Foxhole Homes Builds Earthships at Low Cost

The other day, I ran across the YouTube channel of Foxhole Homes.  They’re doing something fantastic, and I thought I’d like to share it with my readers.

Foxhole Homes is a non-profit that is working on building a low-cost earthship-style home for homeless veterans.  With their first build, they kept the price for building materials at around the $6000 mark, and in speaking with the owner, Ted Brinegar, I learned that he is attempting to get the price of materials down considerably, without sacrificing liveability, of course.  I found myself severely impressed with the simple design, but even more with Foxhole Homes’ commitment to helping homeless vets.  The design they use, of course, can work for more than just vets, as all of us that live on the pitiful minimum wage could benefit from a simple home like this, with no utility bills and a warm place to put a bed.

As you can see from the video, Foxhole Homes makes a home that uses many of the design elements of a traditional earthship, but is scaled down to the absolute necessities.  It is truly a tiny house, at under 120 square feet, but because the greenhouse isn’t a permanent structure, it doesn’t count towards the square footage, so it’s really larger than it seems.

I had the chance to ask questions of Ted via email, and was rewarded with many answers.  Below you will find the questions I asked, along with the answers that Ted provided.

LBOG: Hi there. We spoke the other day on Facebook. I have the Low-Budget Off-Grid blog, and what you’re doing with low-cost earthship designs is fantastic. I am especially happy to see that what you’re doing is for veterans.

Ted: We have so much to thank them for, and aren’t doing nearly enough for them. I am passionate about taking care of our veterans, but they are also an important ally in getting more reasonable laws passed. It is very hard for legislators to look a vet in the face and tell them they don’t have the freedom to build a simple home for themselves. In the local version of the Sustainable Development Testing Site Act we just got passed in Otero County, it specifically references that one of its primary purposes is to facilitate taking care of veterans in need, but we all get to reap the benefits of the legislation.

LBOG: I have a similar goal to help people with housing, though I’m personally looking to help all of those that live on the pitiful incomes that get paid in America in general. Costs get higher, and minimum wage stays the same, and people are struggling between deciding whether to eat or pay the power bill. These are decisions that shouldn’t need to be made, and I hope that my blog can help in some small way.

So, having run across the videos that show what Foxhole Homes is doing, I had many questions that I thought I’d ask.

During our conversation, you mentioned that the cost of materials was around the $6000 mark, which, for an Earthship, is an unheard-of low cost.

Ted: Quick disclaimer there is a huge hidden cost in that our friend and supporter Bill Boylan provided backhoe work free of charge.
LBOG: You mentioned to me that the metal roofing was one of the largest material costs. What were some of the other costs you ran into that you couldn’t mitigate with recycled materials?

Ted: Cement, lots of cement. Mostly in bags. We did have to bring in a few truckloads of sand and gravel as well.

LBOG: I do recall seeing in the video about solar systems that you’d put together a 200 watt solar power system for about $500. What about the water system?

Ted: (The) largest expenses were the EPDM for the planter beds (around 100) and our 1000 liter cistern ($150)

LBOG: Filters, pumps, etc?

Ted: it is all gravity fed, and we use a Berkey filter ( but with food grade buckets instead of stainless) for drinking water

LBOG: You had mentioned in one of the videos that your water heater system used solar, but was going to use a backup instant water heater system. Can you explain the solar water heater system you use?

Ted: there is no Hot water on this simple system. We will be working on a gravity fed thermo-siphon system this spring. We have kind of a research partnership with NMSU and many of their students are starting to do their Sr. Projects for us. That will be one of them. We have the basic prototype worked out using an old cooler as the storage tank. Our main question now is can we use a straight thermo-siphon with the water or will it freeze, at that point we would have to use glycol and a small pump.

LBOG: Also, I’d noticed in one of your videos what looked to be a solar heater made out of pop cans. May I ask how that was used?

Ted: We used it during construction to help charge up the thermal mass of the walls because we built in winter. it will be totally unnecessary now. (My video editor did not realize it was not a solar panel. Oops.)

