I am looking to buy some land in VA (probably in the peninsular region) and would like to build a small (600sqftish) home for a family of 3. I am hoping to build something that is cheap, sustainable (passive heating/cooling), but is also not so 'out there' that I will have tons of trouble getting it inspected in an area that is not necessarily used to green building.
Thus far I am considering standard framing with greener insulation (maybe straw bales), sort of an earth ship style design but not underground---probably just a green roof, using as many reclaimed things as I can.
Anyway, any ideas/experiences/suggestions are welcome!
Welcome Athena and congrats on taking the time to do the proper planning. Hopefully others will chime in with different views but I will offer a few thoughts and build regularly in a similar climate.
600 is vey small for 3 people by today's modern american standards. If you havent already, try to vacation in a similar size structure or visit one with the rough dimensions you are after. If youre sure you can do it, its one of the most sustainable and cost saving choices you can make.
Normally I would recommend sticking with sticks and cellulose for your wall framing wrapped in a layer of exterior insulative sheathing. When done well its affordable, high performance and readily accepted by inspectors, banks and future buyers. Your situation sounds unique and if you can stay with such a small size and plan on doing some of the labor or have someone on board with experience in alternative construction methods then it might be worth exploring.
My quickdraw thoughts on the strawbale is that it will complicate things for questionable benefits. Cellulose is a very responsible insulation choice but Iam also ok with petroleum based foams as well because I personally feel the long term monthly energy/environmental costs savings are well worth the upfront environmental costs. At any rate, wall choice is something that shouldnt bog you down as there are many components of a proper building envelope. It doesnt make much sense to do an R50 strawbale wall if you are going to put in cheap windows, not pay attention to air-sealing, build a code minimum attic, ignore slab insulation etc.. Iam normally pushing people to build code minimum performance or beyond but tiny structures can get away with many more exceptions than larger, more energy intensive designs in my opinion. I guess 600 is a little bigger than tiny but I think qualifies for tiny with three residents.
Green roofs are risky. I think they are awesome but need to be very well detailed and tend to be much more expensive than other options. Keeping them over porches and not indoor living areas is smart and remember that they are not a good fit for rainwater catchment.
Most importantly, dont get too far into design before having the site. Before closing on the site/land. Sounds like you are in a flat area which usually means its wise to avoid underground or berming but its also a great way to get some passive heating and cooling performance advantages if you do have some slope or want to move some dirt around.
Lastly, I dont think there is as much conflict between green building and building codes as your title suggests. Building codes are under a huge transformation right now relating to energy and ventilation standards, arguably the most important considerations for the environment and occupant health. Maryland, your neighbor to the North, is one of the few states to enforce the IECC 2012. Meeting this current international energy code (and integrated ventilation standard) is a very cost effective level of green building in my opinion.
"If you want to save the environment, build a city worth living in." - Wendell Berry
posted 5 years ago
Thanks for the advise! I haven't look into building codes in several years as I've been abroad. My husband and I were in the Peace Corps in a 400 sq.ft. home for 2.5 years and loved it. We now have a infant (the third person--I guess 2.5 people might be more accurate) and think that the extra 200 ft should be enough for now though we are considering going closer to 800.
I appreciate your advise with insulation and the link to the cooling site--that was my next big thing to look into! We will be investing in quality supplies and doing most of the building ourselves.
There are many here at Permies to leaned advice, some more "mainstream" while others are almost completely "natural/traditional" in their building focus (that would be me.)
~6 square meters (600 sq ft) is a reasonable starter home for a family with experienced in "living well and organized." The American (and Western) mindset of what is "necessary" is not the "world norm" by any means. I would, for investment purpose, and potential later resale (if you think that may happen even a little bit) plan for a well designed structure that is "expandable." If you don't have a "construction background" then take your time learning well the system you plan to use. Try and sellect a possible "facilitator" that can assist you in the design process, read as much as you can, (permies.com is a great place to start), take your time and plan "thorougly."
A home this small, depending on final choices in materials, and style from "all natural" to a "mix" can be done rather quickly, even by an "owner builder." A budget will have to be arrived at sooner than later, so you can get a good handle on the fiscal needs of the project, and whether there is room for "outside help" which can actually be of great worth if there skill sets and the project scope coalesce.
As the plan(s) start to solidify post your concepts/questions, and you will get a breadth of feedback to choose from.
Athena I have great interest in your journey. Our family is planning the same thing here in CT. We have contacted some towns regarding building code and looked at a few builders. So far it has been discouraging but I'm sure we can get it done. I can't remember where I read but I think in a Dostoevsky story he said he could be happy in a coffin. The mind isn't limited by space so don't think three people living in a small house isn't doable. I would be more than glad to leave our current home and neighborhood behind. It fosters nothing but bad habits and its not a reality I want my son to believe in. Good luck with everything and I will try to share what we learn through this process.
