Building a Low-Budget Rustic Passive Solar House

David Schonberg shares what it is like building a low-budget rustic passive solar house, includes information on earth sheltering, solar heating and cost of materials for a solar home.

| September/October 1982

This low-budget rustic passive solar house that costs less than $12 per square foot. (See the solar home photos and diagrams in the image gallery.)

The Schonbergs built a low-budget passive solar house that sets new standards for simplicity.

My family's rustic solar home might not suit everyone. (In fact, people with plenty of money on hand could undoubtedly have found ways to sink another $20,000 to $50,000 into it!) But we're grateful and delighted to have a comfortable, efficient, 1,800-square-foot, four-bedroom dwelling at an out-of-pocket price of only about $20,000. As our county assessor pointed out, the typical house in our area costs about $30 per square foot to build . . . but we managed ours for less than $12 per!

Furthermore, for the first time, the frigid Minnesota winters can bring us that bright, warm, lazy feeling we used to get only in summer. "Who needs to go south for the cold months," commented one friend, standing in the sunshine streaming into our dining room last December, "when you have a house like this one?"

Patience When Building a Solar Home

Seven years ago my wife and I agreed to be patient for one more decade . . . and then, if everything worked out, we'd build a new home. In the meantime we decided to maintain our old farmhouse as best we could and be thankful for the roof over our heads. Of course, every time a drain backed up or the winter wind shook the worn wooden structure, we couldn't help dreaming of the beautiful, earth-sheltered, solar houses we kept reading about in books and magazines . . . and so we soon began to plan just how those energy-saving concepts might fit into our own home. While doing so, however, we all too frequently butted our heads against the same problem . . . most of the designs we read about were well beyond our budget.

You see, our 35-acre organic truck farm provides us with a decent living, but it certainly doesn't yield the sort of money that could pay for a $100,000 building at 16% interest. We needed to plan a house we could afford, and every dollar we could cut from its price would mean we could move in that much sooner. At the same time, though, we wouldn't settle for less than a home that would be comfortable, energy-efficient, large enough for our family of seven, and attractive. Happily enough, the design we developed (and the house we now live in) combines all those features, meets our needs . . . and was inexpensive enough to cut our ten years' wait down to seven!

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