Low-Tech and High-Tech Homes—At A Low-Cost

Substandard housing is a worldwide problem—and opportunity. Some places face natural disasters, such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis, that wipe out peoples’ homes. Other places face huge population growth, with more and more people packed into crowded slums every day. How do all those people provide shelter for themselves?

As we’ve always done, many people build a home themselves, in the vernacular style. You also see plenty of creative options for healthier, more sustainable housing. Some make use of new technology, such as re-working shipping containers. Others use manufactured materials in creative ways. And still others use mostly low-tech methods with a dose of technology. But all over the world, people are building low-tech and high-tech homes—at a low-cost

Examples of Low-Cost Homes

This one is called The $500 House.

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Masonry Homes in the Vernacular Style

Locally made bricks are used all over the world.

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High-Tech But More Expensive

This M.I.T. project has been built. It looks good but the cost came to $5925.

 

Here’s a very impressive shelter made from a shipping container. With two fold-out wings, it goes from approximately 160 square feet to about 480 square feet. Great engineering!

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Not quite as cheap, but uses standardized components and goes together quickly.

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Low-Tech and Slow But Cheap, Functional, Durable, and Sustainable!

Here’s info about poly bags for earthbag building. Just $.06 each!

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The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably through

  • green building

  • green cities

  • permaculture

Are Earth Bag Homes the Best Low-Cost Housing Option?

Some friends of mine travel to Nicaragua a few times per year to provide medical care and other help to people near the city of Matagalpa. Some volunteers build homes, too. The current home-building project builds small concrete-block homes at a cost of about $4000 each. Donations cover the cost.

Here’s an example of the existing homes:

Exterior view of a village home in Nicaragua.

Exterior view of a village home in Nicaragua.

Interior view.

Interior view.

And here’s an example of a new concrete block home.

nica new home exterior

A new concrete block home.

Would earth bag homes be better?

I haven’t investigated earth bag and cob homes much, but I wonder if those methods would be appropriate for a project in Nicaragua. It seems that earth bag homes would be much more sustainable and far cheaper than concrete blocks. It seems that you could ship a few truckloads of earth bags to a village and build several homes for the same cost as one block home.

 

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Here’s a method that uses earth bag knee walls with bamboo framing. Teaching the villagers how to build this way would be ideal.

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And here are some examples of pretty nice homes:

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The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably through

  • green building

  • green cities

  • permaculture

 

We Need Cheap Green Homes

A Cheap Green Home is a right-sized, energy-frugal house made from materials that represent the greenest practical choice. With a hefty budget, of course, anything is possible. A tight budget, though, demands ingenuity. And an affordable green home—the “holy grail” for homebuilding in this land of bloated plastic McMansions, is now a reality.

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This modern home built from a shipping container solves multiple problems. Factory assembly is more efficient, faster, and thus cheaper than traditional on-site construction. The foundation can be anything from a full basement to a system of posts. If you need more space, add more modules.

What is “green” anyway?

I think of “green” in terms of design elements, material choices, and methods. A green house builds in green features that are hard to retrofit later. It’s easier to site a house for passive solar gain than try to capture solar gain with renovations later. In contrast, you can add a photovoltaic system later with little hassle.

The green approach can be perplexing at times. Adding insulation enables the house to maintain a comfortable temperature with less energy. Some types of insulation, however, contribute heavily to global warming in their manufacture. You can see that it’s a balancing act, as each building has an impact on the planet. How small can we make that impact?

We can follow some standard practices:

  • Make it the the right size.
  • Make it tight.
  • Insulate.
  • Ventilate.
  • Use passive solar heating and passive cooling as much as possible.
  • Use the most durable materials you can afford.

Here are some examples of different approaches to a Green Home—cheap or not.

The “Standard” Green Home

You can build a remarkably efficient house with mostly standard design, methods, and materials. The Bircher Home in De Pere, Wisconsin, is a fine example. The house design incorporates passive solar gain and passive cooling, but looks like a conventional suburban house, apart from a small PV system and a solar thermal system.

Standard framing with 2×6 studs and cellulose insulation yields R-20 walls and R-44 roof. The house is well sealed, using foam and caulk, an infiltration barrier, and vapor barrier. A blower-door test rated the infiltration rate at 765 cfm, about half the typical rate at the time.

The result? The home uses 40% less energy than a comparable home in the area, and the $100/square foot cost, in 1999 dollars, is reasonable. You can get a normal-looking, high-performing house for not a lot of extra money.

The Advanced Green Home

The easiest way to get into a green home, if you can afford it, is to simply buy one from an innovative builder like Carter Scott. You’ll get a very green home that will perform well. And even though some of the green features, such as photovoltaics, add to the cost, you may be able to get an Energy Efficient Mortgage (EEM). This specialized mortgage increases the amount you’re able to borrow for a house that has energy-saving features that add to the up-front cost. The price? Market rate homes start at $289,900.

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Scott’s company, Transformations, builds zero energy homes in the Northeast U.S. They’re fairly small and a basic rectangular shape, with R-50 double-stud walls and R-64 roofs with spray foam and cellulose.

For heating and cooling, Scott has been using two mini-split heat pumps for the entire house. That’s a great cost savings over a furnace/AC system, and results in a simple, efficient, compact system. A photovoltaic system is sized to produce all the electricity each home needs. The homes are grid-tied, so excess electricity can feed into the energy grid.