How are things coming along for y'all? Always glad to hear of people building naturally in Va.; that's where we live, and plan to do the same in the foreseeable future.
I certainly wish you well in your endeavor, and appreciate your mindset very much. Although we currently live in a "conventional" home, we've had our share of adventure.:) We bought an older fixer upper, and have been busy ever since, remodeling it as we had the cash, and making do without things that many American families consider necessary; we even did without much of a kitchen for a few years, and learned the meaning of the word "improvise". Hey, did you know you can pull out stumps with an old minivan?:)......as long as they're not too huge, and you dig around them first!
Even though we would definitely do some things differently now, I've never regretted choosing affordability and paying as we go. I cooked on a camp stove [for a long time], our bathroom walls were torn down to the studs, [on the inside:)] and our "kitchen" was turned into a winter storage area the same year one of our babies was born. I don't think living in a newly built, small space with a baby would be that hard, if you're properly set up for it. I probably wouldn't recommend moving in before it's finished in such a small space; it could be a little stressful moving things around with a little one!
We definitely learned how to improvise and make do, and to not let what others think is necessary define our vision for our family, and at the same time realizing that we indeed don't live in a third world country; life is different here. We have building codes to follow that are not an issue somewhere else in the world. We may be ok living without some things for awhile, but unfortunately our county isn't ok with us not having them! So some things we just have to plan for, and adjust.:0
I met a pastor from Kenya last winter whose family lives in a sort of cob house with a thatched roof, and after questioning him about their building practices and learning how their whole community gets involved in building, I was impressed. I told him I thought that was wonderful, and we'd like to build a home like that for our family. He looked puzzled for a moment, then asked. "Why? You have all these wonderful things, these large homes, why would you want to do that if you don't have to?" I explained in brief that all these "wonderful things" cost a lot, and keep people in debt and in bondage, we have these things called building codes that sometimes make no sense, but can be expensive, they sometimes force people to put things in their homes that they don't even want [that they still have to work to pay for], and so forth. He looked even more puzzled after that, after which someone with experience in conventional building explained a little further. It really made me realize how messed up and materialistic our society has become. Some things are definitely better, but being chained to a mortgage for half of our lives is not one of them!
It would be great if our families could somehow help each other! We've wanted to take part in some natural building workshops, but time constraints, job, parents needing assistance, etc., have prevented us from taking that much time off, and [in most cases] traveling that far. We could however, handle a Saturday now and then, if it's within a reasonable driving distance, and would love to build and learn with others!
Cob would be our preferred method; if it ends up being the best thing for us, we'd be delighted. If my info. is correct, we may be able to pull it off, at least in some counties, as long as the house gets a frame first. Have you considered it, Athena? I wish I knew someone with a cob house in Va. I'd love to ask some questions!
posted 5 years ago
Sorry for the delay on replying! It is great to hear from others with similar ideas and even some in good ole Virginia. I am currently looking at an old (1800s old) farm house that is about 800 sqft. It is for sale for quite a good deal and it may be the direction we go as there is a great dirt basement, small living space, original wood beams etc. If its been standing for the past 150+ years I'm thinking its built to last. Not everything is up to code but the local ordinances grandfather in older houses which would solve some issues.
We are still considering natural building, but as said before, work/children/families/growing food limits my ability to attend surprisingly pricy workshops! Frieda and Aaron---keep in touch and let me know how things are going! We would also be interested in following your journeys. How are things going for you all?
posted 5 years ago
Hi Athena, We have been looking at land and pricing building costs and from a financial perspective building a small house in CT is difficult. The cost of land, clearing the land, doing everything necessary in order to start construction is at a minimum $70k. And that is not even for good land. The ironic part is we found a fixer-upper on an acre for $45k. But was gone before we had a chance. Plus we are limited to only certain towns due to size requirements. Only a handful of towns in CT don't have restrictions on the size of your home. So we are currently being patient and looking at every opportunity that comes up. I'm also now weighing the option of a tiny house perhaps two tiny houses. Me and the kid in one and the wife in another... lol. But that requires further investigation as far as what you need to make it happen. In short this might take awhile but I'm sure eventually we'll make the move.
Location: Virginia, USA
posted 5 years ago
Athena, you may be able to incorporate natural building techniques into an older home, if it has a good strong foundation and frame. It would make code issues easier for you, also. We first began learning about "natural building" techniques about five years ago, after we had done a good portion of remodeling on our current home. If we had known what we know now, we would have done things differently, and I feel like we'd be much, much happier with the results!
