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Alternative Building in Florida

 
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Hi all,
I am interested in building a home with alternative building techniques in Florida (northern or central). I have a few questions and was hoping I could find some answers from this awesome community.

1) Permitting, Building Codes, Code Enforcement - This is my biggest concern at the moment. Florida has a Right to Farm law that allows you to erect any non-residential structure without a permit. Florida also has laws that allow you to be your own contractor for your residence. As far as I can tell Florida counties can not opt-out of state building codes as some other states allow.

I would like to avoid attention as much as possible and getting myself on the local government's hit list is undesirable.

Does anyone have any knowledge of which Florida counties would be friendly to alternative building?

2) Tropical Structure Design - Has anybody built an Earthship or dome structure in Florida? I have seen the YouTube video of the Earthship in Florida but they hired the Earthship builders to come complete it. The project has been going for several years.  

After much research I believe the best solution for me would be Aircrete domes. I think berming on the north side of the domes and adding earth tubes may help with cooling. The biggest concern is moisture and mold/mildew.

I think it would be possible to design a "filter" at the end of the earth tube exit that contains salt to create a natural dehumidifier. I also read that clay walls would absorb the moisture. I do plan on having modern amenities available but want to be prepared for all contingencies.

Anybody out there doing this stuff in Florida?

3) Mosquitos and other pests - How do you keep the various bugs and critters away from your living spaces naturally? I read there are several plants that keep mosquitos away. Has anyone found something effective at keeping the bitey bugs at bay?

Thanks all. If nobody else has the answers I will probably be finding out the hard way and posting about it in the future!
 
pollinator
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1 cannot help
2 Tropical house design
Design in the tropics for commercial buildings
It still covers important parameters.
Design in the tropics for housing
 
pollinator
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https://crowsneststpete.com/2016/01/11/floridas-first-earthship-incomplete-up-for-sale/


This earth ship was not completed but they did make progress on it.


I am in Florida, I have explored several methods of building.      I did talk with one gent who told me there are underground homes here in Florida.      There are also those who build with sand bags.


So,  getting the permits can vary from location to location, all depends on what you are trying to do, and if they will bless the project.

Another place to build is Indian Reservations, as they do not have the same permitting issues that standard land has to have......


Mart
 
Mart Hale
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I have been playing with making aircrete,     I have made an aircrete rocket L tube.  

I have seen that there are also domes going up.        Don't remember where....

I have interest in domes, I like to follow Aircrete harry on youtube.
 
Lucky Smith
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Mart Hale wrote:I have been playing with making aircrete,     I have made an aircrete rocket L tube.  

I have seen that there are also domes going up.        Don't remember where....

I have interest in domes, I like to follow Aircrete harry on youtube.



I saw Aircrete Harry's method and it is similar to the Monolithic Dome folks who sell even more complex molds (but use a different concrete product). My impression of the method was that it was quick and easy but you would have thicker walls/insulation using blocks or form molds. I'm no expert so I could be wrong.

I recently purchased the online course from Tiny Giant Life and I really like the course. Most lessons are broken into 15-20 minute bites. The first two structures are built using home made molds. I believe he also builds one with blocks but I haven't gotten to that part yet. (This guy also has a YouTube)
 
Mart Hale
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Honestly I think Florida might be too wet for an Earthship. You need air flow and getting yourself raised from the ground in wet tropics.
 
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I’ve been researching the exact same idea for the Austin TX area. We’ve been to a few workshops and just keep learning.

It would be nice to connect with some folks ready to build out this community with this type of housing structure.
 
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So, first off, I am the licensed contractor who was originally hired to build the earthship in Manatee County Florida.  The owner experienced some health issues during the build that precluded the completion at the time.  The son of the founder of Earthship Biotecture was retained years later to ATTEMPT the completion of the structure.  He was unfamiliar with Florida building codes and the associated building officials and attempted to employ methodologies that work in NM, but not so much in Florida.  That didn't go so well...  I was brought in to assess the project after it was abandoned by the person who had taken it on.  The project had gone very far astray of the plans and had numerous very expensive issues.  The owner chose to sell the property rather than go through all the hassle and expense of major structural changes.  It was difficult for me to witness given all the care and energy my crew and I originally put into the project.

