Back in 2011, I found myself carrying a tent and a few gardening tools down to a field in the hills of southern Turkey. At the time, I had no idea about building. I’d never so much as put a shelf up in my life. Eight months later, I was perched on an earthbag wall hammering in wooden anchors for rafters. I had learned what a joist was, and a stem wall.
The experience of building my own home was one of the most transformative I’ve ever had. I now live in that beautiful circle of mud. From being utterly novice, I have become a reasonable sustainable builder.
I mention this because who doesn’t want a beautiful green home? Who wouldn’t love to create their own healthy and sustainable space, a space that inspires them every day? I remember years earlier, a friend showing me Simon Dale’s strawbale hobbit house. I had adored it. It was a dream home. I never imagined I’d be living in one, never mind constructing my own. But the truth is this is something anyone, yes anyone, can do.
So if we all dream of it, why aren’t more of us doing it?
People think building is difficult. It’s not. And in the hope of encouraging a few more wannabe natural builders, I’ve compiled the following list. Because in my experience, there are far harder things in life than building a house.
Working a job you hate for a year. Struggling through the daily grind day after day is soul destroying. It saps your life force and demoralizes you. Building a house energizes and empowers you. If you’ve worked in the system for decades then what can I say? Building should be a breeze.
Buying a house the traditional way. Mortgages, lawyers, bank officials, signing your name against hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt and then having to work half a lifetime to pay off that debt. This is way more stressful than a few months messing about in mud.
Hiring contractors to build your house for you. Unless you are very lucky, dealing with workmen and contractors is like teeth extraction. When you build your own home, the power is yours. You dictate the work schedule, you control the budget, and you do it properly.
Writing a book. Writing a book will demand a lot more courage, perseverance and time than building a house. Take it from me, I’ve done both.
Having children. I can’t personally attest to this one, as I don’t have children. But from the outside it definitely looks a lot more challenging than building a house.
Getting divorced. Ouch! Divorce is the collapse of a dream, building a home is the creation of one.
1. They don’t know where to start.
2. They are daunted by the jargon.
3. They are afraid to make a structural error and have the house collapse on them.
4. Economic reasons.
I’ve suffered most of these doubts, but they are all easily overcome, even by complete beginners.
Lack of knowledge or skills is going to be the least of your worries. I learned you can always find information online, and skills are easily acquired. Construction isn’t rocket science. Really. What you need to focus on is strengthening your determination, self-belief and cultivating a resilience to naysayers.
As for the economic considerations; building your own home is incredibly inexpensive compared to hiring a contractor to do it. My house cost $5,000 and that price includes labour, a carpenter for windows and doors, and wood for the roof and floor. It’s a small home (not tiny) but ample for my needs.
So if you’re dreaming of natural building, but don’t know where to start…
1. Join a natural building workshop and get your hands dirty. Feel how much fun it is to build.
2. Join an online natural building forum (there are oodles of them nowadays).
3. Try building small structures (such as a dog kennel, outside toilet or a shed) first.
4. Take general advice (i.e. that of your neighbours, colleagues and great uncle Frank) with a large pinch of salt. Even professionals can err. The mainstream construction industry does things very differently from the green building world. I was told by architects that it was impossible to have foundations without concrete, and I’ve had qualified engineers write to me to say they’d never seen the earthbag technique before. Green builders are bucking the system not bending to it.
5. Hire help in the beginning, observe and learn from your labourers, then slowly wean yourself off them.
Atulya K Bingham is an author and sustainable building addict. She lives semi off-grid in Turkey in her beloved earthbag house. Until April 30th, you can download her ebook Mud Mountain, The Secret Diary of an Accidental Off-Gridder for free! You can also find a free earthbag building PDF and other natural building tips from her website. Read all of Atulya's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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