Imagine a life free of debt, liberated from societal constraints and large mortgages. A growing number of homeowners are seeking out cheaper and more sustainable ways to fund the four walls in which they live

Creative homeowners are ditching the burden of large mortgages in exchange for building their own homes, mortgage-free. From cottages made of cob, a mix of clay, sand and straw, to a wooden house on wheels and cosy homes created from recycled shipping containers, they are exploring a vast range of alternative methods to build a home on a tiny budget.

Fundamentally, it’s a lifestyle choice. Writing in the 1940s, the words of Irish historian Francis Shaw now ring true more than ever: “When truth and beauty and goodness cannot be found in modern civilisation, we are forced to seek for those values in other places … we must retrace our steps to where we strayed from the road.”

In Ireland’s picturesque Enniskeane, West Cork, at The Hollies Centre for Practical Sustainability, cob building courses are attracting a new kind of client: young couples and singletons who may never have attained mortgage approval are looking to lay down their roots unconventionally.

The centre was founded by Ulrike and Thomas Riedmuller, who are advocates of experiential learning. They advise anyone considering a cob build to start at grassroots level: “Start small, build a small cob structure in your garden, like a cob oven, something that will help you get a feel for the method but let you learn from your mistakes before you set about building something more substantial,” says Ulrike Riedmuller.

The pair open up their own cob home to course participants and there is also an on-site cob dwelling, which cost just over €1,000 (£864) to build and kit out.

At the courses, students learn about getting the right mix of clay and sand before adding straw for strength. Building blocks called cob loaves are created to mound the structure over a regular foundation rising one to two feet off the ground. The malleable cob loaves are pressed into the foundation to form the walls, often two feet thick, effectively allowing the builder to literally sculpt their own home.

“Clever architectural design makes tiny house living practical and attractive, but in its essence the movement represents freedom: from mortgage debt; maintenance costs; modern consumerism; and the accumulation of unnecessary belongings”

The process is said to be time-consuming but brilliant in its simplicity, with the Riedmuller’s home featuring a composting toilet, solar panels and an ultra energy-efficient wood-burning stove. They have no refrigerator, having built a parlour space into the north-facing wall to store food at cool temperatures. They made use of salvaged materials where possible.

A straw bale build, like cob, is said to offer a cheap alternative to concrete blocks. Rectangular bales can be slotted into wooden frames with relative ease, while thick bales provide excellent insulation and can be fire-treated and plastered over. Plans are available online, instructions for the building process are available on YouTube and there are various support organisations across the UK and the US.

From thick walls, to thin and durable dividers, other imaginative homeowners have turned to shipping containers in an extreme recycling project.

At Trinity Buoy Wharf Jubilee Pier in East London, Container City houses a creative community of residents who are living and working in shipping containers stacked four storeys high. At 20 feet long, the containers offer roughly 45 square metres of living space, which is why some residents choose to stack a second or a third.

This is not just an option for savvy artists seeking alternative lodgings. Container living is a growing option for older parents who have space to house their adult children in their back garden.

There are companies in Europe, the UK, and the US that can convert containers to buyers’ preferred specifications, adding windows, door fittings and floors. Insulation is required however, along with some clever design techniques to offset feelings of claustrophobia.

On the other hand, fans of the Tiny House Movement are embracing confined spaces.

The social movement, born from part necessity and part desire to downsize, covers tiny homes ranging from 75 square feet to 400 square feet of floor space. Clever architectural design makes tiny house living practical and attractive, but in its essence the movement represents freedom: from mortgage debt; maintenance costs; modern consumerism; and the accumulation of unnecessary belongings.

“It’s becoming popular due to economics,” says tiny house owner Noel Higgins. “Tiny houses are cheap to build, low maintenance and exempt from planning. It’s about downsizing generally and a move away from mass consumption. When you live in a small space it forces you to think what you need and don’t need.”

Higgins, 40, built a wooden house on wheels that attracted plenty of interest when featured on the Tiny House Movement Facebook page. Higgins’ self-made 16 x 8ft wooden house on wheels cost €6,000 (£5,182) and took less than two months to construct.

He completed his first winter in his tiny house in 2013, when he encountered over-heating as a problem, rather than the other way around. “I wasn’t really sure how I would adjust to living in a small space, but it’s been an easy transition,” he said.

The movement lays claim to a series of spin-off positive results, such as simplified living, a more environmental conscience, self-sufficiency, greater affordability and a greater social conscience. It is also successfully creating interest in a social trend towards more concentrated spaces, in line with more concentrated means.

