To Code or Not to Code?

We often get questions about where in the U.S. it is possible to build a home without some authority looking over your back and telling you what can and can’t be done. This is especially pertinent to earthbag building since as yet there are no codes that directly apply to this method, meaning that it may be difficult to convince the authorities that it is a safe and sensible thing to do.

I scanned through a new e-book titled “No Building Codes: A Guide to States with No Building Codes”, written by Terry Herb,  to see what he has to say. Most states do have mandatory building codes, but there are still 15 states where the existence of codes is a matter of local jurisdiction. Often it is the larger cities that opt for control of building practice, while the the more rural areas are freer. This is true in Alabama, Arkansas, Hawaii, Michigan, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming.

Some states have just a few counties that have yet to establish code requirements. In Arizona there is only one such county (Greenlee); in California there are three (Mendocino, Humbolt, and Nevada) that have adopted the liberal “Limited Density Rural Dwellings” program; Colorado has 15 open counties (including Saguache county where I live); Iowa has eight free counties; Mississippi is mostly free, except for coastal areas where wind and flood codes are enforced.

Special cases are Tennessee, which is now in transition from having no codes to having mandatory control, and Texas, which does have state codes, but enforcement seems to be very lax. Of course the situation is always changing, so it behooves anyone planning to move to a code-free region to find out specifically what the situation is there.

The book that provided this information contains a wealth of other related advise and data that is well worth the price of the book, and since it is an e-book it can easily be kept up to date.

Since I have lived in a code-free county for many years, I have witnessed the effect that this has had on the type of building being done. One might think that with this freedom would come much sloppy and irresponsible construction, and there is certainly some of this…but not much. Most people want to live in a safe, durable home that will hold its value over time, so most building is just as carefully researched and executed as in areas with codes. The main difference is that there is greater diversity in styles and materials choices, with many people opting for more sustainable and natural approaches to building.

Where I live you can easily find homes built with strawbales, earthbags, adobe, cordwood, rammed earth, and recycled materials. It actually seems that people here are being more responsible, since they are actively seeking to live more sustainably. This attitude is slowing moving more into the mainstream; California is the first state that has actually adopted new green building codes.

I lived in Mexico for many years, and building codes are virtually unknown there. They don’t really need them because building practice is so standardized that the same methods are in use from one end of the country to the other. That cultural uniformity assures that most buildings are actually built to high seismic standards, with reinforced concrete bond beams and columns and masonry infill. Nobody has fire insurance because their buildings will not burn. Obviously building codes do not necessary make for safer buildings.

8 thoughts on “To Code or Not to Code?”

  1. I’m thinking of earth bags for a add on. My home is on piers and all living space is above ground. I’m also a dooms day freak. I have surveyed very carefully and found an area under my home and I’m digging straight down. At 18ft I will start to expand. Yes I’ve spent a great deal of time on how to do this safely. The area I’m digging in is, “lucky for me” an area that once done I can extend outside siding to hide it. Actually just makes an area already there about 42 inches longer. From the inside utility room on the ground I can make a hidden door to the entrance and just go down a ladder to the undergrouns living/storage area. My insanity is the amount of earth required to reduce Gama radation to safe levels. Your earth bags would/will do a pretty good job as it takes around 36 inches packed earth to absorb Gama to a safe level.
    I want more than that. Hence digging to 18 ft so a room with a 8 ft celing will still have 10 ft earth above. I’m working with complete water sealing and structual for 250 lbs sq ft load. The loads of earth in the US average around 110 to 120 lbs cu ft. I like over kill on design when thinking of a cave in.
    I don’t want any chance of being burried! Soil loads calculate to about 1,166.4 lbs per sq ft. or .81 lbs per sq inch. This is what my celing in the living and storage area will be supporting at 10ft of soil on top.
    I am building for a design load of 2,332.8 per sq ft. In otherwords a 100% overload factor.
    I know this is a little off topic here but while building earthen structures, particularly to live in or as a safety shelter you might want to think about Gama radiation. Like after a dirty bomb or a real nuclear attack.
    Hope for the best but plan for the worst.
    So check radiaton protection of your structure just in case.
    Alpha radiation, “actual particles” can be stopped by as little as a sheet of paper. Just be sure your ventilation system has a filter so as not to allow dust etc in. Breathing hot dust would be really bad. Beta radiation another particle readiation is stopped by ” a thickness of about 2 inches of paper or a single sheet of thin foil.”
    The bad boys of radiation are radio frequency radiation, ” X-ray and Gamma.”
    They can be stopped by a few inches of led. Not practical but about 36 inches of packed earth will suffice.
    I’m still thinking of a very lartge over engenieering. In other words I like my shelter to have 10ft of soil overhead.
    That’s just me. I choose to go underground because I can disappear.
    Hope I haven’t drifted too far off topic here. I just see it as you are choosing a good material so why not include protection from the worst case senario?
    Good luick.
    Pete G Cleveland, TX

