September 27, 2022

2022 Natural Building Update

3D Design

I've seen a lot of traffic looking for natural building information so I figure that it's time to provide a 2022 natural building update about my project.

My ex-wife and I were going to build a straw bale house but given that we're no longer together that project was shelved. That's the most direct answer but read on for a longer version. I'll share some of what made the project impossible even if my marriage had worked out.

Natural Building Pitfalls

We ran into a series of natural building pitfalls that honestly have almost nothing to do with the choice to build a straw bale home. That said, if you're planning on building a cob, straw bale, cordwood, or other natural building you should 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 but if you need any money you're going to run into a lot of issues. Banks look more at your contractor's credit than your own when it comes to building. This means if you're doing an owner-builder you're going to have a tough time unless you've built other houses as a general contractor and have a record the bank can look at.


The bank also needs homes that are similar to your design, amount of property, and that are in the same or similar nearby neighborhoods. They need this to figure out how much they're willing to lend you. The more conventional your build is the easier it will be. 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 when it came to comps was the value of where we were going to build. We bought a plot of land just outside of the city of Pittsburgh because of it's proximity to the city, the south-facing slope it sat on, and the amount of land (over half an acre). If I had the money I would still love to live on this plot. The problem we ran into all of the other homes in the area were built  in the 50s and 60s. Their values were not high, the school system was not ranked high either. This meant that it was a less desirable place to live according to the bank. It didn't matter what we thought or what any future buyer looking for a great natural building would think. The banks only cared about their ability to make back any money they'd lend should it need to be sold before being occupied by us.


I spoke with every contractor within a few hours of the city of Pittsburgh who build houses and even a few that do small commercial projects. A number were interested but clearly understood the issues we would have with financing so they got cold feet. The final contractor I had talked to was okay with it so long as I contacted all of his subs and got their estimates for him before he'd commit. I made it through most of them before the cost were clearly going to be far more than we could pull together even if we could get financing.

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 of the home. The idea for the entire project started as a small roundhouse that would sit on enough land that we could grow a fair amount of our own food. It morphed into a giant home with a full basement, 3 bathrooms, a two-car garage, and 4 bedrooms.

Modular Building

Building a home that can be expanded upon, a modular building design, would have made it possible to eventually have a house that reached the scale and scope that the project had grown into. To be clear, I'm not suggesting a pre-built modular home. I'm talking about incorporating modular design elements into the design of a home that starts smaller. Overbuilding the foundation and support walls to eventually handle a second floor, leaving access points in exterior walls for future expansion, and other such techniques.

Shared Vision

At the end of the day a lack of a shared vision for the home doomed it as well. What my former wife and I wanted in a home was vastly different. I'm not saying that either of us was right, we're talking about desires for how we live, not facts. The truth however, was that we wanted completely different things both in terms of the house and our lifestyles. That's a big part of why we divorced. I strongly believe that you've got to share values with someone if you're going to embark on such a daunting 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 when it comes to your natural building project. I do hope that it helps you understand the reality that I faced and prepares you for some things I wasn't aware of before buying land, spending years designing and refining, and eventually needing to scrap the project.

If you're going to try to get financing please make sure you're building somewhere where the value of the land is high enough to make it work for the bank.

If you're going to hire a contractor talk to them well in advance to make sure they're willing to take on the project and that the bank will be willing to work with them.

If you need to consider starting small and scaling up once the initial building is done. Once you've got an occupancy permit the value is established and you can borrow based on equity to expand the place. Just make sure you account for future expansion in your initial plans.

Most importantly make sure you share values and a vision for how you want to live and what type of house will work for you. If you can't compromise on things that will prevent your build then you might have larger problems. Learning to work together in your marriage towards common goals is essential if you're going to take on such a large project.

Good luck on your build and if you have any questions or comments about my 2022 natural building update or anything else please contact me with them. You can see more about my home design and other designs as well as my other work under my portfolio.