Since this project I have built a number of alternative structures in Florida.  We are planning an aircrete dome workshop this fall in North Florida.
 
pollinator
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Tiny houses could be an option for some people (haul them out of the way when a hurricane heads your direction, if you keep it on wheels).  Several counties have regulations specifically allowing them, not on every piece of land, but in some areas.  One I've heard of is Taylor county, but I think there are several others.  

 
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Maybe you could build a Monolithic Dome where the flood waters from the ocean or hurricanes just flows on through like the one at this link:
https://monolithicdome.com/building-the-eye-of-the-storm

OR, one with a little class like this one  -  in, of all places, FLORIDA!!:
https://www.monolithic.org/homes/featured-homes/there-s-a-dome-of-a-home-going-up-on-pensacola-beach


And, you can see many other styles of these types of homes on 2 pages - starting here:
https://www.monolithic.org/homes/featured-homes

There is a LOT of information about these Monolithic Domes on their sites,  both Monolithic.org and the .com site.
 
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I would love to learn more about the aircrete workshops in North Florida!
 
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I would like to learn about the aircrete workshop I am in tallahassee
 
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OK, long time north Floridian here and you're not going to like this.....

Almost anything "crete" or masonry is going to have fungus problems long term unless it's watertight on all fronts...expensive.
Black mold should be the Florida state flower.
Another is the ground moving under anything "crete."  Happens more and in a bigger way than you might imagine.
One block on slab house I had moved enough to crack the slab and cause the ceramic tiles to explode off the floor from being compressed by the walls.
exciting! ...in a way you don't want

every time it rains rocks rise up out of the ground. I used to have a great side gig to my junkyard picking them up from my farmer friends fields and re-selling them for landscaping. The farmers were the ones who tipped me off on this one, telling me that the first job after a good rain was to go drag the rocks out of the fields.
You also can't bury tires here as some folks were inclined to do....they'll be right back to visit you.  

Read up on the old cracker houses:

https://www.addall.com/SuperRare/UsedRare.cgi?title=&author=&title=&keyword=florida+cracker+house&isbn=&exclude=&binding=Any+Binding&min=&max=&dispCurr=USD&order=PRICE&ordering=ASC&match=Y&timeout=15&store=ABAA&store=Alibris&store=Abebooks&store=AbebooksAU&store=AbebooksDE&store=AbebooksFR&store=AbebooksUK&store=Amazon&store=AmazonCA&store=AmazonUK&store=AmazonDE&store=AmazonFR&store=Antiqbook&store=Biblio&store=BiblioUK&store=Booksandcollectibles&store=Ebay&store=EbayUK&store=EbayFR&store=LRB&store=ZVAB&via=used

They were as good as it got in FL houses and VERY self sufficient on inputs required if built and sited correctly. They even had solar hot water way back in the 20s and 30s but most had a design flaw in that the storage tank was in the attic....and leaked eventually.

Note that these were built on pilings you could adjust for what was happening with the ground under them.

There's so many left because they were built with first growth giant timber from the original pine forests...except the ones that burned because that first growth pine would burn like gasoline.

Another cool feature old timers told me about was deliberately leaving the floorboards with air space between them. Most were cut and built green wood so that was going to happen anyway. The reason was so tornados and hurricanes couldn't get much lift from under the house. The carpets might take off like a hovercraft but the house would still be there.

Another reason for the durability was assembly with blacksmithed soft nails that would bend and give, not break like screws or newer nails)  if a storm was trying to tear the place apart.

OK, here's the one you'll hate, and my choice...

Mobile Homes!  Yup, I'm trailer trash.

Lets consider why:

Ones old enough to be worthless come land tax time and can still be had new enough to pass serious wind...if you're going to move one it has to be able to withstand high wind by law.  Early 80s and up usually fit this bill. My taxes on my '85?  Zero

They also go up on pilings that can be adjusted and you need to find the local guy who knows how to set them up CORRECTLY on this particular issue. Lots of jacklegs in the MH setup biz...research!

They're made out of crap components and are ugly as sin inside but ugly/cheap in the 80s is better than a lot of new construction now. You can fix the ugly.

Aluminum siding, steel roof - lasts and lasts in the hostile climate here. Just be sure to keep the windows caulked ( or put on awnings that shed rain) and closed in the rain or you'll be fixing holes in the floor at the windows.

