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Best house for hot humid climate?  RSS feed

 
Felicia Daniels
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We live in Alabama where for about 9 months out of the year it's extremely hot & humid (temps above 90) & then the remaining 3 months are either breezy & nice or extremely cold. It rains about 57 inches a year & we do have the occasional tornado. What type of building would you suggest is best? And we're on a tight budget of about $2600. Earthbag? Cob? Strawbale? Combination of any of these? How do we protect the house from moisture without using cement or chemicals? We're leaning towards a small house of about 300 sq feet with a possible loft if there's an affordable way to make it work. We've got dozens of pine trees on our land so is there a way to cut those down & use them for any lumber needs? Or does it take a long time for them to dry & be treated?
 
John Elliott
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South Alabama? How close to the Gulf? I would suggest something with a high thermal mass -- cob or if you have access to a lot of seashells, tabby. If you are inland and don't have seashells, what's under your feet, how much clay do you have? Once you get seaward of the Fall Line, here in the Southeast there is all the clay you need for building, be it brick, cob, adobe, rammed earth, or whatever variation of those you want to try.

What would probably be the most economical is to make walls out of the building material under your feet, and save the pine trees to make joists and rafters.
 
Felicia Daniels
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We're in central AL. I emailed Kelly Hart & he suggested an underground house but some people have said that it's pretty hard to do and there's a lot more involved with moisture proofing. Should we just do an above ground ebag house & add a porch all around it for shade or would that take away some of the heat that the plaster could absorb? Or would we want to take away the absorbed heat? What type of plaster would be best? Also someone suggested a living roof so how would we go about doing that? And how would we use the trees we have? What steps?
 
John Elliott
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An underground house would be hideous in our climate. My house is built into a rise, so I have a "crawl" space that has an 8' ceiling at one end. It gives me a good feeling for what an underground house would be like and it is miserably damp. And that's even after I put a French drain around the foundation to take some of the water away. The only thing it has going for it is that it is fairly cool in the summer, having a kind of natural air conditioning.

I think the above ground earthbag house with a wrap-around porch is an excellent idea. Or a bungalow made out of cob. It really depends on what are cheap and easy building materials in your area. It also depends on your county building department. If you are in a county with a small population, (i.e. not in metro Birmingham), they should be fairly easy going with owner-builders. Have you checked with the Earthship people if any of their designs would be something you can use? They have done a lot of the pioneering work that is important to keep the building department from making your life miserable.

You may want to check into portable sawmills or look on YouTube for people that have developed their chainsaw skills to the point that they use the chainsaw as a sawmill. It wouldn't take too many pine trees to get the lumber you need to do a roof on a small house like you are thinking of.

Is this going to be an off-grid, rainwater harvesting, natural earth floor, rocket mass heated, alternative sewage system type of affair? Or what kind of modern conveniences can't you do without?
 
Felicia Daniels
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John Elliott wrote:An underground house would be hideous in our climate. My house is built into a rise, so I have a "crawl" space that has an 8' ceiling at one end. It gives me a good feeling for what an underground house would be like and it is miserably damp. And that's even after I put a French drain around the foundation to take some of the water away. The only thing it has going for it is that it is fairly cool in the summer, having a kind of natural air conditioning.

I think the above ground earthbag house with a wrap-around porch is an excellent idea. Or a bungalow made out of cob. It really depends on what are cheap and easy building materials in your area. It also depends on your county building department. If you are in a county with a small population, (i.e. not in metro Birmingham), they should be fairly easy going with owner-builders. Have you checked with the Earthship people if any of their designs would be something you can use? They have done a lot of the pioneering work that is important to keep the building department from making your life miserable.

You may want to check into portable sawmills or look on YouTube for people that have developed their chainsaw skills to the point that they use the chainsaw as a sawmill. It wouldn't take too many pine trees to get the lumber you need to do a roof on a small house like you are thinking of.

Is this going to be an off-grid, rainwater harvesting, natural earth floor, rocket mass heated, alternative sewage system type of affair? Or what kind of modern conveniences can't you do without?


I haven't even thought to check on a permit. I've been afraid to in case they say no because then we wouldn't know what to do because we can't afford to build an actual house. We live just outside the Oneonta AL city limits where there's farms. This might sound bad but do you think we could get away with not asking about a permit since we're not inside city limits? We sort of live in the middle of nowhere. I've looked at some pictures of tire built houses but wasn't sure how that worked or how cheap it would be. We want to try rainharvesting but everything I've read said that it's expensive to get the stuff you need to do it right so that you don't have contaminated water & the pumps & all that? We do want an earthen floor & we'd love to try a rocket heater. Is this safe for pets to be around? Can this be left unattended while we're at work? What is the easiest/cheapest type of alternative sewage system? We also want to try using an alcohol stove & oven. Is this a good idea? We're trying to find alternatives to electric run appliances. Mainly the modern things we'd like to keep are our cell phones, laptops & tv. We're also trying to find alternatives to a washer & dryer. We don't have too much to wash since it's just the 2 of us & the 4 animals. I would love to do away with the washer & dryer and just go back to handwashing the clothes & hanging them on a line to dry but I don't know if it's a good idea or not (thoughts??) or if my mom would go for that. As far as cob we were afraid that it would melt away gradually based on what we had read about using cob in a humid climate. Is this true? We're thinking of making the house like a 15x20 or so. Would a round house be better or another shape? And I can't seem to figure out how to estimate how much plaster, bag fill & bags we'd need. And should we add lime to our plaster? I have attached a picture of some dirt we dug up when we built our chicken pen. Can you tell from the picture if we have solid clay? This is dirt from a hole dug 2 feet down. What type of sand would we add to the plaster? Would all purpose work? What do we need to do for drainage in the foundation? Do we just dig our trench, add some gravel (pea gravel maybe?), add a drainage pipe (do we bury this in the gravel or lay on top of it?), add more gravel, build up a short wall with rocks/stones (what kind/size stones?), lay down the rows of earthbags (do we do a dome or just build the ebag wall up until it's high enough to lay roof trusses on top?) while accounting for doors & windows, etc and then add the plaster? With the picture if you zoom in you can see the soil by the digger & hole. I have also attached a picture of a floor plan we like & of the look we like. With the picture of the look we like just picture a wrap around porch. And what kind of roof do you think we should do?
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John Elliott
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Building permits are more to protect buyers of buildings that are sold as suitable for human habitation. Here in the South, they are considered optional for structures that aren't for "human occupancy". So if you build a garage or a shed or a workshop with power or a chicken coop with running water, and you live in a small county, it won't attract the attention of the building code enforcement officials. And then after a while you 'upgrade' it and make it habitable and move into it, it still is not going to raise eyebrows.

