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Build a house for less than $5000 (ciracar.com)
280 points by mambodog on Feb 13, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 103 comments

I love the look of that house, seems extremely cosy and well-designed.

But it's pretty hypocritical to present it as cheap and frugal.

The cost of a house is land + labor + material. Land costs depend on where you want to live, but can be the biggest factor. He mentions 1500 hours of labor, which, if you were paying somebody to do it, would be somewhere around 100000 USD (full cost of a skilled craftsman is around $60/hour). And even the 5000 dollars for materials is a fool's calculation, since he mentions using scrap materials, i.e. stuff that somebody else had to pay to produce.

If you want something truly sustainable, i.e. not something pseudo-green and feelgood-ecologigal, but something that anybody can afford, you'd unfortunately would have to go with a mass-produced high-rise block of flats.

Not a fan of the do-gooder hypocrisy here, but as an example of an architectural style that blends into nature it's adorable and looks fantastic.

Not hypocritical at all, if you read the background story here: http://www.simondale.net/house/family.htm

Initially we had no capital and we had decided resolutely to be full time parents whilst our children were young. As you’ll appreciate to be a full time mum and part time dad our income is low, about £5,000 p.a, so a mortgage was not an option and the prospects for renting seemed grim. Providence came our way and a landowner offered us the chance to move to his woodland in west Wales to build an eco-house. There would be no formal security or long term ownership, but £2000 was available for materials, so we jumped at the idea without a backward glance.

Sounds like just the sort of risk-taking, scrappy bootstrapping story that'd do well on HN, but everyone seems to be bagging it.

ps. Scrap = things that other people are chucking away, or will have to pay to take away. Making use of it is a good thing.

If it was presented as a scrappy bootstrapping story that would be one thing but the article's title is misleading in that it says it was only $5000 to build, which the actual cost was a lot more, the total expenditure was $5000 , but total coast of materials and labor puts it well above $5000. This is more what people were thinking.


Which all seem to follow the exact same pattern, ie. only counting the cost of materials that you have to buy. From that link:

The Soft Courtyard House This design draws heavily on bamboo, which is readily available in China...

The Recycled Materials House As the name implies, this two-story structure uses locally- and regionally-available recycled materials, both to reduce costs and to promote sustainable housing practices. For example, fly ash residue from local coal-burning factories supplements the concrete medium and replaces the more expensive cement component.

The composition of these L-shaped corner walls would be rammed earth and bamboo. In an innovative twist, the formwork that produces the rammed earth walls can be disassembled and then reassembled to create the roof.

Not saying that these aren't all excellent ideas, but if the original article is 'misleading', then yours is too.

He mentions 1500 hours of labor, which, if you were paying somebody to do it, would be somewhere around 100000 USD (full cost of a skilled craftsman is around $60/hour).

This statement could be used against almost anything falling under DIY, hacking, hobby work, etc. I mean, sure, you are technically correct, but who counts that, if you are having fun doing something for yourself.

When you are bragging about cheapness, but it takes nine months of your full time labor to do the work, is that really cheap?

Labor doesn't have a dollar value unless you are paying or being paid for the work.

It has an opportunity cost, as well as a fair-market value.

Everything has an opportunity cost. In this case, he managed to both go to work and build a house. He gave up his hobbies and in return built a house for "free" (gaining a new short-term hobby). How much are you and I giving up by reading HN right now? It's very, very difficult to attach a dollar value to opportunity cost when you weren't going to be doing anything money-making with that time anyway.

Agreed, but then the headline should have been "Guy has a fun time spending 1,000 hours building a neat looking house."

What bothers me is the bait and switch. It's bad journalism, but I would bet that the people who find this economically or ecologically "good" would be disinclined to change the headline because something to the effect of "dude has fun hobby" doesn't have the same "social good" connotations as the current headline.

Yeah, I'll bet a mass-produced high-rise in China costs way less than $5000 per one-room unit, and at practically zero land cost, too, given its vastly smaller footprint. That's a damn good point.