RF and other sheilding...I have cell towers nearby and can pick up meter readings from them out in the yard, but not inside my little MH Farraday cage. I hate it whan my tinfoil hat gets to buzzing...
Mine has mettallic window tint and this stops penetration at the windows.

But wait! (says Billy Mays, the oxy clean guy) there's more...but that's enough for now.

More random FL advice...

Put in ground rods for the electrical system that screw into each other and hammer them in as deep as you can. More than one won't hurt either.  The sand drains the water on the top levels and standard shallow ground rods don't work as well as they should in dry sand. End result is major lightning damage with a minor hit anywhere nearby on the shallow rods.

The springs in N FL are still truly spectacular for swimming and recreation. They're nowhere near what they were 50 years ago (algae from corporate and dairy/ag malfeasance) but are still quite awesome. We're all fighting the greedy bastards but we'll see who wins. You'll understand why Ponce De Leon thought he found the fountain of youth when he first swam in them.

Zoning - there's a FL uniform code and last time I checked a cracker house didn't qualify. You can get around that by getting an architect or engineer to sign off on it.
Used to be a very cool alt housing architect here who would, but I think he has died. He saved a friends huge bootleg built glassblowing studio from needless demolition.
This also brings up how many assholes there are here who love to start trouble by turning people into the authorities.
I can tell you SO many stories.
You can't bootleg much without someone deciding to turn you in. The fact they can do it anonymously is just wrong but it is what it is.

If I was you - I would get a travel trailer or RV, which is easily lived in here for a while while you get the lay of the land. Most counties you can even stay on a piece of land with it if you move it every so often, how often varies by county.

If you want, put together a list of whatever questions you have and I'll try to answer them as best I can.







 
Dave Bross
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One more most important point...you want to be up on top of a hill.

The 100 year floodplain here is way bigger than you might imagine and old timers have seen flooding well beyond what's on the floodplain maps.

The best garden dirt is in the low spots but don't be tempted.
 
pollinator
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I am attempting to complete an alternative/natural materials home build in South Carolina.  I therefore have no experience with building codes and enforcement in Florida.  But I would expect it to be rigorous and difficult.

Do you already have land?  You seemed to imply not, but didn't specify.  If not, then you are in a better position, because your options are more open.  Once you have decided on a basic design - and I don't mean just a concept; I mean once you have sketches of your intended build and can discuss how the construction will unfold - then you can shop your design around.

That's my advice; that's what I did.  Once I could sketch a 90%-accurate layout for my final build, then I searched the internet real-estate sites for properties in my target area.  I found dozens of potential building lots in four different jurisdictions: three adjacent counties and one municipality.  Then I visited the building official in each jurisdiction to discuss my plans, drawings in hand.  Not actual blueprints, mind you, but detailed hand-drawn elevations and floorplans.  That was enough to get the gist across.  And I could discuss them knowledgeably, because by then I'd read half a dozen books on construction in general and/or construction using my chosen natural materials, and I'd read the International Building Code cover to cover.

Two of the building officials seemed cautiously amenable, one downright excited, and the fourth made it clear (without actually saying so) that he intended to obstruct me as much as possible if I brought my project to him.  So, right away I crossed his county off of my list of potential properties.  I ended up buying an ideal lot in the municipality with a cautiously amenable but cooperative building official.

As for potential designs and materials, I do know northern and central Florida.  My parents live about an hour northwest of Orlando, and I've spent a few years living in that area with them.  I can still only give general advice.  It's hot there, and during the rainy season it's very wet.  As appealing as any type of underground or earth-integrated home might be, I would approach it very, very cautiously.  Especially as a first-time owner/builder.  Moisture control is going to be a huge concern.

Remember, you are limited by two different factors.  Not only "what can I actually build effectively," but even more importantly "what can I effectively sell to a building official."  In my own case, I quickly eliminated underground structures from my initial brainstorming sessions, since I planned to build in a humid environment.  Could I have made one work here in SC?  Probably yes, with enough knowledge and careful design and careful construction.  But why challenge myself as a first timer?!  And why challenge my building official?!