Is there anything built on the property now? Can you build this earthbag or cob building as an "out building" and then upgrade it to be a habitation? If you start out calling it an out building, then the most the building department will do is say "no, you can't live in there until you have this, this, and this". But they won't make you tear it down. And in the meantime, you can whittle down the list of objections that they have to you living there.

There are barns and garages and warehouses and silos all over rural America that were never intended to be houses, but after many years, they got repurposed and turned into comfortable living spaces.
 
Alder Burns
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Your situation sounds a bit similar to a couple of places I lived in years ago in GA...."middle of nowhere" on a tight budget. At one site I spent four years living in a moldy old army tent while I mulled what to build; all the while gardening, setting up water systems, and generally participating in my small community that was at that place.
One big problem with many "alternative" building styles is the time and effort they require. I've been to all-day and weekend workshops where twenty or more people manage to accomplish a cob oven, or a rocket stove and bench.....both a lot smaller than a cabin! Once I helped stack strawbales for another one-room cabin. Sure, they went up in a day. But it took the owner another three years to stucco the whole thing, inside and out, and do all the other finish work to make it habitable! Yet another friend worked on an ambitious earth-bag dome, and kept at it and kept at it...for the entire ten plus years I knew him. For all I know, it still isn't "finished" yet, even though people have been living in various sections of it for years.
What you might consider is a dwelling that goes up fairly quickly and provides necessary shelter, from which you can bootstrap forward to other projects, one of which, on the longer term, might be a more ambitious dwelling. Lots of homesteaders pull in motor homes, campers, old mobile homes, or portable sheds for this purpose. But I was hard up for funds.
So my solution, at two different homesteads, was a small cabin based around pine poles, cardboard, and carpet (the last two of which were readily had from town dumpsters!) One cabin also included fat bamboo, and the second a larger number of 2x4's, just because they were there to be used....Basically I sheathed both walls and roof with overlapping courses first of cardboard, then of plastic, and then of carpet, the outermost layer of carpet being stuccoed with mud (actually about 70% sand) on the walls (under a 2 foot overhang) and cement mixture on the roof. I had five people on that roof once, and in ten years, it never leaked. My 12x12 cabin cost me $50! half of which went to replacing the staple gun that died part way through. My one line summary of that project was that I spent more on the housewarming party than I did on the house.
I miss that cabin still.....
 
Felicia Daniels
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We're hoping we can get it built within 6 months & preferably less. We have a 16x80 mobile home on the property that we are currently living in & have been for almost 11 years. It's so old & falling apart & the utility bills for it are outrageous which is why we're wanting to downsize to a small & more sustainable home. I think we've just about decided on an above ground ebag house with a wrap around porch--of course we're scared of how much the porch will cost to do. Like I said we do have trees on the property we can cut down to use but how long do we have to let those dry before we can use them? A) Or is it possible to push our house a little further into the woods where it could be surrounded by a circle of trees that we could attach the porch to so we wouldn't have to cut down any of them except the ones that would be where the house needs to sit? B) Or if we push it back into the woods and cut down the trees that are in the way, would we need to add a porch since we would be surrounded by trees for shade? Of course going this way would take away the sun completely. Which do you think would be better: building it where we have always planned to and just add a wrap around porch (what's the cheapest way to do this so that it doesn't take away from the small budget?) or push it into the woods and choose option A or B? And I can't seem to figure out how to estimate how much the plaster, gravel, etc will cost and how many bags we need to get. Can anyone help me figure this out?
 
R Scott
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The porch does three things: additional rain collection, shade for the house, and rain protection for the walls. If you take care of the shade and are in the wind protection of the trees, you don't need as much eaves to protect the walls. I doubt you will need the additional rain catchment, you will probably need more tank capacity first.
 
John Elliott
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I think I speak for the rest of the Permies when I say we are glad to help you figure this out.

Alder tells a story that has a lot of guidance in it:

-- Since you have a single-wide, you don't have to live in a tent. But you do kind of have to keep patching it until the other building becomes habitable.
-- You don't really need to buy anything. In your other thread, you ask "what do I need to buy?" Instead, Alder's approach was "what do I have, and how can I use it?"
-- Natural building, while cheap on materials uses lots of labor. Do you have people you can ask to pitch in on an old fashioned barn-raising type project?
-- Where are the good places to salvage building materials near you? You've found a source for bags, what else can you find? Lots of usable stuff gets trucked to the landfill every day.

