Cheap (or Free!) Sustainable Housing Options

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Cheap (potentially free) to build & free to run houses 

Mark Boyle takes us through some of the most cost-effective, environmentally sound options for housing

Mark Boyle
Originally published by Permaculture Magazine

Theoretically, you could build any house for free, especially in a model such as the resource-based economy that participants in the Zeitgeist Movement propose. But realistically, a dwelling may only be built for free to the degree that it was made from local materials. Therefore any design that involves imported materials will very likely have some level of financial (and ecological) cost attached to it in most instances, though as we will see this is not necessarily so, as we can often use the detritus of industrialized society to produce the sustainable homes of the future.

For the purposes of this article, I will look at houses that could be built for free but are likely to cost something, even if it is a fraction of what you would spend on a modern brick-and-mortar house. To keep costs to the absolute minimum, use your imagination and try to use what you have at hand, as much as you possibly can, in the construction process. In all cases, once they are up they can easily be free to run on an ongoing basis. For inspiration, Lloyd Kahn's books Shelter, Home Work and Tiny Homes are excellent sources.


Passive solar designs

If you want to eliminate heating bills, and your corresponding ecological footprint into the bargain, then one of the best things you can do is build using a passive solar design, ideally using a locally sourced material such as cob, which has high thermal mass, as a means of storing the energy created. Designing in a greenhouse, where you propagate and grow whateverplants you want to eat or use, onto the south facing side of your house is one of the best methods of doing so.

The sun shines in through these windows throughout the day, heating up the dwelling behind the greenhouse. If you want a house that heats up quickly in the morning, but are happy for it to cool down in the late evening, then fitting your interiors with wood may be a good option within such a design. However, if you would prefer to have a house that takes a little longer to warm up in the morning (for example, if you are out of the house until evening) but which then stays warm throughout the evening until the following morning, then cob may be a much better alternative, as it slowly radiates the sun's warmth that it stored throughout the day.



This is one version of a passive solar house, developed in the US by pioneering architect Michael Reynolds, for parts of the country that can get as cold as -20ºC. Passive solar homes can be made using a variety of materials, and usually are. Earthships are a specific variety that are made out of recycled and natural local materials. Rainwater harvesting methods, used car tyres rammed with earth, glass panes (which you can pick up for free from your local double glazer, who often are burdened with glass that they've cut wrong or that a customer no longer wants), wind turbines, solar water heating systems, photovoltaic panels, even beer cans and glass bottles (used to create wonderful lighting effects inside), all constructed using methods that very much chime with permaculture principles.

The result is that you have a model of home that will enable you to be self-sufficient for energy and water, and with a little bit of elbow grease, food also. Given that 40 million tyres are disposed of every year in the UK, the Earthship is a solution that simultaneously solves two problems: what to do with all these tyres, and the ecological impact of importing all the building materials that we currently use to build our homes, materials these otherwise useless tyres could come to replace. The fact that this untapped resource would provide high levels of thermal mass just adds to the notion that the Earthship design, adapted to use less complex equipment than they currently are designed with, really could be the model of a sustainable, moneyless future.


Earth bag construction

As an alternative to the rammed earth tyres of the Earthship model above, which pay great long-term dividends but which require a massive amount of time and human energy to begin with (each tyre can take approximately 40 minutes to an hour to fill, though numerous friends and acquaintances have told me that the weeks they spent ramming the tyres had a powerful bonding effect on their group), there is the option of using earth bags instead, which only take a few minutes to tamp depending on how strong and energetic you are feeling.

For this purpose you could reuse the rice and grain sacks that your local wholefoods and organic retailers and/or wholesalers may have. Depending on how simply you want to build these, they could be done without money, but it is more likely that they will be low cost in their construction. In the wake of the earthquake, the Haiti Christian Development Project built around a dozen such dwellings at the cost of £1,400 each, which included wage costs.

To bring that figure as close as you can to zero, and as a transitional strategy, you could instead employ a bunch of volunteers to help, whom you'll find are often enthusiastic about getting involved, whether to learn some new building technique or apply those skills they already have to help others build the sustainable homes of the future. With such a model of working, the volunteers get to learn all the skills which they can then pass onto others or use to build their own dwelling, whilst you get some much needed labour and morale boosting support, without any financial cost.


