Build Your Own House from Natural Materials in Ten Steps
Mudgirls Manifesto Handbuilt Homes Handcrafted Lives (New Society Publishers, 2018) by The Mudgirls Natural Building Collective is a guide to building eco friendly homes from natural and recycled materials to cut down on the mass pollution and waste that comes from conventional construction methods. The Mudgirls collective is about more than alternative building practices, each woman that spends time as a member of this group is taught building techniques, leadership qualities, and a new way of life where one can live in harmony with the earth and in equality with all of its people. While this book does include many helpful tips on building and techniques for effective and eco-friendly projects the main goal is to focus on the groundbreaking process and practice this group of women embody.
You can purchase this book from the Grit Store: Mudgirls Manifesto.
This is a big picture overview, to help demystify the building process. There is lots to know about building a house. It can seem daunting even if you are not going to be the lead builder, designer, materials gatherer, hole digger. If you are taking on building your own small home for you and for your family, the challenges may seem insurmountable. The Mudgirls are here to assure you that it is not. You can do it, you just need to know a few things first:
1) Build small – it will save your budget and your marriage (if you have one)
2) Build for warmth
3) Most importantly – ask for help
Natural materials are very forgiving, and making mistakes is part of the building process. Nothing will teach you more than the mistakes that are guaranteed to occur, but don’t let that stop you. Plus it’s fun to figure stuff out!
We often build simple post and beam frames, with dry stack foundations, and a natural wall system. The instructions that follow are based on the Mudgirl-patented “cob rocket,”1 but can incorporate other wall systems, as nature dictates!
Step 1: Draw Some Pictures
Get some of those ideas on paper. General floor plan and elevations from the front, back, and sides. How many rooms, levels, exits? What does the roofline look like? Can you build just the essentials – a kitchen and bedrooms, and expand at a later date when money and time are more in your favor?
What will the walls be made of? Cob, light clay, straw bale, cordwood, earthbag? Why? Are you making the choice because it is the coolest newest thing or because it is the right material for your climate and resource availability? What will you roof be made of? Living roof, metal, tires; these can require different pitches. Living roofs are really heavy and require a more girthy structure underneath.
Step 2: Find a Location
Where does the sun rise in the winter, in the summer? Where do the prevailing winds come from? Are there trees? Do they protect us, shade us? What is the site like at its hottest, coldest, wettest?
Work with nature, don’t make more work by struggling needlessly against it. Don’t build it in the best food-growing location. Grow food there instead.
Step 3: Clear the Site
Clear it bigger than your actual house footprint, leaving room for perimeter drains. Dig down at least to the subsoil, and as deep as the local frost-line dictates. Put the topsoil you have removed on your garden plot.
How is the water from the roof, or from other parts of the land, going to move away from your house? Think about the gutters and perimeter drains. What are you building your foundation out of? It needs to be 18 inches above grade when completed. Do you need gravel to back-fill your site for drainage and to make it level before you lay your first course of foundation rocks? See “Dry Stack Rock Foundation Tips,” earlier in this chapter.
Mark out your exterior wall on the ground. Mark where your posts will go. Square it all up. Lay post rocks first – find nice big flat ones six inches or more thick; lay them in a bed of sand so that they nestle nicely and are stable once placed. You can drill into the rock to set rebar or a metal bracket using a quick-setting rock adhesive: insert this anchor into the rock right in the middle of where the post will sit. Having six inches of re bar protruding above the rock is good.
Step 4: The Structure
You know where your posts are going. Do you know how high they need to be? Remember to account for the fact that the bottom of your post is below final floor level – don’t forget to add that difference to your post height. Where are the loft beams in relation to the final floor height? Where are the roof beams in relation to the loft floor? Remember to leave yourself enough head room!
Figure out how you are going to connect the posts and beams together. Ask someone you know who isn’t going to disempower you, or you can read up on it. Keep it simple, keep it strong. Impale your post on its metal thing. Brace it three ways, like a triangle. Pound stakes into the ground going in the opposite direction of the braces, screw that shit together using two screws. At this stage you can attach your loft beams, then floor joists, then upper floor sheathing. From there, you can frame the upstairs, or the posts could continue up to the roof. Place the roof beams and run the rafters across them. If you are new to house building, build a single story for safety and for sanity. Between the first story posts, you can frame out for your infill if you have chosen a system that requires this. (Light clay walls, for example.) Because you have hefty posts supporting your roof, your framing is not carrying any load. This is good, because you may just be learning, and your rookie framing will do just fine.