A used shipping container is about $2,000. You'd want to check it for chemicals. It's closer to $10,000 if you want them fitted out as something you can live in, though. I'm not sure about the charm factor.

I can't imagine that one couldn't build a shipping-container sized building with wood for a lot less than $2000. Fir 2x4 and 2x6 timbers are literally dirt cheap right now. Throw in some siding, drywall, some insulation, and some roofing materials and you'd have a pretty nice shell of a house for about the same price. Best part about using wood is that you wouldn't be stuck with the long, skinny configuration; you could alter the dimensions quite a bit without too much extra cost.

Shipping containers are always proposed as the ideal solution for someone else. Nobody would actually choose to live in such a shithole if they had other options.

Shipping containers are suggested because they tend to offer a great base for construction on the cheap. They're solid structurally (since they need to be stacked, full 4/5 high) and they're very portable for getting to a site fully built. I don't think anyone is suggesting living in a raw container. They're just a great starting point.

There's a lot of creative ways to turn these into a home.


As to calling the result

Shipping containers are a fetish among people who don't know what they are talking about - the pictures show two types of structures - structures few people can afford and structures few people would choose to live in.

None of them are as sensible as traditional modular housing:


From 2004-2010 I lived in both shipping containers (refitted) and trailers (basically 12' wide knock-down structures) and wooden shacks (and houses).

There are things I'd do with shipping containers to turn them into livable housing, but they go beyond a basic conversion -- it's cutting them apart and basically using them as a source of sheet steel and study frames. Normal steel structures or tilt-ups accomplish basically all of this already.

Prefab modules for things like kitchens/bathrooms, combined with inexpensive ways of enclosing space, is the way to go.

Thanks. Rare to hear from someone who has done this. Much more sense in the last line particularly than most of the rest of this thread.

There are lots of good examples here:


Like anything else, to do it well takes a good amount of effort.

One can make some surprisingly beautiful houses out of shipping containers. I can't find the link at the moment but one such company advertises in dwell magazine. Hopefully I can find it.

For houses featured in Dwell, shipping containers are merely a fetish incorporated into million dollar+ dwellings.

Shipping containers are uninsulated and have stressed skin construction - they require a lot of work to be used as a thermal envelop, or when incorporating fenestration (not to mention blowing out a whole side.

With the economic downturn, the glut of shipping containers is long gone and prices for used containers have risen significantly over the past several years.

A lot of those buildings which are featured in glossy architectural rags are actually built with custom modules, not actual containers because the dimensions of a standard shipping container are suitable for...well, shipping, not human habitation - 7'-10" inside height before interior ceiling and wall finishes are added (and that's if your insulation is exterior).

I believe it, but at a certain point you are just using the containers as a metal frame with sheet metal sides that you are cutting a lot of holes in, and at some point it would make more sense to just build a metal framed building in the first place.

I knew a guy who was living in a self-storage unit for a while.

Freelance hacker? Greatest swordfighter in the world? Used to deliver pizza? That guy?

Pretty cool guy, I hear.

I remember reading about this a long time ago. The builder's own website on the subject is a much better link, which presents the hows and whys: http://www.simondale.net/house/

The OP is nothing more than a copy-paste job, though given how old it is, there might be some interesting discussion in the comments.

I believe from what I've read in the past that this was more of an exhibition piece than a long term place to live.

What bugs me about projects like this, is that they're being presented as 'sustainable' while they're the antithesis of that. If everybody would want to live like that, there wouldn't be enough room, let alone large, undisturbed areas for forests or agriculture; plus this house may have cost the builder only 5000 pounds (if you don't count the land), but that's only possible when it's a one-of-a-kind project. If you'd have to take into account the supply network needed to build a house like this, and live in it, to a reasonably comfortable standard (meaning, at the very least: warm, dry, no vermin inside, access to sewer and running water), it would become a lot more expensive, if not downright impossible.

I get the room part, but it cost him 5000 pounds because he built it out of logs and straw bales. There's not really a massive supply network needed for that sort of thing.

