How to Build a 'Temporary' Microhouse

Learn how to build a temporary, portable home called a microhouse.

| June/July 1998

The foundations of the first true American microhouse—and of the philosophy that changed society's attitude toward personal freedom and man's relationship with Nature—were laid "near the end of March, 1845," when Henry David Thoreau, a Harvard dropout from Concord, Massachusetts, borrowed an ax, walked a mile and a half to Walden Pond, and began to build a ten-by-fifteen-foot one-room cabin of hand-hewn logs and recycled shanty boards fastened with salvaged nails and wooden pegs. In an era when a laborer earned a dollar a day, his total cash outlay for the house came to $28.12. He lived there for more than two years and from the experience wrote a book called Walden, which changed my life and the lives of many others. It can change yours as well.

In the balance of this article, we'll suggest how you can live like Thoreau and create your own Walden by designing and building your own rustic microhouse. Perhaps you'll just want to dream about doing so.  Be sure to check out the image gallery along the way to see some helpful illustrations.

Even in the backyard of a town or suburban home, a microhouse exempt from building codes can be built as a moveable tool shed. Arrange the front to face the garden or perhaps a little fishpond; screen its open sides with fast-growing shrubs and vines. Fitted with a portable chemical toilet behind a folding screen in one comer, water from a hose, and electricity from a long outdoor extension cord plugged in at the house, it can provide a rustic backyard retreat for anyone who needs some private quiet time in a natural setting.

In a more rural locale, where city zoning rules and building codes won't interfere, a more firmly rooted version with a detached privy and a grey water drywell to dispose of cooking and wash water can serve as a place of their own for grandmother or an adult child who has come to live with you. Farther afield still, it can serve as a low-cost, low-impact second home in the woods or mountains or on a lake. It can be a place to camp while you build your full-size log cabin; then you can convert the microhouse into an in-law's or older teenager's apartment, a small barn, stable, or hen house.

It can be the ultimate retreat on a slow-moving Southern catfish and craw-dad creek to host a sun-warmed retirement that will remain affordable no matter what might happen to Social Security or the Dow Jones average.

Choosing a Good Location for a Microhouse

Where to build? Some place wild and natural to be sure—or as wild and natural as you can manage. Economies aside, the greatest environmental advantage of a hand-built microhouse over conventional home construction is that a diesel bulldozer isn't needed to dig cellars and utility lines, to grade the land flat, and to make noise and belch smoke. Like Thoreau, you can haul or cart your house, plank by plank, as far into the back-beyond as your energy permits and erect it on a foundation of local stones, so the structure disturbs little of its natural surroundings. A hand-built microhouse rests lightly on the earth, and you can site one in places where limited access, rugged topography, environmental ethics, or law prohibits conventional construction.

2/24/2007 7:53:30 PM

I seem to remember reading on this site about a system for wall-building in which one assembles with two courses of 5" logs held together with concrete and separated by an insulating airspace. Can you help me find it? Thanks, Jim Cayton MOTHER EARTH NEWS RESPONDS: You can search "cordwood" on this site to read many articles on this type of alternative home building.

mother earth news fair 2018 schedule


Next: April 28-29, 2018
Asheville, NC

Whether you want to learn how to grow and raise your own food, build your own root cellar, or create a green dream home, come out and learn everything you need to know — and then some!