Inexpensive (Earthbag, Natural, and Conventional) Building

Our First Earthbag House Build Circa 2009
Our First Earthbag House Build Circa 2009 Features Repurposed Doors, Bottle Walls, and a Remainder Tile Floor.

People doing conventional stick-frame building these days are getting sticker shock. Lumber prices blew up early in the Age of Covid and everything else has followed suit. The supply chain crisis has been a long time coming, putting into stark relief the absurdity of manufacturing most things halfway around the world and shipping them everywhere else. Regardless, there are ways we can avoid losing our financial asses when building a home. Here are a few of them:

  1. Build with dirt! I know it goes without saying but dirt is dirt cheap! Got rocks? They’re a valuable resource too. 
  2. Buy wood from a local sawmill or have a mobile sawmill come to your property. For around $400 my property mate got 1000 board feet milled from logs on site. These can be timbers of virtually any size that would be VERY expensive if you had to buy them. You can also harvest and use your own unmilled timbers. Make sure to let green wood season before building as shrinkage can present problems. Cordwood is another great, underutilized wall system.
  3. Buy windows, doors, and many other essentials from Habitat for Humanity ReStores or builder’s surpluses. You can often find incredible deals on french doors, double-paned sliding-glass doors (that can be used to give you amazing passive solar), and all kinds of other useful items at a greatly reduced price. I generally don’t buy or use old windows anymore. Often they won’t close properly or the pulleys in them are broken, making them difficult to open. Luckily, habitat and surpluses often have new windows too.
  4. Collect bottles for bottle walls. Many recycling places will let you grab bottles. If you’re looking for an easy way to get cherished cobalt blue bottles, buy you some Bud Light Platinum and either drink it or pour it out. Funny story – I’ve seen an empty Platinum bottle on sale for $2 at a local Goodwill! That cost more than when it had the brew in it!
  5. You can get coupons for as much as 20% off at Lowes, online. Research a bit and make sure you’re getting it from a reputable place.
  6. Lowes often has “cull piles” where they will sell a big bundle of lumber remnants at a heavily discounted price. I’ve purchased many of these through the years.
  7. You can keep an eye on craigslist or facebook marketplace for materials you need. You can find many things for free or at a great price. An example: a community member found a bunch of glass freezer doors for sale on craigslist. They probably cost between $20 to $30 each for stainless framed, heavily insulated glass doors. We used them in much of the south-facing side of our earthship-inspired earthbag house. Buying new glass for such an application would be crazy expensive.
  8. Mike Reynolds of earthship biotecture fame has always used lots of “trash” such as aluminum cans, bottles, and discarded tires in his builds. While I do think that earthbags are a superior medium to the tires in many ways, it’s highly intelligent to make use of free resources that others don’t want. The idea of “waste” or “trash” is a strange idea. Almost everything (except for perhaps nuclear waste and modern frankenchemicals) is useful somewhere.
  9. You can demolish old structures and reuse the materials. Carefully consider safety and how much work it will take to get the materials you want before embarking on such a project.
  10. Pallets can be harvested to get lots of high quality, rough milled wood. People have built entire pallet houses, though I’ve heard that can be a challenging undertaking since they aren’t generally uniform sizes. I’ve made countertops and shelves out of pallet wood before. There is a special crowbar you can get to break them apart.
  11. Bamboo is often a great, free resource. My community mate found a place in a nearby town where they were taking down a huge bamboo stand. He went and got a giant trailer-load of it and it has gotten used in many projects. Bamboo is also great for making roof poles for yurts and many other applications.
  12. Tile stores usually have stockpiles of remainder tiles at greatly reduced prices. You can also make an easy earthen floor like I did in my tiny house. Most of the floor is dirt with some cement mixed in and then I painted the surface with cement “paint” to give it a hard, rock-like surface–an extremely quick and inexpensive floor. I have details about it in our online earthbag tiny house class.
  13. By doing the work yourself or work-trading with a friend or friends, you will save A LOT of money! My community brother, Craig, and I agreed to help each other on our earthbag houses. It really sped up progress. I find it helpful to be very clear on expectations and availability, this way, someone isn’t getting or giving less help than they expect/can give.
I am a dedicated cheapskate and it has helped me greatly reduce the cost of all of the structures I’ve built. Starting to collect materials well ahead of building time will allow you much better opportunity to gather what you need at good prices. I will add to this list as I think of more things.

This Post Has One Comment


    Very original at instructions which are Handy.
    I would like to try out these….

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