Also, your idea of a decent house is (obviously) not necessarily his idea of a decent house (eg. he has a composting toilet), but it looks pretty warm and dry and vermin free to me.

roel_v is saying that a house like this does not scale in terms of production, materials and land required when everyone would be building one.

anthonyb is saying that logs and stray bales are available in large quantities. And he's right, there's no issue of scale here, other than labor. I have family who have built straw houses and they're cheap, straw is very plentiful, and you really can't tell the difference from a traditional drywall/fiberglass insulation home (it wasn't stylized like this one).

The only thing I see being an issue with the house from the article is the composting toilet. However, running a sewer to this style of house is no different than running a sewer to a traditional house.

It's more than just the building material. I live in a 65 story building..8 units per floor (I'm sure it thins out near the top though). How many people per sqft of land do you think we take? How much would be taken by free-standing (single) homes?

How much do you think we save in heating and cooling given that only 2 out of 4 walls are exposed (and in some apartments, it might be 1/4)?

If I wasn't tired, I'd look it up, but I have to imagine that apartment-style "dense" living, is way more sustainable than almost any type of house.

I have seen a few studies that suggest New York City is the most environmentally friendly place to live in the US. But, mostly it comes down to transportation costs. And being that close to a harbor is actually a huge net gain.

It seems your issue is with the concept of single family homes and urban sprawl, not this particular method of building. That's a bit of a different issue -- many people don't want to live in the middle of a city (such as myself: I'm on a rather large lot in a 4 bedroom home)

It's true that high density housing is efficient, but if you are going to build a single family home, strawbale is a great way to do it.

I don't mean to rant on you, but I do like having this conversation :)

I don't think limiting what we view as sustainable to only the things we want is being reasonable. Sure, there's degrees of sustainability, and we can talk about it in those terms. But, when I look at the world, I no longer believe that we are necessarily entitled to things that we want. Greeks, for example, would like to continue living well beyond their financial means. Should they be allowed to simply because they wish for it?

We have a good system to measure the financial cost of thing. So, at the very least, what you want is something you need to be able to afford (although that plays to the disadvantage of the truly poor). However, there are few checks in places for the social costs, and even fewer for the environmental cost.

So while you want to live in a big house, and you can afford it, do you have a greater social responsibility? Or, put differently (and possibility unfairly), what impact would it have if the considerable number of people who lived in such a dwelling moved to something more sustainable?

Actually it would be very different to run a sewer to this house than to a traditional house.

When you are piping large amounts of raw sewage around you need strict rules to protect people, property and the environment. So now you need to get it up to code, and pay trained people to check that it complies.

Straw is a promising material but I think we've already tried harvesting logs in "large quantities" and it hasn't worked out perfectly.

As I said, I have people in my family who have built strawbale houses to code (California code including earthquake provisions, no less). The stylized aspect is distinct from the strawbale and inset-in-land aspect.

Regarding logs, I'm currently sitting in a house with wood framing in the suburbs, and every house around me as far as I can see is also framed with wood.

Oh yeah, nothing particularily hard about building strawbale houses to code.

My point was about this particular style of amateur building not being amenable to things that require standards.

The framing is designed to minimize the use of wood, while this house uses extravagant quantities of it.

Would you be willing to post information about the strawbale houses that were built to code? Where can I find more information on that?

I'm not too close with that side of the family, all I know is what I've gleaned during some extended visits. However, this looks like it might be a good starting point: http://www.strawbuilding.org/sbweb/content/strawbale-codes

Strawbale houses do not look significantly different from normal wood-frame, drywall and stucco homes. If I hadn't been told I would not have known.

Don't forget that 1000-1500 hours of work isn't free worth £0.

If your interested in cheap housing. Yurts are worth a look. They are used by half the population of Mongolia, and can be very warm. They make a great cabin retreat, but they are not quite as nice a normal american home without the added expense and convenience of plumbing, electrical, etc...

