I get a lot of traffic looking for natural building information. Therefore I figure that it's time to provide an update. Here is my 2022 natural building update about my project. This will be the last update too.
My ex-wife and I were going to build a straw bale house. However we're no longer together. Therefore the project was shelved. Of course that's the most direct update I can offer.
That said, read on for a longer version. I'll share some of what made the project impossible. That is, even if my marriage had worked out.
Natural Building Pitfalls
We ran into a series of natural building pitfalls. Those honestly had little to do with building a straw bale home. That said, if you're planning on building a cob, straw bale, cordwood, or other natural building watch out for these as well.
Financing was the biggest impediment to our project. If you can completely self-finance you're going to be fine. However if you need to borrow you're going to run into issues. Banks look at your contractor's credit. This means acting as an owner-builder is very hard. Too banks will give you a tough time unless you've built other houses.
The bank also needs homes that are similar to your design. They look to match the amount of property. Plus they want similar nearby homes. They use this to figure out how much they're willing to lend. The more conventional your build is the easier it is.
That said, don't think that they won't be able to find anything even if your design is far from conventional.
The challenge that we ran into with comps was where we were going to build. All the homes were at least 40 to 50 years old. We bought a plot of land just outside of Pittsburgh before learning this. As you can imagine that was an expensive mistake.
We bought where we did for a number of reasons. First, proximity to the city. Secondly, the south-facing slope it sat on plus the amount of land (over half an acre). Finally we bought there with the hope of expanding to the empty lot next to it.
Ideally I still would love to live on this plot. The nearby home values were just not high enough. Plus the school system was not ranked well. Both of these mean it was a less desirable place to live. At least according to the bank. None of that mattered to us. Too, we thought any future buyer looking for a great natural building wouldn't be hung up either. The bank only cares about money. Where we saw a home they saw a risk.
We spoke with every contractor within a few hours of Pittsburgh. If they built houses we reached out to them. A number were interested. However they all understood the issues we would face.
Our final contractor was okay with the project. That is, as long as I contacted all of his subs and got estimates. I made it through most of them before the cost were clearly too high. Of course that's not their fault. It was ours. Read more about that below.
Scale and Scope
The scale and scope of your project is so important. My ex and I wanted vastly different things in terms of the size and functionality. The idea for the entire project started as a small roundhouse. It would sit on enough land where we could grow a lot of our own food. The home morphed into a giant house with a full basement, 3 bathrooms, a two-car garage, and 4 bedrooms.
Building a modular building would have been better. It would have been possible to have a house at the scale the project grew into. To be clear, I'm not suggesting a pre-built modular home. I'm talking about incorporating modular elements into the design of a home that starts smaller. For example, overbuilding the foundation. Also creating support walls that could handle another floor. In addition we could have left access points in exterior walls for future expansion.
At the end of the day we lacked a shared vision. That doomed the home. What my former wife and I wanted in a home was vastly different. I'm not saying that either of us was right. In fact, I think we were both too stubborn. We were talking about desires for how we live, not meeting our needs.
The truth is simple. We wanted completely different things. That's true both in terms of the house and our lifestyles. Ultimately it was why we divorced. You have got to share values with someone if you're going to embark on such a project. In the end we didn't share values or vision.
Your Natural Building Project
I really hope that my 2022 natural building update doesn't dampen your spirits. In fact when it comes to your natural building project I wish you all the luck in the world. I hope this article helps you understand what we faced. In fact, if you can succeed where I couldn't I'll be cheering you on!
If you're going to try to get financing make sure you're building somewhere where the value is high enough for the bank.
If you're hiring a contractor talk to them well in advance. Also make sure they're willing to take on the project. Too, make sure the bank will be willing to work with them.
Consider starting small and scaling up. Once you've got an occupancy permit the value is established. After that you can borrow based on equity to expand. Just account for the future expansion in your initial plans.
Most importantly make sure you share values and a vision. Understand each other. Ask how you want to live. Too, what type of house work for everyone. Be honest. If you can't compromise on things you might have larger problems. Learning to work together in your marriage towards common goals is essential. This is especially true if you're taking on such a large project.