LBOG: Now that you’ve built a home using your model, is there anything you’d do differently?

Ted: Yes I never intend to pound another tire unless it is in a rubble trench footing. We will be using tire bales primarily, but will also be working with geo-mesh reinforced adobe.

LBOG: Finally, I suppose my readers might be curious about where you had the best luck finding recycled materials, and what new materials you used that you’d like to find a way to get recycled in future builds.

Ted: Our best source was our county recycling center, they were glad to give us bottles and directed us to an illegal tire dump that we helped clean up. Construction companies and the shipping department from our local hospital provided the pallets. Glass can be tricky although we had great luck on this build. Focus on collecting that early on as it can determine how you have to frame the front face of the building. In the future we hope to use locally sourced lumber whenever possible and we are looking for less expensive (both labor and dollar) ways to do the roof. Some ideas include using pumicecrete, and the plastic off of old bill boards.

LBOG: Thank you again for agreeing to answer my questions, and thank you for showing that building a home doesn’t have to cost a fortune.

Ted: Thank you! Keep following us on Facebook and youtube. Hopefully early 2018 we will start doing clinics as we break ground on the full subdivision. Stay tuned.

Make it a great day

So there you have it.  If you want to take a look at the Foxhole Homes YouTube channel, I highly recommend it.  Ted shows off many of the features of the home he designed, and how they are made.

It just goes to show that, with some work and ingenuity, we can build a home that provides for our needs without sacrificing decades of our lives to paying it off.

3 Cheap and Easy Ways To Build A Chicken Coop

When I first looked at the possibility of raising chickens, one of my main concerns was the cost of a coop.  I wanted to have something that didn’t cost a lot, but when I checked out the farm supply stores, I found coops that were anywhere between $200 and $500.  Those were way out of my price range, and I got discouraged.

With some research though, I found that there are ways to make your own coop that cost very little, or nothing at all.  I’ll explain the pros and cons of each option below.

Old Shed

Traditional_Metal_Shed

Do you have an old gardening shed in your backyard?  They make a great chicken coop with very little work, and a decently sized shed can easily house a dozen chickens.  You can convert the entire shed, or wall off a portion of the shed, and turn it into a perfect coop.  Remember to add roosts and nesting boxes, and your chickens will be living the high life.

If you don’t have a shed, check Craigslist or your local Buy and Sell pages on Facebook.  There are people giving away their old sheds all the time in my area.  All you need to do is drop by with a truck, load it up, and bring it home (safely).

The downside to a shed is that in the winter, your shed will need to be heated to keep your chickens happy, and the bigger the space, the more expensive it is to heat.

Doghouses

Castledaly_Manor_-_Doghouse_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1606827

Another great option, if you have only 3 or 4 chickens, is to use a dog house.  You can get some hinges, and make a door in the side of the dog house for easy access to the interior so you can clean it and collect eggs.  Again, nesting boxes and roosts are a necessity.I see old dog houses being

I see old dog houses being given away on Craigslist and Facebook constantly.  Most people just want to get rid of them or sell them for a few bucks, so scour your local buy and sells and pick up a good deal.

The downside to a doghouse is that they are small, so only house a few chickens, and require that you get down on your knees for cleaning.

Pallets

Chicken_coop_in_winter

If you want to get completely creative, you can always find pallets and build your own design.  You can get pallets for free from a lot of places.  Just drive around and you’ll find piles of them at many hardware stores, giant box stores, and even liquor stores.  Always go in and ask the manager if you can take some.

The cool part about pallets is that there are many designs and tutorials available online that show how to make a chicken coop out of spare pallets.  You can build as fancy or as plain as you’d like, and make it just about any size you need.

The cons of this are more varied than the other options, however.  First, you need to make sure the pallets you get are safe to use.  Check out this article to find out how to tell if you have safe pallets.  Secondly, this is the most time-consuming option, so if you’re in a hurry, this may not be the option for you.  Finally, while the pallets may be free, you’re going to need nails and screws, hinges, and other hardware, and that does add up in cost.

