DIY Superinsulated Vaults

Slumtube pallet vaults are designed and built to European standards for structural soundness, and have plenty of space for thick insulation.
Slumtube pallet vaults are designed and built to European standards for structural soundness, and have plenty of space for thick insulation.

As we reported the other day, Brian Waite’s straw bale vault kit in England is an excellent option. However, many owner-builders might prefer to build their own vaulted home from scratch using locally sourced, low cost materials so as to make any size and shape they want.

Here are a few affordable, DIY vault home options to consider:
Nubian vaults made with small adobe blocks, also known as leaning adobe
Ferrocement vaults
Insulated earthbag vault designs
Timbrel vaults Here’s another example of timbrel roofs.
Cruck frames Here are some photos of nice cruck frame houses. Ben Law’s Woodland Home is an outstanding example of cruck construction.
Loadbearing strawbale vaults
– Sections of pallets stacked in vaults, not unlike this freeform design.
Double pallet vaults (great house design, poor website functionality on my computer) It’s more convenient to read about their Slumtube design at Inhabitat.

Here are two more possibilities:
1. Make laminated arches with locally milled wood on a jig to maintain uniformity. This is called glued laminated construction. Arches like this are super strong. There are numerous options including pallet wood or local wood ceilings and purlins, and using sections of pallets across the top (cut pallets into half or thirds).
2. Make parallel chord trusses with local wood or pallet wood web members. This would involve making small laminated arches for top and bottom chords and then attaching the webs with screws. One option here is making the trusses wide enough to fit bales like Brian Waite’s vault house.

Both options above could be modified for straw bales, bags of scoria, blown cellulose or loose fill insulation such as perlite. Both options use primarily wood for the structural frames, which is easy and convenient to work with. They could be built indoors in a barn or shop and erected during the building season. Curved metal roofing is an excellent choice of roofing and, if desired, can be special ordered.

16 thoughts on “DIY Superinsulated Vaults”

  1. This is the best place I could find to drop this link. Potential for it’s own Blog Post Owen??

    Check out this use of materials for Tile Faced mud blocks:

    Great idea for putting a durable weatherproof surface on a mud block while using a minimum of high energy materials. That video triggers all kinds of ideas in my mind for ways to adapt the concept to other construction techniques.

    Here is an interesting vaulted roof technique:

    I can’t understand a word being said, but that doesn’t prevent this from being a fascinating technique for building a roof. All local materials and local labor. The roof also has some internally trapped air space providing at least a little insulation capacity.

    I think the Nubian technique would be easier and faster, but it’s still very interesting to see all the different methods people use in various parts of the world.

    If these particular videos aren’t your thing, The “Rural Housing Knowledge Network” has a lot more interesting videos. Not all of them would be considered “Natural”, but they may trigger ideas for Natural Builders anyway.

  2. Thanks Doc for this info. I know that in Colorado they used to pay you to take pallets away. Most of them were made from Oak. Incredible how much you could do with a tractor trailer full of that wood. Keep these ideas coming. I appreciate them.

    • The amount of waste that could be put to good use is mind boggling. Utilizing used pallets is just one example among many. This reminds me of a cool blog post I’m working on about frugal living. I’m gleaning various frugal living websites and videos. It’s VERY inspiring to see what people are doing. Here’s just one concept for those who can’t wait. Search for Garry Tibbo on YouTube. He talks about living practically for free by foraging wild plants and recycling stuff people leave on curbsides. The nutrient and mineral rich wild plants helped heal him of debilitating illness.

    • Great video! Thanks for tracking that down and sharing. I’ve never seen this done before. I wonder if they open source the rest of the building details? If they see this, I highly recommend doing a simple guide at like this: or this: It didn’t take long to make these instructables, and so far they’ve had over 900,000 hits. People need to know the details or they won’t build this way.

    • Very nice.

      It would be fun (and inexpensive) to build one of those and pile weight on it and test it to destruction to see what kinds of loads it can carry.

      Of course, the capacity of such a truss structure will be greatly dependent upon the quality of the pallets used, so a wide variation is not only possible, but likely. However, once everything is tied together, there are multiple redundancies between each arch and within each arch.

      Force vector modeling that structure in a computer would be an interesting challenge.

  3. Owen

    There are a lot of smart and creative people getting involved in low cost building of late. It isn’t slowing down as it’s growth rate is increasing. It will be extremely interesting to see what people come up with in the next few years.

    In the slumtube example it looks like they put a plywood shell over the pallets first and the sheet metal over that. It appears they shimmed the plywood to the pallets to get a smooth curve. What is the reasoning why you shouldn’t put the sheet metal to the pallets? I know this isn’t your design but I am sure there is a simple good reason. Just looking for insight.

    The only concern is the existing big players in the building industry aren’t making money on this so they will try to kill it any and every way they can. So thinks this conspiracy theory thinker.



    • Cliff, The Slumtube design is very clever and super efficient. Shimming the plywood is fast and simple — as easy as staple gunning on thin rippers. The plywood makes it easy to attach the curved metal roofing, which is commonly available (although at higher cost than metal sheeting). The pallets are free or virtually free. The only element that isn’t dirt cheap and super simple is the brackets that connect the pallets. I can’t tell how they were made or how they attach.

      Yes, big business is always trying to crush low tech, low cost construction methods so they can maximize profits. The same thing is happening in other fields such as the food supply, natural health products, etc. (Big pharma is trying to block people from taking vitamin C from plants because they say it lacks sufficient testing. Ha.) So, in some ways big business is just doing what businesses do — trying to outcompete. The trouble is this leaves millions of people who can’t afford their products homeless, without sufficient food and without natural health care remedies. It’s no wonder people are pushing back against such blatant evil and corruption.

      • In regards to shimming the metal away from the plywood…

        It appears that there also that the exterior facing side of the plywood has been waterproofed in some way. It may only be paint, but it may also be something like AE. Hard to tell from the photo.

        In any case, providing that air gap creates a rainscreen. The plywood acts somewhat like the secondary drainage plane. Also notice that there is a second air gap between the plywood and the exterior surface of the pallet trusses.

        Metal buildings as well as metal roofing, siding, etc. are notorious for condensation issues. It is very wise to employ them using a rainscreen methodology. Solves a lot of potential problems, and still allows the building to breathe. This is particularly useful when combined with something like strawbale insulation which desperately needs to be able to breathe to prevent mold.


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