So one of my friends is looking into building a house with her family, and it’s got me all jazzed up. For one, I must have been an architect in a past life because I get far too excited about building design and floor plans, and two, she wants to build it out of earthbags. I am so, so in love with earthbag houses. If you’ve never heard of them, this is what you’re missing out on:
The dome shape is pretty classing to these houses, but really you can build however you like. Some go with a more traditional style, preferring a rectangular home with a peaked roof, while others build a series of round turrets all smooshed together to make really unique structures.
The main idea is that you fill polypropylene bags with dirt and then build walls out of them, with some wood and barbed wire to shape and support it. Those get slathered with porous but weather resistant material, most commonly papercrete, and then a roof is stuck on top. These houses end up as sturdy as bomb shelters, able to withstand all kind of extreme weather. Or bullets, if you need that too.
The design is simple, smart, and extremely cheap. All you need is gravel, dirt, bags, wood, some tools, and some friends that want to help you out, and you’ve got a house. Putting in electrical and plumbing will still be comparable to building a regular house, but the rest of the construction is such a significant difference in price it’s phenomenal.
You also can save on interior design, because so much can be built into the walls:
But the more I thought about this project, the more I realized that the biggest appeal for me is that due to the construction cost being so low, it wouldn’t be as big of a chunk of money to make the house self sustainable. Off grid living has always held a lot of appeal for me. What’s not to like? No carbon footprint, living off of fresh home grown food, being able to be literally anywhere because you don’t have to worry about being close to hydro or any kind of hookup. This also means very little monthly expenses, which is nice in this economy.
I did a bit of research into solar energy and composting septic systems and was blown away at how inexpensive it all is in the grand scheme of things. You can honestly build your own composting septic system out of tanks and worms off of ebay. How cool is that? Even if you don’t go the DIY route, I was finding fully functional residential systems for under $2000. The toilets are extra (around $350), but still, this is way cheaper than having a company come in to dig a full septic system.
And solar panels! You can get 300w worth of solar panels for $900 bones at Costco. 300w doesn’t seem like a lot, but if you’re using a separate solar powered water heater, a non-electrical composting septic system, high efficiency appliances and hanging your clothes outside to dry, you could probably live comfortably with two or three of those packages. So on the high end, let’s say $2700 for solar panels.
The only thing left is water, which if you can’t get on a water system means digging a well, which can be super expensive. Nobody can really give decent prices due to location, difficulty and depth, but most will ball park between $10000 and $15000. Without having to worry about it being too close to a full septic system, you have a lot more freedom space here too.
So let’s add up these costs. According to this article on Mother Earth News, the materials for a 500-bag house is $300.00. That will give a roundhouse about 15′ in diameter, which isn’t terribly big at about 175 square feet. Let’s quadruple that to 700 square feet, which is about the size of my two bedroom apartment right now. It’s comfy living for my husband and I, and our little darling on the way. So building a house this size isn’t completely unreasonable. So we’ll multiply that cost by four, which gives us $1200.00 for the house. And because my calculations are in Canadian dollars, let’s exchange that to an even $1500.00.
So we’ve got:
Building Materials: $1500.00
Composting toilet system with one bathroom: $2350.00
Solar panels for 900w: $2700.00
Well digging: $15000.00
Total up front costs for the pieces of a functional sustainable house: $21550.00
And most of that is a high end well digging estimate. Of course, you’d have to add it piping for plumbing, and maybe somebody like a plumber that would know how to put all of that together. Maybe an electrician to put your solar panels to proper use. I’m sure there’s a tutorial on YouTube, but you know. Even if you took out a loan for this amount and had to pay it back, it would be the only expense other than property tax that you’d have to pay each month. If the house you want to build only costs 20 large, then that leaves a lot more wiggle room on land than a house build that costs over $100000 or $200000.
Crazy, right? Makes me just wanna head out into the wilderness!