8 Types of Alternative Home Building Methods and What Makes Them Cool

This post was originally published on michaeljanzen.com. You are welcome to reblog this post as long as you credit the author, Michael Janzen, and link back to the original post.

What draws me most to these construction approaches is that they can be tackled by do-it-yourselfers, low cost, and low impact.

These are also eight of the different approaches I’ll be writing about and designing in the future here at michaeljanzen.com.

#1 Adobe

Adobe homes are currently my main interest, but as you read below not my only interest. My interest began in high school and college. I lived in Arizona and New Mexico back then and adobe is the native construction method.

In a dry climate, earthen homes make the most sense, since they are subject to erosion. In wet or humid climates adobe is probably not ideal.

Adobe walls also stay cool during the day and radiate heat back at night. In many parts of the southwest (not Phoenix), it’s common to have hot days and cool nights so the daily rhythm of adobe walls working with you is a welcome feature.

There are other earthen options like cob and rammed earth but I’ll probably stay away from these mostly due to personal preference.

What draws me most to adobe is that it’s well understood and accepted – at least in the southwest where it’s most used – it’s easy to learn, it’s ideal for passive solar designs, and it makes an incredible energy-efficient home that can last centuries.

#2 Earthbag

Earthbag is similar in function to adobe but has a different aesthetic and the brick making process happens as the walls go up – as opposed to making and sun curing blocks prior to construction as you do with adobe.

An earthbag is essentially a polypropylene sandbag filled with compactable dirt. Long polypropylene tubes can also be used. The walls are often not strait as they are with adobe and novice builders can learn to build these walls quickly.

Once these homes have been stuccoed – to protect the polypropylene from the sun – they have a similar aesthetic to cob homes.

#3 Earthships

Architect Michael Reynolds from Taos, New Mexico pioneered the Earthship construction method. It uses discarded tires for walls that are mostly buried in the ground. The side of the home that faces the sun is open to allow the half-buried home to be passively solar heated.

But it’s not the wall construction that interests me, it’s the system Reynolds designed into these homes. His intention was to have a house that was totally independent and self-sufficient – just like a ship on the sea must be.

For example, greywater is recycled through an indoor garden and reused to flush toilets. The homes are heated mostly by the sun with wood heat as a backup. Rainwater is collected off the metal roof.

Many of these homes are build just north of Taos, New Mexico on the Taos Mesa where there is virtually no access to well water and where the winters are cold. Even in this harsh environment these homes provide comfortable living for their owners.

I think any home could benefit from the design principles that Earthships teach and I suspect they will influence every one of my future designs in some way.

#4 Strawbale

The first three methods use thermal mass to regulate temperature. Strawbale homes use massive natural insulation to keep their interiors comfortable.

Strawbale homes are literally made from bales of straw – often a waste product after harvest. This is the stuff most animals don’t usually eat – it’s no Hay – it’s the stalks that need to be bundled up or burned. Straw is primary used as livestock bedding material.

In areas where strawbales are plentiful, they also make an inexpensive wall when stacked up. In some areas the building codes allow them to support the roofs. In other areas, the code requires some other kind of structure to support the roof – like timber frame.

No matter how you hold the roof up, thick strawbale walls provide an incredible amount of insulation and when stuccoed-up these walls can last hundreds of years.

Strawbale homes often have the same aesthetic as territorial adobe homes – with pitched roofs, thick walls, and rectangular rooms.

#5 Underground

Since I was a kid I’ve been fascinated with underground homes. Like thick-walled homes, underground homes take advantage of the thermal mass of the ground around them. But underground homes are mainly always cool and the temperature doesn’t fluctuate with the rising and setting of the sun – unless one side is open to the sun like an Earthship.

Building underground also presents some challenges with water and drainage. But once these are overcome an underground home’s advantages – notably in extremely hot climates – become obvious.

#6 Prefab

Prefab homes are made from components constructed off-site – away from the actual building site. Sometimes these are small wall sections, other times they are completed sections of the house.

The main advantage of prefab is that the home can be efficiently built in a controlled environment and then assembled at the building site. This can reduce labor costs and impacts to the land.

#7 Self-Built Van, Truck, and Bus Homes

Truly mobile homes fascinate me. They provide homeowners the freedom to travel and explore as long as there is gas to put in the tank.

While they may not be the most environmentally friendly homes, the freedom they provide offers a unique feature that few other homes can.

The main challenges are finding ways to earn a living while staying mobile and choosing to downsize to a spartan level.

#8 Tiny Houses

Yes, I’m still very interested in tiny houses – I’m actually frantically working on a new edition of my book Tiny House Floor Plans.