Straw bale homes and guest houses

For a localised (and hopefully moneyless) straw bale house, the type of straw you would use is country specific. In the UK that would be rye, oats or wheat. For more information on how to do this, I recommend Barbara Jones' book Building with Straw Bales: A Practical Guide for the UK and Ireland. A very useful take on the straw bale house is a mini-model which I stayed in whilst visiting a well-known self-sufficiency project in the UK.

The owners built a little straw bale guest house for visitors and volunteers,which was effectively a pimped up tent, but much warmer and cosier. It consisted of old wooden pallets on a base which they levelled out, covered in sheep's fleece (though any insulating material you can get your hands on for free could be used), with a recycled mattress on top, surrounded on three sides by load-bearing (and small) straw bales, with a south-facing wall of windows (constructed using waste glass and free reclaimed wood), with a green roof to help it blend into its landscape. Alternatively you could use the roof for water collection, depending on other factors in your unique situation.


Subterranean houses

This underground model was popularised by Mike Oehler in his book The $50 and Up Underground House Book, which shows you the basics you need to know in order to build one. The benefits of these include:
• Due to their subterranean nature, they do not impose on the landscape they exist within, a point that is especially advantageous if you do not have planning permission.
• They require no foundations and only half the building materials.They are energy efficient due to the fact they benefit from geothermal mass and heat exchange by their very nature; with good design they can stay warm in winter and cool in summer.
• Subterranean homes can also make best use of space if you are trying to be completely moneyless and your land is under an acre.
• The materials you gain from the excavation can be used in the building process.
• They are resistant to everything from earthquakes to the much more common threat of wind. The folk down at the building regulations department may have a few thoughts on it; that is, if you tell them about it!


Circular houses

Whenever a child draws a picture of a house, it always involves straight lines, such is the ubiquity of the rectangular or square house. Such dwellings haven't always dominated, however, and some circular models are still used as low impact and moneyless homes today. If round structure appeal to you, I'd recommend looking at Circle Houses: Yurts, Tipis and Benders by David Pearson or Simple Shelters: Tents, Tipis, Yurts, Domes and Other Ancient Homes by Jonathan Horning for more information and inspiration. Four main types of round dwellings spring to mind:



These are regularly made from a number of locally sourced materials, including cob and cordwood, wooden posts, wattle and daub panels, all finished with either a thatched or reciprocal frame green roof.

A great example of one of these exists in Tinkers Bubble, an ecological community based in Somerset. Tony Wrench, who has built a well-known roundhouse, has written a very good book on the subject.



A standard yurt is usually made up of a circular, wooden lattice frame covered in canvas. The roof is composed of a transparent crown, which allows light and heat in, held up by poles. You can add to their ability to retain heat by stuffing old rugs and duvets, or other insulating materials, in between the frame and the canvas. If this design appeals to you, I would recommend investigating geodesic domes first as a similar option, but one which you are more likely to be able to construct using zero money.



These dwellings, traditionally used by Native American Indians and adopted by hippies worldwide, consist of wooden poles covered by some waterproofing material. Animal skins were traditionally used, though these days many people use canvas. The main difference between a tipi and other circular dwellings is its conical shape and opening at the top end, enabling the dweller to cook and heat themselves with an open fire. If you decide to use animal skins then tipis can be made 100% out of locally sourced materials and can easily be done without money. If you use canvas, they can still be made for free but you will need to mine the vast amounts of waste at our disposal.

If you live in the UK, all of these round structures will require planning permission; again that is if you inform the authorities. Due to their fairly mobile nature, many people just erect them and hope for the best, safe in the knowledge that they are easily moved if they get caught. In other countries such as Greece, which I spoke about earlier, many of these temporary structures do not require any permission, and given their climate and land prices, it can be a tempting place to go for anyone who wants to live outside of the absurd story of money and credit and debt without having to attempt to navigate the minefield of bureaucracy that exists in the UK.

The ideal home is one which makes the most of the best elements of all the above designs. As long as you have a sound understanding of the materials you are working with, and the landscape and climatic conditions you are working within, you can do a pick-and-mix with all the materials and designs above. A large part of your decision may simply come down to what materials grow locally to you and what you already have at hand.

