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Tips for Cheap and Environmentally Friendly Housing Solutions

We are living in an increasingly environmentally aware world, where recycling is no longer a voluntary chore, but rather an embraced responsibility. Human evolution and progress seems to have peaked technologically, and more people are craving the simplicity of sustainable living.

It begins with simple steps; recycling, vegetable growing, buying local, at least semi-vegetarianism, cycling or walking, vehicle sharing, solar power, self-composting, and a number of other life decisions; but where does it end? There are two contrasting poles in the world today; one pulling us further into a technological age, and the other resisting it.

What is Sustainable Living?

Fundamentally, sustainable living is an attempt to reduce the use of both the Earth’s and our own resources, or in modern lingo, reduce our ‘Carbon Footprint’. The philosophy grows from a respect towards humanity’s symbiotic relationship with the Earth, and is linked to the theory of sustainable development.

With the last decade’s focus on climate change, and films such as ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ and ‘Food Inc.’ becoming internationally popularised, all of us are beginning to think a little more about the environment, and how we interact with it. Although for many, modern life still seems to get in the way, for others, more exhaustive measures are being put into practice, and as with any lifestyle choice, it all begins at home.

Sustainable Housing

Sustainable housing is multi-faceted and requires forethought within a number of seemingly complex departments. It is not simply having solar panels on the roof, or utilising recycled or reclaimed materials. A truly sustainable home acts as the foundations from which you can build a sustainable life.

Types of building material, structural design and maintenance, energy sourcing and efficiency, location and proximity to services, impact on environment both physically and aesthetically, and waste management; all of the above are aspects that need to be considered when building sustainable housing. It is a complex process, and for those truly independent souls, going it alone can prove problematic.

Increasingly, however, innovation is the key, and many people with a renewed independent gaze on the world, are now figuring out new sustainable building techniques for themselves. Not everyone carrying the philosophy of sustainable living has the money, or indeed the requirement for expensive housing solutions, and thus today we will be looking at some simple building techniques for cheap extensions, summer houses, and sheds, made using recycled materials.

All of the techniques discussed can also be used for permanent dwellings, but unfortunately that realisation is largely dependent on building regulations in your local area.

Recycled Dwellings

1. Sandbag/Earthbag Homes

There are two main approaches to sandbag homes; timber framing and domes. Both of the methods use sandbags filled with earth, ideally from the site of the build. The only costs are the sandbags themselves, which can be recycled and therefore cheap, and a couple of lengths of barb wire. Both labour and transport costs are virtually non-existent, with no heavy materials needing to be brought to the site, and unskilled labourers sufficient.

The suitability of sandbags as a building material is down to a number of reasons, and not simply cost effectiveness. The walls of a sandbag house are fireproof, waterproof, soundproof, and have up to 70% superior thermal qualities when compared to traditional building materials. Due to the flexibility of the building process, it is also cost effective to bring in innovative elements of design.

Timber Framed

Timber framing is rather self-explanatory, and is when sandbags are used as fill between timber frames offering a cheap and environmentally friendly alternative to bricks or cement.

The major downside with this type of sand bag home is money, with the timber adding a substantial amount to the overall cost, in terms of transport and material. In addition to that you may also need to hire a carpenter and other experts to ensure that the initial structure is strong. Comparatively to traditional brick houses, however, it is still a lot simpler and more cost effective, with the overall price between 30-40% cheaper.

This type of home is particularly popular in South Africa, where the idea was first developed by Engineer Mike Tremeer as a method of building low cost housing. It holds many distinct advantages over the dome style sand bag housing, as firstly it can be built on a much larger scale, and secondly it should meet most building standard requirements. Although if you are to completely self-build you may need to have some prior experience in building or carpentry, it is still a definite possibility with the right research and advice.

More information on timber framed sandbag houses can be found at

Sandbag Domes

Sandbag domes are really much more for the ‘back to earth’ people amongst us, who are prepared to completely ignore convention in the quest for a sustainable life. The domes require no additional framework, and are thus ludicrously cheap, with estimates for a single dome of approximately $500, and larger houses at less than $10/sq ft. More complex series of domes can be designed if you wish to construct a full living space, but the size of single domes is limited, as if the circumference of the dome is too large, it would require additional support structures.