What’s not green? His windows are cheap and they may not last long. The homes use vinyl siding, but you can go with fiber-cement siding for about $10,000 extra. Overall, Transformations is determining what works and what doesn’t in green home construction. And this approach is how we learn the most, from a production builder who tries new ideas and evaluates those ideas and the home’s performance after a year.

The Funky Green Home

The main floor of the NewenHouse.

The main floor of the NewenHouse.

Other ways to create a green home, cheap or not, I’ve covered with Jon Passi’s self-built, off-grid home, and with Sonya Newenhouse’s Passive House. Neither is actually cheap, but each is a functional and attractive way to a green, net-zero home. I can’t really evaluate how green they are from a materials standpoint, but Sonya’s house has a small footprint at about 25 feet square, so it’s definitely greener than a larger home. Jon’s home was framed with locally cut wood, which is a green choice. His house would be greener, in a way, if if were grid-tied, so his excess production could go to use and not to waste, but it’s very green as is.

Another approach is architect and builder Roald Gundersen’s “whole tree” building method. This approach uses unmilled, small-diameter, fast growing trees for the framing. Walls are often done with earth plaster, and roofs are often green. These are custom creations, but with extremely green materials choices.

A small, whole-tree building by Roald Gundersen.

A small, whole-tree building by Roald Gundersen.

roald bookend

Another of Roald Gundersen’s whole-tree structures.

Resources

Bircher home

Pretty Good House

NewenHouse

Passi Home

99K House

Carter Scott

Seattle’s first net-zero home

The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably with

  • green building
  • permaculture
  • outdoor recreation.

Hiking in Glacier National Park

Hiking along St. Mary Lake in Glacier National Park last July

Hiking along St. Mary Lake in Glacier National Park last July.

Last summer the big trip was visiting Glacier National Park. We camped for about a week in the village of St. Mary, just outside the east entrance to the park.

St. Mary, Montana, and St. Mary Lake, viewed from our campground.

St. Mary, Montana, and St. Mary Lake, viewed from our campground.

The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably with

  • green building
  • permaculture
  • green cities

 

Greener Cities Are the Future of Sustainable Living

You’ve probably seen some of the lists of “best places” compiled by various magazines. Outside, Money, and others compile their lists based on their idea of relevant criteria. You see a lot of repeat winners, with Madison, Wisconsin, as a perfect example. It routinely wins a place on both lists.

I like the Outside list, as it shows cities and towns developing new amenities for recreation. What’s especially interesting is towns like this year’s winner, Richmond, Virginia, that have cleaned up previously polluted land and rivers. The James River, for example, was closed to fishing for 13 years due to extreme pollution. After extensive cleanup work, it’s now a recreational hub.

 

Kayakers on the James River in Richmond. Creative Commons photo from sdreelin.

Kayakers on the James River in Richmond. Creative Commons photo from sdreelin.

Another approach to list-making is evaluating and improving the sustainability of cities. As more than 80% of Americans and Canadians are now urban dwellers, it’s clear that cities have a major positive impact on the environmental health of our world, and on our people. Greener cities are the future of sustainable living

It may seem counter-intuitive that cities can be centers of sustainable living—in contrast to living on the land and growing your own food, and so on—but it makes sense when you think about it. When people live in dense cities, they need to drive less—or not at all—to reach all the places they need to go. Delivery of goods and services is more efficient when more people are clustered together. Housing is more efficient on multiple levels with shared walls, for example, than having a home with four walls losing heat to the outside. Food is grown where there’s room to grow a lot efficiently, then transported to the mass of buyers. Waste is a resource and can be re-used or recycled. And cities draw people from the countryside and lessen humans’ daily impact on some rural areas.

So looking beyond simple measures of what we like in a place, such as good schools, outdoor recreation, and short commutes, what makes a place sustainable? And what are the most sustainable cities?

Siemens Green City Index rates 9 criteria

One measure is the Green City Index, developed by Siemens Corporation and the Economist Intelligence Unit. They applied these 9 criteria to cities all over the globe:

  • CO2
  • Energy
  • Land Use
  • Buildings
  • Air
  • Water
  • Waste
  • Transport
  • Environmental Governance

In North America, the top four most sustainable cities, of 27 evaluated, were San Francisco, Vancouver, Seattle, and New York City. This is a useful metric, but cities also have a huge negative impact on the natural world. Bulldozing an entire field and building apartments and offices, even densely, removes wildlife habitat, as well as plants that absorb CO2 and produce oxygen. How do cities mitigate this destruction?

 

Vancouver and Stanley Park. Creative Commons photo from cakeordeath.

Vancouver and Stanley Park. Creative Commons photo from cakeordeath.

What’s missing from sustainability ratings

This blog at the Sustainable Cities Collective discusses adding more green elements to those sustainability scores, such as green-space percentage, natural areas, and biodiversity. Adding those elements to a sustainability ranking will add to people’s consciousness of their importance.

And why are they important? Green space not only makes our cities look better, people feel less stressed, the heat island effect decreases, plants clean the air of pollutants for us, trees add to property values, and provide a host of other benefits.

Green space, street trees, and natural areas can remediate pollution to create healthier, more enjoyable, more sustainable cities, while they also become the places where we play.

The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably with

  • green building
  • permaculture
  • green cities