For more information on building on non-development land see 'How To Get Planning Permission on Non-Development Land'
The Moneyless Manifesto by Mark Boyle is available at the special price of £11.20 (click here for e-book edition) from or call us on 01730 823 311.
Photo credits

Further Reading:

Earth Ships: Intro to earth-rammed construction

Rammed earth construction. From
Jackson Pittman
We've been taking on a lot of projects at Better Farm since the garden doesn't require as much maintenance. The hobbit house area is being cleared for its construction in the spring, and the mandalagarden is being designed so that the base can be laid out before winter.

Another project we've been working on, is the creation of our Earth Ship, which is a personal favorite of mine because of the construction techniques and use of available resources. Indeed, the Earth Ship construction process may well stand as a model for the hobbit house when it comes to creating the essential earth rammed tires, a cost-effective and environmentally efficient (although labor intensive) construction material. Read on to learn more about the origins and regulations of rammed earth construction!

Origins of Earth-Rammed Construction
Believe it or not, although building things out of the earth may seem like a modern "alternative" to more traditional materials such as wood and brick, earth-rammed construction is actually a much older practice with surprising benefits. The earliest recorded city in history, Jericho, was built out of earth; and ancient Egyptian cities, Middle Eastern mosques and temples, and those in ancient China all used earth not only to build houses, but also to construct the template of the Great Wall.

Romans and Phoenicians brought the method to Europe, where it was used for a couple thousand years. In the United States, houses until 1850 were made out of earth. These were eventually replaced by wood and brick, which were mass-produced and took less time to build houses with. This continued until the Great Depression, when there was a shortage on such building materials and the idea of people creating their own houses from available resources became appealing again. However, at this time the process of building earth houses had been somewhat forgotten, so the Department of Agriculture published a manual called Rammed Earth Walls for Buildings, and hundreds of journals and magazine articles were published regarding the topic of earth-rammed construction.

After the second world war, factories began to produce materials that were faster to construct with. Once again, earth building was forgotten until the 1970s when it was popularized among the environmentally conscious by Michael Reynolds. His technique of using tires for rammed-earth construction became increasingly practical as time went on due to their amazing benefits. The thick, dense walls of tires filled with earth are virtually soundproof, fireproof, rot resistant and impervious to termites. Aside from that, they are made to withstand temperature swings, and use 80 percent less energy.

And now, here at Better Farm, we are in the process of constructing our first earth ship! We are doing our part in fortifying the foundation for an environmentally efficient future! We described in a previous post the basic, step-by-step process of building an Earth Ship. But as we dig deeper into the procedure, we have run across a couple of road blocks.

The first was when stacking tires on top of one another, how to stop dirt from falling out the cracks where the holes in the tires don't entirely overlap. The answer to this, solved through a little research, is a common resource we utilize here at Better Farm: cardboard! Simple as that, if earth is falling out of the tires on the second row of your ship or higher, simply place cardboard along the bottom of said tire to keep the earth packable.

The second problem we came across was the most efficient way to pack the tires completely; after all if the tires aren't fully packed they don't provide the necessary insulation, and the backside of the shovel is not the most efficient or compatible packing tool for those hard to reach tire corners. The solution is once again an easy fix with a tool we use on farm anyway: the sledgehammer! It makes so much sense but it had slipped our minds when trying to figure out how to pack the tires as much as possible, but now that we know, it works like a charm.

When doing a homemade construction project like this, you really can't afford to make any mistakes, so as tedious as it can be, it's truly necessary to pack the tires as much as possible and make sure you're doing things the safe and proper way. That's why we had to remodel the bottom tire layer even though most of the tires had been already been painstakingly packed. We had overlooked the crucial ingredient of tire size. One of the most important safety regulations when building something like this is that it is architecturally sound. Now the entire bottom layer of our Earth Ship has tires 29+ inches in diameter to make sure the foundation is solid and supportive. That is necessary for an Earth Ship six layers high and although we don't plan on making ours that high its good to have stability. In addition, another thing we learned is that the tires need to stand on level soil, free of organic matter such as weeds and roots to ensure there will no rotting. More regulations from the tire building code: Tire walls over six courses high must have a ground course of tires #15 or larger exclusively. Safe and productive building to all!

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

Hobbit House: Planning

A few people have approached us lately to suggest a group hobbit-house construction project at Better Farm. Who are we to argue? These amazing little structures are right on our wavelength for their alternative properties, potential use of green materials, and unusual style.