The tiny houses can come in a range of forms, with not all falling into the ultra-affordable range. A tiny house can be a log cabin on wheels, a hobbit home built into a hillside or an impressive glass structure situated in picturesque scenery. For those not building on wheels, a plot of land is required, which doesn’t come cheap unless there is someone’s back garden to live in.

But if the desire for financial freedom still bites, the move towards unconventional living may be the key to achieving your dreams.

Photo title: A tiny house

Photo credit: © Flickr member RowdyKittens

  • Heather

    What happened if a million people decided to do this.. to go and find a quiet plot of land to live in? We would lose even more of our countryside.

    It’s great that people are wanting to do this and I totally relate to it, but we have to understand that until we get our population growth under control we cannot encourage people to do this… we will end up paving over the whole of the country just so everyone can have their bit of space…. a very sad prospect..

  • Andy

    Quite right Heather. Quite right. Plus that ‘countryside’ has crap public transport, which means people are more dependant on using cars.

  • Tim Quality Unearthed

    Thanks for the article. Whilst this isnt a new thing, the notion of self-building is gaining broader publicity, and for good reason. Of all the fundamentals to comfortable living (food, water, warmth, perhaps company and electricity) why is shelter such a burden to pay for, sometimes taking much of an individuals working life to pay off?
    Heather and Andy have good points. A sudden surge of all peoples wanting to move out to the countryside and set up a home like those mentioned above would not work. I am entering my 4th winter in a yurt in rural West Wales, and I know this life isnt for many – even those living nearby in towns and villages would not want to live like this. There are additional challenges, such as finding the land, not being kicked off, getting electricity,water and wood, as well as facilitating the ‘companionship’ need – if you are in the country side, there arent going to be many people around nor wild social events on a regular basis. Of course finding non-seasonal, regular paid work is also a challenge in the countryside.
    On balance my view is that it is not likely that we will see a surge in self-builders putting up structures in unsuitable places. What I do hope will be the outcome however is that where planning for homes is given, some of the skills and lessons learnt from the self-build movement are given the consideration they warrant and where appropriate adopted into sustainable, beautiful homes.

  • Riche

    Heather you will be pleased to learn that a million people WON’T be able to do this in the UK!

    You can thank bureaucratic planning permission for that! I’ve seen first hand a friend attempt to go off-grid in a forest with the land owners’ permission, only for some (trespassing!) nosey dog walker to inform on him to the council. This smacks of a very British jealousy “if I can’t do it, why can he?”.

    The country isn’t over populated and we’ve tried Plot Lands before, I believe back in the 40’s with great success. Ordinary working folk could buy “marginal” land from farmers and build simple dwellings with shared plans. I say “marginal” because that assumes modern agro methods. If the same area of land was cultivated with permaculture it would yield much more.

    Over-consumption is damaging the planet. I wouldn’t advocate going off-grid in the UK, the bureaucracy, the nosey neighbours, the harsh winters, the lack of reliable sun for solar.

  • Adam W

    I think part of the solution is to make cities and towns more sustainable, and cheaper to live in. I also think it would be amazing if plots of land, not far from cities and towns, were affordable to buy, and that there was planning permission to build small eco villages. So many people want to live this way, but find it difficult/impossible in the UK due to the red tape.

    People say there is not enough land in the UK – just for a walk in the countryside or look out the window of a long train journey, there is a lot of land in the UK!! Its just most if it is used for large scale monocrop farming or pasture. If we turned even a fraction of the monocrop farms into small eco farm / villages I think it would benefit the UK massively and I personally know many people who would want to live in such places.

  • Funky

    Hi Heather,

    Population control is one issue, but I think part of the philosophy around much of this kind of building is an increasing awareness of the environment and our intrinsic connection to it.

    Living in countryside does not have to mean paving anything if you are respectful and considerate of the surroundings – indeed, much is to be said for the harmonious nature of living in smaller hand-built dwellings that ‘fit in’ to the nature around it.

    Couple that with sustainable energy and waste practises and you have a powerful model, steeped in tradition, of how to live non-destructively.

  • TR

    Heather, you are right to bring up population growth, it underpins all our problems, the thing is the amount people comsume per head is still a factor, any effort to reduce per capita consumption (some good one above) is just as valid as any effort to reduce total population in terms of mitigating habitat conversion and environemental damage. I don’t personally beleive that consuming less mean there will be a corresponding increase in population. Perhaps this is especially due to sexual and reproductive competition being the driving force behind the consumerism and avarice in our society.

  • Danny

    Funding four walls is not the problem it is funding the LAND underneath the walls that is the problem.

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  • Chris

    I’m all for this positive news after googling happy news. But why not have more photos relating to the content? I want to see pics of these houses