Getting it done on the cheap – 5 ways you can save on a natural build

Getting it done on the cheap – 5 ways you can save on a natural build

At the end of our previous article, we talked about the need to canvas both your resources and possible limiting factors before approaching a natural building company.

This article will deal with our most commonly-encountered limitation: cash.

Below, we’ll deal with the five most effective ways you can save money on your natural build, in order of ease of implementation and effectiveness.

1. Make it small and simple

From Mother Earth Living: “the Wedge” rolling cabins, made from reclaimed materials

In terms of measures for saving money on a build, nothing beats a smaller footprint.  It’s by far the easiest cost-saving measure to implement, and it’s an extremely effective money-saver.

Consider carefully exactly how much space you need, how many bedrooms, how many bathrooms, how big a kitchen, how big a living area.  Be realistic, but always think in terms of how little you need rather than how much you want.

Stuff to watch out for in particular:

Fiddly rooflines cost money.  Box gutters, particularly, will cost you a heap over the lifetime of the building.  Dormers are gorgeous, but they complicate weatherproofing and are also a no-no from the point of view of fire safety. A simple build might incorporate a gable roof, but a skillion is as straightforward as it gets.

Recycled materials can be great, but they can also be a false economy – I go into more detail about the advantages and potential pitfalls of recycling below.

Curves / non-right-angles: we know, we know: these are some of the most appealing features of natural building methods.  Just be aware that, unless you are doing all the building and finishing of these features yourself, they will add significantly to the cost of your build.  Consider limiting your exploration of curves to non-structural aspects of your build – for example, an internal thermal mass wall behind a fireplace, or an island bench in your kitchen.

2. Do it yourself (at least, as much as is legal)

Helen giving an earth bag wall a well-deserved paddling.

If you have time, a reasonably healthy body, decent project management and research skills, and above all, courage, there’s no reason you can’t save a lot of money by doing a large proportion of your building work yourself.

This starts with (not to belabour an earlier point or anything 🙂 ) research.  Stuff to know includes:

  • what soil type you have on site
  • your BAL rating, and its implications for your build design
  • what you’ll need to do in order to secure planning and building permission
  • what parts of your building are essential for its structural soundness
  • what pitfalls are essential to avoid, particularly for natural builds (google “good boots and a good hat“, for starters)
  • what parts of the build you’re legally obliged to get the pros in for (plumbing and electricity are two examples)
  • what parts you’d be well advised to consult an expert on (framing, external wall finishing – more on this under “two tips” below)
  • what materials and methods you’ll use to build your footings, frame, walls and roof;
  • where you will benefit from insulation, and where thermal mass will work for you
  • the legalities of using materials like stone from your site, recycled windows, recycled tapware
  • whether your method / materials for external walls will differ from your external wall method;
  • How you will finish:
    • External walls for weather and verminproofing (render, cladding, etc)
    • Eaves
    • External window, door and other openings for weatherproofing (flashing!)
    • internal trims including door and window surrounds, architraves, skirting boards
    • wet areas for good ventilation and waterproofing – for example, if you want to place a shower area against a straw bale or light earth wall, you’ll need to create a foolproof moisture barrier between the wet area and the straw.

Once you’ve got your head around that list (which is a big job in itself), had your design drafted, got your permissions, and recruited the professionals you need for the essential and highly advisable stuff, you can crack into the actual building.

Two tips:

  1. do your utmost to get your timing right. Life being life, stuff does tend to conspire against things getting done in exactly the time frame you may have anticipated.  However, this can be really problematic for natural builds, because it’s vitally important for the health of the building long-term that certain aspects of your build happen at certain times of year.
    A prime example is the timing of a straw bale build in Tasmania.  Straw bales (which are harvested around January) need either to be used before Autumn, or stored away from any possibility of moisture or vermin until Spring. Bales should never, ever be left uncovered for any length of time once they’re in place in a building: at least the first coat of render should be applied as soon as practical.  The window for applying lime render in Tasmania is from September to April, to avoid the risk of damage due to freeze-thaw cycles.  In practical terms this means that the process of assembling the bales on site needs to begin between July and February, in order for cobbing and render-stops to be completed in time for rendering.
  2. Know when to pull in an expert to show you how it’s done.  Sometimes a couple of intensive days spent getting tips from an experienced practitioner can save you weeks of time and thousands of dollars.  For example, we thoroughly recommend getting some training before embarking on DIY lime rendering.

