilated without being drafty. We have huge windows which I had salvaged from an office building demolition. Since they were old single pane windows I doubled them up to get double panes. With film between them they energy efficient become super windows while costing very little. Always keep your eyes out for salvage!

To handle flexibility in later installations of wiring and such I left chases, ducts, channels and holes. I wasn't exactly sure how I wanted to plumb and wire so I just left it open. This means I can also update in the future. This winter I put in PEX plumbing which was very easy due to the small space and the chases.

Furniture is built-in for the most part. We have one chair and a table but I'll replace them with built-ins soon. This is very efficient and I enjoy figuring out how to craft each piece in place. Today I finished a kitchen storage cabinet. This fits with a small house design.

The house is sustainable. I am a big believer in the value of concrete since it lasts essentially forever. It won't rot and won't need maintaining. Even our roof is concrete - a 1.5" thick barrel vault that can hold an infinite (seriously) snow load. Big issue in our climate. It also represents thermal mass for storing heat. Our house weighs over 100,000 lbs all inside the insulating envelope.

Note that the cottage is just for living. We do all our farm work, wood working and other things outdoors or in the old farm house which is now our farm building. Animals don't get brought into the cottage to be nursed back to health - firm rule! This works and makes it so that our 252 sq-ft of cottage gets preserved for cooking, eating, sleeping, reading, music and such.

I've been thinking of doing a two and a half year update on the cottage status. So far we have spent just under $7,000 to build it. Good luck with your future home building. It is worth taking years to explore the design, draw, build models, make small versions such as animal housing, etc and practice construction techniques.

One last thought, don't use all the house in all the seasons. That is, with our old farm house it was impossible to economically heat. So we closed down all but the central core in the winter. With our cottage we plan to add some 'outdoor' spaces that will likely get used extensively in the warm seasons but not in the dire cold of winter.


in Vermont

Green Assassin brigade said...

I've had the same internal arguement for several years, I know I want a place eventually and assuming it has no building, or a marginal building I would need to start from scratch.

I like the ease and DIY aspects of strawbail but very rigid rules must be followed to keep it dry, large overhangs, high foundation to stop snow damage or rain splashback. This can put severe limits stylewise. I love the look and feel of adobe or straw made to look adobe but in a wet snowing place like mine that look will not work well if used in such a tradtional maner(traditional straw bail Bwaahahahahah!)

While you want longevity you also need to be happy so you need need to decide a look or style you like and then see if it can be adapted to that construction style you like. Me I think I'd like a traditional 2 story farmhouse with wrap around porches, but this is not an ideal design for efficiency, nor does normal stick frame construction last long enough.

To adapt my building style with my prefered material and weather concerns I would make the 1st floor strawbail usings the porches as a buffer between the walls and the elements. The porches can have removeable glazings giving me a wintertime sun room and increasing solar gain. In the summer they give good shade to the lower windows and a place to chase the kids out onto, even on a rainy day.

The second floor would be made of 6 inch sips since no building inspectors I've ever heard of will sign off on a 2 story straw bail, despite the walls being able to take the load.

Brick clad the entire thing and you've got a very traditional looking building with low energy use. I'm actually more stuck on the kinds of plant and systems needed for heating and such.

Solar water preheated radiant floor? heat pump? wood? cuddle heat? How efficient would my design be and would central heat even make sense?

Simplicity is also a great need, for example the house you lust for with those jutting turrets, complex rooflines and fake dormers is not only more expensive in labour and materials but increases the exposed surface area making it less efficient. The roof line makes it near impossible to mount any PV or water heaters on the roof and every valley in a roof is a more likey place to leak. 4 sided, steep peaked steel roofs are the only way to go.

I've always loved the houses with a widow's walk but very impractical unless its also used as part of one of those cooling towers/chimneys sometimes seen downs south. Not a lot of weather justifying a roof top patio up here.