I sincerely hope this is not considered cider press territory. I have been researching natural building for a couple years. I love the idea of a cheap, low hydrocarbon house that exploits natural materials and can be built with art and knowledge over industrial excess. I really am interested in selling my house and building a more sustainable dwelling. I love my house, and it is very efficient, but the carbon footprint to build it was ghastly. It is sustainable only going forward. We may be able to buy the property next door and still use the improvements we have done here, as most people moving out here just want to look at country stuff, not have to maintain them. I have read about several different methods of building, done some tests, and think we could do it.
One of the big issues (maybe the big issue) is regulatory. I watched
. Please consider watching them to understand the rest of the post. The image of the code manuals at 23:25 in the second video is illustrative.
The issue is that even well-meaning regulators (in this case very liberal Bay Area) cannot go around regulations. They have no incentive other than humanitarian, and can be fired for doing it. In my state we have a uniform building code. There are probably some more restrictive codes in certain areas of the state, none less restrictive. So that is the barrier to entry. Without certifying that a dwelling meets this code, you cannot get an occupancy permit. I can live wherever I want, but my kids can be removed if I don't live in a building that received an occupancy permit. A buyer can't get a mortgage for a dwelling without one, and most of the time it actually decreases the value of your land (but not for tax purposes BTW). Without an occupancy permit you can't be on municipal water/septic or electric. In this day and age telephone is not a real issue, but internet becomes much more expensive.
So what is the primary issue? I would say the permitting process. I can work around the mortgage by selling privately, or generational gift, or subdivision. All take some monetary value, but that isn't required. I can set up an off-grid electric and water/septic. These are well-described. The second video shows people who had to effectively tear down structures. That's a deal breaker.
I can't be dodging child protective services! They may have some forbearance for a while, but if you are politically unpopular or make a stink about something, you pop up on the radar and the old deal is no deal. My brother sent me some news items from his home state that were shocking in this regard. CPS took the kids because they said the parents weren't making enough money to support them. Then the parents spent all they had to defend against that claim and now the state wants to take the kids because they were bankrupted by the legal process. The parents made the mistake of having unpopular opinions. I don't think I have any egregious opinions, but then again why would I think so?
How can we go about the code issues? The videos above really don't have a good answer (buzzkill). I mean, you could build a small building to code and then transfer the utilities in a sneaky fashion, but there are several stories of people doing that and having a vengeful neighbor turn them in. You could even go so far as to have a trailer as your official dwelling but really spend most (all) of your living time in a different dwelling. In the state I live, the building department can inspect any time after issuing an occupancy certificate, and can revoke it (13VAC5-63-160 section 116.3).
Some hopeful developments: one is to change the structure of the law, one is to just ignore it.
First, by what is apparently an accident, Idaho has no state codes at the moment.. It expired and has to be readopted. This allows for a well-organized group to comment and maybe get a provision in at the state level. Even a not so well organized group. Idaho could be a state that allows for an alternate natural building code as discussed in the second video.
Second, there are some municipalities that effectively grant occupancy certificates and then have a tacit agreement not to reinspect. There seems to be an element of this in Shonomish County, and maybe other places. We may have that opportunity here, as the few people who care tend to be passionate about this issue. A hundred people who are passionate make up for 10000 who barely care in most elected situations.
If there are others who have done some in-depth research on this, I am very interested. I am not inclined to build a traditional house with some modification like straw bale, this would be a mostly underground rammed earth house with Sepp-style long passive airtubes for ventilation. Still doing some tests on the roof situation, but I like some of Travis Johnson's input on this, it seems like steel roofing with a cabling system and a membrane over it should last a long time. We have a steel building company right around the corner, and they have been interested in the idea and might cut me a break on it. Maybe.
Edited to add some links.
Standing on the shoulders of giants. Giants with dirt under their nails
I don’t have a specific answer for you right now but I sympathize with your dilemma. I know that zoning laws are well intended, but they seem to impair the homeowner while a business can get the zoning changed at will. If I say any more of what I really think, we would definitely be in cider press territory. But you do have my sympathies.
Hey TJ, an interesting dilemma. One approach might be to bite the bullet and build something really small and basic and “to code” to get the occupancy permit, and then get to work on the structure you really want.
This has a couple of advantages. First, it can keep child welfare folk off your back. Second, it improves your prospects for resale should you need an exit strategy. An alternative, non-permitted structure will really be viewed as raw land for most people. Always good to have an exit strategy! Bad neighbors, illness, disability, family issues - all might require a move someday, and no matter how much heart, soul and money you pour into it, if a purchaser can’t get a loan, no sale.
It might be worth undertaking an education campaign of your local building inspector. Might take time, and might require some compromises, but at the end of the day most code requirements originate from safety concerns. Even if you are willing to live with it, they need to “protect” those that come after you. Not sure what county you are in, but some are more “active” than others in enforcement. I do know someone who built a straw bale house, and one who built without a permit. In your shoes, with kids, I would be pretty reluctant to risk a no-permit build too.
“All good things are wild, and free.” Henry David Thoreau
Before we bought our land I checked with the county to find out about building codes and permits that might be required. We are building a timber frame home with cordwood infill ourselves to avoid a mortgage going into our retirement years. I was pleasantly surprised to find that there are no building codes in the county and no permits required unless you are building in town. The only restrictions we face are from deed restrictions and the electric utility. Deed restrictions call for no building within 50' of the road or 40' from property boundaries. No single wide trailers, and double wide must be <2 years old when installed. We are building a non-traditional home, one couple is living in a tiny home, and a couple others are building traditional stick homes on a slab. The electric utility will run power to the foundation of a home that is over 1000 sq ft at no cost for the first 800 ft. If the house is smaller or you want power to a garage or RV, then you have to pay through the nose.
The biggest thing for us is that this is our retirement home. Eventually it will be up to our kids to decide what to do with the property after we pass, and we know they will have no interest in doing anything but selling. That could get interesting for them. They won't be worried about having to recoup any costs or making back money from our investment because it will all (except for taxes) be theirs to split anyway. I guess that sounds cold, but it is true.
Hopefully the government folks will catch up to the idea that it is ok for people to go off-grid and eschew modern conveniences without it being neglect. Regardless of construction method, a home is a huge investment in time, money, and effort. Whether you agree or disagree with codes and permits, if they are required in your area it would be in your best interest to follow the regulations. Seems they love to make examples of people who ignore the rules.
I know a couple who built their own off grid cordwood home. They had to work with and educate their building inspector, permit office, and insurance company. Yes, it was a pain in the neck. Yes, it cost them. Yes, it took extra time. But now they have an insured house and records of approved permits, inspections, and certificate of occupancy. The only potential hassle they face is if they decide to sell the place in 40 years or so.
Learn to dance in the rain.
I am not a spy. Definitely. Definitely not a spy. Not me. No way. But this tiny ad ...