I would say the first step to figure out is where you want to put this new natural building. Scrape away the pine straw and draw the outline of it in the dirt. Once you like the outline and orientation, hammer some stakes in the ground so the outline won't wash away in the first heavy rain. Every day that you look out at those stakes in the ground, ideas will float through your mind. How does the sun travel across the form? Which way does the prevailing wind hit it? Where is the rain going to collect? Maybe you find someone who wants some concrete block hauled off. You take them (or better yet, have him pay you to do the hauling) and then you dry stack them as a foundation perimeter. Now the ideas are becoming even more concrete (pun intended). Can you set these blocks into a footer and make it part of the foundation?

There are even different ways of assembling the building. A lot of places, the walls go up and later the roof is put on. But sometimes it starts out as a covered patio, and then the walls are filled in.

The last thing to note about Alder's story is that he is politely telling you it is going to take longer than the 6 months you are hoping for. But don't let that discourage you. Becoming a builder is a learning experience -- a learn-by-doing experience. Get out there today with a rake and a stick and scratch out the outline. And ribbon test your dirt.
 
Felicia Daniels
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John Elliott wrote:I think I speak for the rest of the Permies when I say we are glad to help you figure this out.

Alder tells a story that has a lot of guidance in it:

-- Since you have a single-wide, you don't have to live in a tent. But you do kind of have to keep patching it until the other building becomes habitable.
-- You don't really need to buy anything. In your other thread, you ask "what do I need to buy?" Instead, Alder's approach was "what do I have, and how can I use it?"
-- Natural building, while cheap on materials uses lots of labor. Do you have people you can ask to pitch in on an old fashioned barn-raising type project?
-- Where are the good places to salvage building materials near you? You've found a source for bags, what else can you find? Lots of usable stuff gets trucked to the landfill every day.

I would say the first step to figure out is where you want to put this new natural building. Scrape away the pine straw and draw the outline of it in the dirt. Once you like the outline and orientation, hammer some stakes in the ground so the outline won't wash away in the first heavy rain. Every day that you look out at those stakes in the ground, ideas will float through your mind. How does the sun travel across the form? Which way does the prevailing wind hit it? Where is the rain going to collect? Maybe you find someone who wants some concrete block hauled off. You take them (or better yet, have him pay you to do the hauling) and then you dry stack them as a foundation perimeter. Now the ideas are becoming even more concrete (pun intended). Can you set these blocks into a footer and make it part of the foundation?

There are even different ways of assembling the building. A lot of places, the walls go up and later the roof is put on. But sometimes it starts out as a covered patio, and then the walls are filled in.

The last thing to note about Alder's story is that he is politely telling you it is going to take longer than the 6 months you are hoping for. But don't let that discourage you. Becoming a builder is a learning experience -- a learn-by-doing experience. Get out there today with a rake and a stick and scratch out the outline. And ribbon test your dirt.


As far as the part about buying stuff I was mainly meaning for the plaster. I'm hopeful we have the clay but do we need to buy the sand required for the plaster or would that already be mixed in with our soil? And I know we'll have to buy the straw. And then what we need for drainage & electric & plumbing. It will just be my mom and myself & possibly my grandfather. I read something that said on average 1 person could build about 10 sq ft of wall a day so I'm hoping between the 2 of us (not going to count my g/father right now since I'm not sure about him being able to help yet) we could maybe get 20 sq ft a day & if we build the house about 300 sq then that would mean we could probably have it up in about a couple of months or so with working on it when we get off work during the day & on our off days. I've tried to salvage building materials before from our local stores and they always tell me they don't have anything except scrap wood that's only about 2 feet long or so. I haven't thought to check the landfills yet. Do you have to pay to take stuff from there? I would ask for permission before taking anything. We have 2 placement options: in the woods where the trees are or just in front of the woods in an open area. I will attach 2 pictures of the open area. The open area gets sun about 6 or 7 hrs a day & the woods doesn't get much sun. I think we would work from the ground up because I can see that being easier for us. In the pictures you can see the wooded area I'm referring to. I've also attached a picture of a floor plan we like. We do like the idea of a living roof but we also have tin on the side of the trailer we might be able to sand & seal & use for the roof instead. Would that be a good idea? Lay some trusses & plywood and attach the tin over that? Or would it be cheaper to do a living roof? How do you moisture proof a living roof & prevent leaks?
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John Elliott
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There's not going to be much to salvage from local stores, as you are finding out. However, it sounds like you are close enough to Birmingham that you could visit construction sites at new housing subdivisions. The amount of "waste" these guys generate is incredible. They fill up one, maybe two 20-yard roll-off containers for each house they build. Lots more salvageable lumber than at a local hardware store. Also drywall, brick, OSB, buckets (which sell for $4 at the store), strips of nails that are too short to save for the next job, half a bucket of joint compound that was extra, the excess of the roll of carpet padding, you get the idea. Ask the builder if he needs someone to clean up his job site. Give him the idea he can save money renting a roll-off container and you will haul off all that stuff. That's how you put that white pickup truck to good use.

What you want to do is intercept it before it gets to the landfill. We've talked about that in other threads here, how landfills tend to shoo off people looking for recyclables.
 