We had an informal meeting yesterday to scope out the grounds at Better Farm to find an appropriate hillside into which our hobbit house could go. To start out, it was important to consider the style we might want. I found a proverbial goldmine of ideas over at Webcoist:



Here are some possible locations we liked at Better Farm:

Utilizing the old barn foundation, we could construct our hobbit house and put dirt over the top.
A lovely hillside behind the Art Barn.

And here's our ideas list so far:
  • Get a work day together in the next week or two to pull useable scraps together and ready them for upcycling
  • Secure a source for lime mortar to be used on our walls
  • Get dimensions together for the structure, secure enough tires to build an earthship structure
  • Secure old barn wood for the interior ceiling
  • Utilize a strong roof appropriate for dirt and foliage cover
Want to volunteer on this or other projects at Better Farm? Contact us at
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Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

Spotlight On: Woodhenge Self-Reliance Campus

On Part II of last week's Better Farm field trip, we paid a visit to the Woodhenge Self-Reliance Campus in Adams Center, N.Y.

A so-called "Center for the Study of Things Practical and Not So Practical," Woodhenge is an off-grid, renewable energy, alternative building and sustainable agriculture learning center in Northern NY. Owners Krista and Jim Juczak energy classes in solar, wind and microhydro, as well as sustainable agriculture, building methods, and biofuels.

From his blog, Jim writes: "My wife and I are the founders of this little experiment in sustainable living. We purchased the land about 13 years ago and decided to try to live the ideals that we've shared for so long. I'm a 'shop' teacher with 24 years in public education and my wife, Krista, is a foreign language teacher (mostly German) with 22 years in the business. We've both done a lot of other jobs in a wide variety of locations. 

"We don't believe in mortgages, everything on the 52-acre site is paid for. This includes our 18-sided, 3,000-square-foot cordwood and papercrete home, a recycled home, a 1000 sq.ft. workshop, an underground home, several cabins, outhouses and shower houses. We are NOT connected to the grid. All of the power that is needed is made through a collection of solar panels, wind turbines, firewood, etc.

"We saw and see the need for a place that people can come to learn the basics of living simply. Simply here does NOT mean poorer. We feel that people have been trapped in our society by not having the knowledge available to them that was available in times past. Building homes designed for the area/climate you live, growing and preserving food that is actually good for you, making the energy systems that you need to be comfortable are just some of the things we do here. An undercurrent of reconnecting with people around you is a secondary feature of living the way we do.

"I believe that within a very short amount of time a series of crises will cause most of humanity to live at a considerably lower standard of living. Woodhenge is a place for people to come before this happens, to learn the coping skills that have been lost due to the way most of us live our lives. It takes time to simplify; to learn to garden, to learn to build, to learn to sustain!"

Couldn't say it better myself! Here's a photo tour of all things Woodhenge:

Main House
Canned food to last through winter, cordwood walls, hanging art.

Ceiling featuring tongue-and-groove and reclaimed wood from a bowling alley. Wagon wheel chandelier with mason jar lights.

The Grounds and Outbuildings

Fuel tank that will eventually be an underground house.

Former motel-turned-apartment, foreground, and main house with living roof in background.

Woodhenge is located at 13910 Fuller Road, Adams Center, NY 13606. To learn more, visit
1 Comment

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

Earth Ship Construction, Part I

Image from Real Adventures.
Since blogging in January about earth ship construction, we've been holding on to our empty glass bottles and collecting discarded tires from our neighbors. And today, we'll break ground on a small earth ship cottage.

An Earthship is a passive solar home made of natural and recycled materials. The structures are by design completely self-sufficient and in harmony with the environment.
Earthship Construction
An earthship wall: glass bottles and mortar.
Earthships are typically constructed from old tires, bottles, cans, adobe, stucco, and wood—in other words, a lot of materials that would otherwise end up in a landfill.
So how does it work? Here's the full run-down.
The term "earthship" was coined by Taos-based architect Mike Reynolds to describe his particular brand of environmentally sustainable architecture. As such, the phrase is virtually synonymous with the thermal mass, off-grid, earth-rammed tire and aluminum can-based "U-room" constructions that Reynolds has made famous on the Taos mesa. The rolling sea-green sage-covered Taos mesa which many earthships now populate easily becomes a metaphor for the ocean (an ironic one at that). One might speculate that this was part of what conspired to birth the phrase. The most solid origins of the term however are in the earthship's very character and philosophy. An earthship requires the much more active participation and alertness of its occupant in order for the dwelling to achieve optimal performance. In this regard, an earthship occupant is more of a pilot or sailboat captain than a neutral passenger. He or she must remain casually attentive to his changing environmental conditions in order to respond appropriately and derive peak levels of control and utility from his vessel.