Conclusion

Take a look at your yard, and decide what will work best for the space you have.  Are you good with tools, or still new (and that’s okay)?  How many chickens do you plan on having?  These all come into consideration when you build your coop.  Regardless of what you choose to do, also remember that your chickens will need outdoor space, called a run, to live in as well, so take that into consideration.  Have fun, whatever you do!

Interview: Creators of the $10,000 Earthship

house exterior 4A few weeks ago, I learned about Taylor and Steph, who built an Earthship in the mountains in Santa Cruz, California.  What made it unique was that they managed to do this for a cost of only $10,000.

I found the original article over on ApartmentTherapy.com (read it here), and learned that they used a lot of found materials to cut the costs of their build.  Doors and windows were found on Craigslist, tires were free, and they built it themselves to lower the cost of their home.  I highly recommend reading the article, but when I read it, I admit I had a lot of follow-up questions that I wanted to see if I could get answers to.

I managed to track down Taylor and Steph, and emailed them some questions that I believed were important for my readers to know the answers to.

1. How long did you spend researching and learning about earthships before you got involved in building them?

house exterior 4Roughly one afternoon. I watched the documentary Garbage Warrior while living in Taiwan
and made arrangements to move to Taos almost the next day. Earthships seemed to address all of the ideals I cared deeply about: environmentalism, social justice, low-cost simple living, empowerment through self-sufficiency, and architectural innovation. My mind was blown and I was compelled to get involved as soon as possible.

2. Did you take the Earthship Biotecture course to get started on building with them?

house interior 17I did. I attended the second-ever Earthship Biotecture Academy session in the spring of 2012. I spent the rest of that year volunteering on EB projects and ultimately working on the Earthship crew on several builds across the country.

3. The articles I’ve seen about your $10,000 Earthship mention that most of your build was done using free or found materials. Where did the costs arise?

Primarily framing lumber, sheathing, roofing materials, and cement. But there are a lot of hidden costs that add up like fasteners, plumbing, tools, and transportation up and down the mountain. I hired an arborist to sustainably harvest and mill two redwoods, and the solar power system took up a decent chunk of that $10k as well. As you mentioned, we were able to successfully scavenge for free windows, doors, some lumber, all furniture, a wood stove, sink, and barn wood siding. The 500 tires were also free, as were the thousands of glass bottles that we collected and used as bottle-bricks. 

4. What were the biggest challenges you had in building your earthship?

house interior 7The first half of our building process was blissful. After a while, however, we ran out of money and started using credit cards. The biggest challenge was definitely managing debt and hustling for income without abandoning our commitment to the house. We were unwilling to back-burner the house in order to save enough money to continue. We’ve seen too many projects go unfinished that way, and have heard from too many older folks who had dreams of building a cabin in the woods but regretfully never took the leap because of lack of funds. We were determined, and using credit cards was a calculated risk we were willing to take to see our project through. We thought about it like a small, high-interest, short-term construction loan. Stressful, but worth it in the end.

5. After living in your earthship for a number of years, is there anything about earthship living that you didn’t expect, or that required a major shift in lifestyle?

house interior 4‘Earthship living’ can be as luxurious or primitive as an owner wants (or can afford). Our experience has been on the roughing it end of the spectrum, and may not be indicative of ‘Earthship living’ in a house built by Mike Reynolds and crew, for example. We had very minimal power for the first year and a half, sometimes with only a couple hours of light in the winter. We didn’t want to run a generator so we just lit candles and went to bed super early. We had no refrigeration and took a lot of cold, outdoor showers. In this sense, the simple life is not an easy life. Our place is inexpensive and funky, but it required a very real adjustment to living without some of the amenities we tended to take for granted growing up in the suburbs (such as TV, wifi, seemingly unlimited power, and water that’s always hot). Above all else, living remotely presented the greatest shift in lifestyle for us. Town was about a 30 minute drive away on winding, mountains roads, and in order to make a living we found ourselves spending more time in our cars than we ever had before. The intense automobile dependency was frustrating. This is a reality for rural living in general, however, and is not unique to Earthships. 

