The Cost of Sustainable Architecture

Kelly Hart is your host here at greenhomebuilding.com, and has been involved with green building concepts for much of his life. Kelly spent many years as a professional remodeler, during which time he became acquainted with many of the pitfalls of conventional construction. He has also worked in various fields of communication media, including still photography, cinematography, animation (he has a patent for a process for making animated films), video production and now website development. One of the more recent video programs that he produced is A Sampler of Alternative Homes: Approaching Sustainable Architecture, which explores a whole range of building concepts that are earth friendly. Kelly is knowledgeable about both simple design concepts and more complex technological aspects of home building that enhance sustainable living. He has even designed and built a solar-electric car that he drives around his neighborhood. Kelly, and his wife Rosana, live in the earthbag/papercrete home that is profiled on the earthbag page. He is available, at a modest fee, for consulting about sustainable building design, either for remodeling existing structures to more fully embrace these concepts, or for new architectural designs.

Questions and Answers

Q: I am about to build a house for my self, and I have been looking at every cost effective option, as I have a tight budget to go along. I am looking forward to building a 1200-1500 sq feet house under $20,000 (2-3 bedroom two bath ) and my question is, is it possible ??? What else can you advise me for ??

A: It is possible to build a very inexpensive house, especially if you are willing to do much of the work yourself. I doubt if you could have a house that size built by a contractor, given your budget. The secret to building inexpensively is: build as small as possible, used recycled materials where possible, do the work yourself whenever possible, choose materials that are cheap, or free, to build with, such as adobe, etc. You might like to buy my video program, A Sampler of Alternative Homes, available at the STORE since it shows a number of very inexpensive homes.

Q: I purchased 11.5 acres at about 6700 feet here in Nevada just outside Virginia City. We have cold winters with snow and hot summers with minimal rain. I want to build green for many reasons. We do not want to be anchored by a mortgage and have progressed thus far from an out of pocket perspective. Well and Septic are in place. Now it is time to figure out what type of affordable/sustainable construction we will use. I have studied ICF, adobe, cast-earth. We are at a loss in making that determination. We want solid walls, providing maximum thermal mass. We do have construction regulations and a Property Owners Association so aesthetics must also be considered. I am leaning towards adobe but am concerned about deterioration. I like concrete but not the polystyrene. Can you help in making a choice for affordable (out of pocket), sustainable (lasts generations) and efficient building?

A: I always advise people to consider the design that fits your building site first, before deciding what materials to use...so much depends on the exact design. Hybrid approaches are often the best to create a really comfortable home. If you are berming part of the house, that demands the use of materials that can tolerate that situation (earthbags, lightweight cement); an expanse of framed windows is easiest done with recycled or eco-certified wood; the house shell that is exposed to the atmosphere should be well-insulated (strawbale, AAC, earthbags with volcanic rock); often the floor is a good place to have thermal mass where the sun shines on it (adobe, flagstone). Also, use materials that can be found locally, so they don't have to be trucked in from a great distance.

Q: Is there an easy, low-level adoption of certain practices and materials that can yield both additional customers and reduced operating costs for the contractor that leverage his/her existing skills?

A: The simple idea of promoting compact designs for homes would appeal to many customers while reducing the cost to build. The trend for building enormous, showcase houses that consume so much more material to build and energy to keep comfortable, eliminates a whole sector of the housing market. Even people who buy these huge mansions often discover that they are not comfortable for living because they do not create that cozy, nest-like space that becomes a "home".

Q: I am a high school student and I am doing a report about sustainable architecture. How much would a sustainable house/building cost if the square feet was ranging up to a normal size three bedroom home?

A: There are so many variables it is impossible to say for sure, but in general a sustainable house can be built for no more than an ordinary one, and often much less.

Q: If I want to build 'green home' off the grid, solar panels, approx. 1000-1200 sq. ft, how much would it cost?

A: There are just too many variables to answer your question. Solar electric systems themselves can cost between $5,000 and $60,000, depending on size and complexity. The cost of building houses varies also, depending on the area, design, etc. I suggest that you ask local contractors what typical costs are per square foot in your area, and also if they are familiar with the aspects of sustainable architecture that interest you.

Q: I found there are many people that believe green building is too expensive and too complex.

A: There are so many different ways of building "green" that no such generalizations should be made. As a generalization, it is untrue, because there are many ways of building green; some are simpler and less expensive, while some are more complex and more expensive than conventional construction.