Tiny Houses rekindled an interest in architecture for me and reminded me to think differently about housing. There are many mortgage-free and low-impact options out there for us to choose from. We don’t need to choose to pay a 30-year mortgage as long as we’re willing to work and wait for the right home.

Tiny Houses continue to fascinate me mainly because they attempt to perfectly optimize all the essential things we need in a home. They are not perfect and they are not a one-size-fits-all solution, but they are an excellent show case for frugal simple living.

Photo of an Earthship video Wikipedia.

Who Isn’t Building Tiny? Jonas & Silvija Build a Cargo Trailer Tiny House for $7K in 2 Weeks!

This post was originally published on michaeljanzen.com. You are welcome to reblog this post as long as you credit the author, Michael Janzen, and link back to this original post.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. I follow a bunch of YouTube channels. Jonas and Silvija have a channel on flying a bush plane out of Idaho. I’ve been daydreaming about learning to fly and it’s fun to watch their adventures flying his bush plane in and out of remote locations, getting stuck on mountain tops, and force landings on sand bars.

Today they posted a video of a cargo trailer tiny house build. OMG… who isn’t building tiny!?

At the end of the video, he shows a time-lapse of the construction process – which him just $7,000 and took only 2 weeks!

If you want to learn to fly and looking for inspiration follow Jonas and Silvija’s channel. She’s from Lithuania, and their next videos will be travel videos where they go back to her homeland. But when they are back in the states I suspect to see more tiny house and flying videos in th future.

Photo by Jonas and Silvija. Follow them on Youtube.

9 Things The Tiny House Movement Has Taught Me

This post was originally published on michaeljanzen.com. You are welcome to reblog this post as long as you credit the author, Michael Janzen, and link back to this original post.

I first realized the tiny house movement was a thing back in 2007. The exact moment was when I saw Jay Shafer on Oprah. I’ve worked from home for years and my wife was out in the living room watching Oprah. She called to me that I had to see Oprah’s next segment on tiny houses.

After rolling my eyes and thinking, WTF is a tiny house? – I stepped into the living room and sat down to watch. I was instantly hooked. At the time I had also been watching my California home’s value evaporate and was waking up to the debt prison that is a traditional mortgage. I started blogging about tiny houses in 2008 – mostly as I explored alternatives to my own situation.

Eleven years later, a few key things stand out to me. They are lessons anyone can benefit from and don’t require living tiny – but can help you begin to apply tiny living to your existing lifestyle.

1. We don’t need much to be comfortable

After 11 years of blogging on the Tiny House Movement, I’ve seen and heard a lot of tiny houses success stories. Thousands of people have given tiny house living a try and through the telling of their stories have shown us it doesn’t take much in space & stuff to be comfortable. The hardest part isn’t adapting the amount of space, it’s our stuff.

At this point, I think the less stuff one has the happier they can potentially be. Stuff is a burden. It’s costly because it demands so much attention. In some cases people even put stuff in paid storage units – yeah I’m guilty of that too – and those monthly payments add even more actual cost to the mental toll of knowing that at some point that useless stuff needs to be confronted.

As far as I’m concerned, less stuff and less work to do around the house means more freedom and more comfort.

2. We can learn new things and create new opportunities

Back in 2008 tiny houses lit my mind on fire. The possibilities seemed endless. I drew design concepts like concrete pipe houses, houses with moving walls, bike houses, and nine square foot tiny houses. To get all those ideas on paper I had to learn to draw differently.

SketchUp was new back then… a 3D drawing program invented by Google for adding buildings to Google Maps. Today SketchUp is a favorite tool of Architects and Illustrators for creating 3D models and photorealistic renderings to help visualize ideas.

I taught myself to draw with SketchUp and it’s empowered me to draw all the tiny house plans and concepts I’ve published over the years. It’s now one of the skills I rely on for my own enjoyment and income.

I’ve seen many tiny homeowners learn new skills while building their tiny homes, like carpentry, metalwork, and even videography and web publishing.

Through the sharing of success stories on YouTube, we’ve all seen this transformation happen before our eyes. The projects folks choose to take on lead to new skills which in turn become new opportunities and take us to new places.

3. Choosing freedom takes conscious daily effort

The hardest part of downsizing is making tough choices with tempting distractions all around us. It’s like choosing to go on a diet in a donut shop. It’s like choosing to get off drugs while continuing to hang out with your old stoner pals.

