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Thomas J. Elpel - PO Box 697 - Pony, MT 59747   E-Mail   Search this Site   Join the Team!
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Green Building - Green Architecture
Building Low-Cost, High-Efficiency Houses

Pathway in stone home greenhouse.

      Technically, I'm not an architect, since I've never taken architecture or engineering classes, and I've never learned to draw conventional blueprints. On the other hand, I've done enough building to develop my own distinctive style, philosophy, building methods, and preferred materials. In short, I believe that a house should be made of local materials and built to last for centuries. It should enhance our connection with nature without bulldozing virgin land for construction, and it should maximize energy-efficiency on a shoestring budget. I don't believe in mortgage payments, thermostats, or utility bills.

      My preferred medium is stone masonry, which is not the cheapest, fastest, or greenest method of construction, at least in the short term. However, I really like the look and feel of stonework. Stone masonry is the stuff of castles and cottages, of houses that have been around for centuries or will be. Our own house is built with 2.7 billion-year-old metamorphic gneiss, rock that started out as ancient sandstone, before being heated, compressed, crystallized and sometimes twisted deep in the bowels of the earth. This stuff has been around long enough to negate the need for any warranty. It will last long enough for me!

Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log & Strawbale Construction. By Thomas J. Elpel.       I don't care much for veneer stonework that is often laid up the side of many modern buildings. It has the look, but not the substance or structural support of a real stone wall. I primarily work with slipform stone masonry, using forms to guide the stonework. Stones are placed inside the forms, pushed up against the formwork. The space behind the rocks is filled with concrete and rebar, resulting in a hybrid stone and concrete wall, as demonstrated in our Slipform Stone Masonry DVD. The walls can be insulated by a wide variety of schemes, as detailed in my book Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction.

Slipform Stone Masonry DVD. By Thomas J Elpel.       I like to incorporate stone masonry inside the home, along with log framing, natural wood work, and handmade tile floors, so that a home becomes a rich, tactile environment to live in, rather than a mere box with boring flat white walls and ceilings. I also feel that a greenhouse is a necessity in a northern climate, making it possible to enjoy a little piece of summer all winter long. I especially enjoy taking my breakfast out into our greenhouse on sunny mornings. The greenhouse smells entirely tropical when the orange tree blooms!

      I believe it is far better to incorporate nature into the house than to do the reverse and bulldoze pristine lands in the hopes of building a house in nature. Plowing new roads into fields, forests, and riparian areas greatly fragments wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities, and the viewshed for all. Those who seek the best view often achieve it only by ruining it for everyone else.

      A house should also be highly energy efficient, or entirely self-sufficient, to negate our dependence on fossil fuels. Forty-percent of America's energy use is presently consumed for heating, cooling, and powering buildings, of which twenty-one percent is consumed just for residential use. If we are to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels, then we must construct every new building - and retrofit nearly every existing building - to be so energy efficient that we can ultimately shut down all coal, gas, and oil-fired generators. Unfortunately, most net-zero houses are also much more expensive than conventional, energy-wasting houses, which are themselves too costly for most people to afford. Thus, I've been exploring concepts in low-cost, passive solar and energy-efficient house design in all of my building projects.

Elpel's stone and log house with solar panels.       My interest in low-cost, high-efficiency construction began as a teenager. I hated the prospect of getting a job and working the rest of my life to pay down a mortgage and high utility bills. I read and reread all the back issues of The Mother Earth News magazine, as well as a handful of do-it-yourself house-building books, seeking ideas to build my dream home on a budget. I somehow convinced my girlfriend from high school to get onboard with this crazy dream, and at the age of twenty-one, we married, bought land in Pony, Montana, moved into a tent, and started building a passive solar stone and log home on a shoestring budget.