One example: We tore out the old, central chimney in order to put more cupboards in our kitchen, and decided to use a newer flue that the former owner had done [cheaply, with concrete block, with most of the thermal mass outside the house] in the living room for a wood stove. [BIG MISTAKE!] I'm sure that central chimney was put there for good reason, the brick went all the way upstairs, so there was much more thermal mass, etc. We're convinced our home would be much warmer and easier to heat, if we had payed attention to some of those details! Now, I'd gladly give up the extra cupboard space in the kitchen for a warmer house, even though that old chimney would have needed a liner. It would've been worth it! Unfortunately, although we had some knowledge and experience with remodeling and building, it was mostly modern day, conventional wisdom. The wood stove makes a big difference in our energy costs, and we can cook on it, but we feed it a lot of wood! Thankfully for now, wood is cheap; we have plenty of dead trees here, but even now, we're considering redoing the chimney and building a more efficient rocket stove or masonry heater.......and then, there's always the ever-present insurance and code issues to consider with that, as well!:0
So, you definitely have an advantage, [probably more than you know!] Take advantage of this site, with all the wonderful info. available, learn all you can, and an older home just may be your answer!
Another note: We definitely survived ok, but it would have been much better for us to buy an older RV or trailer to live in temporarily, while this house was being worked on. I'm convinced the work would've gotten done in half the time! It's was often hard for my hubby, [who is naturally a night owl] to quit the noisy work just when we were gaining momentum, because "the baby needs to sleep!"......and yes, there's noisy work even when building/remodeling naturally, more than we think, not to mention dirt and dust! On the other hand, I'm glad we're not completely done with this place, because we've learned a lot in the meantime that can still be incorporated.
I can so relate to your juggling act with responsibilities to family, work, growing/putting up food, etc.! I am there as well! It's frustrating when gardening/canning season is also "building season" when most of the workshops are available, and yes, some of them seem a bit pricey. Our teenage son is also very interested in natural building, and some workshops offer family or group discounts. We recently got a copy of The Hand Sculpted House by Ianto Evans, and have been studying it like a textbook. Lots of neat inspiration in there, and it's a way we can read together for 15 or twenty minutes at night and brainstorm as well as "dream" a little! We find ourselves thinking more in terms of what our family needs and loves, finding more joy in simplicity. We also have Alex Summerall's Cob Building Step by step, Kikko Denzer's Build Your own Earth Oven, and have managed to build a cob pizza oven that we absolutely love. Our outdoor patio plans have changed a lot, all because of that oven! We never attended a class, but were able to build an oven after reading the books, and just getting in there and trying it once. our next "practice project" will be a small barn/chicken coop. If we mess up, at least there won't be much money lost!
If there's one thing I have learned so far, it's that building/planning a homestead needs to be enjoyable and fun, or we burn out eventually and make bad decisions. I'm learning to enjoy the process and learn all I can. You don't have to wait to "live the good life" until everything is "done". [We've been eating awesome food from our humble cob oven, which was just supposed to be a practice project!]
Sure wish you the best; keep us posted, and let us know if you plan a workday!
Location: Virginia, USA
posted 5 years ago
Aaron, sorry to hear about the issues your family is running into. Usually, the smaller the better, as far as permits go. Here, we have an easier time if we stay below a certain square footage. What exactly are the size requirements? Maybe an older home would be a good solution for your family as well? Those are often smaller than what the average "norm" is today.
I was going to post a new thread for my question but this thread seems to fit my questions. I'm looking at a small wooded plot that appears to have been on a the market for quite some time. It has a nice price tag plent of larger trees for a post and beam structure. I want to build a small ohehler type structure with the non bermed was filled with cordwood. Its kinda wooded so well hide from the neighbors. My issue is i want to talk to the zonning comissionar before i even get my hopes up on purchasing the lot. I dont want to look like a dub ass when i first meet him what sorts of questions should i ask about house size requirements, green building materials, rather not i can live in my camper on the site through the building process, ect.
In reading articles about tiny homes and Rob Roys Moragage freedom, about kinda cheating code claiming ia home as a storage shed or getting experimental housing permits like suggested in the straw bale house book. And just a few more general questions (not really Permie material) how do i get the power turned on to run power tools with out a fuse box or breaker panel? Its fairly residential im not sure what its actually zoned but im sure its city do they just run it to a box for you to run out of. I have obviously never purchased land i Have some ocnstruction experance but never had to do any of the paper work myself.
ANy advise for the newb would be greatly appreciated. And Athena two more yrs to finish up my degree and my fiancee and i hope to do the peace corps as well.
My Signature for the last few years was "just spinning wheels," but after our PDC at Pauls Place this summer I feel like we are finally catching traction. Hope to be threading some more. got a roof on our house, swales dug, and finally starting to work on our plan in more details.
If I'd had more time, I would have written a shorter letter. -T.S. Eliot such a short, tiny ad:
A rocket mass heater heats your home with one tenth the wood of a conventional wood stove