The greatest benefit that we experienced with the Earthship lifestyle is the direct connection to nature. When living in a house that functions in harmony with the environment, you can’t help but see yourself as part of nature, rather than as something separate from it.  

6. Is there anything you’d change about the way you built your earthship, knowing what you know now?

house interior 8I really wouldn’t. The house is perfectly imperfect. I think of it like writing a novel or a poem…you write it, finish it, put it out there, let it be; to go back and change it after the fact would take away from the magic of the original expression. Certainly I could write a long list of mistakes made along the way and say I’d try not to repeat them, but each blunder was part of the journey. As Steph and I would regularly remind ourselves throughout the build, this is our first house, not our last. 

One of the reasons I’m so curious is that another article I have posted details the building of a one-room cob house built in Great Britain, which was built for a total of $250.  There’s quite the gap between his $250 build, and your $10,000 build.  I’m trying to understand, and show my readers, what the differences are between his build and yours.  While I can make assumptions about things like the expense of the various earthship systems, I’d like to be certain.

house interior 6I’m not familiar with that particular cob house, but I do know it’s possible to build for next to nothing if that’s the priority. I love buildings like that for an art studio, office, music room, guest bedroom, etc. But a $250 ‘house’ likely offers little more than a shell. More of a shelter than a home. Presumably very little square footage, probably a composting toilet, little to no electricity, minimal water catchment and plumbing, and likely some kind of wood-burning rocket stove for warmth. One can live this way, but it’s a matter of preference and, in my opinion, not a realistic long-term dwelling solution for 2 or more people. Earthships are designed for passive solar/thermal mass performance and have guidelines beyond just four walls and a roof. 

Furthermore, basic in-home comforts tend to add up. If building on raw land with no services, to have access to water you will need to either drill a well, catch and store water, or pump from a water source. Each of these methods costs money. A composting toilet or outhouse is viable and very low-cost, but if you want a flush toilet you will need a septic tank and leech field, which also comes at a price. Without a septic tank, managing grey water from the kitchen sink can turn into a filthy and unhealthy process over time, so that will need to be considered as well. Solar electricity is becoming increasingly affordable, but even a tiny system will exceed the $250 price point you mention with the cob house. Otherwise if you want power you will need a generator, wind turbine or hydro set-up which again, takes money. Each property will have a different set of circumstances and limitations, and each occupant will need to decide what level of comfort they require within their budget. I’m all about simple and low-budget, but it’s important to have realistic expectations. 

house exterior 3We tried hard at every juncture to limit our expenses, but in order to stay true to Earthship design principles enough to maintain comfort for Steph and I (and our two dogs), the cost wound up being around $10k. This may sound like a lot compared to a $250 cob house, but recognize that the average home in Santa Cruz County sells for $700,000. It’s all relative. I suppose I could have saved money by holding out for more free materials, but keep in mind that hunting for reclaimed materials takes a lot of time. There’s a cost-benefit analysis that must be  done to determine the best course of action. In our case, on several occasions we chose to bite the bullet and pay up. As a friend of mine once told me, “There are three ways to build: fast, cheap, and good. You can do two at a time, but not all three.” 

I will elaborate in greater detail on both our building process and the off-grid lifestyle in our upcoming book titled, Nomadic Roots. Your readers can follow me on Instagram @nomadic.roots and you can encourage them to email me directly at tbraytonb@gmail.com.

I was absolutely thrilled to receive these answers, and completely agree with them on the issue of cost and value.  There are options that will allow you to build your own earthship for a cost even lower than $10,000.  It will, of course, be up to my readers to decide whether the cost savings are worth the trouble.

house interior 17My family and I will be building our own Earthship home here in Kansas in the future.  We do plan on using some of those measures ourselves, such as using a series of low-cost wind turbines instead of solar, and the cladding on our roof will be free other than the time it takes to harvest the metal.  However, whatever costs we do incur will be worth the comfort they bring.