As "alternative"  building designs go, I ended up with a fairly conventional one.  Were I building out on an unregulated mountaintop, I might have chosen to bite off something a bit more ambitious.  For instance, I'd have loved to have tried a tamped earth floor as opposed to a concrete one.  But again, I knew I had a code official to sell on my design.  You can't throw too much at them at once.  You have to pick and choose your battles.

Concrete domes sound pretty cool.  I don't know much about them - no more than watching a few YouTube videos - so I'll refrain from further comment.

Also, I have no idea of your budget.  Not just money, but time.  How many years can you commit to this build, and how much of your own time/week during that period?  These are huge factors and should have equally huge roles in your decision making process.  The less time you can devote to personally running the build - i.e. the more you will by necessity rely on professional assistance - the more conventional your design should probably be.  Helpful hint: however long you think the project will take, don't start unless and until you are prepared for it to take twice that long.

Whichever way you go, I can offer three pieces of universal advice.  First, pound the internet until you locate individuals who've built using your intended methods/materials.  Then, if you have to drive halfway across the country to visit their sites in person, do so.  If you can possibly find more than one, take the time to plumb them for info.  Everything they did right, and everything they did wrong.  And don't necessarily cut costs by avoiding professional consultation.  I hired one, even as an owner/builder.  It was a curious inversion of the usual process, in which you go to an architect with a budget and he gives you a design.  Rather, I went to him with my design and he gave me his critique.

Second, consider very carefully from where you labor is going to come.  Recognize that this will likely be your single largest expense.  No matter what alternative design you choose, it will be more labor-intensive than a conventional build.  That is a given, since conventional construction techniques have evolved universally with one goal in mind: minimized labor.  Which is why the conventional building industry has avoided [insert your chosen alternative technique here].  I found that attracting and managing good laborers has been my #1 hassle and constraint.  I am building near to a university, so I figured right there are thousands of potential, part-time, unskilled laborers.  Turns out that college kids actually make poor hired help.  It also turns out that one owner/builder cannot effectively supervise more than a few laborers at at time, so plan on a slower pace of construction (or else a lot of money wasted on unsupervised, unproductive workers!).

Until you have a realistic plan for recruiting, paying, and supervising good laborers, you are NOT ready to begin construction.  If, on the other hand, you plan to do 100% of the labor yourself - sure, you'll still hire an electrician, etc. - that's okay, but then consider how much longer your build will take.  Do your chosen materials stand up well against the elements long term in a half-completed structure?  Has your design taken this into account?

Third, your design process should NOT start off with "what type of alternative materials do I want to use? - straw? aircrete? hempcrete? earth-bag domes? etc."  I know that this was the very question that started this thread, so maybe you have already completed the step I am about to describe.  If so, good.  But if not, then take notice.  In my opinion and experience, your design process should instead start off with "what type of lifestyle do I want to live in North-Central Florida?"

I have met more than a few 1st-time alternative builders who are totally psyched about the earthship they are going to build, or about designing a roundhouse, or whatever.  But when I asked them WHY they wanted to build a roundhouse, specifically, they had no answer much beyond the fact that it looked really cool in the YouTube video they'd watched.  That is NO GOOD REASON to build a roundhouse, and NO GOOD WAY to begin a design process.

You need to consider your finances, your dreams and values, your long-term goals in terms of career and family and lifestyle.  Once you can see a vision of the life you want to lead, then you can start to analyze what type of home and property fits that vision.  That will start a process of elimination: some design concepts will quickly drop from the list of possibilities, and you can evaluate the practicality and desirability of those that remain.

Using myself as an example... I value preparedness and self-reliance, and wanted a place where I could live quietly and pass these values on to my (theoretical future) children.  So, I would need some land for gardening and privacy away from the city.  But I'm not rich enough for a grand estate.  And I'm unwilling to accept total isolation, so no shack in the woods for me.  So, now we're zooming in on a suburban or semi-rural setting, closer to civilization than to the boondocks.  But civilization means building code officials, so right there forget about any "far out there" designs.  And I chose to relocate to my old college town, where I still know some people, in South Carolina.  South Carolina = humidity and lots of rain = no underground houses (which probably also count as a "far out there" technique when it comes to building officials).