However, in there base form, they cost around $5000. See the link below for pricing:


(I am not affiliated with anyone selling any yurts, I just happen to like them).

I've got to point out, you've got to have the right climate for these earth-sunk homes. Insulation works great when it's dealing with convected air (IE protecting your house from freezing cold outside, and with building paper from a harsh wind too).

Whilst the earth provides great protection against summer heat (thermal mass), it offers you nothing against the winter cold. Seriously, I question this house surviving a winter in liveable condition. By his drawing, there's likely minimal to no foundation structure, which means his retaining walls are relying solely on their mass to hold back soil. Note that frost heaving can exert a force of 14,000PSI and you better hope your wall is big enough.

Modern built homes in cold climates (where I live, Canada) rely on footings below the frost line (so your house doesn't split in two or more pieces), the basement floor and first floor joists to supply the lateral forces to resist the freezing soil. Simply put, rocks on soil and timber shallowly buried is a serious danger if a heavy freeze gets under any of them.

FYI, a couple hundred thousand people live in yurts year-round in Ulan Bator--- today's high there was -16C, low -34C. (-40C == -40F)

They're warm enough, in one of the coldest places in the world.

I didn't say yurts were cold, they normally have multiple layers of canvas (or similar material) that acts as very effective insulation. Air gaps are often better than foam. IIRC <3cm of air cannot convect, meaning from a well formed air gap you could be getting a far higher R value than an inch of extruded/spray foam insulation.

What I said was that ramped earth walls provide little value in a winter climate and are in fact extremely dangerous. >4' of dirt against a laterally unsupported foundation wall is actually illegal in my municipality. I see no lateral support in this guys structure. His walls would have to be incredibly thick (which they don't appear to be) to support the weight. The timbers need to go down a sufficient depth, which without the use of machinery, is unlikely to have happened and unlikely to have had the soil re-compacted properly.

What I'm saying is that the $5000 this guy spent on a 'house' is likely to collapse and kill whomevers inside the minute frost gets anywhere near his walls, let alone under the foundation or timbers.

A yurt on the other hand, due to its tent like structure and completely using flexible building materials would cope extremely well with differential frost heaving (which is what cleaves houses in two).

If the houses foundation doesn't extend below the frost line, you've got two choices. Heat it like you want it to spontaneously combust, because you want to keep the frost line well away from your structure. Or 2, ride it. I've seen many cottages here in Canada built on grade that have survived decades of winters because they aren't tied to the ground they simply move when shifted.

I think you overstate this here.

In terms of heat the single slow-combustion-wood-fire will be plenty (assuming a good wood supply) to heat this relatively modest space in winter (in Wales).

As for the frost, it might be an issue in a real heavy winter, but Wales is not Canada. Also, the dissapating heat from the building will help, and timber is inherently far better at handling structural stresses than concrete/steel/etc. That said, I hope for his sake the hill-side retaining-wall is built well (well-drained, structurally strong, etc.) to ensure this doesn't happen.

Not saying it won't cause an issue, but I think you overstate the case somewhat.

In Wales, no this isn't likely a problem. However, due to temperatures staying near-zero it can be worse on a structure if it's regularly cycling below freezing at night.

I wouldn't trust the retaining wall if it wasn't at least 20" of masonry when it's laterally unsupported. Flagstone walls here with lime mortar, laterally supported on floor and ceiling cope at around 14" thick, at which point they can support 6' 11" (by the municipal bylaw) of earth, his walls are laterally unsupported, and by law here can't support more than 3' 11" (if built with a strength equivalent to 8" of 15 Mpa poured concrete, locally about a 14" flagstone wall). Well drained soil will help, but when you're building a wall into the face of a hill, you're being stupid and putting your house below-grade.

I seriously expect this house to fail in a bad winter. I would trust this house in warmer climates, but definitely not in anything colder. I'd also like to know if this guy got approval by a structural engineer, because I certainly didn't read it when I glanced over.

