Building a self-sufficient house is cheaper and easier than you may think. In this article, you will find the answers to many of the questions that surround self-sufficient houses and what to consider when deciding to build or buy. Moreover, you will have an idea of how to weigh the costs and benefits that are important to you.
So, how much does it cost to build a self-sufficient house? The cost involved in constructing a self-sufficient building is typically in the range of 10% to 25% higher than constructing a normal building of the same size.
For those who are not sure what, a self-sufficient house is, it is an ecologically sound dwelling that functions in a similar fashion to a regular dwelling but with a net-zero or even negative carbon footprint. To achieve this, they are self-contained ecosystems providing their own water and waste needs, their own energy, and their own food supply.
There are tradeoffs to consider when building or buying a self-sufficient home. Price is chief among them. The price for a self-sufficient home is higher than for a standard home, the tradeoff being that the self-sufficient home is far cheaper to operate.
Cost Estimates for Development
The cost involved in building a self-sufficient home is somewhat more than in building a traditional house, typically in the range of 10% to 25%. These costs, however, are recouped on the operational costs of the structure. Federal and local rebates will help to defray the initial outlay for the home.
Developing a Site Plan
The site plan is a scale drawing of your building site and how you intend to use it. Here will be the outlines of any buildings, walkways, and other structures and how these interact with the natural features on the site. A professionally developed site plan can cost $200 – $500.
Architectural Services Estimates
Employing an architectural firm is not a necessity, especially if you are building from a predeveloped plan. Architectural services for this type of project can range up to and above $6,000, typically averaging around $4,500.
Permitting is granted by your local county government and covers the scope of your project. Among the necessary permits that you will need are: Excavation, Foundation, Plumbing, Well-drilling, Electrical, Framing, Septic and more. The costs can range anywhere from $2,500 – $5,500.
Power Generation Estimates
- Average solar panel installation costs (before rebates, tax credits, discounts): $15,000 – $28,000
- Wind turbines suitable for single-family dwellings range between $3,000 – $6,000. Installation and connection of these units can cost anywhere between $12,000 and $70,000.
- Micro-Hydro is the best option but only if the property has year-round water flow. Installation costs can range from $3,000 – $20,000.
- Digging a new well can range in price from $1,500 to $12,000 depending on the conditions.
- Passive rainwater harvesting systems are readily available on the market in a variety of sizes. A cistern capable of supporting a single-family dwelling can be easily obtained for under $1,000.
- Active harvesting systems that pump the water are can cost between $8,000 and $25,000.
- Perc tests can cost between $500 and $1,700.
- Average total cost of a standard septic system and drain field is between $3,000-$6,000.
- Average total cost of an engineered septic system and drain field is between $11,500-$20,000.
- Because of their ability to drastically reduce water usage, composting toilets are increasing in popularity and can range in price from $300 to $6,000.
- Despite being an established technology, composting toilets require a significant amount of attention to ensure proper functioning.
City Water and Sewer Services
- If connecting to municipal services is required, then costs for a water service can range between $1,100 and $2000 or more depending on the locality.
- Sewer service connections can run between $2,500 and $5,000.
Common Construction Materials Estimates
Framing and Lumber Estimates
- Based on a standard 2000 square foot home, expect the cost of lumber to be at or above $10,000.
- Using repurposed lumber is desirable but it can also be extraordinarily expensive compared to standard, sustainably harvested material.
- Electrical Wire: $4.00 per square foot = $4,800.
- Service Panel: $800 – $3,000.
- Labor @ $85/hr: $2,500 -$6,000.
- Proper insulation is one of the main concerns – the more insulation in the house, the less the power requirements. Insulating for a self-sufficient home ranges between $1.75 and $4.00 per square foot.
- Installing double-paned windows will cost anywhere between $2.50 and $5.00 per square foot of the window, depending on the level of quality and efficiency selected.
- 30-year Shingles: $9,000 to $16,500
- 50-year Shingles: $11,000 to $18,500
- Wood Shingles: $14,000 to $25,500
- Steel Shingles: $14,000 to $25,500
- Aluminum Shingles: $14,000 to $28,500
- Natural Slate: $25,000 to $55,500
- Clay Tiles: $25,000 to $50,500
The Living Roof
- Otherwise known as a “green” roof, these structures are markedly cooler than their traditional counterparts.
- The green roof can reduce demand for summertime air-conditioning by as much as 75% as compared to a standard roof.