The path of water in an Earthship:

  • Water is caught from roof catchment systems and channeled via silt catches into cisterns.
  • Cisterns gravity feed a DC pump and filter panels (WOM).
  • A Pump and filter panel (WOM) pushes water into a pressure tank and conventional household water pressure is the result.
  • The Toilet is separated from drainage system of all other household plumbing fixtures.
  • Water is used in a conventional way such as bathing or washing dishes.
  • Next, this water is then drained into linear biologically developed interior greywater treatment and containment systems.

The Water Organizing Module

Water from the city, cistern, your well, etc. can all be hooked up to the WOM. Automated systems can manage your water levels.
Filters clean the water for human consumption and use. Bottom Line: Your home has normal plumbing; your plumber sees what they are used to seeing.
Electricity: Earthships produce their own electricity with a prepackaged photovoltaic/wind power system. This energy is stored in batteries and supplied to your electrical outlets. Earthships can have multiple sources of power, all automated, including grid-intertie.
Use: Washing machines, computers, kitchen appliances, print machines, vacuums, etc. can be used normally. No electricity is required for heating & cooling.
Adjusting to Temperature changes isn’t as complicated as it sounds. The comfortable temperature range in any earthship is largely provided for by the natural thermal stability of the earth itself. Many amphibians & reptiles survive winters by burying themselves below the earth's frost line. Below the frost line, temperatures hover at a fairly stable 55-58 degrees. The earthship design takes advantage of this by being dug partially into the earth, or heavily earth-bermed along the outer walls, or both. Skylights provide the release of built up heat in warm climates, and shading for frost glazing can control the amount of solar energy coming in. The orientation of the "U-rooms" and angle of the front-facing glass also play key roles in how much heat is absorbed or dismissed by the dwelling. In extremely hot climates, U-rooms may be pointed away from the midday sun. Additional cooling can be provided for by a pipe run through the cool underground and into the earthship for an all-natural air conditioner.
Earthships are built just about everywhere on the planet. Differences in climate and orientation to the sun play a key role on the design requirements for optimizing earthship performance for a given location, but location itself has not proven to be particularly prohibitive for this type of off-grid dwelling. .
Typical Earthships are made out of earth rammed tires. An earthship of the kind made notable by Michael Reynolds uses earth-rammed automobile tires in "U" shaped room modules for the primary structural load-bearing walls, and a combination of cement and aluminum cans for interior, non-load-bearing walls. Front-facing glass is constructed using wood-framing and large standard sized sheets of glazing. Roofs are usually built with wood framing and sometimes vigas as well as aluminum or rubber sheeting as waterproofing.
Tire Odors? There is no verifiable information to date that suggests that off- gassing of tires occurs in an earthship.
10 Steps to building a simple Earthship
  1. On the bare earth, mark the outer walls in a circular or U shaped layout.
  2. Lay the first row of tires, shoulder to shoulder along the wall line.
  3. Using the dirt from the inside of the wall line, firmly pack the tires until they are solid bricks. The earth cliff on the inside would be excavated down to roughly three feet in depth.
  4. Stack the second row of tires, in a staggered layout, on top of the first, paying attention to keeping them level with each other. Continue this pattern until the walls have reached the desired height.
  5. Fill any voids with empty pop cans and/or glass bottles and cover the tire walls, inside and out, with mud adobe, cement or stucco to create a smooth finished surface.
  6. The roof can be domed shaped, formed from rebar that is wired or welded together then covered with chicken wire and cement. Other options would be log beams or even traditional trusses. A skylight/vent is included in the design to the rear of the structure to help regulate internal temperatures.
  7. The front of the structure is a sloped greenhouse wall built upon a low wall of earth rammed tires and includes a large planter box on the inside. The glazing is recycled sliding glass door panels or similar materials. The entry door is constructed at either end of the greenhouse hallway.
  8. Any interior walls are constructed of a cement and pop can matrix that is covered by an adobe finish. All the planter boxes are built the same way.
  9. The house systems include a rain water catchment cistern, a battery bank, solar panels, power inverter and a composting toilet. The kitchen wastewater is filtered via the greenhouse planters which grow fresh vegetables year round.
Finishing touches include tile or flagstone floors, glass bottle accent windows and wood inlays. Two story designs can include spiral staircases and just about any kind of custom design feature you can imagine.
The exposed surfaces on the outside of the structure are coated with a layer of cement, mud adobe or stucco as the climate demands. Most of the external tire walls are earth bermed and the roofing material is chosen to facilitate capture of rain water for use inside the house. Of course attention must be paid to things like drainage and choosing the best southern exposure for the greenhouse front of the dwelling, but otherwise it is a pretty simple design.


Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

Spotlight On: Dan Phillips

By Kate Murphy for the New York Times

AMONG the traditional brick and clapboard structures that line the streets of this sleepy East Texas town, 70 miles north of Houston, a few houses stand out: their roofs are made of license plates, and their windows of crystal platters.

They are the creations of Dan Phillips, 64, who has had an astonishingly varied life, working as an intelligence officer in the Army, a college dance instructor, an antiques dealer and a syndicated cryptogram puzzle maker. About 12 years ago, Mr. Phillips began his latest career: building low-income housing out of trash.

In 1997 Mr. Phillips mortgaged his house to start his construction company, Phoenix Commotion. “Look at kids playing with blocks,” he said. “I think it’s in everyone’s DNA to want to be a builder.” Moreover, he said, he was disturbed by the irony of landfills choked with building materials and yet a lack of affordable housing.

To him, almost anything discarded and durable is potential building material. Standing in one of his houses and pointing to a colorful, zigzag-patterned ceiling he made out of thousands of picture frame corners, Mr. Phillips said, “A frame shop was getting rid of old samples, and I was there waiting.”
So far, he has built 14 homes in Huntsville, which is his hometown, on lots either purchased or received as a donation. A self-taught carpenter, electrician and plumber, Mr. Phillips said 80 percent of the materials are salvaged from other construction projects, hauled out of trash heaps or just picked up from the side of the road. “You can’t defy the laws of physics or building codes,” he said, “but beyond that, the possibilities are endless.”

While the homes are intended for low-income individuals, some of the original buyers could not hold on to them. To Mr. Phillips’s disappointment, half of the homes he has built have been lost to foreclosure — the payments ranged from $99 to $300 a month.

Some of those people simply disappeared, leaving the properties distressingly dirty and in disrepair. “You can put someone in a new home but you can’t give them a new mindset,” Mr. Phillips said.

Originally Published Sept. 2, 2009, in the New York Times.

Want to learn more? Check out one of Dan's tutorials:

Spotlight On: Rocket Mass Heaters

Photo from
What if there was a way to heat your home that uses up to 90 percent less wood than conventional wood stoves, with a system that could be built in a day and a half, for less than $20?

Yes, seriously.

A rocket mass heater is an innovative and efficient space-heating system developed from the rocket stove and the masonry heater, and one that is gaining popularity in natural buildings and within permaculture designs.

This schematic details the inner dimensions of a Rocket Mass Heater (from the book Rocket Mass Heaters: super efficient woodstoves you can build (and snuggle up to) by Ianto Evans and Leslie Jackson)
These systems incorporate a simple J-tube rocket stove, a metal drum to direct the flue gases down and into a system of ductwork, and finally a great deal of thermal mass (usually a cob bench) to soak up all the heat. Wood is fed into B (the feed tube), it is burned in C (the combustion chamber), re-burned (smoke and all) in E, then the hot gases move into a low pressure area (G, H and J), and travel through K (the duct work) and finally out C (the chimney). All the while, the hot gas moving through the system is being sucked into the thermal mass—usually a cob bench, warming the area with beautiful radiant heat.

This could be the cleanest and most sustainable way to heat a conventional home. Some people have reported that they heat their home with nothing more than the dead branches that fall off the trees in their yard. And they burn so clean, that a lot of sneaky people are using them illegally, in cities, without detection. Click here to get the full rundown.