That's pretty cool, and, naturally, it looks like it was founded by some hippyish individuals not far from my home town of Eugene. Where else but Oregon or Northern California would people do something like that? :-) They do look like a pretty good option for a cabin for some land in the mountains. I wonder how well they do being left alone for most of the year.

My girlfriend's sister lived in one for almost 2 years in Southern Oregon. Held up just fine, no leaks, and it was around ten years old when she moved into it. She mud plastered the walls and painted using some natural pigmented paint she made, kinda cool. Compost toilet was a little walk down a trail. Southern Oregon doesn't get a ton of rain, so it's not that bad having one outside the house.

A ski area near a family home in Maine has just recently put up some yurts. They appear to be year-round structures, and I assume they rent them out.

I couldn't tell you how well they age, though, as they're new this year.

Shipping containers are often used, which can be had for half this used. Usualy a much better idea IMO. Refrigeration units offer good insulation, often alongside partial burying of them. They can also look fairly like the western norm inside.

Heres an example built with 2; http://thechive.com/2011/07/26/unbelievable-home-built-out-o...

e: also, a more aspirational one.. obviously more expensive and more containers required; http://www.lowimpactliving.com/blog/2009/07/07/affordable-sh...

I have heard that most shipping containers, even refrigerated ones, have quite toxic linings that can be difficult and expensive to remove. I can't find a source for this at the moment, but it came up as a problem for shipping container living in a reddit thread a few months ago.

I love the idea of the shipping container home, especially when fixed up like this - though I lack the skills/patience to DIY like in that link you posted.

There was an amazing compund a guy in Texas built from shipping containers, shown on the show "Doomsday preppers" on TLC the other day.


This guy used NINE containers for his thing.

I like the idea of prepping, but it still takes a good deal of resources to be able to do stuff like that..

Here's a mid-rise made from shipping containers: http://www.citycenterlofts.net/

And homes:


Pretty impressive, given the basic template they're made from.

Looks like you'd still need a fair bit of structural steel to support that citycenterlofts building. I would say the engineering skill needed is fairly non-trivial, although straightforward -> i.e. not a low-cost DIY type of structure.

I'd be interested in seeing the construction costs of that though, as compared to a similar design not based on shipping containers.

I forgot about zerocabin - I had seen that site before. Thanks for the reminder.

>Looks like you'd still need a fair bit of structural steel to support that citycenterlofts building

That's likely, to conform to building code. Still, they stack those things full of goods 7-8 high on shipping vessels.

It doesn't look like they used refrigeration units here, or any insulation either. Seems like these would be really cold in the winter?

Yurts are cool structures and relatively heat-efficient. You can find them everywhere now. In the western world at least, they are built with modern engineered materials most of the time.

What is cool about the OP is that it's totally built in the rustic style - sticks, logs, etc. This is a bit distinct from deciding to build a "yurt." For more examples, google it, or check out something like Dry Kye (http://drykyerustic.com/). Disclaimer: this is my cousin in Maine. He harvests his own materials and is especially fond of salvaging patina-ed, old-growth wood from very old abandoned barns in the Maine countryside.

Lived in a similar sturcture for about a year as a kid growing up. House didn't have enough room for myself and my brother, so we built one in our back yard. They're warmer than you'd think, quick to set up, and they last a while. Great for guest rooms, but make sure you have an outhouse available, or at least running water.

While the house cute and quaint, cozy and cheap, methinks most of us are more fond of modern straight-line homes than "hobbit" habitats.

For some time now I've been digging for info on building ultra-cheap housing, starting with an interest in log homes and branching into "tiny houses". Goal is to get my kids to earn and move into paid-off real estate by graduation.

To keep it short, here's some interesting links:

Tumbleweed Houses - http://www.tumbleweedhouses.com/ (plans starting at $20; in one notable case, house built for $10K)

MIT $1K house project - http://web.mit.edu/1khouse/ (seems defunct, but a noble start)

Tiny House Blog - http://tinyhouseblog.com/ (ongoing reviews of small and/or inexpensive options)

Cheap houses - https://www.google.com/search?q=cheap+houses (there is a lot of dirt-cheap real estate out there if you're flexible)

Free land - https://www.google.com/search?q=free+land (some jurisdictions will, in fact, give you land free if you'll build a house & live there a while)

I couldn't find anything regarding the free land you've mentioned. Do you have any more leads?