3. Use recycled and / or on-site natural materials

Happy chook bums in our chook house made from recycled big apple boxes, reclaimed tin and plastic roofing, and bush-pole perches

Recycled materials can be fabulous.  They have character; they encourage a creative approach to building; they can be a lot less expensive than new-bought materials; wisely chosen, they also have a much lower environmental footprint than new stuff.

I reckon the primary argument for using recycled materials is the fun factor.  Driving a hard bargain at a garage sale, uncovering a tip-shop treasure, scoring something for free by striking up a conversation with a stranger. Gradually assembling a hoard of stuff and a vision of how you’ll use it. If you’re into this kind of thing, go hard.

Ideally, to be able to use recycled materials well and cost-effectively, you’ll need:

  • a great big, dry, vermin-proof shed in which to store your booty, possibly over a period of years
  • eagle eyes
  • a creative mind
  • no shame – some of the best materials are acquired by hoking in skips or striking up a conversation with a stranger about something they appear to be throwing out
  • ample time to devote to:
    • shopping around
    • collecting things
    • keeping an eye out for
      • estate sales
      • skips at building sites
      • demolitions
      • Gumtree bargains
      • garage sale ads
  • good muscles (you’ll be carrying a lot of stuff from place to place!)
  • a trailer or ute, and good straps (or a penchant for fancy truckers’ hitches and the like)
  • a particular wishlist: don’t just get stuff on spec because it’s cool and going cheap: in our experience, no shed is big enough for this approach!!

There are a number of potential pitfalls to recycled materials, too, which are good to bear in mind:

  1. using recycled items can make permitting your house harder.  If you want to keep it simple (see point 1!), avoid recycled windows (particularly single glazing), plumbing and electrical fittings in particular, and make sure that your recycled items are properly fitted.
  2. recycled materials tend not to come in standard sizes, which means they take more time and problem-solving to fit.  If you are doing the fitting yourself, and have the time to spend (not to mention the problem-solving skills), this may be fine.  If, on the other hand, you’re paying someone else to fit recycled materials for you, there is a definite point of diminishing returns around using recycled stuff, so be judicious.
  3. more than once, we’ve seen a whole house designed around an amazing, often large, and inevitably hopelessly impractical recycled feature.  Working this way with recycled materials will not save you money!!!! If saving money is the primary goal of using recycled stuff, design your house first, and begin accumulating the recycled things that can help you build it (being judicious – even ruthless – in your choices) after.
Stefan, a happy OzEarth client, with beautiful clay render made with clay he dug up mere metres from his front door.

Stefan, a happy OzEarth client, with beautiful clay render made with clay he dug up mere metres from his front door.

On-site materials are one of the things that makes natural building such an attractive possibility.  All those rocks cluttering up your pasture? They could be a wall, or a whole house! That horribly heavy clay – cob! That steaming cowpat – render!  Those big trees blocking your northerly aspect and threatening to fall on your build site – lumber!

On-site materials are as cheap as it gets, and (barring clear felling your whole block for the sake of a 2 bedroom house build) they’re quite ethical and have extremely low embodied energy.  You will certainly need to reckon with the labour involved in converting them from their natural state into something that can be used for building. See, for example, coping with clay on our Terms and Conditions page: this stuff takes some doing.  Having said that, there’s something uniquely satisfying in using a material that you’ve gleaned mere metres away to build something for yourself. So if you’re up for a bit of serious manual labour, go for it.

A couple of caveats: in the case of rocks gathered and trees milled on site, as well as construction methods like load-bearing cob, there will be building regulations that you will need to abide by in order to use these materials legally.  Guess what?  More research 🙂

4. Barnraisings

180 adobe bricks we made at a working bee (barnraising model) at Okines Community House.

Barnraisings can be a great way to get a lot done in a short period of time.  They can forge lifelong community connection, and at their best they fill your build with incredible co-operative energy and good will.  A barnraising should be hard work for everyone (particularly for you!). It should also be a total hoot (for your workers, but also for you).