When the natural thing to do is to get a job to pay a mortgage and consume like there’s no tomorrow… and everyone around us is doing it… it’s almost impossible not to join in. Tax breaks, low payments, and the prospect of living in lavish digs also make it easy to jump on the debt carousel. For the paranoid, it almost seems intentional plot to enslave the free… but I digress.

If we truly want to be free, choosing freedom over debt-powered opulence is a tough daily battle in our own minds. Don’t give up the fight.

4. We all can learn something from stories of extreme downsizing.

One of the biggest lessons we’ve all learned from the Tiny House Movement is that there is an alternative to the debt carousel.

Every time we watch another success story about tiny house living, the idea that these tough choices might not be so tough after all. Once we implant those goals in our minds the conscious decision to be free gets easier to achieve.

5. We can design and build our own homes

If you were to try to build your own home in a highly-populated city that must conform to building codes, ordinances, and covenants – you’d be hard-pressed. The bar has been set so high, it usually takes a professional to build a large normal home.

But tiny homes are different. They can be built safely in a few months by average folks with skills learned along the way. It’s still a big project, but it’s achievable. We’ve seen it done time and time again.

Designing a tiny home isn’t rocket science either. You’ll likely need to learn some new skills, and spend a lot of attention on each square foot – but in the end designing and building your tiny home is doable.

6. Tiny Houses are too small for most people

Not everyone can fit their lives inside a 120 square foot home. Tiny homes work for singles and couples best – but only when they truly embrace a frugal lifestyle. The more people and functions you add to the living space the more space you need.

A family with parents that work from home and children that home school is a perfect example of a use case that stretches tiny living to the limit. We’ve seen it done, there are many families that have successfully made this situation work inside bus conversions and tiny houses, but it’s not easy, takes careful planning, constant organization, and a lot of patience.

So while tiny houses may be too small for most people we can all see the benefits of living tiny and apply it to our big homes. Reducing waste, energy consumption, and the amount of stuff we surround ourselves with brings us more freedom and lowers living expenses. We can all begin to live tiny in the space we’re in today… and once we make a step toward downsizing it becomes even easier.

7. Bus conversions might be a better option for those that want to travel

Tiny houses are heavy and not very aerodynamic. They are also usually made mostly of wood, so not as strong as a steel school bus, which is made to carry heavy loads safely for many years.

Bus conversions have been around a lot longer than tiny houses too, and it makes a lot of sense – especially if you want to travel. They are simple mechanically, so can be repaired relatively easily. They provide a decent amount of headroom, making them livable. They have open interiors that can be easily outfitted with the comforts of home.

The main drawback is aesthetics. A tiny house is super cute and feels like a home inside and out. A bus is a bus and it feels like one inside – even when comfy cozy. While the bus is more functional as a traveling home, the tiny house wins the beauty contest – or is it a matter of taste? You decide.

8. VanLife might be best for those that want to travel

VanLife has captured a lot of peoples’ imaginations. The idea of being young and free again and hitting the road for an endless adventure is a captivating idea.

I suspect it’s a lot tougher than it looks but you have to admit, if you have travel and exploring on your mind it’s the only way to go. Anything larger than a van would limit where and when you can stop, but a van – especially a stealthy one – can camp almost anywhere.

The obvious draw back to VanLife is space. A van’s interior makes tiny homes looks cavernous and luxurious – so fully embracing extreme downsizing is required.

9. Most people don’t really want to live simply

One trend I’ve noticed is that tiny houses have gotten a lot more luxurious and expensive over the years. Back, in the beginning, it was common to see people build their own homes for less than $10K and fully optioned homes for $20K-$25K.

Today it seems like $40K-$50K is the norm and professionally built tiny homes are often in the $75K-$100K ballpark. Why is this?

I think it’s simple… people want their cake, (and pie, and cookies, and pudding), and to eat it too. People are addicted to stuff and living large… the temptations are all around us and it’s hard to not get sucked into wanting more More MORE.

It’s like an addiction and it’s crept into the tiny house movement too. For these folks, the benefit of the tiny house is that the scale makes all the goodies more attainable.

Am I judging?

Nope. Just pointing out that the Tiny House Movement has become a much more diverse place with a wide range of people and values. No really, I like my cake and dontus too.


Tiny houses are not a one-size-fits-all dream. In the beginning the pendulum had swung all the way to the frugal side. Today it’s swung to the other side with more opulent options. But between those two extremes there are options for even more people, needs, etc.

But as diverse as the Tiny House Movement has become, this is just the tip of the ice berg of all the alternative housing options available to us that embrace many of the core values of living tiny – and more.

