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Alternative Housing Types

Papecrete Dome

Papecrete Dome

Picture: Dave Pennington,

I’ve become keenly aware of the cost to operate my house and pay utility costs! This has ushered in the topic of sustainability into my thinking. IE What is my alternative? Housing is a big area with which to lower my cost of living. So I stray from the purely Aquaponics topics on my website. Do forgive me.

There are two (2) types of alternative housing, expensive and inexpensive.

The expensive types are the conventional houses and the energy star green houses which cost more to build and less to operate. That’s about it.

Let’s talk about the inexpensive or at least less expensive housing options

  1. Trailers
  2. Manufactured housing
  3. Old homes, conventionally built
  4. Dome homes
  5. Bermed earth or underground homes
  6. Earthships

Number 1-3 cost too much to operate and tend to not last many years, requiring cash infusions

Number 4 is a good option but not much less in cost than a conventional home

Number 5 is more costly to build and less costly to operate

Number 6 is less cost to build and less cost to operate.

There is a caveat though. Any house that is self sufficient, i.e. off the grid pays a premium for the systems to do that. It is a long term investment that pays for itself in 7-10 years and offers bonuses of paying off quicker if utility prices rise, which is a good bet they will.

The good thing is you can go off grid with any of the houses. The pay back is just quicker with the more efficient houses like number 4-6.

Which House

So the question becomes which alternative inexpensive housing type is for you? My guess is most of us would prefer a dome, bermed house or and Earthship because they cost less to operate.

The house that is more conventional, and most widely accepted – think building codes- is the dome. It does suffer from poor coatings that don’t last well over years and are expensive to repair. They get moisture under their plastic coating and the heat makes it separate. This is a minor inconvenience as compared to the ease of getting a dome built and the low cost to heat and cool it. Pluses are wind resistant and fire proof, stands up well to hail, and is quick to build. Loans are even available for these type homes.

The house easiest to build yourself that can be built most inexpensively, that stands up well to weather, wind, and fire, and that can save you the most on heating, cooling, and living expenses is the Earthship. It can also be the most attractive if you like Adobe looking, curved walls and ceilings and bright open spaces. Also, if you want to go off grid there is no other house that can beat it for the operating cost. Plus it is easier on the earth to build and operate, than any other house. No loans available on these type houses, yet.

The optimal house would be an Earthship with an insulated concrete or Papercrete dome for the roof and an isolated and very well insulated and balanced thermal mass that includes the floor, walls, and cistern. Not hard to accomplish, just lots of labor and a considerable expense for materials.

Why Alternative Housing

What is your why? Why do you want alternative housing? Is it to build a house small enough that you can pay for quickly, to lower heating and cooling costs, to save money long term, and to live off grid?

An Earthship will do that for you. A well insulated dome with proper outside and inside coatings will do it as well. The dome is easier to get a building permit for, if you are building near or in a city. If you are building in an unregulated area, i.e. far away from a city without a HOA or at least with a co-operative HOA, then an Earthship can be your ticket.

Insulation vs. Thermal mass

Thermal mass, the earth and cistern water behind the main Earthship wal,l provides moderation of the change of temp in the house. It tries to keep the temp the same. The earth’ temp is about 58 degrees several feet below ground. If the goal is to keep a constant temp in the house this helps. The challenge becomes fighting that constant temp if it is too high or too low compared to what you want it to be.

Winter temp outdoors is cold; inside it is 58 to 68 degrees depending on the sun energy stored in the building over the day. Too cool for most in the winter, so you run a small heater, like a rocket stove burning wood.

Same thing happens in the summer in reverse. It is hot outside, 70-80 degrees inside depending on the sun energy stored in the building over the day. You get a breeze coming through and temp is better regulated. Challenge is that every day it is hot outside, you have less energy stored in the thermal mass, and its temp creeps upward during those hot summer days. At some point you need to add a little air conditioning or to just use fans and suffer higher than preferred temperatures.


So summary, the thermal mass concept works well for saving energy but still needs a small supplemental HVAC system, or you must tolerate a little imperfection.

A well insulated dome house also requires a small supplemental HVAC system, or you must tolerate a little imperfection. No thermal mass here, just a very low loss house, so you keep the heating or cooling you pay for indoors.

Either a thermal mass (Earthship) or a well insulated house (dome) will require a small HVAC system to keep most of us comfortable.

Thermal mass houses have over swing and under swing, but saves cost as it make thermal contributions much of the time.

A well insulate house has no thermal contribution, but also has no thermal mass over and under swings. I’d submit both would cost about the same to heat and cool for a year, everything else being the same.

A house with a thermal mass (Earthship or bermed) is usually underground and or bermed, risking water hydraulic issues. Most highly insulated houses, green start rated conventional or well insulated domes, do not suffer the water hydraulics challenges.

Best House

Which alternative inexpensive house is best? The one you like the most, that you can afford, and that building codes will allow you to build. Once you decide which type inexpensive alternative house to build, also plan on adding off-grid capabilities to it.

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