I am also paralyzed; I live in a wheelchair, and I live alone.  So, no mountain properties for me; I like things as flat as possible.  I also knew that fixing up an existing house made little sense.  The first rule of all small houses is that they have tiny kitchens and tinier bathrooms, which are also the most critical spaces in terms of adaptation for wheelchair living.  Meaning that I'd have to start off by ripping out walls of the two most expensive parts of the house I'd just bought and rebuild them from scratch.  No bueno.  So the logical choice would be designing a house around me, rather than adapting an existing design.  And doing it myself, because no architect understands my needs like I do.  Which would assume there even are architects who specialize in wheelchair compliant houses, which I doubt.

My values dictated that I should strive for minimal environmental impact, minimal energy use, etc.  In a phrase: small footprint.  Maybe a tiny house?  No way!  Wheelchairs require lots of floor space.  So, now we're thinking instead about a larger house using low-impact materials and smart design to make up for its size.  Which suggested passive solar design.  Now we're zooming in on a DIY, natural-materials, passive solar home at the north end of a not-too-steeply-sloped semi-rural southern exposure.

Additionally, my early research had revealed that, even while all the books fixate on the embedded energy of building materials, 90% of a building's energy footprint is actually the energy used during the years of its occupancy, primarily for heating and cooling.  Link back to passive solar design.  Plus, that means if a high-embedded-energy concrete slab-on-grade foundation is the cheapest possible solution, and it works for a passive solar design, and it will make my building official happy, then so be it.

Also, consider that I'm as yet unmarried.  While I have sunk my life's wealth into this property and intend on planting deep roots here, I could still end up moving somewhere to follow a future wife, who'd also likely be the family bread-winner.  So, my house can't be so radically unconventional as to be without resale value.  Thus, no whimsical, hand-sculpted, cob cottage artwork in my design process, either.  Stick with rectilinear floorplans.  Okay, a little boring, but consistent with a focus on practicality over aesthetics that I'd already adopted for budgetary reasons.

I could go on, but hopefully my point is clear how consideration of practicalities and personal values dominated my design process, which in turn pointed to a certain property and to a certain choice of design and materials.  This is fundamentally different from starting your process with a chosen design or material.

In my case, I ended up with a gently-sloping, southern-facing, one-acre permaculture homestead on a surprisingly private and secluded wooded lot at the edge of a college town in a rural county of a rural state.  Cost of living is low.  I'm 25 minutes away from one small-sized city and 45 minutes away from another mid-sized city.  The centerpiece of the homestead is a "conventional alternative" one-story passive solar home with straw bale walls, a concrete slab, a metal roof, wood heat, no need for air conditioning, and so far no headache's from building officials.  It's big enough to suit a potential future family, but in the meantime has plenty of room to rent out.

Not that I wouldn't change a few things with the benefit of hindsight, but I think it will all suit me well, because I designed it with the right priorities in mind.

In your case, you'll end up somewhere very different.  But I think if you follow a similar design process, you should like wherever you end up.  And hopefully, if you have your labor situation sorted out, you should get there faster than I have.  Good luck!
 
Matthew Nistico
pollinator
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@Dave Bross - Wow, a treasure trove of first-hand info and good advice.  I award an apple : )  Sounds like you have stories that could fill a book.  I have to disagree with your ultimate conclusion; I don't think I would ever advise someone to invest in a mobile home, except as a temporary measure.  But to each his own, and you make a solid case for your own perspective on it.
 
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There are two types of structures which seem to me to make sense in the climate of the tropical south.

The first kind is the most common. You see the “Cracker House”, or “Maylay House” type repeated in hot humid climates around the world. This is an elevated wooden structure with wide overhangs, open verandas, and good air circulation. An added feature in Florida is that if you build the first floor ten or so feet high, there are few mosquitoes. I think this is the first choice.

The second type is best represented by the French Colonial palaces of the aristocracy in Louisiana. These are solid brick masonry structures with thick walls that are thermally in contact with the soil and also wick moisture from the soil. This offers a little evaporative cooling, but more often adds to the shoe rotting humidity. The average temperature of Florida’s climate hovers around a perfect 70 degrees. 3-6 foot thick walls allow the interior of the home to keep close to the average by moderating the summer’s heat with the winter’s cold. The seasonal temperature variations soak through about 3 feet of masonry in a season. The downside is moldy shoes, belts, clothes , and furniture. I thought this was the best till I priced a modest 900 square foot structure at over one million dollars in bricks alone. You see this type also expressed in some coral and coquina block houses at the immediate and breezy coast. I have never seen this type of architecture in the hotter, more humid, and oppressingly windless interior where I live.