Maybe Google gives us different results. One relevant link is http://realestate.yahoo.com/promo/7-towns-where-land-is-free...

...BTW, I understand sections of Detroit are super cheap, and a motivated developer might be able to leverage that.

As a Michigan resident who has tried buying property in Detroit... many of the cheap plots of land come with huge fines and back taxes attached. The owner stopped paying taxes, and when the fines added up they skipped town. If you buy that land, it's now your responsibility.

Not saying not to buy land in Detroit, there are lots of businesses making good money on cheap land (and there are quite a few startups, especially around Woodward Ave, see: Dan Gilbert). Just make sure to do your research to keep away from any nasty surprises. That $25 half-acre with a plant already built might actually cost $100,000 up front.


Apparently middle-of-nowhere North Dakota, Kansas, and Alaska are the spots to look at.

Such things are built in the woods of Southern Oregon, and in my hipper days I had the pleasure of living in some of them, and helped to build or refit a few others.

It's all good until the roof fails catastrophically.

Here in the UK we have a show called Grand Designs on Channel 4. Its a show about self builders. One of the episodes featured a guy called Ben Law(S09E13). He is a woodsman who worked woodland in a strict conservation area. He wanted a home in his woods, and did a similar thing but on a bigger scale. For electricity, he had solar and wind power, feeding submarine batteries. He collected and purified water. Waste waster was, IIRC, fed in to a reed bed. He also had internet sorted out, cant remember how.

I cant find a decent site that shows the build, but for any one interested, it worth a google. Ben has a website, but there is not much detail there. There are also various vids on youtube.

For any one vaguely interested, this project is well worth look up.


this was such a wildly popular (for channel 4) programme that they did a follow up. He had built an extension for his new family (single originally, and let's face it the project was a form of therapy) and was / is now making a small income teaching others how to do it.

My concern, and only real defence of the construction industry, is there probably are not enough hillsides and trees to go round. But as one living opposite a building site, yes, the construction industry can stand to learn one or two sustainability lessons

"Survivorman" Les Stroud did the same, recounted in his documentary Off the Grid http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B001WAMB9U/ref=carldonath

The original link (has more detail): http://www.simondale.net/house/index.htm

In Germany: After digging out the first stone, the neighbors called the building authority and declares a full stop to your efforts until you hand in hundreds of papers and plans done by an architect and approved by a constructional engineer -.-

German version: File your application for a construction permit for less than €5000 (SCNR).

I've been around the Internet for a long long time and that's the first time I've seen "SCNR". As I had to search to see what it was I'd suggest you expand it in future usage.

You are right in the point you make though, continental Europe is awash with ridiculous red tape and pompous bureaucrats. Although I have to say I am surprised that the he "got away with it" in the UK as it's not much better there.

Of course, your comment wasn't any help, either.

It seems to stand for "Sorry, Could Not Resist".

Did the house need to pass inspections / safety?

Should be titled, live like a hobbit for $5000.

+1,000- 1500 man hours @ say 15$ / hour = a total of around 20,000 - 27,500$ + land costs.

Which, is still great for such a cool house IMO.

I like what he's done and I'd love to do it if I could somehow work around a few issues such as: I have a job, I can't build a house 8 hours a day for 30 weeks (1500 hours) and I can't get the land deal he did.

I'd be really interested in seeing an easily repeatable solution that doesn't come down to living in squalor.

I like what he's done and I'd love to do it if I could somehow work around a few issues such as:

I have a job:

Go down to 50-60%, adjust living expenses accordingly

I can't build a house 8 hours a day for 30 weeks (1500 hours)

So go a bit more than 30 Weeks. Let's assume you work 3 days a week (60%). If you average 4 hours a day on the days you work and 8 hours on the days you don't, you'll be done in 60 weeks. Also there is nothing that says you have to work on the project alone. If you have just one person helping you 50% of the time, then you're down to 45 weeks.