Recommended Reading: Rocket Mass Heaters: Super Efficient Woodstoves You Can Build (and Snuggle Up To)

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

Inspiration Station: Sustainable housing ideas

Building an "Earthship" tire house,
Found a gem of a website the other day called The Independent Patriot; a kind of step-by-step living guide to worst-case-scenario preparedness. The site, while a bit conspiratorial and fatalistic, features everything from information on long-term survival to food production and storage. "Wow" factor of peering into a fallout-shelter mentality aside, this guy's take on sustainable housing is downright inspirational.

Straw bale houses, buildings made out of old tires, rainwater catchment and graywater systems: you name it, this guy has outlined it. Great food for thought. Click here to get a peek at the new frontier of sustainable living (information is also pasted below).

Energy Efficient Structures

Monolithic DomeMonolithic Dome
Monolithic domes provide superior insulation and protection from the elements, while giving the owner greater flexibility with interior construction. They can also provide and increased level of security when properly designed. These homes are compatible with passive and active solar systems, natural lighting, and underground cooling tubes. This style of home should be a top choice for people interested in independent living and home security. A monolithic dome is not typical "dome home." These domes are constructed by forming a ring-shaped foundation and attaching a flexible PVC "airform" which is then inflated to make the shape of the house. Several inches of polyurethane foam are then sprayed onto the inside of the dome, followed by steel rebar and several inches of concrete. The outside can also be coated with chain link and stucco to make an impermeable, fire-proof, hurricane-proof, earthquake-proof dome structure that is extremely well-insulated and provides an interior space with no supporting beams.
The structures can come in several different shapes and sizes. each airform is custom designed and fabricated. The cost of construction is similar to conventional construction, but the energy and maintenance savings can be substantial - especially in extremely hot or cold climates. These structures can be earth-bermed or covered with vines. Monolithic domes with stucco on the outside and 3"-4" of shotcrete on the inside also provide increased protection from small-arms fire.

Earth-Sheltered Earth -Sheltered Home
Earth-sheltered homes range from homes with earth pushed up against the walls to homes that are entirely underground. Typically, an earth-sheltered home is set into a hill with earth on three sides and on top. The front is usually exposed to the south. The main advantage of an earth-sheltered home is the insulation offered by the thick covering of earth. Earth-sheltered homes maintain a constant 60-degree temperature, year-round, in hot or cold climates. They can be easily heated, and will hold the heat, due to the thick insulation.
Earth-sheltered homes have comparable construction costs to conventional homes, but cost far less to maintain. With proper use of skylights and windows on the southern exposure, they can have the interior appearance of a conventional home.

Insulating Concrete Forms
Insulating Concrete Forms (ICF) allow you to build a conventional-looking home with reinforced, double-insulated concrete walls. The forms for the walls are made of insulation "blocks" that are stacked and bound together. The space between the foam insulation is where the concrete is poured. The forms are placed over steel rebar and all plumbing and electrical is run through the walls before the concrete is poured. ICF blocks offer several ways of attaching sheetrock or wood paneling. Almost any type of exterior surface can be applied. The walls are thicker than a typical home, but they also provide much better insulation and strength. Multiple-story homes can be built with ICF.

Straw Bale Home
Straw Bale
Straw-bale homes offer a unique twist on highly-insulated structures. The main building component is straw, and the walls are at least two feet thick. The straw makes the building extremely well-insulated, and gives a "soft" feel to the corners. Straw-bale homes can either have load-bearing straw walls, or they can be framed and filled in with straw bales. All utilities are run through the walls as the bales are stacked. Bales are impaled on steel rebar for stabilization. The walls are typically covered with plaster or stucco. If properly sealed and plastered, they will not have problems with water, but high humidity can be an issue, since the water vapor can work its way into the straw. There is no increased risk of fire with the use of straw bales. Straw bales are extremely dense and provide little oxygen for fires to feed on. They are actually a better fire barrier than convention wood-framed walls.

Earthship (Tire House
EarthshipThe Earthship concept goes beyond just home construction. It is aimed at providing a complete off-grid system that handles everything from water collection to gray water and sewage treatment. These homes are typically built into the side of a hill and use old tires as the primary wall building material. The tires are stacked like bricks and filled with rammed earth as each layer is laid. The buildings are oriented to the south, with a greenhouse wall that allows in light and lets you grow plants that help filter gray water. The integrated power and water systems make these homes very interesting. Some of these concepts could be used in conjunction with other earth-sheltered homes.

