Alternative Homes Today

On a recent trip to Portland, Oregon, I ran into Ross Lukeman of the blog, Alternative Homes Today and we chatted not only about tiny homes, but about his architecture career and interest in alternative ways of design and construction. His initial interest in tiny homes derived from attending a Tumbleweed workshop with Dee Williams in his home in Houston, Texas and he decided to start a blog covering various tiny homes, natural building techniques, interviews and building companies.

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Above photo: Ross visiting Brittany Yunker’s tiny house in Olympia, Washington

“As I began covering them more and more, I became interested in building one for myself,” Ross said. “As someone who’s almost done with school loans, I’m not wanting to turn around and mortgage my life to another bank.”

The blog also reaches beyond alternative or tiny homes and natural building to cover bike commuting, finance, landscaping, clutter and material possessions, minimalism, DIY projects and even some comics.

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Geodesic domes in Huntsville, Texas

While Ross covers a wide range of ideas, he is most passionate about homes that match the value of their occupants.

“As obvious as that sounds, I feel like a lot of us are struggling with this, our homes being out of sync with what we really want in life,” he said. “Which is why it’s great seeing people embrace the “enough” principle with tiny homes and pursuing what really ignites their passions in life.”

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The Myrtle at the Cob Cottage Company near Coquille, Oregon

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The interior of the Myrtle at the Cob Cottage Company

Ross has been traveling around the country visiting various tiny homes for the blog and at this point his favorite designs are the Tumbleweed Cypress 24 Overlook and the Michael Reynolds Earthships in New Mexico as well as rammed earth homes.

“(The Tumbleweed) model has a huge great room in the front, which I would could use as my home office and workshop,” Ross said. “I like the 24 foot tiny homes because they have enough extra space for you to change functions and add people in the future.”

“With the Earthship, I really like the idea of homes handling all of the systems like energy production, waste processing, food production, etc.,” he added. “I know some people get caught up with not wanting to use old tires in their walls, but I think this all-systems thinking is where homes need to go in the future. It’s more sustainable and it gives the occupants way more control.”

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The Tree House, made of reclaimed materials in a Bois d’arc tree by Dan Phillips in Huntsville, Texas

Ross thinks the future of tiny homes will continue to grow and gain awareness primarily in the field of tiny homes on trailers and traditional building—but just smaller. He mentioned the micro apartments in New York City and the interest of ADU’s (accessory dwelling units) in Portland.

“I think the trick will be getting tiny homes into urban settings like this,” Ross said. “We’ve become way too dependent on cars and parking tiny homes away from everything because municipalities don’t know what to do with them will have to be a hurdle we overcome. I believe once the more progressive cities integrate them into urban settings, other cities will begin to follow their example.”

“We should also be seeing more tiny home communities,” he concluded. “I know Jay Shafer’s community in Sonoma County, California is underway. Apparently the county planners are as excited about it as he is!”

 

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Ross helping to build a strawbale house near Bastrop, Texas, a project by Clay, Sand, Straw Natural Builders

 

Ross Lukeman is the founder of Alternative Homes Today where he interviews alternative homebuilders, tours cool alternative homes, and builds green DIY projects. You can grab his free Tiny Home Construction Cheat Sheet here.

Photos by Ross Lukeman/Alternative Homes Today

Tiny Straw Bale Cabins

by Gabriella Morrison

The options available with styles, building techniques, and materials used to create tiny houses are various (vive la différence!). Some tiny homes rest on solid foundations while others are on trailers. Some are modern in style and others more rustic. The list goes on and there is something out there for everyone. If you are the type of person that is looking for a super energy efficient, natural, beautiful, non-toxic and cost effective house then a straw bale tiny home may just be the solution for you. You may be thinking, “Build a tiny house out of WHAT??”

DSC_0452Straw bale technology is a tried and true system backed by copious amounts of scientific research and data to prove its merits. Tests have shown that straw bale walls are 3x more fire resistant than conventional construction. Think of it this way, straw bales are very dense and when within a wall system (and behind a thick layer of plaster), oxygen has nowhere to go. A stud framed wall as found in conventional constuction on the other hand creates a welcoming environment for flame spread by essentially creating oxygen rich chimneys in between each stud. Straw bale walls are thick, like really thick (21″) and are thus 3x more energy efficient than a conventional wall system. Most straw bale house owners save about 75% on their heating and cooling costs. Straw bale systems are also preferential to conventional construction in earthquakes and tornadoes. And don’t worry, rodents won’t get into your walls. They would have to gnaw through a thick layer of plaster and even if they got through that, they would need to make their way through extremely dense straw. Believe me, they would much rather move next door to a regular house with warm, soft and fuzzy pink insulation. Obtaining building permits has become easy and straw bale specific building codes now exist in many states. Straw bale construction lends itself very well to the do it yourselfer and is simple to learn (think giant Legos). Plus, straw bale construction uses a waste material that is often discarded in the field by either burning or flooding and is thus a part of a solution rather than contributing to the problem of using virgin resources for construction.

John and Marie'sWhen John and Marie, a recently retired beautiful couple, decided to create a homestead, it was clear to them that they wanted to build using straw bales. We ran a 2 week workshop on their site last year and built two 200 sqft interior dimension cabins side by side that would become their home sweet home. Though they plan on building a slightly larger straw bale house at some point in the future they have been toying with the idea of just continuing to live in the two cabins because they serve their purposes so well.

DSC_0443They opted to build their two cabins side by side and right at the 200sqft size to fall within the no permit required provision (often found in building jurisdictions). One of their cabins serves as the kitchen and dining room. It is super functional and adorable. In joining them for dinner the other night, the four of us were very comfortable in the space and enjoyed an exquisite meal (they are BIG into growing their own food and most of the fare was freshly harvested). About 10′ away is their other straw bale cabin which serves as their bedroom and bathroom. They created a separate room for their toilet and shower and placed their sink in the main cabin area. The colors and feel in the sleeping cabin are so beautiful, warm and relaxing that we just wanted to curl up in bed and take a deep rest. A covered breezeway could be created in between the two cabins. If you live in an area with building codes though the inspector will take objection if you attach the breezeway physically to each structure if you are building yours as non permitted structures.

DSC_0432You could build each of these cabins if you did the work yourself for around $6,000 each depending on your location. This estimate covers everything but the interior finishes such as kitchen appliances, cabinetry, toilet, and shower. All of those finish details can be found gently used or new if you wanted.

Just about the only things you can’t do with a straw bale house is to have thin walls and to put one on a trailer (movement would pulverize the plaster in time). Other than that, it’s a fantastic way to go. If you are remotely curious about learning more, we invite you to our totally Free 16 Day E-Course that walks you through the process of building a straw bale house. To sign up you can click here. If you want to see more images of what is possible in a straw bale house, you can access our photo gallery by visiting here. And if you want to see what educational resources are out there to help you build your own straw bale house, you can click here. Since 2004 we have personally taught over 800 participants at our hands on 7 day workshops, had the Free ECourse downloaded over 30,000 times, heard from hundreds that have built their own, and sold over 10,000 step by step instructional videos outlying the whole process from start to finish. All to say that this isn’t just a bizarre building fad but is instead a sound method of creating a beautiful, healthy and environmentally responsible home to last for generations.

Straw bale Workshop Day 7

Day seven started out earlier than usual as we were ending the day a little earlier and we were loosing a couple of people who had to head home because of distance and work. We were still very much behind schedule. With Andrew being ill much of the week we had not completed as much as we needed to and we wanted to at least get a start on the plastering.

We spent all morning doing finishing work around the windows. Curving them gently in, stretching the mesh and making sure they were tight enough to accept the plaster. There was still electrical work to complete. Niches to cut out, special mesh to put on all exposed wood, etc. We kept very busy.

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Andrew putting on a new chainsaw blade to cut the other two niches

After lunch it was time to mix the first coat of plaster. This is a process in itself as you have to get it just right and it needs to mix for 20 minutes per batch. Once we had a batch ready Andrew demonstrated the technique for holding and applying it to the wall. It is much heavier and more difficult than you might think. Many of us decided that if we were building our out straw bale homes that we would seriously consider hiring this part out to the professionals.

We only succeeded in covering most of one wall and it was time to clean up and say our goodbyes. After a week together sharing in this experience you make many good friends and though we are spread out from the east coast to all the way down under in Australia many of us will keep in contact and share the straw bale projects that are planned to be built by members of the workshop. If you have interest in straw bale construction, I would highly recommend this hands on experience with Andrew Morrison if you are able. Visit strawbale.com.

Thanks to Andrew Morrison and our hosts at Common Kettle Farm for a fine week of learning, good food, new friends and experiences.

cutting the niches

Chainsawing out the niches

electrical box

Getting the electrical ready for the plaster coat

EJ and Shasha

EJ and Sasha heading out on a short honeymoon trip

curving the windows

Adding the curvature to the window openings (very time consuming!)

straw curves

Adding the curves to the large window

plaster tool

Andrew making a scratch tool for the plaster

plaster making

Andrew preparing the first load of plaster

 

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Plaster ready to put on the walls

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Andrew showing us how to work with the plaster on the plaster hawk

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Andrew demonstrating how to plaster the wall. (It’s harder then it looks!)

plastering walls

We try our hands at plastering the straw bales

plastering walls

Many hands make light work!

plastering wall

Working up the wall

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Group thinning out, this is hard work!

scratching wall

Susan scratching the wall to make it rough for the next coat

scratching the wall

Denise liked this part of plastering