I can't get the land deal he did

Have you tried? Sure you probably won't get land next door to where you're living right now, but if you're willing to relocate finding cheap or even free land is far from impossible.

No one said that it was easy, and I'll be first to admit that it's not for me and I'm not even going to try. But I'm also sure that for someone who really wanted to do it and was willing to make the necessary sacrifices it's certainly an option.

The whole point of having that job is you can generate more value doing that than, say, spending the better part of a year building a house full-time. By spending 8 hours a day for 30 weeks writing software (or whatever you do besides HN), you can support yourself, dependents, and laborers who in turn will build you a house - that's a pretty darned good deal on your part. Good job on adding so much wealth to society!

Sure his solution isn't "easily repeatable" and involves living in squalor. He's not giving up productivity to build the house, but you would be. As such, it's a step up for him, and a step down for you. If it was "easily repeatable" it wouldn't entail 1500 hours of labor, or ~$100K to buy it.

What does resemble an "easily repeatable" solution is http://www.tumbleweedhouses.com/plans where you can start with the plans for a really minimal home for $17, little box bungalows for $99, or more normal looking houses (albeit tiny) for a few hundred. Most are designed for small trailer frames, so you can build one in your spare time with supplies as cheap as you willing to get, find suitable cheap/odd land, and haul it there when ready.

Upshot is you pay high prices because the alternative is doing serious labor yourself.

No problem. For labor, land cost, and materials just add about $100K or so. Oh wait...

How long is this house expected to last? did they remember to coat the wood? termites and woodlouse are going to be a pain in the ass in that location...and then there's the rain... and cold...

There's a reason we use modern materials, like bricks, modern insulation and tiles, to build modern homes. They work and have proven robust (although mass production has also lowered price on some less desirable materials). Nice little project though.

Woodlice may be a problem, but we don't have much in the way of termite infestations here in the UK.

I can assure you, straw bales are better insulation than modern fiberglass. A family member lived on a sustainable farm where they had a 40 foot diameter roundhouse with 25 foot ceilings and an upper loft. Basically, a big volume. It was easily heated, and kept incredibly cozy, by a single woodburning stove.

Additionally, it was fully plumbed with water (though used composting toilets outside), as well as electricity.


If it rains enough, I expect that the house will collapse.

Also what about Electricity, Water and Internet (ok there is wifi) but electricity and water needs their proper setup. Gas is important too, if it gets too cold, and I expect they want to cook something.

Strawbale walls + wood heater. Did you read the article at all?

Legendary ! that is pretty awesome. I guess there are conditions on where you can do that and thinking about it now i cant think of anywhere near me where i could do that if i wanted/could do it.

Though if i went back to where my parents came from in south east asia i could think of alot of places where that would work.

Reminds me of a Tony & Faith Wrench, who have done similar things a few times in West Wales: http://thatroundhouse.info/ Interesting couple.

I feel like you'd need to know a lot of engineering to be able to design the thing, and still be able to sleep at night knowing it won't collapse on you.

Also how does something like this work with county inspectors?

Well, you might be impressed.

Think about these massive Middle-Ages cathedrals done before we had Newton's Laws and modern notions of engineering. How did the architects do it? Well, they were hackers with a large budget. The architect usually had never built anything on this scale before and had no idea how their much-smaller-scale building experience would scale up. In particular, the fact that arches create sideways stresses which tend to bulge a large, open building outwards wasn't necessarily well-known by many of these architects.

So what did they do? They just tried it and saw what worked. They hacked it together. If it doesn't start buckling and collapsing in the first month, it could probably last for a couple hundred years, maybe more if the ground doesn't shift in unexpected ways. The walls started bowing out? Then we'll build structures to buttress them back in. There's a dangerous sagging happening between these two columns? Well, place a third column in there!