Thanks again to Taylor and Steph for answering my questions.

Earthships the Low-Budget Way

A few years ago, I came across the concept of a radically sustainable home design known as an Earthship.  These homes really caught my attention, because the designer of this concept, Michael Reynolds, addressed the need for a house that was completely self-sufficient.

In creating the Earthship, he created a home that powers itself, keeps a stable temperature thanks to the sun and solar mass, captures it’s own water, recycles its greywater, and grows food for you.  I have not found a design that handles all of these requirements so gracefully.

In building an Earthship, you use old tires, pounded full of dirt and stacked like bricks to form the back and side walls, which are then covered over with mud and plaster to give a beautiful adobe-style finish.  Those walls are a heatsink, and store heat from the sun that radiates out into the house through the night, keeping the house at a stable temperature day and night, year-round, without requiring a furnace or other heating system.

The water system is a work of art.  It starts by catching water from your roof, directing the water into storage tanks buried in the berm behind your home.  That water goes through a filtration system to ensure clean drinking and wash water, and comes out of your taps and for use in your shower.  Once it is used there, that greywater runs into a series of long planters, and the nutrient-rich water feeds the plants, which help grow food.  The remaining water, cleaned by the natural filtration of the plants, then waits in a tank to be used to flush your toilet, instead of flushing using clean drinking water.  After that, the black water from the toilet then goes into a septic system and a number of outdoor garden cells, where it nourishes non-food bearing plants.

Electrically, the design of an Earthship incorporates renewable, off-grid energy.  Traditionally, you’ll use a solar system to meet your electrical needs, and use a combination of ultra-efficient LED lights and other efficient appliances to lower your power consumption.

Many of the Earthships I’ve seen built over the past couple of decades are beautiful, unique structures, and can be built either by yourself or by having Michael Reynolds and his crew come and build part or all of it for you.

If money isn’t a concern, and you can afford it, it’s definitely easier to have it built for you.  This will bring the cost up into the range of a traditional home.  While this is still preferable to owning a home where you have to pay for water, electricity, and heat, this site knows that it can be done much more affordably.

To be more cost-effective, you can build it yourself.  This can be done by reading the books about Earthships, which I have provided links to below.  The books explain, in extreme detail, how to build the walls, how to set up the electrical and water systems, and every other thing you’d need to know about building your own Earthship.


Doing it yourself, your costs can be significantly lowered.  In fact, I recently came across information about a couple that built their own small Earthship for under $10,000.  I reached out to them to find out how they did it, and find out what their costs were in building their home, to see whether we can find a way to bring the cost even lower.  I’ll be posting an interview with them later this week to show you their incredible build.

An Earthship is not exactly a “cheap” option, but when you take into account that it incorporates your water system, power, heat, and food, it fits well with the Low-Budget Off-Grid ideology.

Proof That You Can Build a Home for $250

Once you’ve found a piece of land that you can build your off-grid home on, the next step is to build a home.  There have been a number of options that have been invented and rediscovered in the past few decades that have caught my attention.

One option that I found amazing was cob.  I’ve seen several examples of this building style, and the cost effective nature of cob kind of blew my mind.  It allows you to build a home using material found right at the location you’re building.  You buy little to no material, keeping your costs down considerably.

To show just how cost-effective cob can be, I found information about a gentleman that built a cob home for only $250.  It’s a simple, one-room home without indoor plumbing, but it shows the simplicity of the design, and allows you to see just how beautiful and natural a cob home can be.  With some of the other options we present on our blog for water, electricity, and heat, you can see how a larger, more self-sustaining home can be built and still maintain a very low cost.

Here is a video that shows this beautiful little cob home.  Take a look, and you’ll see the possibilities.

 

Part of the joy of going off-grid is the minimalist approach.  Being able to figure out what you really need to live and be happy is an amazingly freeing experience.

So, do you think you could live in a home like this?  Would you need more room?  Running water?  Electricity?  If not, then this home is for you.  If you do need those things, as most of us do, then check out the rest of our articles to show you how to do it.