I love the great ideas coming out of the tiny house movement, and it’s great to see growing interest in this area. One topic that’s not talked about often enough in my opinion is do-it-yourself, super cheap tiny/small houses made of natural materials such as earthbags, straw bales, adobe, compressed earth blocks, recycled wood and so on. The cost difference can be HUGE.
First of all, I realize everyone’s situation is different. If you absolutely need to be mobile or live in the city then building a tiny house on wheels is a good option. But for many others a dirt cheap $2,000 house on rural land with minimal building codes is an even better option. Nowadays you can get decent Internet, phone and electric most anywhere. You don’t have to live in the middle of nowhere at the end of a 100 mile dirt road that turns to sinking clay when it rains, or live deep in the wilderness on a mountaintop. There are still quite a few minimum code areas that allow owner-builders to build sustainable homes with alternative materials. Search our blog with the built-in search engine for keywords counties with few or no building codes or go directly to this article: https://naturalbuildingblog.com/counties-with-few-or-no-building-codes/
The Natural Building Blog is loaded with free information about all types of low tech/dirt cheap building methods. This article on How to Build Dirt Cheap Houses is a good overview.
Just to be clear, $2,000 is an approximate cost for the main shell of a house – walls, recycled windows, doors and roof for a small home of a few hundred square feet. Of course you could spend way more or possibly less. The main factors are building codes, the materials you use and how much labor you do yourself. You can save tons of money by using locally available materials such as wood poles from a forest, slab wood siding, salvaged wood from old buildings, and hardware and fasteners from yard sales or Craigslist.
Here are a few examples of super low cost tiny houses built with natural materials:
– Adobe T-bricks (see photo above): This option was covered in yesterday’s blog post. The main cost for this type of home is the roof. But again, you could use salvaged lumber or wood poles to save money.
– Earthbag roundhouses: This is our $2,000 guesthouse that you’ll see in my various books, DVD and articles. We later replaced the thatch with more durable micro concrete roofing tiles that can last 25-30 years. In this case the cost included electric, plumbing and a few extras such as colorful glass block in the bathroom.
– $300 Houses: My $300 Earthbag House was the 14th place winner in the $300 House Challenge. Building for $300 is only feasible if you do everything yourself, barter, use all salvaged/recycled materials, etc. This is how people live in slums, and this design is an attempt to meet the needs of slum dwellers. In most cases, westerners would likely buy many of the materials and so the house would likely cost around $2,000 for the basic shell.
– Simple DIY strawbale houses: Stephen and Nena MacDonald’s post and beam strawbale house in Gila, New Mexico was built in 1988-1989. The initial shell was $5/sq. ft. and the finished cost was between $7-$8/sq. ft. This was back in the 1980’s so naturally the cost would be a higher now.
– Strawbale shelters: Matts Myhrman pioneered the construction of tiny strawbale shelters, and since then others have utilized these ultra low cost building ideas. This video shows how unskilled workers can build a simple shelter in a few hours. Authors Matts Myhrman and S.O. McDonald have generously donated their classic volume Build it With Bales, Version Two that can now be freely downloaded at the following link:
Summary: Factory-built ready to live in tiny houses are going for about $70,000 and up. On top of that you might have to pay for space to park your tiny house. Even DIY tiny houses are around $30,000 – $50,000. So you’re still talking about quite a bit of money. That’s why I’ve always been fascinated with natural building and simple living, and have spent the last 20 years promoting these efforts.