Felicia Daniels
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John Elliott wrote:There's not going to be much to salvage from local stores, as you are finding out. However, it sounds like you are close enough to Birmingham that you could visit construction sites at new housing subdivisions. The amount of "waste" these guys generate is incredible. They fill up one, maybe two 20-yard roll-off containers for each house they build. Lots more salvageable lumber than at a local hardware store. Also drywall, brick, OSB, buckets (which sell for $4 at the store), strips of nails that are too short to save for the next job, half a bucket of joint compound that was extra, the excess of the roll of carpet padding, you get the idea. Ask the builder if he needs someone to clean up his job site. Give him the idea he can save money renting a roll-off container and you will haul off all that stuff. That's how you put that white pickup truck to good use.

What you want to do is intercept it before it gets to the landfill. We've talked about that in other threads here, how landfills tend to shoo off people looking for recyclables.


How do I go about finding out where the construction crews would be or do I just drive around Bham and look? And the truck actually isn't running-transmission is blown, but I could ask my grandfather if he could drive us to the construction site. He has a small utility trailer that he could bring and we could fill up his bed & the trailer. Can you take a look at this & tell me if I have the right general idea of how to build an ebag house?

*First dig a trench, lay down gravel (pea gravel maybe), lay the pipe down, cover with more gravel & then start laying down a couple rows of gravel bags to a certain height
*After the first couple of rows of gravel bags or layed down, then start building up with earth filled bags using our own clay or whatever fill material you think would be best given our climate
*Lay a row of barbed wire between each row of bags & tamp down each row of bags
*Incorporate door & window frames where needed as we're building the walls--how do we attach the frames to the bags? As well as blocks of wood for the fuze box & outlets
*Once we reach the wall height we want--leaning towards about 8', then add the trusses & plywood & tin (if you think this roof is a good idea) Should we keep the back wall slightly lower than the front wall to allow for a slant so that water will run off--for example, 8' front wall & 7' back wall?
*Add the doors & windows
*Apply lime plaster to the outside & inside walls--is it better to do the plaster first & then add the doors & windows or do I have the right order?
*I'm assuming that once the plaster's done then all that's left is moving in? Is this right?
 
John Elliott
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Felicia Daniels wrote:do I just drive around Bham and look?


Pretty much. If there are work crews there, ask for the foreman and ask him if you can haul stuff off. I've never had one say "no, go away, you bother me". Sometimes the freebie real estate magazines that are at the entrance to supermarkets will have ads for new subdivisions. That way you have some places to target when you go driving around. I'm way on the outskirts of Augusta, so there is a lot of new building going on as I head into town. I make it a point to check and see what kind of freebies are available. I imagine it must be the same where you are.

As far as your list, that's pretty much how to build a structure, so you know what you are in for. If you plan and build a small structure, call it a shed, a workshop, a one-car garage, that will bring you a good way up the learning curve. Then if your "tiny house" is too tiny, you can always build a second one (using all the experience you got doing the first one) and maybe connect them with some covered walkway. The modern name for that is being "modular", but the concept dates back to pre-literate civilizations.

As far as doors and windows, it's less a matter of "attaching the frame to the bags" as it is having the openings in the walls firmly attached to the bond beam that goes around the top of the walls with the proper headers. This reference has some good advice on how to build sturdy buildings with walls that won't fall down. The advice also applies to earthbags, because they are essentially very large bricks with rounded edges.
 
Felicia Daniels
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I just tried the soil test about ten minutes ago & this is what the jar looks like right now. I filled the jar 1/2 way with the soil that I got after digging about 1 1/2 ft down & then I filled the entire jar up with water & shook for about 5 minutes. Did I do this right? Is it supposed to look like this or will it take a day or so before it looks different? In the 2nd picture I marked where I think I see a line but I can't really tell if it's a line or not.
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Felicia Daniels
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John Elliott wrote:
Felicia Daniels wrote:do I just drive around Bham and look?


Pretty much. If there are work crews there, ask for the foreman and ask him if you can haul stuff off. I've never had one say "no, go away, you bother me". Sometimes the freebie real estate magazines that are at the entrance to supermarkets will have ads for new subdivisions. That way you have some places to target when you go driving around. I'm way on the outskirts of Augusta, so there is a lot of new building going on as I head into town. I make it a point to check and see what kind of freebies are available. I imagine it must be the same where you are.

As far as your list, that's pretty much how to build a structure, so you know what you are in for. If you plan and build a small structure, call it a shed, a workshop, a one-car garage, that will bring you a good way up the learning curve. Then if your "tiny house" is too tiny, you can always build a second one (using all the experience you got doing the first one) and maybe connect them with some covered walkway. The modern name for that is being "modular", but the concept dates back to pre-literate civilizations.

As far as doors and windows, it's less a matter of "attaching the frame to the bags" as it is having the openings in the walls firmly attached to the bond beam that goes around the top of the walls with the proper headers. This reference has some good advice on how to build sturdy buildings with walls that won't fall down. The advice also applies to earthbags, because they are essentially very large bricks with rounded edges.


I haven't even read about a bond beam. I've never even come across them in the pictures I've looked at but I have mainly looked at domes. What is the bond beam?
 
John Elliott
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I can see if you looked at the Wiki entry on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bond_beam why you would still have questions; it doesn't say much there. A bond beam is a reinforced perimeter on the the top of the walls that helps the building to keep its shape. In ancient building methods, it would be one massive log squared off and hoisted up by the whole working crew. At the corners where the two bond beams would meet, they would make a very strong joint that would resist being shaken out of shape. Here is a good page which defines a lot of the terms which you will need to be come conversant with.
 
Felicia Daniels
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Thank you! I'll check out the other link. What do you think about my soil test?
 
John Elliott
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Felicia Daniels wrote:Thank you! I'll check out the other link. What do you think about my soil test?