Now We're Cooking: Chim-chim-inea style

Gas stoves are so bland. Electric stoves (first introduced at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893) have no style. Out in the country, there are so many fresh ideas for cooking, I'm just all aflutter saving dollars so we can do away with Better Farm's outdated 1980s-esque kitchen design.

Out here, it seems everybody has a wood-burning stove. Extremely energy efficient, wood ovens heat houses remarkably well; and the smell of them is second-to-none. But once you start looking at alternative cooking and heating styles, you realize the sky's the limit and restricting yourself to one type of oven is just foolhardy.

Cob ovens are easy and cheap to assemble, and will give you some of the best pizza of your life outside of New York City. I don't need to expound any more on the power of a sweet fire pit. And then there's the chiminea; which is sort of the darling of difficult-to-heat outdoor or rustic living spaces.

Mexicans have for hundreds if not thousands of years utilized the quirky chiminea stove for heating, cooking, and baking. The funky little structures—generally cast in clay or iron—keep rainfall from hitting the flames, hold heat exceptionally well, and do a lot with a just a few sticks.

The genius of chimineas is in the design: clay and cast iron are excellent radiators of heat; the tall chimney-like stacks take smoke out of the way of fire-revelers, and spark screens (found on most models today) mean you don't have to worry about errant embers spoiling all the fun.

Nowadays, you can track down chimineas that even sport cooking grids for grilling in old-world style. Suddenly, October in the North Country doesn't seem quite so cold.

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

I’m on Fire

Wood ash—that leftover pile of soot in your fireplace—has a myriad of uses you might want to consider before sweeping it up and throwing it in the garbage. One cord of firewood leaves behind up to 50 pounds of ashes, which can be used for everything from repelling slugs and snails from your flowers and produce to de-icing driveways and backyards without damaging cement or dirt underneath.

Here at Better Farm, we’re suckers for bonfires. Any excuse we can dream up to build a blaze, we will—and do. The ash we produce gets mixed in with our compost, and will help give our tomato plantings a boost in the spring. But with the seasons changing every-so-rapidly, we’ve started thinking more about creative and sensible ways to have an outdoor fire pit without the hassle of making our way across the street to our ragtag circle of cinder blocks every time.

Outdoor fire pits may hold the key to year-round blazes of glory for us—and for any of you who don’t have the luxury of starting huge fires willy-nilly on your property. In addition to providing you with plenty of ash for making soap and shining silver, outdoor fire pits offer year-round outdoor cooking options, an alternative to watching television, and a really nice accent for your property. If you decide to buy one new instead of cobbing one together, make sure it’s constructed of a material that is undoubtedly going to stand the test of time, such as wrought iron. As for all that wood ash you’ll be creating—store it in a fireproof container with a strong, airtight seal so you can keep coming back to it.


Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

Inspiration Station: Asheville, NC

I headed to Asheville, N.C., last weekend for an amazing wedding where I was bombarded with excellent inspiration for Better Farm.

1. Rainwater Collection We've been tinkering around with several different ideas for rainwater collection bins. While at a community garden that is part of the Bountiful Cities Project (and which served as the site for the wedding's ceremony and reception), I came upon this setup. It's a simplistic design with strong hardware (note the gutter attachment at the top and industrial-strength nozzle at the bottom), which can hold several hundred gallons of water:

2. Cob Construction There's something about earth mixed with sand and straw that is very appealing. Cob building is an ancient construction method that produces ovens, saunas, and homes that are extremely durable, with wonderful insulation. The garden in Asheville has this cob oven, in which we cooked several delicious pizzas during the wedding:
3. Compost Toilet Lest we lose sight of the value of alternative restroom facilities, behold this outhouse, complete with compost toilet ("Sprinkle 1 to 2 cups of sawdust over your deposit!" a sign inside explains) and green roof:

4. Raised Flower Beds Back at the carriage house where many of the kidddies stayed, we had some raised beds in the backyard. Not a bad idea for planting - especially with the clay- and sand-based soil of the Farm:

The brain races.

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.