      Construction took quite a few years, since we started the project with very little money and even less construction experience. But ultimately, we built a reasonably efficient 2,300 square foot passive solar stone and log home in the 1990s for $23,000 or about $10 a square foot, as detailed in my article Building a House on Limited Means. Later, I installed solar panels to generate all of our electricity from sunlight, as described in my article We've Gone Solar! Surplus electricity is fed to the grid, running the meter backwards. This gives us a credit from which we can draw off the grid at night or on cloudy days.

      With the north and east sides of the house built into the side of a hill, and the south side protected by a big greenhouse, the house is energy-efficient enough that we can leave it all winter and not worry about the pipes freezing. On the other hand, the house could be greatly improved upon. If left alone, the temperature quickly drops to ground temperature, and we are dependent on firewood to keep the house comfortable.

Slipform stone house with lilac hedge.       I don't believe in thermostats and furnaces, which mask the inefficiencies of a house, keeping it artificially warm so that the occupant cannot feel where heat is being lost. Turn off the furnace in a house and you will quickly get a sense of which rooms, walls, outlets, windows, and leaky doors the heat is escaping through. Among other improvements, I retrofitted our house with double doors, so that there always two insulated doors between the inside and the outside. These are not necessarily true "air locks," since some of the doors are only twelve or eighteen inches apart, but in cold weather we can close both doors, giving twice the protection between the house and the subzero weather outside.

      My desire to build a net-zero house grew with the every load of firewood we cut for fuel, and I spent years playing with ideas to build a low-cost, fully passive solar home. I finally had a chance to test my ideas on a project that was originally intended as student housing for our Green University® LLC program. We built the house almost entirely with rocks excavated from the hole we dug for the basement. We also utilized a lot of free building materials culled from the industrial wastestream, as described in the five-part series, Building a Passive Solar Stone House.

Slipform barn style stone house and garage.       I designed the house to utilize free scrap insulation panels or SIPs (Structural Insulation Panels) from a local manufacturer. The factory made very large panels, then custom cut out the doors, windows, and roof angles, discarding all the scraps on a massive pile behind the factory. We got these scraps for free and puzzle-fitted them together to make a super-insulated house with 9 inches of beadboard insulation in the walls and 13 inches in the roof. Fortunately, the factory recycles their own scraps now, so the materials are no longer going to waste.

      The house we built was designed such that there were no studs cutting through insulation in the walls and no rafters cutting through the insulation of the roof, so it is solid insulation, without thermal breaks. We utilized scrap lumber and materials salvaged from the local dump and from a trailerhouse we dismantled and recycled. We obtained many other building materials secondhand at good prices from Habitat for Humanity's local ReStore.

Masonry Heater stone woodstove.       I was able to field-test many design details, alternative materials, and building methods in construction of the house. In addition to being superinsulated, the house has passive solar gain through the south-facing windows and greenhouse, double doors or full airlocks on every entry, integral solar water heaters, and a roof slope optimized for eventual solar panel installation.

      While more insulated than our original house, it is unfortunately not as efficient as I'd hoped for. It is, nevertheless, significantly more efficient than most houses, and there is still room for improvement. I included a masonry heater, much like one we built in Pony, as the sole source of heat. When my wife and I separated after twenty-one years of marriage, she moved into the new stone house, and I kept our original homestead in Pony.

Build       The stone house incorporated more modern building materials, such as the insulation panels and interior stud walls and plaster, than our original house, which ultimately made it more costly than I'd hoped for, even after getting many of those building materials for free or discounted secondhand. The house cost about $20 per square foot to build, or about the same as our original house when adjusted for inflation. It was also more labor intensive than anticipated, especially due to all the time spent puzzle-fitting scrap panels of insulation together in the walls and roof. I finished the project less enthusiastic about manufactured materials, and eager to explore natural alternatives in greater depth.

      I am continuing to evolve my theories and methods for building low-cost, high efficiency homes, as expounded on in the current edition of Living Homes. Someday I would like to build a net-zero house from scratch, one that is low-cost, not too labor intensive, very natural, and built to last for centuries. When I am satisfied with my materials, methods, and designs, then I hope to massproduce these houses for the market... or more likely, find someone else who wants to run with the idea.