It's hard to tell from those pictures. Wait until tomorrow and the water layer should be clear. Then if you have like 1/3 sand/silt at the bottom, 1/3 clay, and 1/3 clear water on top, then that should be great dirt to work with.
 
Felicia Daniels
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Thanks! I'm hoping it will be. I was doing some more reading about everything & I kept coming across stuff about using 1" chicken wire to apply the cob/plaster to. Is using the wire better than not using it? If our dirt turns out to be good would we have to buy any sand or would the sand already mixed into our dirt suffice? Since we're going to do lime plaster--or at least leaning more towards the lime plaster--do we still need to buy straw? I still can't seem to find a formula for figuring out how much dirt we'll need, bags, plaster, straw, etc. And would we fill the bags with our dirt or do we need a special kind of fill? And do we use pea gravel for the gravel needed?
 
John Elliott
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Felicia Daniels wrote: I kept coming across stuff about using 1" chicken wire to apply the cob/plaster to. Is using the wire better than not using it?


Now you are crossing from the science of building to the art of building. The use of 1" chicken wire is part of standard practice in building stucco walls. And since cob and adobe are similar in many ways to stucco, it gets carried over there as well. But the Spaniards who built the San Xavier del Bac mission in Tucson didn't have 1" chicken wire, and their building has stood the test of time:



It looks like it even has a lime wash plaster. I would direct your reading and Googling to all of the Spanish adobe missions that were built in the southwest 2 and 3 centuries ago. They are remarkable buildings and you could hardly go wrong emulating what they did. Here are a couple places to start:

Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, NM

The California missions

 
Felicia Daniels
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Good to know the 1" isn't a mandatory thing. And I hate to keep harping on this because I'm sure it's driving you crazy but is there any way you'd be able to help me figure out how to estimate how much of the materials we'd need or could direct me to a website that would explain it? So I can work up an estimate for fill (in case we can't use our dirt), sand, straw, bags, lime plaster, etc. Thanks!
 
John Elliott
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When builders do cost estimates, they use lots of accumulated data on how long it takes to do a job. For instance, how many man-hours does it take to lay roll roofing, or how many man-hours does it take to mud and sand drywall. I don't think that data set is available for techniques of natural building. I think you have to use your best judgment calculating volumes of material and figuring out how many man-hours it takes to bag and stack those materials.

Maybe we can hope for a better cost engineer than me to give us some wise advice.
 
Tom Gauthier
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Hello Felicia,

Might I suggest that you invest in the book "The Hand Sculpted House" by Ianto Evans. Not only does he provide wonderful advice about building with cob, he also gives great advice about building a home in general ... design, site location, tools,etc. There is a section on estimating the amount of materials based on the length, thickness, and height of walls. There is also a great section on soil testing for cob. This book is well worth the investment (about $20 at Amazon).

Hope this helps.

- Tom
 
Felicia Daniels
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Thanks guys!! And I'll definitely look into that book and I also came across one called earthbag building by kaki hunter. Is this one any good? Or what about the $20 pdf book by owen geiger?
 
Kevin EarthSoul
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I'm not so sure that a high thermal mass house is the best option for a hot-humid climate. Adobe-like housing is great for the desert, where you're using the mass as a thermal flywheel to balance out the day/night swing in temps.

But in Alabama, which is sub-tropical, you get three months of the year (Jun - August) where the high can be 100F, and the low 90F, because the relative humidity is >90%. High thermal mass walls will just absorb all that heat, and stay there, making it unbearable, particularly at night, when it's just too hot and sticky to sleep. I would recommend:
-- Partial below-grade for passive geothermal cooling,
-- deep eaves (wrap-around porch), and lots of shade-trees and/or a living roof;
-- for above grade walls, high insulation against the air temps-- NOT massive walls. You could do a little of both, but I'd heavily favor insulation.

When it's really hot, I'd button up the house and run a geothermal heat pump for cooling/dehumidification.

When it's more tolerable on cooler Summer days and in Spring and Fall, I would keep things cool and comfortable by having plenty of ventilation, including screen doors and windows and a roof exhaust fan, as well as plenty of ceiling fans.

In Winter, there are about 2 months where a little passive solar through windows under the eaves (when the sun is in its low Winter angle) can help add just enough gain to make things comfortable, or run the heat-pump for heating. If your shade trees are deciduous trees that lose their leaves in Winter (in your area), that can also allow more solar gain.
 
Felicia Daniels
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Kevin EarthSoul wrote:I'm not so sure that a high thermal mass house is the best option for a hot-humid climate. Adobe-like housing is great for the desert, where you're using the mass as a thermal flywheel to balance out the day/night swing in temps.

But in Alabama, which is sub-tropical, you get three months of the year (Jun - August) where the high can be 100F, and the low 90F, because the relative humidity is >90%. High thermal mass walls will just absorb all that heat, and stay there, making it unbearable, particularly at night, when it's just too hot and sticky to sleep. I would recommend:
-- Partial below-grade for passive geothermal cooling,
-- deep eaves (wrap-around porch), and lots of shade-trees and/or a living roof;
-- for above grade walls, high insulation against the air temps-- NOT massive walls. You could do a little of both, but I'd heavily favor insulation.

When it's really hot, I'd button up the house and run a geothermal heat pump for cooling/dehumidification.

When it's more tolerable on cooler Summer days and in Spring and Fall, I would keep things cool and comfortable by having plenty of ventilation, including screen doors and windows and a roof exhaust fan, as well as plenty of ceiling fans.