Handled the wrong way, the risk with barnraisings is that they end up being (in order of seriousness) a bit of a waste of time and effort; frustrating; chaotic; and / or downright dangerous.

So how do you avoid the pitfalls?

You will need:

  • adequate public liability cover
  • really strong organisational skills.  Your barnraising days should run smoothly, and be satisfying, enriching and fun for both you and your participants.  Planning, down to the last inch, bucket, wheelbarrow, task and recipe, is absolutely essential for this to work. Weeks or months of organisation may be necessary.  The payoff, however, is that if you get this bit right, you will see serious results.
  • incredible community support – this may be a large group of likeminded friends who are interested in learning about natural building by doing, and want to help you.  Or you can use social media or other methods to cast a wider net: but know that, the more degrees of separation you have between yourself and a given volunteer, the less you will be able to rely on the amount or quality of their participation.  You can minimise this risk by qualifying your participants – get them to tell you a bit about themselves, their skills and motivations, and, if you have more participants than you have spots, make a choice.  This is good in at least two ways – it means that your team will be more able, and the fact that they will be aware that they “made the cut” will also motivate them to participate well and fully.
  • large amounts of tea, coffee, water, suncreen and delicious, wholesome food for your volunteer labour force – fuel the machine, people. Put effort into this.
  • a detailed strategy for taking care of the comfort and safety of your volunteers.  This means:
    • ready access to drinking water
    • easy access to a first aid kit (including saline eyewash for rendering – even earth render can be unpleasant against an eyeball!)
    • a decent, private, moderately weather-proof toilet within easy walking distance of your build site.  A bucket, some straw / hay bales and a good heavy tarp can be a perfect solution here;
    • the ability to get out of wind and weather, particularly during break times.  If the weather is wet, blustery or cold, an open shed won’t do it; again, think hay or strawbales stacked on the windward side/s and pinned/ tied in place.
  • non-skilled “many hands” tasks, that will be a lot easier with lots of people involved, but don’t necessarily require a huge amount of skill.  Types of jobs that are great for barnraisings are:
    • mixing and sculpting cob
    • moving stuff from place to place (as one task in a range of tasks – don’t make this your whole barnraising, that’s just mean!!)
    • smashing out a layer of earthen floor (once all your stops and non-flexible insulating substrate are in place)
    • making mud bricks
    • packing in light earth walls
    • applying an earthen (not lime) plaster / render scratch or even second coat
    • earth bag building

You may also want to take on more complex tasks with your barnraising, like dry stack stone walls, framing, or straw baling.  It’s not impossible to run these kinds of barnraisings, but we would make various pleas here:

  • please don’t attempt to lime render using a barnraising model.  It’s a really, really bad idea for two main reasons:
    1. lime is highly caustic, and it’s sneaky – by the time you realise you have a burn (because of itching or burning sensations), it’s usually already quite serious.  It’s a particularly bad idea to mix volunteer labour and powdered lime. Lime is just not something to play around with.
    2. the longevity of your building depends heavily on the quality of your rendering work: it’s just not worth experimenting, or letting volunteers experiment, on anything other than a building you can afford to pull down again in the medium-term, and really, who’s got that kind of time and energy??
  • have enough expertise on hand for the size of your volunteer group, to supervise the work effectively and keep your volunteers safe.  In our experience, for work like dry stack stone, straw baling, rendering, pointing, or framing, this means one experienced (which tends to mean paid) worker per 5 volunteers at the absolute most.  If your build fits the criteria for having a workshop run on your site, you may wish to consider hiring a natural building outfit to run a workshop for you instead (see below for more information).
  • do not trust any expert, be they ever so reputable and with ever so lengthy a track record, who guarantees you a big outcome in a short timeframe – for example, a workshop which promises to deliver a fully baled dwelling plus the first coat of internal and external render within 8 days. It will be fast and cheap, but it won’t be good: the model that this kind of outcome relies on is one where corners will be cut, expert jobs will be left to entirely inexperienced (and unsupervised) volunteer workers, things will get messy, essentials will be overlooked, and your volunteers will be overworked and harangued at best, and actually put in physical danger at worst.  Without wanting to get too woo-woo about it, even if nobody gets seriously hurt, that spiky, slapdash energy still goes into your walls, and in our opinion the money you save is just not worth it.

