The Small Home, Big Decisions series follows Jennifer and her husband, Tyler, as they build a self-reliant homestead on a piece of country property in northeastern Kansas. The series will delve into questions that arise during their building process and the decisions they make along the way. The posts are a work in progress, written as their home-building adventure unfolds.
Chris Magwood’s excellent reference book, Making Better Buildings, analyzes and compares various green and natural building materials and methods, from cob to lumber-framing to earth-bag construction. In his opening chapter entitled “Foundations,” he does not even offer an analysis of concrete, except to spend a few paragraphs that explain the incredibly intense energy use required to create concrete and how unsustainable the process is, especially on the scale of pouring an entire basement. (I’m curious, as a side note, how this plays into the new fascination with concrete countertops. But, we may explore that in a later post.)
Magwood does admit there really isn’t another material aside from poured concrete that will create a basement that will stay dry enough to last and hold up the rest of the house. He makes a quick note that people should be convinced they can live without a basement. While we pondered Magwood’s valid points for quite awhile, we ultimately didn’t agree that we felt comfortable building a basementless house in tornado- and heavy-storm-laden Kansas, especially in the country. In addition, by concentrating the furnace and necessary electrical boxes (including the inverter from our eventual renewable-energy system) into the basement, repairs and access should be easier for us to handle on our own. Also, the hill we are building into is the site of an underground spring, which makes having a sturdy, water-resistant foundation and basement wall material all the more imperative. A concrete wall with a waterproofing sealer fits our requirements and needs, and so we settled on a concrete foundation for our future home.
We are taking strides to make our use of the concrete more worthwhile. For example, we are having our contractor build in a version of the MOTHER EARTH NEWS plans for a basement root cellar, so that our basement will double as our underground food storage space. That way, we don’t have to dig in a separate space later on (and potentially need more concrete), and we can save energy, fuel and money by not needing to buy-in additional food through winter months.
Also, we’ve decided to include a greywater system that incorporates the water from our laundry machine and produce-washing sink, both of which will reside in the basement. Tyler and our contractor are going to put in this custom plumbing work, which means we’ll save money and, in the future, water. This first stage of plumbing will be happening within the next week as the concrete walls (shown above with the waterproof sealing) dry and set — watch for a post for more details about our planned greywater system!
Photo of concrete basement with waterproof sealing by Jennifer Kongs.
Jennifer Kongs is the Managing Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. When she’s not working at the magazine, she’s likely in her garden, on the local running trails or in her kitchen instead. You can connect directly with Jennifer and Tyler by leaving a comment below!