In Winter, there are about 2 months where a little passive solar through windows under the eaves (when the sun is in its low Winter angle) can help add just enough gain to make things comfortable, or run the heat-pump for heating. If your shade trees are deciduous trees that lose their leaves in Winter (in your area), that can also allow more solar gain.


How much would a cheap geothermal heat pump cost? What about a tiny house on wheels instead of cob/ebag/straw? Would a tiny wood house on wheels (like the tumbleweed ones) be a better option for us?
 
Kevin EarthSoul
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Geothermal heatpumps rely on burying a coil in the earth to pump the heat into. If you're excavating for a partial sub-grade home anyway, it's not that big a deal.

If you do a "home on wheels", you're not building below grade, and likely not doing any excavation whatsoever. This would not lend itself to a geo-thermal heat-pump. There are atmospheric heat-pumps, but they aren't as efficient.

I'm not sure what sort of budget you're looking at. If you have land with small trees, you can probably do post/beam with roundwood poles without too much expense. You can probably get straw bales locally. Use that high clay soil for earthen plaster walls (if there's not too much silt). For added insulation, you could run a layer of rice-hulls inside the wall. Rice-hulls might also be good for the roof insulation.

Building a 300 sq.ft. cottage with roundwood poles and strawbale in-fill won't be terribly expensive. You could do a round-house (more likely hexagonal) or a square/rectangular house with a wrap-around porch on 3 sides. The last side could be earth-bermed (but don't use strawbale on that wall, scoria/pumice earth-bags are better below-grade). You could make an earthen floor on the cheap, but do it right, with graduated levels of gravel and a moisture barrier.

Here is a design that I would be looking at:
http://www.balewatch.com/text440.html

It's a bit bigger than your original specification, but with all the people and animals you're wanting to house, I don't think 300 sq.ft. will be sufficient. I wouldn't put more than 2 people (a couple) and 2 animals in 300 sq. ft. This is 440 sq.ft. strawbale cabin with two bedrooms, and a common room with kitchen/living combined in an open floor plan. I would extend the roof over the front and sides to make that wrap-around porch. The small room on the NorthWest side could have a door going out the West wall, instead of North, an be used as a laundry/mud room.

If you have your heart set on doing EarthBags, here's a design that was made for Haiti:
http://earthbagplans.wordpress.com/2012/01/05/hnc-earthbag-house/


 
Felicia Daniels
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Kevin EarthSoul wrote:Geothermal heatpumps rely on burying a coil in the earth to pump the heat into. If you're excavating for a partial sub-grade home anyway, it's not that big a deal.

If you do a "home on wheels", you're not building below grade, and likely not doing any excavation whatsoever. This would not lend itself to a geo-thermal heat-pump. There are atmospheric heat-pumps, but they aren't as efficient.

I'm not sure what sort of budget you're looking at. If you have land with small trees, you can probably do post/beam with roundwood poles without too much expense. You can probably get straw bales locally. Use that high clay soil for earthen plaster walls (if there's not too much silt). For added insulation, you could run a layer of rice-hulls inside the wall. Rice-hulls might also be good for the roof insulation.

Building a 300 sq.ft. cottage with roundwood poles and strawbale in-fill won't be terribly expensive. You could do a round-house (more likely hexagonal) or a square/rectangular house with a wrap-around porch on 3 sides. The last side could be earth-bermed (but don't use strawbale on that wall, scoria/pumice earth-bags are better below-grade). You could make an earthen floor on the cheap, but do it right, with graduated levels of gravel and a moisture barrier.

Here is a design that I would be looking at:
http://www.balewatch.com/text440.html

It's a bit bigger than your original specification, but with all the people and animals you're wanting to house, I don't think 300 sq.ft. will be sufficient. I wouldn't put more than 2 people (a couple) and 2 animals in 300 sq. ft. This is 440 sq.ft. strawbale cabin with two bedrooms, and a common room with kitchen/living combined in an open floor plan. I would extend the roof over the front and sides to make that wrap-around porch. The small room on the NorthWest side could have a door going out the West wall, instead of North, an be used as a laundry/mud room.

If you have your heart set on doing EarthBags, here's a design that was made for Haiti:
http://earthbagplans.wordpress.com/2012/01/05/hnc-earthbag-house/




We have only about $2500 max to spend on the house including building it and getting whatever energy efficient appliances, electric/plumb needs, etc. So a very tight budget. We actually started discussing the house on wheels last night because there's a very good chance we'll be moving to another state within the next 2 years. We weren't sure if we would which is why we were looking at cob/ebag/straw houses but now that we have decided it's a high possibility we'll move we're looking at homes on wheels as well. But we're not sure we'd be able to find a piece of land close to either New York or Los Angeles for $5000 or less that offers at least a couple of acres for us. Would this be possible to find? It would need to be withing 1 or at the most 1 1/2 hrs from either Manhattan or Los Angeles depending on which state we'd move to.
 
Kevin EarthSoul
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If there's a chance you'll be moving, I wouldn't invest in any heavy work that you can't take with you. The only reason why you MAY want to do that, is if you thought you could sell the work when you left, but you're not looking at building to code, so it would likely have to be pulled down when you leave.

It doesn't really sound like now is the time to be looking into building projects. If you want to make a tiny home in a trailer, be my guest, but I don't think it'll be enough space for you all.
 
Felicia Daniels
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Kevin EarthSoul wrote:If there's a chance you'll be moving, I wouldn't invest in any heavy work that you can't take with you. The only reason why you MAY want to do that, is if you thought you could sell the work when you left, but you're not looking at building to code, so it would likely have to be pulled down when you leave.

