Believe it or not, sometimes dirtbag hikers, climbers, and bikers save up enough money or get paid decent wages so that they might afford a little piece of our planet. This is a good thing, not only because everybody deserves to have a little home of their own, but because outdoors-minded people are generally good landowners. So when they build little cabins on their little plots of forest, desert or beach, they choose small sustainable, modest accommodations because they don’t need more and frankly, probably can’t afford it. The good thing is that small, sustainable living is extremely popular right now, which makes it also more affordable and realistic than ever before.
Cargotecture, or architecture using cargo containers, has been around for several years now, but recently, it’s seen a major upsurge in availability. The general idea is easy to get. Recycled cargo containers, many which have been de-commissioned from shipping use, get small retrofits to become livable spaces. They’re incredibly sustainable because they’re inherently strong, weather tight and extremely hard to break into, which makes them great for desolate cabins. Standard containers are about 20′ x 8′, but insulation and finishing will give you a little over 100 sq. ft. of living space. You can also combine containers to make larger spaces, though this does require more fabrication and, more money.
A cob constructed house resembles a cross between the Flintstones abode and a hobbit house. It’s an extremely old building technique, which also means it’s fairly well-tested. In fact, there are cob houses in England that are centuries old and still standing. In most cases, cob is a mixture of clay, sand, straw and water. The 4 ingredients are mixed together to form a sticky, dense earthen mixture which you then use to build your cob house, much as you would a giant Play-Doh structure. Cob is exceptionally sustainable because you can usually get a fair portion of the building materials from the land you are building on. It’s also an incredibly efficient insulator, is completely fireproof, and allows for extreme customization like molding shelves, windows, doors and living spaces into any imaginable shape.
If cob construction is like building a Play-Doh house, then straw bale construction is the Lego-style alternative. Essentially, bales of straw are used like massive bricks, fitted in an overlapping pattern to create walls. The bales are then coated by hand with an earthen plaster to create a smooth finish. Contrary to the logic of most, straw bale houses are also nearly fireproof, because the bales are packed so tightly, there isn’t enough oxygen to allow for combustion. Finally, the insulation of straw bales is ridiculous and allows for extremely minimal heating and cooling costs.
The best way to get information on any of these techniques is to go out and participate in their construction. Sustainable building workshops focusing on cargotecture, straw bales, and cob are offered all over the country. Just do a simple search to find information where workshops are happening in your area. Also, each of the sites linked to above have info on events and seminars, as well as additional resources. For more insight into small building techniques, check out the Tiny House blog.