- Average cost to install a green roof is $200 per square yard.
Flooring Materials Estimates
- Bamboo Flooring: $2.00 –$8.00 s/f
- Cork Flooring: $3.00 – $12.00 s/f
- Labor: $4.00 – $8.00 s/f
Traditional Materials Estimates
The cost to build a self-sufficient house mostly depends on the materials used. High-end self-sufficient houses tend to use the latest materials and technology to make them function. However, a technology that has long been in use also provide durable materials to meet these same ends. Earthen materials are highly efficient and, when designed for function, structurally sound. These materials are readily available and have proven their usefulness over millennia
- It takes about 500 straw bales to assemble a 2000 s/f home. At a rough cost of $6.00/bale, this equates to $3,000.
- Hemp straw is often considered a waste product and may provide another more inexpensive avenue to the standard straw bale.
- You can check some nice references for straw bales projects here.
- It would take roughly 2000 earthbags to construct an earthen bag style house. Filling them manually is the cheapest route. Ordering a pallet of 100 prefilled bags can run as high as $800.
- You can check this video for how an earthen bag construction might look like.
- Ferrock, which combines steel dust and other recycled materials, absorbs excess CO2 as part of its manufacturing process. Ferrock is much stronger than concrete although it is much more expensive.
- Mycelium, fungus, bricks. No standardized cost is yet available, although fungus derived housing is being taken very seriously worldwide.
- Plastics are exceedingly difficult to repurpose. However, plastics of all kinds are starting to find a place in the self-sufficient building trend. Typically, as insulation or vapor barrier, but also plastic bottles can be fashioned into efficient DIY passive solar water heaters.
- Tires, like plastic, can find new life as both structural and insulating components of a self-sufficient home.
- Concrete is easily recyclable and, as such, is in demand throughout the construction industry.
More on Recycled Materials
- To ensure the lowest cost, most recycled materials used in constructing the self-sufficient home are locally sourced. That such materials are readily available and inexpensive means that the self-sufficient house can be built for a price that is within the means of most people.
Other Costs to Consider
- As many self-sufficient homes are established off the grid and, oftentimes out of fire district service zones, research is required in this area. Some remote houses are capable of being fully or partially insured but the cost tends to be significantly higher than compared to a standard “on-grid” unit. Access to a nearby water source is recommended.
- An off-grid house that is surrounded by trees can be seen by insurance companies as a liability.
- Insurance will also be affected depending on the types of equipment and fuels that you may want to have on your property.
- For houses not having a gravity fed water system (such as those common to municipal on-grid houses), getting water to where you need it will take energy.
- Firewood. Understanding the labor and storage techniques that go into a years’ supply of firewood is important. Hiring outside help for this task is expensive.
- Diesel. Maintaining a fuel supply is critical especially off-grid. Diesel is useful for equipment or even supplemental heating if necessary. Setup and storage costs for diesel should be understood. Hopefully, good planning will minimize or completely remove the need to use this type of energy source.
- Propane. Like diesel, propane is another reliable source of fuel for heating or cooking. Understand the costs involved in leasing vs. renting a propane tank. Hopefully, good planning will minimize or completely remove the need to use this type of energy source.
- The more remote the location, the more expensive the delivery costs. Research the zip code you plan to live in and get an idea of what costs may be in store.
“Quick” Runs into Town
- As with delivery services, taking a trip into town is more challenging the more remote the location. The expense of making a single item trip can simply be cost-prohibitive. Trips will have to be planned and scheduled to avoid unnecessary expenses.
- Generators are a popular addition to many households both on and off-grid. Generators need to be maintained properly to perform when required. Understanding how to maintain and repair a generating unit takes time and costs money.
Vehicles and Equipment
- Longer drives over rural roads equates to more frequent vehicle inspections and repairs.
- More than likely a larger, four-wheel drive vehicle will be required to manage the less frequent but much larger resupply runs. These vehicles can be expensive to maintain and expensive to overhaul. Emergency maintenance costs can be significant.
State and Local Taxes
- Consider the impact of taxes on where and how you want to live.
Maintenance of the Self-Sufficient House
- 1% Rule of Thumb: Budget at least 1% of your home’s value per year to account for maintenance costs. If your home is worth $200,000 that means $2000/yr for maintenance.
- Save more if your home is more complex. A self-sufficient house may well require a budget of 2% or more per year when considering the specialized nature of the dwelling.