These learnings are a big part of why I’m shutting down my tiny house websites and focusing on this blog. It’s the core values that I’ll move forward with… and I won’t be focusing just on size.

Be sure to subscribe to my new email newsletter at michaeljanzen.com.

What have you learned from the Tiny House Movement? Leave your comments below.

Tiny House Websites Shutting Down


  1. I’m shutting down my tiny house websites and selling-off the domain names. I’ll continue to post my tiny house designs (and other work) here at michaeljanzen.com.
  2. This is the last chance to get my downloadable tiny house plans & SketchUp files. After October 15, 2019 they will no longer be available anywhere online. In the future, I will only publish tiny house plans in print.
  3. The Tiny House Design & Living email newsletter will also be ending on October 15, 2019. If you want to continue to follow me, please subscribe to michaeljanzen.com.

Full Story

This has been brewing for a while. Over the last 5 years I’ve watched the landscape of blogging, social media, and online marketing completely transform for the worse – for me.

In 2008, I launched my website Tiny House Design. I did it mostly as therapy & fun, but it quickly turned into a side income. By 2014 I was making as much running that website as I was at my day job.

But then tons of things changed. Facebook stopped sharing posts with people that followed fanpages, YouTube stopped paying ad royalties to small channels, and online advertising took a major downturn. I tried a bunch of things to turn things around without much success.

Today, that website business has failed – probably mainly due to my resistance to adapt in ways that I wasn’t willing to do, like: get spammy, post paid content, do sponsored product reviews, take on sponsors, charge for memberships, or ask for support on patreon.

All those options would probably make good business sense, but for me, they would feel like a huge compromise. So instead, I’m going to go back to just having fun sharing my designs for my enjoyment and yours. I’ll be doing that right here. To follow along subscribe by email.

Books & Plans

I will still design some tiny houses but the plans I’ll publish the plans in print. They will be available on Amazon in book format, probably starting in 2020.

After October 15th, 2019 I’m no longer offering downloadable plans mainly due the tiresome job of fighting all the copyright theft. It’s no fun to fight these crooks; it doesn’t make me happy, and it’s virtually impossible to stop them because electronic documents as so easy to steal, reproduce, and republish.

So, if you want any of my downloadable tiny house plans (including the SketchUp files) you can find them a TinyHouseDesign.com until October 15th.

I have more books planed. I’m currently working on a second edition of Tiny House Floor Plans. I hope to publish it before the end of 2019.

Tiny House Website Shutdown

Running multiple websites is a costly and time consuming job. Since it’s not working as a business anymore it’s hard to justify the expense.

But it does make sense to consolidate all my work under one website, and it makes even more sense to just use michaeljanzen.com as that website. I’ve not blogged here in years, but it feels good to completely start over fresh here for all the right reasons.

If you’d like to buy my tiny house domain names, you can find tinyhouseliving.com and tinyhousedesign.com available for sale at Sedo.com.

Stencils on Etsy

I’m going to continue to make my tiny house design stencils available on Etsy for now.

Subscribe to MichaelJanzen.com

Part of the costly expense of running a website is paying for an email service. I’ve found a free option, but I can’t transfer all my subscribers to the new service.

So, if you want to continue to follow me, subscribe to my free email newsletter. You can also find me on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. These social links are to my personal profiles – not the old Tiny House Design accounts.

A New Beginning

I’m restarting my personal blog, and in the spirit of downsizing I think I might shut down some of my other websites and focus my attention here.

Back in 2008 I started blogging about the Tiny House Movement – mostly as therapy as I watched the real estate market tank. Until then I never thought a home’s value could plummet so far, so fast. The whole experience really changed the way I thought about housing.

I’m a designer, so it was natural for me to start dreaming up tiny house plans. Soon I had a lot of people following my blog who were also interested in tiny house design. My tiny house blogs became a business and I began to rely on it – but like most businesses you either adapt to the changing marketplace or you fail.

At about the time tiny houses began showing up on television shows I noticed a major change in the Tiny House Movement. Everyone was writing about it, shooting video, and more and more professionals started their own tiny house businesses.

Today tiny houses are big business and those of who chose to remain small have not been able to keep up.

So today is a new day when I’m going to sell off my tiny house websites and go back to blogging from my heart and not as a business. So far this decision feels incredibly freeing and I hope it reignites my creativity. I figure sometimes you have to burn something down to begin a new.

I will keep this one blog, michaeljanzen.com to record and share my current thinking, designs, and thoughts. If you’re curious to see what I have in mind, I hope you’ll stick around and subscribe to my new email newsletter – see subscription form at the bottom of the page.