Alternative Housing

tiny house

Most people are familiar with brick, wood, adobe, steel, concrete bock and stone houses, or combinations of those elements.  What I’d like to discuss today are some alternatives that I have found interesting for one reason or another.

One fascinating type of construction, though using typical building materials, is the underground house.  These houses never get much warmer or colder than the ground temperature at the depth at which they are built, resulting in negligible heating and cooling costs.  Underground housing causes some interesting living experiences, including becoming very aware of exterior light and dark because of the type of natural lighting that is frequently included.  It also means you might have to mow your roof!  An underground house cannot be built in all areas, though, because of water tables.  And I will add at this point, that an underground house is NOT cheap to build, even though it may be very cheap to maintain.  Excavation will most likely be required, and frequently moving a lot of dirt after it is built, depending on the lay of the land.  Waterproofing floor, ceiling, and walls is paramount, because no matter where you live, it WILL rain sometime, and you don’t want the interior of your walls getting wet and moldy.  Most climates require significant drainage be added all around the exterior to draw water away from the house.

I would like to discuss briefly a few alternative materials which have been or are being used to build houses.  Depending on what climate and geological conditions one lives in, there are several options.  One my father always found fascinating was rammed earth.  Once finished, the only thing visitors notice is that the walls are thicker than what they are used to.  Basically, these homes are made out of dirt that has been compacted.  One of the advantages of this type of housing is that heating and cooling is less expensive.  It is also fireproof and termite-proof!  But before you get too excited about building your own, do the research to make sure that the soil you have available is the right blend to withstand years of wear.  (Too much clay and the walls will crack.  Too much sand, and the walls will erode.)  Such a home should stand for hundreds of years, if built with the right ratio of ingredients.  One of the earliest rammed earth houses in the United States was built in Pennsylvania in the 1940’s, and is still very solid and in excellent condition.  The vast majority of the building materials are “free” – but building a rammed earth home is labor intensive!

Another type of house is one which many may remember from their history lessons, the sod house.  These were built in the plains by early settlers.  They had some of the same advantages as a rammed earth house, in that they used readily available materials, and they were easy to heat and cool, but rain eventually eroded them, so there are very few still standing.  This was a quick way of building, and served the settlers well for a few years, especially in areas where there was no wood with which to build.


Today we have some other options available which are unique and cheaper than the typical architecture.  One of these is a container house (above).  There are containers sitting at most ports which are no longer being used!  Two or more containers can be combined to make whatever size home one wants.  There are some cautions recommended.  For example, they are steel, so while there may not be visible rust present, the flooring needs to be removed to inspect the steel on the bottom.  However, if they are in good shape, you can have one delivered to your property fairly inexpensively (compared to building the same size structure).  You would want to put them up on top of some sort of foundation.  They come in various lengths.  Of course, they have to be insulated, but so would anything else.  Doors and windows would have to be cut out, so you will have to be able to work with metal (a torch?  I don’t know!), but they can be finished to look like any other house, both inside and out.

Another steel building I think would be interesting to live in is the arched steel building.  It has many of the advantages of the container house (it is quick to build, and not as expensive as traditional building styles).  It also has about the same advantages, except you would also have to pour a concrete slab or something similar.  They are also not as heavy gauge steel – but they are galvanized.

A yurt is an interesting housing style, similar to a tent, except they can be quite a bit larger, and are round.  They can also be made more solid, by using wood lattice-work frame, and shingles instead of canvas.  They wouldn’t be very portable, but might be fun to live in!

glass bottle house

plastic bottle house

Now on to using recycled materials for building materials.  Have you ever thought about all those tires that go to the dump every year?  Should be some way to recycle them, and they ARE water-proof, right?  There are many creative ways to use them.  Houses made out of old tires are not smelly, if done right.  There is always glass bottles (above left, top –would give some interesting light), even plastic bottles (above, bottom)!  But my favorite is shipping pallets.  Whether you break the pallets down and use the wood for siding, flooring, or furniture, this is an excellent recycling of wood.  There are even houses made out of pallets that are used as-is!  Pretty ingenius!  There is a comment below the picture which is worth thinking about.


Comment:  There are a lot of people throughout the world today who have no housing.  The lucky ones live in tents.  Many live in cardboard boxes.  There are whole communities all over the world who live in or at dumps — and scavenge for things they can sell or use.  For most of these people, every day is a struggle just to survive.  If the housing problem were solved with a solution that cost almost nothing, how much better would their lives be?


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