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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.

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