Step 5: Put Your Roof On
We cannot stress this enough. Big overhangs. No less than 24 inches on a single story, more if you want a covered front entrance, or a wall more than ten feet high. People get excited about their walls, but you have to have your roof on before the first rains return. That is mid-September where we live. At least get the skeletal structure up, before getting too far ahead of yourself with the vulnerable natural walls.
Safety First: How will you get up and down? Make sure your ladders are good, and that the scaffolding is stable. Rent them if you have to. Tool belts come in handy up there. Your best asset is a friend: someone who can hand you stuff and find good songs on the radio. Don’t drop any tools on their head – get them a hard hat. Borrow a roof harness if your pitch is steep. Even if the roof isn’t steep, it wouldn’t hurt to be protected.
Step 6: Walls
Cob is very strong, but only once it’s dry. Organize yourself. Have your clay, your gritty sand. Get 10-20 percent extra quantity. Do some math: width x length x height. You can subtract your windows and doors. Example: if your wall is ten feet long, one foot wide, and seven feet high you will need to make 70 cubic feet of cob. Now, if your cob is made out of 75 percent sand and 15 percent clay soil, then you will need to multiply 70 by .75 (sand) and 70 by .15 (clay) to get your raw material amounts (27 cubic feet equals 1 cubic yard). Earthen materials are often sold in yard volumes.
If you are planning on having any counters against the walls, figure out at what height you want them. Put in wall anchors – they are called dead men. If you are tall or short you can design according to your own body! Place empty two- to four-inch PVC pipe through your wall where your water will come in and out, where your electricity and propane will come in. What about a chimney pipe – is it going through the wall or the roof?
Call everyone you know, make posters, plan a set of dates: ten days in early summer and five to ten days more a month later. Ask a friend to do the cooking, at least the lunches. Have lots of buckets, tarps, shovels, wheelbarrows. Have all the windows on hand, make frames for them that are 1/2-inch too big in all directions so that you can easily place the windows within the holes later on. The ones that go right in the wall, just put them in the wall as you go – nice and level and plumb – check using a four-foot level on each window angle. Collect stout lintels to go above windows and doors, to take the weight of the cob walls that are yet to be built above. The wider the opening to be bridged, the stouter the lintel. Lintels should be the entire width of the wall. (Tip: Remember that dimensional lumber is stronger when used up on its edges rather on its wide flat sides.) Try to have lots of scrap wood on hand. Have fun, play music, have a check-in with everyone at the beginning of the workday. Have goals set out. But don’t worry if you don’t reach them.
Step 7: Plaster
Plaster protects and beautifies. It goes on when the walls are dry inside and out. Outside gets the weather, so focus on that first. See Chapter 9 for plaster recipes.
Step 8: Close Her In
Put in framed windows and doors. Insulate the roof, and lay the floor.
Step 9: Other House Systems
Figure out a simple grey water system for your kitchen water, get some help wiring if you are scared. But there are great books out there for the easy stuff.
Step 10: Move In!
You did it. Welcome to your beautiful little hand built home. Now, start planning your next adventure! Cob sauna … Norwegian-style epic woodpile … world’s most beautiful outhouse … cob pizza oven …. We can’t wait to hear what you dream up.
More from The Mudgirls Manifesto:
Excerpted from Mudgirls Manifesto Handbuilt Homes Handcrafted Lives by the Mudgirls Natural Building Collective and published by New Society Publishers, 2018.
Build Your Own Sauna
Take a look at these considerations for building a sauna for your own home including heaters, location, size, and interior.
Mini-Greenhouse: Protecting Winter Greens in our Desert Garden
Learn how we built our angled mini-greenhouse with scrap PVC, a strip of 6 mil plastic, and a few PVC fittings, all for less than $20.
Greenhouse Alternatives for Crop Protection
Learn about alternative crop protections. When it comes to extending the growing season, sometimes a greenhouse just isn’t the right choice.