Cinderblock castle guesthouse.

Green building remains a significant hobby interest for me today. In the aftermath of my divorce, I tackled some smaller building projects, starting with a 10' x 10' little castle guesthouse built almost entirely from recycled materials.

      The project started with a satellite dish that was given to me many years before. I never wanted a dish for watching television, but thought it would be cool to use it in a building project. With the help of students in my Green University®, LLC program, we ultimately built a square castle with turrets and a domed roof. I scavenged the split-face cinderblocks off the scrap pile at a local manufacturing plant.

Insulating the satelite dish dome on the cinderblock castle.       Much of the cement we used was leftover from old projects, including some that had been sitting in my neighbor's shed for twenty-some years. We separated out any big chunks of hard cement, while saving good cement powder and crumbly cement material. I added leftover latex and acrylic paints as a concrete strengtheners, and we poured the colorful concrete mix down the cores of the cinderblocks, each one reinforced with rebar. The little castle is pretty much a bomb shelter.

      The dome-roof of the guest castle was my first dome project. I've been increasingly interested in domes for their superior strength against earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, wildfires, and other natural disasters. Most natural disasters would not be disasters at all if people built sensible houses in the first place. We placed the dome on top of the castle, thoroughly insulated the top, and poured concrete over that, as detailed in my article Castle Construction: Building our Little Castle Guest House.

Modernized concrete earthlodge.       My next building project expanded on dome technology. I'd previously built a 23'-diameter Mandan Indian style earthlodge as a large, primitive structure for our wilderness survival programs. However, that one eventually rotted out and had to be torn down. This time I built a 34'-diameter modernized earthlodge, using slabwood waste from the local sawmill for the wooden support structure, capped by a shotcrete dome of dyed concrete. The structure looks primitive inside and outside, yet is actually a modern structure built to survive just about any kind of calamity.

      The earthlodge serves as a permanent classroom facility for our wilderness survival programs and as student lodging for our Green University LLC program. We've sheltered groups of up to 120 kids in the earthlodge for story time around the campfire when it was raining outside. Read more about the project in my article, Building a Modernized Earthlodge: Exploring Low-Cost Dome Construction Methods.

DirtCheapBuilder Logo TM.       Dome construction is clearly the optimal path for building houses that are highly energy efficient, disaster resistant, and engineered to last for generations. Unfortunately, many dome homes are hideously ugly. I dream of building a dome home where each room its own small dome merged together in series to form a semi circle around a central greenhouse. For ideas on dome construction and other alternative building methods, be sure to visit my Dirt Cheap Builder website

      With robotics, automation, and 3D printing technology merging into the construction industry, piecemeal home construction will soon be a thing of the past. Domes are especially well suited for mass-production. Domes for each room could be cast in a mold from lightweight materials such as foam insulation or preferably airkrete, which is made from cement and water whipped up with dish soap to make it fluffy. These room-sized domes or sections of domes could be trucked to a building site for easy installation. Better yet, oversize 3D printing equipment makes it possible to program a blueprint into a computer and print a house in any shape. Numerous structures have already been printed with concrete. Imagine then, using a 3D printer to print a dome home from airkrete. If the dome were thick enough it would be highly insulated and very inexpensive. These are projects to explore as time and money allows.

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Living Home: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction. By Thomas J. Elpel.
Interesting Stuff? Check out
Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction

      Looking for life-changing resources? Check out these books by Thomas J. Elpel:

Green Prosperity: Quit Your Job, Live Your Dreams.
Green
Prosperity
Roadmap to Reality: Consciousness, Worldviews, and the Blossoming of Human Spirit
Roadmap
to Reality
Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction
Living
Homes
Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills.
Participating
in Nature
Foraging the Mountain West: Gourmet Edible Plants, Mushrooms, and Meat.
Foraging the
Mountain West
Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification
Botany
in a Day
Shanleya's Quest: A Botany Adventure for Kids
Shanleya's
Quest

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