Alternative Building in Cochise County

Cochise County in Arizona allows people to build their own homes at a reduced cost of building permits with fewer inspections as long as the property’s zoning designation is at a minimum RU-4, one home per four acres. Program participants must comply with all Cochise County Building Safety Code and zoning requirements. It is intended to encourage the use of ingenuity and personal preferences of the owner–builder in allowing and facilitating the use of alternative building materials and methods.

Over the past few years, a number of people have taken advantage of the owner builder option and have constructed straw bale and earthbag homes. Many learned by trial and error what works and what does not.

Clay Greathouse, a realtor and hyper adobe builder, moved to Cochise County in 2018 after becoming tired of the snowy, cold winters in Colorado. As a former solar system installer, he was familiar with the ins and outs of setting up his off grid homestead. He also enjoys sharing his experience with others and on the weekends locals get together for a pot luck dinner at someone’s work site. The day is spent helping out the host which provides even more training to take back to their own projects.

He is learning more and more about rainwater harvesting and says roof size is important in the collection of water and having enough storage are the main problems to have year round water available for use. Like most all transplants, he lives in an RV while he builds his home.

DIY building of earthbags has been growing in popularity for those who want to lessen their carbon footprints as the building materials, for the most part, are right there beneath one’s feet. Many new homes use the hyper adobe earthbag style which is basically stuffing a mix of sand, gravel and clay — generally provided onsite by digging deep in the ground — into a mesh tube that can be cut to any length. The underground portion can be used as a living space that will be cool in the hot summer months.

Sammy Klein at first he thought he could do it on his own, like a true pioneer. The bags need to be stuffed with dirt and tamped down to compact it. It is labor intensive, but for him and others it is a labor of love which provides not only a home for him and his wife but a great sense of satisfaction. “I make mistakes because I had to learn how to do this,” he explained. “Even after watching YouTube videos, I still made mistakes. But, what I found was a super supportive community. There have been weekends when there’s been three people or 12 people out here to help with the big, heavy lifting.” All totaled so far, he has used 2.5 miles of bags and wire in the home.

The couple has been at it for three years now and their home is nearing the halfway mark. Most of the bag work is done as is the overlay of the exterior coating. The house is a cozy design with a geodesic dome and skylights over the hole left by digging. From the outside, it resembles a hobbit house now that the outdoor adobe plaster is in place and a set of floating stairs leads to the roof top.

Klein did have some regret in the size of their new, small home. He thought he made it too large. The larger the home, the more work there is to do on the exterior and interior with adobe plaster. While stucco was used on the exterior of the home, he had to use a permeable material that allows the earth bags to breathe and eliminate excess water that can accumulate over time.

Rainwater harvesting will be installed so they do not have to drill a well or haul in water as they do now. The home is solar powered and that too was a DIY learning experience.

Klein said, “I’ve heard Cochise County is the land of broken dreams. And there are a lot of these homes that didn’t work, that didn’t get finished, that failed. Success comes from the community network I became a part of.”

Richard Ward lives in a tiny home he built in 2015 while his hyper adobe home gets underway. The land is beautiful, but it took some work just to make a very primitive road to get to it.

An earthbag root cellar took 1,400 individually filled, precut, 40 to 50 pound earthbags. The bag work alone on the root cellar took nine months. The dirt has to be a mixture of clay, gravel and sand and he did have to have some material delivered when what he had on hand was not sufficient. After that experience of the work involved, he decided to move to hyper adobe building. In just three months, far more was accomplished in his test house.

The door on the hyper adobe solar house was beautifully crafted by one of his students from pallets and old wood. Pallets are also used to make furniture. Empty bottles placed in the walls provide natural light in a myriad of colors.

At any given time, a number of people will participate in his eco–residency program. They work with him for a few weeks or even several months and are exposed to a lifestyle many have never had an opportunity to experience and all while learning new life skills. Actually, there are more women than men who participate in the program, he said.

“We are open to people of all backgrounds joining the program, but pride ourselves in being a safe place for women, the LGBTQ+ community and minority groups who would normally not have an opportunity to be exposed to construction and building education,” he added.

“The mission is to provide environmental sustainability education to our community and to a network of travelers,” he stated. “We believe major environmental change starts at a local level, individual by individual. We work to inspire, teach, and groom the next generation of environmental advocates by teaching ways to live more sustainably and live outside the prescribed unsustainable system.

“With the core principles to live simply, sustainably and within your means, we create an environment to educate and explore healthy ways of living that work with the earth instead of against it.” See for more information.

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2 thoughts on “Alternative Building in Cochise County”

  1. Kelly, I am keeping you in mind, you had asked me to let you know when we are finished, that you might want to do a feature, and we are getting there, we actually have our 900 ft shop complete, and almost to Lintel height on the 2000 ft home. You should join our Facebook Group called Supporters of the Cochise County Owner Builder Opt Out to follow many of the builds happening. Clay

  2. Thanks for sharing this article about our county, and yes it is exciting to see all the alternative sort of construction happening. I would be more then happy to help anyone with their dream.


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