Of course, wood offers a lot of questions as a building material, since it's got a lot of energy in a bioactive form which lots of critters and cellular lifeforms might enjoy eating, and therefore needs to be treated in ways that might tend to prevent these critters from using it as a food source. Keeping it not-wet is an important first step which isn't discussed very well in the article.

But for what it's worth, this was the way you built houses before we had engineering. You just went for it and spent a bunch of the year working on it, and it better be successful because you've got to have a place to sleep this winter.

> Think about these massive Middle-Ages cathedrals done before we had Newton's Laws and modern notions of engineering. How did the architects do it? Well, they were hackers with a large budget. The architect usually had never built anything on this scale before and had no idea how their much-smaller-scale building experience would scale up. In particular, the fact that arches create sideways stresses which tend to bulge a large, open building outwards wasn't necessarily well-known by many of these architects.

That's a fascinating thought. I'd like to read more about this "hacking" aspect -- can you point me to any references / citations?

Unfortunately the links I have are not of professional research quality, and it might be better to email an academic who specializes in architecture from before calculations. I have a couple saved bookmarks from when I first heard about it several years ago. Here's an article in /The Caius Engineer/ vol. 17 nr. 1, a student publication from kids at the Gonville & Caius College of the University of Cambridge:


And here's a short book review about a book which might describe a dome that was hacked together on a budget:


I was reintroduced to this by a recent BBC series on architecture, though, and I can't figure out which one it was! It could have been Climbing Great Buildings, which had some moments where they would sneak underneath these great cathedrals and see what little bits had been "swept under the rug". But it might have also been Churches: How to Read Them. (I vaguely think it's the first because I have memories of some reference to Durham Cathedral partially collapsing, but memories of this form are notoriously unreliable.)

Conclusion: we should develop ways so that we learn less by osmosis. When you learn by osmosis, it's very hard to track down actual sources for the crap you've learned, and you basically have to get lucky.

> Think about these massive Middle-Ages cathedrals done before we had Newton's Laws and modern notions of engineering. How did the architects do it?

They didn't do it a lot of the time. It just seems that way because only the few cathedrals that happened to strike on a physical supportable design are still around. Ie, survivorship bias.

Based on the photographs, it does not appear to be engineered - roof supports do not appear to be of adequate depth to support live, dead, and snow loads. People can dance on that roof and under most building standards deflection is the controlling factor for structures this size.

IMO, it is highly improbably that adequate structural analysis was done on all those small twisted members because branches and stunted trunks contain so many knots and so much sapwood.

On the positive side, the approach is straight out of Christopher Alexander's A Pattern Language, and any victims of the inadequate structural design will be due to Darwinian forces.


Check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bishop_Castle - this guy lives out in the middle of nowhere in Colorado (where he doesn't have to worry much about inspection, although he has had people raise a bit of a fuss from time to time), but he's certainly not an engineer by any means and he's built an entire, stable castle that's supported hundreds of tourists every single day for years without any incident. It turns out that most humans have a pretty good intuition for what will stand and what won't.

Also, if you're ever in CO, it's worth the visit. Really.

Also how does something like this work with county inspectors?

My experience with county inspectors is they don't build anything.

They show up to inspect the work after it's done, certify it's to standards and call it a day.

If you're real lucky you'll get an inspector who is buddies with certain contractors in the area. Woe to the poor SOB who doesn't use them - you'll have a heckuva time getting that work signed off.

Yeah boy: how would we get anything done without county inspectors.

My apologies, grand-parent: I mis-read your comment. Never-mind.

Has anyone read anything on Zach Klein's cabin in NY? Very curious how he went about designing and building it. http://beaverbrook.com/

Reminds me of Super Adobe by architect Nader Khalili.


Sure hope he used galvanized nails on that or he's in for some surprises in a few years.

And how would you get something like this past a city inspector?

And then the council comes and knocks it down because the plans were not approved by the central bureaucracy!

You can get similar bang for your buck by firing your own bricks for a masonry house. Nice project!

There's no bathroom/toilet.

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