  2. I’m such a dyed-in-the-wool Florida Boy, I don’t think I could hack it in Colorado… Don’t even think about SD, WY, etc… So sad Thailand is as xenophobic as it is.

    Though I do like the people…

  3. Well, I’m trying to keep the home completely off the grid using solar power. And I figured I’d go with geothermal to heat and cool the house because an air conditioner would drain my batteries big time. but then again im not sure how much energy the geothermal unit would drain either…..I was thinking of using an on-demand water heater unit (nice because they are cheaper than water heaters and they use much less space) and probably make my own solar panels to charge my batteries. I was going to use motion detector interior LED lights, I’m just trying to figure out how many batteries I would need to run a tv, a couple of lights and the heating/cooling system without completely draining the batteries… This is obviously going to be a learning as I go type of thing, but I will enjoy it along the way.

    • Like I said, I doubt you’ll need geothermal, because earthbag is so efficient. You can change the fill material to meet local conditions. For instance, Kelly Hart filled his bags with scoria (lava rock), and his home stayed comfortable under harsh mountain conditions in Colorado. (I can validate his claims, because I lived there for a while.)

      Look into high efficiency wood stoves, water jackets for wood stoves, heat exchangers, whole house fans and ceiling fans, radiant floor heat and earth sheltering.

  4. Hello Owen,

    I can’t tell you how excited I am about this building method. I hope to learn a lot from your site and possibly other readers that leave comments. Perhaps meet a network of like-minded individuals….

    I just got a great deal on an acre and a half in Anderson County right next to knoxville, TN (my neighbors across the street are in knox county). I was fortunate enough to get it for $16,500 and I paid cash. It’s out in the country away from the city. Now I own it outright and and am going to build my first earth bag home. The lot is covered with huge trees and brush so I don’t think anyone will notice anyways….Regardless, whatever the codes are in my county, I’m not asking permission from some stranger or third party to build something I want on my property. The fact that people conform and believe that they need to get permission is insanity to me. The world is all about control and conforming…..but that’s another book to write ;)

    Anyways, I am going to build a mother-in-law type dome with a loft to sleep in first, then live in that. And then I was going to give away the prefab home/trailer (that was on the lot when i bought it) to a family in need or a single mother or something. What’s important to me in life is helping people every chance I get for the sake of the needy, plus it makes me feel good and probably gives me karma kookies ;) too!

    Well, I’m going to get back to reading your blog. I am still trying to research solar power and geothermal technologies for heating and cooling. Anyone with any links to share on these subjects would be great.


    • Glad to hear you’ve got land and are interested in earthbag building. Almost everything you need to know about earthbags is on our sites for free.

      Geothermal is probably not practical for small, simple structures. It may cost more than the house!

      Solar is a huge topic. Lots of ways to use the sun. The most practical options are passive solar heating and daylighting, and hot water heating. Photovoltaics are pricey, but maybe get one panel for your laptop and LED lights.


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