- An emergency home repair fund is highly recommended.
The Value of the Self-Sufficient House
One statistic coming from a 2015 research study by Efficiency Vermont states that the annual energy savings for a single-family self-sufficient home are around 67% compared to a standard house.
Small Scale Farming
Most Self-Sufficient houses employ small, integrated farming methods. Raising chickens, planting small orchards, and simple gardening, while labor-intensive, can yield significant cost savings over traditional shopping.
Self-sufficient homes command a higher price and tend to sell faster than their traditional counterparts.
The costs of building a self-sufficient house can be significant. But do not let that deter you, because once you know the standard considerations that go into building such a structure, you will have the confidence you need to estimate your costs.
The particulars of the self-sustaining house can be broken into subsets. Very broadly speaking, an eco-friendly house possesses the following:
1. Optimal design and durability of the structure.
2. Design for adaptability and integration into the environment.
3. Design for optimal energy use in the day-to-day operation of the house.
4. Low ecological impact materials sourced for the construction.
Note that these four points are arranged in some semblance of order. For instance, imagining your house precedes everything else.
Preliminary Design Ideas
The design of the house is a direct result of your vision for how you want to live. First things first, designing the house as if it is to be stand-alone and separate from everything.
Initially, by ignoring other considerations, for the time being, you will better be able to focus and identify your needs and values and will help you to weigh those against your wants later in the process.
Do not get too sophisticated yet. You can sketch out the design freehand if you want. At this point, all you really want is to create a visual of what you intend to build.
The size of your house is the major determinant of its eventual cost, but there are approaches to your design that can incorporate cost savings without undue sacrifice of living space.
- Consider that a couple of the major price drivers of any house are the roof and the foundation. If instead of building a “ranch” style home, one builds more vertical, then you are likely to encounter a significant cost saving right out of the gate.
- The ancillary materials used for the structure are not as price intensive as foundation and roofing material. And think in terms of simplification because the more complex your design, the more expensive it will be to realize.
- Another important consideration is insulation. This is perhaps the most important aspect of making your home carbon neutral. Insulation does not have to be of the fiberglass type, recycled/shredded cotton is becoming a more popular choice for eco-friendly insulating.
- Supplement the insulation by orienting your structure to the south. The more area you have exposed to the south, the more that nature helps to heat and cool your home – and the lower your energy bills.
The Importance of the Right Materials
Consider also that using bamboo or cork flooring is considered the gold standard in eco-friendly houses. Both these materials grow rapidly, are exceptionally durable, and not nearly as expensive as other less eco-conscious materials. Moreover, they add to the natural beauty of a house more so than other materials.
Other carbon-neutral, or even negative materials coming online are items like Ferrock which combines steel dust and other recycled materials to create a CO2 absorbing product that is stronger than concrete. Also consider the availability of such materials as recycled plastics, byproducts of hemp and straw for structural as well as insulation.
If you search enough on the internet you will easily find businesses that will sell you a “kit” house for virtually any price imaginable; some even seem too good to be true.
If you are reading this article because you are interested in how to truly make your vision a reality, then you will certainly arrive at your own conclusions as to the efficacy of these sites. They may not be what you are looking for, but they may give you some ideas on how you wish to proceed.
Remember that the self-sustaining house is not simply a structure with a low carbon footprint. To be considered self-sustaining a house must be carbon neutral or carbon negative.
Now that you know what you are working toward you can consider other questions that may arise. Such as how your design will complement its surroundings and vice-versa. Integrating vegetation into the structure can go a long way toward reducing the carbon footprint.
Climate Considerations and Design
Different climates will, of course, have their unique challenges. Drier climates, such as found in the high deserts of the western U.S. can be bone-chillingly cold in the winter and blisteringly hot in the summer. Whereas the Pacific Northwest is known for it is the much wetter and more temperate environment.
Considerations such as these will help guide you as to where the optimal spot is for your house. For instance, in the extreme-dry environment, an in-ground house may be desired as it can take advantage of the climate to avoid using the very expensive moisture mitigating materials that would be required in a more soggy temperate environment.
If you are living in a more humid and warmer environment, then your primary consideration will be about airflow. Meaning your design is likely to incorporate an interior of large open spaces combined with large windows and doors. Design and climate determine the materials necessary and how they are to be used.
And with this, we have arrived at the end of this article. We hope we have given you a good overview of what are the costs of building a self-sufficient house, which things to keep in mind, and how to go about it.