Simply, sandbag domes are sandbags filled with earth and placed in circles on top of each other. Usually you begin with a couple of layers below ground level and then slowly build up, tampering down each layer, and placing a couple of layers of barbed wire between each. You can put framing in for doors and windows and build around them. As the dome is built higher it gradually closes in, until the circle meets at the roof.

After the dome’s structure is complete, it is finished using plaster, or more complex finishes, such as tiling or living roofs. Again the beauty of such structures is in their simplicity, allowing inexperienced builders to construct simple domes before experimenting with more complex plans.

Cal-Earth are an organisation advancing sandbag architecture, and in a particular working with the United Nations to help provide low cost living solutions. Their founder, Nader Khalili, has devoted his life to developing sustainable architecture, and he has published a number of books on the subject. You can learn more about Cal-Earth and Nader Khalili via their website

2. Plastic Bottle Houses

There have been a number of novelty plastic bottle houses built over the years, with the majority putting style above substance. Plastic bottles do, however, make a much better building material then you may naturally assume, and in many parts of the world they are now becoming a more common alternative construction material.

Not only does this reduce on cost and provide an environmentally friendly building solution, but also it can deal with another problem; plastic bottle recycling. In many parts of the world where plastic bottle houses have grown in popularity, you are actually dealing with two issues simultaneously. As well as providing low cost housing solutions, you are also helping to clear the streets of plastic bottles.

The plastic bottles are filled with dirt and building waste and then laid out like bricks. They are then packed together using mud. The product is a cheap, recycled, environmentally friendly house, which is both earthquake and bullet proof. It takes approximately 8000 plastic bottles to build a small two room house, and although this may seem like a lot, believe me there are plenty around.

As well as plastic bottles, you can also use a vast array of other recycled materials, such as car tyres, glass bottles, cans, and recycled plastic. There is even a house in Ireland made form decommissioned Euro notes. Here is a link to some examples of a plastic bottle architecture and some other recycled houses

3. Container Houses

It is not difficult to acquire old shipping containers as often it is cheaper for a company to buy new containers rather than ship empty ones back to their origin. They come in a variety of sizes, with the most common being 8ft x 8.5ft x 40ft, and are ready made contained housing units, resistant to all of the elements.

Innovation in design is slightly limited by the modular approach that containers force you to take, but they by no means suggests that such buildings can’t be interesting. Installing services, such as plumbing and electricity, can too be slightly problematic, but you can buy pre-installed units from companies like Sea Box if you don’t have the expertise yourself.

The major benefit of container housing is that you can create a lot of space very quickly, and with minimal impact on the environment. You don’t need to use any timber, and all building materials (the containers) are recycled. Containers can make particularly good offices or school buildings, and can be a cheap and easy option for creating a modern style living space. One other big advantage is that your house is, in essence, mobile, and thus if you ever want to relocate, you can simply take your house along with you.

In addition to shipping containers; lorry containers, old buses, and even old aeroplanes can make good recycled modular housing solutions also. Here is a link to a website showcasing some of the best

Final Thoughts

It is possible that through being innovative you can build your very own recycled house on a small budget. Such techniques are perfect for anybody wanting to embark upon sustainable living, with an eye for unique architecture. Why not combine all of the methods to build your perfect recycled living space. There are plenty of free resources online, as well as numerous workshop weekends. You don’t have to be experienced to design or build your own house, just take the correct advice, and follow the steps through gradually and with care and attention.

This guest post was provided by Eva Stephen who has been in home decoration and renovation industry for many years and works for shop 4 furniture. Click here to see furniture range for your home decoration.

Clay Miller
the authorClay Miller
I am the creator/writer of and I'm an advocate for oceans, beaches, state parks. I enjoy all things outdoors (e.g. running, golf, gardening, hiking, etc.) I am a graduate of the University of Kentucky (Go Wildcats!!). I'm also a huge fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers. I was born and raised in the beautiful state of Kentucky.

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