Natural Building: How to Build an Affordable Eco-Friendly Home

There are dozens of building methods and design techniques that enable virtually anyone to build their dream home at rock-bottom prices. The solution lies in natural building – using locally available, low-impact materials such as earth, stone, straw and small diameter wood, in conjunction with timeless vernacular building methods.


Our grandparents didn’t need a quarter million dollar bank loan to build their house. (My grandfather was a carpenter.) Instead, they used time-tested skills passed down from generation to generation. They learned what materials and designs worked best in each climate through many years of experience. Much of this know-how got brushed aside in the post-WWII building boom, but the good news is these skills haven’t been lost. Countless thousands of owner-builders have made the switch and are now living in comfortable, beautiful, nontoxic homes built of natural materials, and you can too.

The reason I love working with natural materials is because there are so many benefits. First of all, most of the materials are dirt cheap: sand from nearby streams or river beds, straw bales from local farmers, clay free for the digging and so on. A thrifty do-it-yourselfer can scrounge a large part of what they need from construction sites and yard sales. And as far as beauty, there’s no comparison. A home built of natural materials is more like a work of art that’s personalized to match your lifestyle and needs.

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6 thoughts on “Natural Building: How to Build an Affordable Eco-Friendly Home”

  1. hi, im still working on my rice hull design house. my husband and i are plumbers so i thought we could try pvc to stabilize the bags. just need a little advice. we thought we would try burying long lengths of pvc in the ground under trench on either side of thebags and tieing them all in. does this sound like it would work? just strictly for wall construction strength? i know this is not the cheapest route, i just want to know if it would be sturdy. thanks again, melissa

    • PVC is not meant for structural purposes. There is some strength that’s adequate for things like hoop houses (arched greenhouses), but I sure wouldn’t rely on it for my house. Rebar would be far stronger. Put vertical rebar every 2′ or so along the wall. You can use PVC pipe filled with concrete for the footers.

      • thanks for the advice! we will scratch the pvc idea. we were thinking about large 3 to 4″ pvc every 2 feet. thanks tho! mel

      • hi, owen, you have been a wealth of knowledge to me in just the few corresponces i have had from you. i want to ask you one more very important question. my husband and i are really wanting this rice hull bag home to work. in a previous post you said to use rebar every two feet for support. i would also like to use natural timbers to support all corners and roof to give it even more stability. after tieing the layers together and putting chicken wire around the bags, how thick would you suggets the earthen plaster be for the interior and exterior walls? i plan on using three courses of gravel bags for foundation. i know you have a book out about natural building but is there anything else i can download or a book about rice hull homes? im kinda frustrated right now, owen, because i just came from a cob workshop that seemed to teach me all the wrong ways to build a natural home. im feeling discouraged and i guess i just need your vote of confidence that this will work. i thought about using the thinwall earthbags in conjunction with the rice hull bags but you said it would be very labor intensive and i think youre right but if it would be necessary in tennessee then i will gladly do both. maybe even sinch up an 18″ tube with one side earth and one side rice hull. which do you think would be the best method and the easiest for me? thanks so much for your consideration, owen. you seem to care about ALL natural building forms and i appreciate that. thanks for any help, melissa

        • Set wood posts and get the roof up first. Be sure to use 4′ wide roof overhangs so the walls don’t get wet. That way you can work under cover and the rice hulls won’t get wet. Then place the gravel bags on a shallow rubble trench that’s about 12″ deep. Then attach rebar every 2′ apart on one side of the wall and secure to the bond beam and gravel bags so it can’t move. I’d use raschel mesh tubes for the rice hulls. They’re lower cost and easier to plaster than regular poly tubes and bags. Fill the tubes with rice hulls, adding lengths of twine through the wall that are tied to the rebar. Add the rebar on the other side of the wall and tie tightly together. The rebar should sink into the bags snugly. Now add the chicken mesh if you want. If the wall feels pretty stable and it’s just a small simple building then you may not need the chicken mesh. Use your judgement. If you put posts on each side of windows and doors then the wall should be plenty sturdy. Add windows and doors and electrical. Now you can plaster with whatever kind you want to use. Read some plastering websites and articles to help with the details. My earthbag book also covers this somewhat. I prefer to hire plasterers to speed this process along and make sure the walls look good. Do the floor last so it doesn’t get splattered with plaster. Email me if you have questions.

          You do not need double walls in a mild climate! Forget about that.

          And be sure to read every blog post about rice hull building and other topics that might help you like gravel bags, post and beam, etc.

          • thank you so much! dont know why i make things so complicated. i have come right back to this simple solution. we have already purchased land and will start construction in the spring. i will post pics and let you know how it goes!

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