Friday, December 18, 2009

Build a house

We've been looking for a house to buy, and haven't quite made it. We got close - an offer on one that didn't stick, and another that was already pending when we found it - but for now we're still looking.

Eventually I decided to revisit what I had learned about alternative house construction. Materials with low embodied energy, reclaimed materials, build-it-yourself, insulation, thermal mass, solar gain, and integrated design.

That last one is important. Integrated design. By that I mean thinking about how each part of a house design relates to the rest. For example, laying out the floor plan so the plumbing can all be together ("wet wall").

In Permaculture (and in nature) every element serves multiple roles. Chickens don't just produce eggs; they also consume food scraps, protect the orchard from pests, turn soil in the garden, and produce fertilizer. In conventional house construction, we use studded walls, meeting the needs like this:

strength - studs, OSB sheathing
fire resistance - drywall
insulation - fiberglass batts
beauty - drywall, siding, paint
thermal mass - none

Contrast that to Cordwood, my current DIY favorite.

strength - cordwood
fire resistance - cordwood
insulation - conrdwood
beauty - cordwood
thermal mass - cordwood

Furthermore, Cordwood is cheap and accessible for the amateur. No fiberglass to make you itch, either.

In addition to building our own house, we'd like to grow much of our own food. Chickens, ducks, goats, honey bees, a small orchard, and a big garden. Maybe pigs. You don't need a whole lot of space to do that, but I don't want to be buying a lot of food for the animals: I want them to roam and forage for themselves a lot. That means having a little land. I don't need to produce enough food to sell, but I do hope to produce more than we need and trade or gift the surplus.

Then again, I don't want some sort of rural McMansion. A hundred acres I can call "mine". 3000 sq. ft. of house at $120 / sq. ft., with active solar heat management and laminated "green" floors. Driving 20 miles just to see friends or by shampoo.

We've found 1.7 acres for a reasonable price. That's more than enough to grow all the food we can eat, but not enough to feed all the animals we could want. That's OK.

It's outside the city limits, which gives us more leeway with codes & construction methods. However, it's right over the line, so we're close to stuff, including a bus line. It also has city water in the street.

It's wooded. I have reservations about clearing land. But the alternative is to buy land that someone else has already cleared, which isn't much better. However, land that has been abused (e.g. gravel pit) and is super-cheap would be an opportunity to bring rich life back, which I like. Anyway, I love the woods so being wooded isn't terrible. And having a supply of wood for building and fuel is good, too.

In the new year we plan to put an offer on the land. Then we'll build an outhouse to explore the building techniques we're thinking about. Then a temporary shelter. We have a year on our current lease to get all that done and then start building.

I also hope to inspire others with my example, and by teaching what I learn. You don't have to have an enormous, expensive, toxic, wasteful home. It can be modest and comfortable and beautiful and cheap and healthy.

More to come, I hope.

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