I guess I forgot the third type of structure. It has some of the better features of the first two types, but is also actually affordable and possible for the average person. It is a modern architecture with solar panels, gardens, strategically planted trees, and an air conditioner for temperature and humidity management. I think these days, all considered, that a concrete block or brick home(being structural not decorative), with a galvanized steel framed and clad roof, and large screened airy overhangs, is in fact the cheapest, most durable, and most sustainable healthy home for the tropical Deep South. Untreated and un-dehumidified wood is food for molds, termites, and other wood destroying organisms around here.

I apologize for the run-on sentences, I’m not an English grammar major. I have lived in Florida since 1978. I’ve been paying attention to architectural styles. The third type is my chosen.
 
Dave Bross
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I felt the same way years ago, but watching how well they survived here, even when seriously neglected, changed my tune.

The quick to have a place to live inexpensively has a lot going for them.even if your eventual plans are for something more grand.

Frees up your time and finances for more interesting and enjoyable projects, recreation, etc.

My goal had been to have everything paid off and in good shape when I retired and the ol' tin shaky shack brought that home for me years earlier.

The tax factor is a big vulnerability and something to watch out for in certain counties.

That block house with the exploding floor was $300 in taxes for years and years...then one year it was suddenly $3750 for taxes. Just so you know, that was Alachua county, which I would suggest avoiding like the plague.
 
Dave Bross
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Location: North FL, in the high sandhills
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One more quick point...north Florida is not tropical. That doesn't really start until somewhere well south of Orlando. We get a good bit of cold in winter and sometimes some serious freezes.  

Most tropical designs are for year round high heat.
 
Dave Bross
Posts: 73
Location: North FL, in the high sandhills
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Thank you!

I do indeed have many, many stories.
Never a dull moment in the land of "Florida Man."
 
Matthew Nistico
pollinator
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Location: Clemson, SC ("new" Zone 8a)
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Dave Bross wrote:One more quick point...north Florida is not tropical. That doesn't really start until somewhere well south of Orlando. We get a good bit of cold in winter and sometimes some serious freezes.  

Most tropical designs are for year round high heat.



An excellent point!  The cold days at my parents house are few, but there are for sure cold days every winter.  Not taking this into account would be foolish.
 
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"Right to farm" : wait WUHhh?? So you can have two buildings on one parcel of land in a residential area?? I dont believe it. Although Id *love* to believe it. I can have a small dedicated building for a home business which would be cool
 
Lucky Smith
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arianna higginstwo wrote:"Right to farm" : wait WUHhh?? So you can have two buildings on one parcel of land in a residential area?? I dont believe it. Although Id *love* to believe it. I can have a small dedicated building for a home business which would be cool



Arianna, you would need a property zoned agriculture or have a farming exemption on the property.

Thank you all for your responses. I am definitely interested in going to a workshop. As for me, I have mostly resolved to leave Florida for Tennessee. There are several counties in TN that have no building codes so you can do whatever you want. Sounds like that is far less of a headache.
 
Jesse Glessner
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Location: Indiana
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HEY EVERYONE: Just substitute "Florida" for whatever state you wish to build in and this GREAT advice would still apply.  Thank YOU, Dave Bross!

Proper RESEARCH can save you tons of money in the end! And it may save your Rear End from kicking yourself after the fact of NOT researching.    :-)
 
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Wow the most informative answer imo and also appreciate the prompts you have given us to ask ourselves. Thank you so much!!!
 
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Hello
I am interested for professional consultation on using of aircrete to build residential units in Florida Sarasota county for air b@b business
Trying to build inexpensive and functional dwellings
Any contact would be greatly appreciated
Thanks
Shimon
Foridel17@yahoo.com
 
We can walk to school together. And we can both read this tiny ad:
PTJ Event 2022 - Bee Track! New Hive Designs
https://permies.com/wiki/177203/PTJ-Event-Bee-Track-Hive
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