It doesn't really sound like now is the time to be looking into building projects. If you want to make a tiny home in a trailer, be my guest, but I don't think it'll be enough space for you all.


Well we actually have no choice but to build some sort of house right now because the mobile home we're staying in is falling apart and we thought about just fixing it up but it's actually so bad that we can't even risk moving it because it might fall apart. I think being stationary is the only thing holding it together for us and even if we did find someone to risk moving it the price would be outrageous. Plus our trailer is in such bad shape that we can only use about 1/2 of it now so we're already used to living in about 850 sq ft which I know is a far cry from 300 but I think if we add a loft that would give us additional space. We're still trying to decide the best route but I'm hoping we can.
 
Andrew Parker
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This may give you some good ideas: http://esrla.com/pdf/ricehullhouse.pdf
 
Jay Grace
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There is a guy right near downtown Sumiton that is building pretty large cob house in his backyard right now.
(he's been working on it at least 3 years)

I'm from Jasper. (and used to live in Hayden)
A few of the local permies people had a met up Saturday in cullman.

For building materials keep a watch on craigslist.

Cheap useable lumber can be bought at the lumber yard near oakman on hwy 69. The majority of these are oak 1x4's about 6ft long. They sell a bundle for around $75. The bundles are about 4'x3'x6'. Which is more than pick-up truck can handle. But a bundle goes a long way toward siding a house.

A dog trot house might be an option for you.

Dealing with the humidity in an underground house in the south. Will have a lot to do with your moisture barrier over the top. (Take Paul's WOFATI's for example)
And more importantly would be your air flow / exchange through the house.


 
Jay Grace
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Oh yea. And you don't have to have any sort of building permit in Blount county.
Maybe so in Oneonta city limits. But not out in the country.
Now if you go to sell your place and you build a quirky little "hippie house". The appraiser probably won't appraise it for anything and if they did it's very doubtful a back would loan money on it.
 
Andrew Parker
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Felicia, I spent a couple of hours reviewing Owen Geiger's stuff on YouTube. I had run across his work before but had forgotten about it. I think his solutions will be most appropriate for your location, if you are interested in earth bags or earth blocks. Rice hulls have been used in earthbag construction. Owen has experimented with rice hulls by themselves and mixed with various other materials, in bags or blocks, to be lighter and more insulating. You could also try a variation of his insulating wall by building two wattle and daub walls and filling the void with rice hulls, with or without bags (similar to Paul Olivier's design but more rustic). If you do use rice hull earth bags, I would suggest you investigate sandwiching them between a lath, sapling or bamboo lattice (like a yurt panel), after they have been tamped and strapped down vertically, then cinched tight with wire or twine run through the wall at the intersections. It is kind of the similar to what the Native Americans did with their grass houses to create a strong, solid structure. Also, Native Americans of the Southeast built wattle and daub homes, both roundhouses and square or rectangular, covered in tall roofs with thatch or bark roofing. In colder climates they dug a few inches to a meter or so into the ground and bermed the wall. Also, since you intend to build small, they usually had two houses, one for warm weather and one for cold. Something to consider?

Dale Hodgins has some excellent advice here at the permies forum on salvage. Given your tight budget, you will want to make the best use of what you can salvage from your trailer and from salvage jobs in your area.

If you can find a couple of acres within one or two hours of Los Angeles or New York City for $5,000 or less, it would be a miracle. You might not find a 1/6th acre building lot for under $50,000. That would go for most major metropolitan areas. On the other hand, you might be able to find inner city property in the teens or twenties, such as in Detroit, but it comes with inner city complications.
 
Becky Keith
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Hey Felicia,

My name is Becky. I was in Alabama about 10 years ago and what I remember most was the red clay that stained everything and became a sticky mess when it rained. Here in coastal NC all we have is sand but we do have the same humidity and heat problem. I also have been looking into the sand bag structures for building cheap out building for animal housing. If you were closer i would be happy to give you sand in exchange for some clay. I feel you on the tight budget. When I lost my job our income dropped by about 5,000 a month. Even with my husband working 2 jobs money is tight. What I found is that those poly bags are cheap at the home depot stores. about 50 cents a bag. I would go with smaller bags since they are easier to handle than the large ones. You-tube has some great videos showing both ways. One way to get free building materials is to offer to do site clean up on construction sites. Craig's list also has lots of freebies if you go pick it up. Another option is the prefab storage buildings. Lowe's sells one that is 2 story's high. It looks like a little house. You would have to finish it yourself inside. They will set it up for you as well included in the price. You can get a credit line to pay for it on installment, or you can look for a local builder of these little houses and often rent to own them. The beauty of them is you can transport them on a flat bed and carry it with you. Since you already have power at your site it would be easy to have it wired for electricity. I would place it back in the trees for shade and install a ceiling fan. you can get a cheap one. Its all in how labor intensive and if you have any strong helpers. I have 2 big boys that help me since I am unable to lift much weight. Sand and gravel are pretty cheap if you have it delivered by the dump truck load. Gravel would be adequate for the storage building idea as a foundation. The advantage of the storage building is that you don't need a permit for one. I have 2 here on my property that cost around 2500 each. They are one room with a Murphy bed or futon it would be any easy living in a one room cabin. There is a woman named Becky who built her own log home. I will share the link.http://beckyshomestead.com/ She did it by herself.

As far as your laundry situation goes. You can get a wringer from Lehman's and attach it to a tub. It works well. It will cost you a few hundred but that and a clothes line and you would be set. Make sure and get the laundry plunger thing for the tub. My boys like to get in bare foot and mash the laundry with their feet.