If this all sounds like too much, that’s a fair call.  Barnraisings are a major undertaking, and it requires a particular mind and skillset to pull a successful one together.  OzEarth can ease the burden of some of the logistical aspects by partnering with you on a barnraising model, but only within really strict parameters, which are outlined in detail here.

5. Workshops

32 Workshoppers learning multiple skills at a weekend workshop to create an outdoor classroom in Woodbridge.

The difference between a barnraising and a workshop is:

  • people pay to attend, with the workshop provider keeping the proceeds of the workshop fees
  • when OzEarth runs workshops rather than facilitating barnraisings, we have a maximum of 4-5 students supervised by each trainer
  • because of the relatively high trainee / trainer ratio, it’s possible to undertake more complex tasks than typically work well with a barnraising model.
  • workshops have a dual focus, not only on getting your build progressed, but also on producing excellent learning outcomes for the participants.  This means time spent on site is divided between applied skills development and theory, so work may progress relatively slowly as compared to simply hiring a team to do the job.  However, given that your workshoppers are paying for your experts’ time and providing you with free labour, this might be a fine compromise for you!
  • depending on the nature of the tasks in hand, barnraisings can sometimes be successfully run without expert help by skilled, enterprising owner builders.  On the other hand, workshops are run by trained, experienced natural building practitioners.

OzEarth’s policy around workshops is that we only run them for community groups or projects with a clear community or environmental benefit. Other outfits may not articulate that as their policy, but you can be absolutely sure that every one of them will triage your project proposal against these criteria:

  1. Will it pay?
  2. Does it have the potential to raise our profile?
  3. Does it create some sort of other positive outcome (environmental, social)?
  4. Does the person floating the proposal seem to know what they’re talking about?

It’s not that natural building practitioners who run workshops are making a cynical bid to rake in fistfuls of dough: we do, sincerely, want to teach natural building skills.  OzEarth’s partners all see the potential that natural building skills can unlock: allowing people to do for themselves opens the way for building resilient communities, which then creates the space to step safely away from scary modern traps of debt and consumerism, yada yada yada.  You can read heaps of stuff elsewhere on this site about what motivates us.

Ironically, as much as all that is true, and as much as we attempt to model a radically sustainable lifestyle, we still have bills to pay.  Worse still, we’ve discovered (to our chagrin) that a firm intention to try and make the world a better place is not enough to magically bestow on us the gifts of limitless time and energy (I know, ripped off, right?).  As such, even with the best of intentions, we have to make choices, sometimes quite harsh ones, about what represents a good prospect for a workshop.

So if you want to outsource the running of your project as a workshop, you can find our advice in the dot points below. A lot of it is identical to the advice we gave here about what you should know before approaching a natural building outfit in general.  The difference, in this context, is that getting these things right can mean the difference between your project getting up on an effectively crowd-funded, social-outcome-driven shoestring, or not.

You will need to:

  • know whether your project meets our criteria for workshops
  • accumulate a solid body of research and knowledge around what you plan to do
  • come up with a realistic budget, both in terms of finances and timeframe
  • make the same kind of survey of resources and limitations that we like to see from anyone who talks to us (see our previous article), adding in the sorts of workshop participants you feel confident of being able to attract with your project
  • above all: pitch a fantastic project with amazing outcomes for the community or the environment. Be able to talk about it passionately, clearly and succinctly. Yep, we’re talking about an elevator speech.  It’s horribly corporate, but there are reasons why it’s a useful approach: if you can’t articulate your concept convincingly – or at least pique someone’s interest – in 30 seconds, it’s fair to say your concept isn’t sufficiently developed.

Summing up

As you can see, there are lots of approaches to saving money on your natural build.  If we have one final tip, it’s this: do start at the top and work your way down the list.  Almost anyone can have a go at doing number 1. As you run down the list, implementation becomes increasingly demanding and complex, and (depending on your situation) may or may not be appropriate or practical for you.

Good luck, good skill, and above all: happy researching.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *