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sustainable house build

A Hand-Built, Sustainable Home and a Vision for a Better Future

By Tobias Roberts Rise Contribuitor
Sep 27, 2019

The average cost of building a single-family residence is closing in on $300,000 in the United States. Home construction continues to get bigger and more expensive. For some families, the idea of building your own home might be a way to cut costs while creating a space to house your family for a lifetime. According to the “New Privately Owned Housing Units Started by Purpose and Design,” published by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2018, there were 51,000 owner-built homes. This statistic doesn’t necessarily mean that individual homeowners put in the enormous amount of work associated with building a house. Instead, there were at least 51,000 households across the country that managed the building project and were legally responsible as the general contractor for overseeing overall quality, budget, and schedule.

Lara and Mark Bowers, a young family who spent the past several years building their own home on a beautiful homestead in rural Vermont, is one couple taking a unique path to homeownership.

sustainable house roof
The South Wall. This will have a slate roof and a greenhouse attached to the front.

The Decision to Self-Build 

The EPA states that during 2017, the residential and commercial building sector accounted for 11.6 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. These emissions arose from fossil fuels burned for heat, the use of certain products that contain greenhouse gases, and the handling of waste. The Bowers family, like thousands of households around the country, wanted to find ways to lower their carbon footprint and live more sustainably.

“From 2005-2015, we lived in north-central Texas, in the city,” Mark says. “Over the course of this decade, we became more aware of environmental issues and sustainability, and we quickly realized that our lifestyle and our area were not sustainable.” As they were looking for an alternative place to build a more sustainable house and lifestyle, they found that the state of Vermont was the most supportive of sustainability projects. “We bought 31 acres of a forested mountainside in Bridgewater in September of 2016, and named our homestead Blessing.”

Shortly after moving, the Bowers began the process of building their own home from lumber that they harvested from the sustainably managed forest on their homestead. “We broke ground on our foundation in May 2017 and got as far as emplacing the 12 piers and three sills (all trees from our land) before winter set in,” Lara says. In March of 2018, as soon as they could brush the snow off the sills of their to-be home, they continued construction by installing the floor joists.

cob wall
The North Wall. Eventually the West and South walls will be covered with cob as well.

Both Mark and Lara had previous construction experience. Mark had also attended a cob workshop with Ianto Evans (of the Cob Cottage Company) in Oregon to gain experience with earthen building techniques. Because of their work schedules, Lara wound up being the principal builder. However, they also received the help offered by over a dozen volunteers who signed up to get building experiences through websites such as POOSH and WorkAway.

house build bedroom
The second floor which will become 3 bedrooms. The kids bedrooms will be sculpted like a forest so they'll be sleeping in "trees"

“Originally, we were planning on a one-story building with a sleeping loft before building an addition the following year for more space,” Mark says. “On account of how long it took us to construct the foundation, we decided to maximize the foundation and build two full stories.”

With their building almost finished, their home ended up being 930 square feet, with the attic adding another 200 square feet of storage space. Mark decided that it would be best to build a 12:12 pitch for the roof to shed snow and avoid ice dams. The higher roof also allowed enough headroom in the attic for a tall man to walk around without having to bend over. 

Sustainability Features of the Bowers Home

One of the main advantages of building their own home was that the Bowers had the complete freedom to incorporate as many sustainability features as they saw fit. “In the interest of sustainability, and the face of harsh Vermont winters, Mark designed the house to capture as much heat from the sun as possible,” Lara explains. The north wall of the home has very few windows while the south wall is designed to let the warm winter sun fill the house. The Bowers also plan on building a greenhouse on the south-facing side of the home.

building a sustainable house
First floor looking at the West and North walls.

The floor plan was specifically designed with large open spaces to encourage heat to circulate. The downstairs is one large room with a kitchen in one corner while the upstairs will eventually divide into three bedrooms with interior walls. The rooms, however, have no ceilings and are open to the attic for ease of access to storage as well as a strategy to improve air circulation on the second floor. The walls are timber-framed, using locally sourced and milled hemlock and a few whole tree trunks harvested from the Bowers property.

Staying warm in the Vermont winter is a challenge. According to Mark, “for insulation, we have stacked straw bales bought from local farms placed between the posts. These straw bales make our walls about 18 inches thick.” To protect the straw bales from the elements, Mark designed a roof with three-foot eaves in all directions. The Bowers are also in the process of entombing the straw bales in an earthen plaster made from clay excavated on-site, and fine gravel found at a local quarry.

straw bale house
The East wall showing the straw bales.

Solar panels they purchased used on Craigslist provide the electricity at the Bowers home. “Currently, we are using golf cart batteries to hold the electricity because the used lead-acid batteries that were given to us had been left out in freezing weather and become sulfated,” Lara says. “Pro tip: protect your batteries at all times!”

She also mentions that “we have enough power to run our super-efficient refrigerator from Phocos and are content for now. We have another eight solar panels we plan to set up on our shed because we have learned that solar power generation drops by 80 percent in November in Vermont.” To cut back on energy usage during the wintertime, the Bowers are also planning to build a rocket mass heater this fall.

Goals of Self Building a Sustainable Home

The challenge of self-building their own home has not come without its own set of difficulties and challenges. Some timeline setbacks and a lost job forced them to move into the house before they finished construction. Despite this setback, Lara mentions that one of the overarching goals for building their homestead was to provide financial sustainability.

“As long as we are living (at our homestead) with no mortgage, electricity, or water bills, we can get by on one income,” Lara says. “Next year we will be able to reduce our food bills by completing a greenhouse, extending our food forest, adding some vegetable gardens, and building a coop for both chickens and rabbits. Our hope is that Blessing can offer this financial security and environmental peace of mind to others as well.”

The Bowers aren’t merely content after having built a sustainable, debt-free homestead for themselves. Instead, they are searching for ways to invite others to discover the joy that comes with this type of lifestyle. “With 31 acres, we have plenty of room for other households to join us in an intentional community,” Mark says.

“We plan to build an addition to our house so that the Bowers family can live entirely upstairs and the downstairs of the building will be a communal kitchen, dining, and living space. This will foster community, but also mean that families joining us would not need to build such a large house for themselves. Between the opportunity to build small, and having most necessary tools already available at Blessing, we hope to remove as many financial obstacles as possible for any household interested in living this way.”

While there have been a couple of interested families, no one has yet committed to joining the Bowers on their homestead. “We envision a community where people live in their own houses and come together to eat and farm,” Lara says.

“My advice to people thinking of taking their lives in this direction? If you have any love for yourself at all, start small,” Lara adds. “If we had stuck to our original design, we would have probably been able to move in last fall and not be in our current position of scrambling to finish our walls before winter hits.”

 

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2022-01-19T04:08:36+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.