I hope this helps.
 
Felicia Daniels
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Becky Keith wrote:Hey Felicia,

My name is Becky. I was in Alabama about 10 years ago and what I remember most was the red clay that stained everything and became a sticky mess when it rained. Here in coastal NC all we have is sand but we do have the same humidity and heat problem. I also have been looking into the sand bag structures for building cheap out building for animal housing. If you were closer i would be happy to give you sand in exchange for some clay. I feel you on the tight budget. When I lost my job our income dropped by about 5,000 a month. Even with my husband working 2 jobs money is tight. What I found is that those poly bags are cheap at the home depot stores. about 50 cents a bag. I would go with smaller bags since they are easier to handle than the large ones. You-tube has some great videos showing both ways. One way to get free building materials is to offer to do site clean up on construction sites. Craig's list also has lots of freebies if you go pick it up. Another option is the prefab storage buildings. Lowe's sells one that is 2 story's high. It looks like a little house. You would have to finish it yourself inside. They will set it up for you as well included in the price. You can get a credit line to pay for it on installment, or you can look for a local builder of these little houses and often rent to own them. The beauty of them is you can transport them on a flat bed and carry it with you. Since you already have power at your site it would be easy to have it wired for electricity. I would place it back in the trees for shade and install a ceiling fan. you can get a cheap one. Its all in how labor intensive and if you have any strong helpers. I have 2 big boys that help me since I am unable to lift much weight. Sand and gravel are pretty cheap if you have it delivered by the dump truck load. Gravel would be adequate for the storage building idea as a foundation. The advantage of the storage building is that you don't need a permit for one. I have 2 here on my property that cost around 2500 each. They are one room with a Murphy bed or futon it would be any easy living in a one room cabin. There is a woman named Becky who built her own log home. I will share the link.http://beckyshomestead.com/ She did it by herself.

As far as your laundry situation goes. You can get a wringer from Lehman's and attach it to a tub. It works well. It will cost you a few hundred but that and a clothes line and you would be set. Make sure and get the laundry plunger thing for the tub. My boys like to get in bare foot and mash the laundry with their feet.

I hope this helps.


Thanks everyone! You've given me some great ideas. I tried soil testing in a jar but so far it doesn't look like we have good clay which is weird because when we're actually digging holes for pens it looks like great clay but the jar test is proving otherwise so far-unless it's just because it's only been a few days since I've done it. Maybe after a week or 2 things will look better inside the jar. Thanks so much for the link Becky! I'm enjoying her videos. What I really want is to be able to just stay home & homestead without having the stress of an actual job but with all the animals to feed there's no way we could and we wouldn't be able to save for our future move. We are considering cutting down some of our pine trees in the backyard and slicing them up & using them for all of our lumber needs but we're not sure how long it would take for them to dry out. I think things would go quicker if we got a lumber company down here to cut them down & take them to a saw mill to be sliced & dried but we don't know how much that would cost. I was looking on LandWatch yesterday & I actually did find a few pieces of land within a 1 1/2 hr drive to LA for under $8000 so that makes us hopeful. I've got a few ideas rolling around inside my head about the house & the animals' future pens. Since we have decided that we do want to move in a couple of years we are going to go with the idea of building a house on wheels--either building one or buying some sort of RV/travel trailer, etc. If we go with building our own we're going to do our best to use our own trees & pray it saves us a ton of money. We'd also like to cut down enough to set aside & store for when we move & have to build the animals' new pens and this way we wouldn't have to buy lumber for that in the future. Our idea is to scrap the trailer for money but when I think about it, we could use a lot of that tin for our little house and the animals' houses and that would save us money.
 
Becky Keith
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Hi,
How old is the pine? Is it big? If so you could sell it. We have a timber company here now thinning out our land. We are so overgrown. They are paying us around 5 000 to harvest the trees. They are just taking the really big pines. leaving everything else.
 
Felicia Daniels
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Becky Keith wrote:Hi,
How old is the pine? Is it big? If so you could sell it. We have a timber company here now thinning out our land. We are so overgrown. They are paying us around 5 000 to harvest the trees. They are just taking the really big pines. leaving everything else.


We've got several pretty good sized trees. I'll upload a couple of pictures so you can get a general idea. Well we've lived here almost 11 years so I would say they're all about that old or older but we're not sure. How would I find a timber company in Alabama that would harvest ours & pay us? Would they have to take them all in order to be willing to do this because we would like to leave at least some to still have a line of trees that will keep on providing us privacy from the neighbors behind us. And would they leave the stumps or do they usually grind them all down when they're done? The 1st couple of pictures are pretty far away & there are a lot of little skinny trees but mixed in are several fat ones as well. The 3d picture shows a close up of an average sized tree on our land but there are some that are a lot bigger.
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Becky Keith
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The timber guys approached us. I wouldn't have any idea. I would check BBB to see who is operating in your area and see if people are happy with them. This may be a question for a lumber guy here. Maybe forestry services would know some reputable harvesters. I was a beast about how they harvested because I didn't want them to come in and clear cut. That's a disaster. What a mess they leave behind. We have a paper company down the road and the countryside is leveled all around us with big scars of cleared land covered in debris from all the little trees they knocked down but didn't harvest.
 
I found a beautiful pie. And a tiny ad:
The Earth Sheltered Solar Greenhouse Book by Mike Oehler - digital download
https://permies.com/wiki/23444/digital-market/digital-market/Earth-Sheltered-Solar-Greenhouse-Book
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