Q:  Do you believe that this idea will prevent green building from becoming main stream?

A: Well, it certainly won't help the acceptance of green practices...expense is often the bottom line for choices that consumers make.

Q: I will be moving to Paros island in the Cyclades island complex in Greece. I would like to build a home that will be totally self sustained, from power and water. Also I don't want to spent more then $150,000. Where do you recommend I start from?

A: The way to keep costs low is to do as much of the work as you can yourself, keep the design as compact as can be, use natural, local materials that are readily available and not too expensive, use recycled materials for many parts of the house, and do work exchanges with friends when lots of hands make sense. To start I would suggest that you read up on all of the aspects of the house that interest you. There are many resources listed at this website. For that much money you should be able to build a very nice house!

Q: I am a third year engineering student at the University of Montana in Bozeman with a background in residential construction. While building homes in California I have developed a desire to build green. As a working student the only way for me to build green is to convince others that it is a good idea. For most the determining factor is financial. For an end of year economics project I am trying to answer the question; will building green be cost effective? To do this I am comparing the building and maintenance costs of a green home to that of a home build with "standard" materials over a 25-year time period. Pricing out the costs of a conventionally built home has been simple; unfortunately it has been very difficult to price out a green home. This is partly due to the breadth of what all is considered green as well as the fact that most people writing about the financial aspects of their green homes are venting horror stories with poor contractors. I was wondering if you have any information or know of any search avenues that would aid in my research?

A: You are absolutely correct about the breadth of  "green" building and the difficulty of comparing this to conventional construction. I have been asked this question many times, and my usual response is "It all depends on the choices you  make." I know of owner-built simple homes made with pressed adobe blocks that have been built for around $1,000...whereas many nice homes made with alternative materials cost a fair amount more than their conventional counterparts, because of all the custom work that needs to be done, in plastering, etc. Also, "green" can imply the use of lots of expensive technology, such as solar electric equipment. In general, I would say that it is possible to build a green home for something comparable to its conventional counterpart, and that over time this green home will cost less to operate and will save quite a bit of money.

Q: My husband and I dream of our green home between Montpelier and Burlington, VT. It would be helpful to have a very rough estimate of this dream green home for building material costs + land: we'd have a traditional ranch (wrap around veranda and gazebo deck accompanying the greenhouse), four bedrooms, two composting toilets, 2 showers, on about 5 acres, with solar panels, windmills, wells, and backup generator. Surrounding the home, we'd have an ice skating rink, cross country trails, and a downhill slide. Then, a pool, tennis courts and small gym? Is this affordable for the middle class couple?

A: What you describe sounds ambitious on a moderate income, but then I am not familiar with property values and building costs in that area. You might find someone through the directory at http://directory.greenbuilder.com  who could advise you more specifically. It sounds like what you have in mind could be used as a resort, and thereby provide some income as well. I might suggest that you consider designing the project so that it could be implemented in stages, starting out on a much smaller scale, and enlarge it as you gain experience and can afford it.

Q: How or where I could find a price list for materials for sustainable construction? I'm wanting to start my own business in building and offering eco-friendly homes to people in Tennessee. I think Everyone should be living more in conjunction with the environment.

A: I am afraid that there is no such list. There is such a large variety of materials with differing costs depending on locality and availability, that it would be almost impossible to assemble such a list. If you had a specific design that you were interested in, a materials list could be generated for that design, and then that list could be evaluated for cost in your locality...but even that is a fair amount of work. I am pleased that you are interested in going into the ecological housing business!

Q: How can the cost of green products be brought down?

A: Many natural materials actually cost less than their industrial equivalents. Other manufactured products that might be considered "green," such as wheat straw board, will become less expensive when they are used more, like most other products do.

Q: What is the cost difference in building a green house verses a traditional house?

A: Often there is no difference whatsoever. Then, once the house is built, it will save energy and money for the owner through its efficiency.

Q: For us average "joes" out there, the desire to build sustainably within our budget can be a real challenge. I have been in discussion with enough green "stick" construction firms to know this. While stick might be no less expensive than building with a SIP, the increased energy savings with SIPs is an inviting offset.

A: Building green does not necessarily cost more, especially when the energy consumption costs over time are factored in...as you point out. With "stick" construction there is the hidden cost of environmental degradation from deforestation, and this should also be factored in.

Q: I live up in Eureka California where there is a lot of rain. My husband and I are looking at houses, cheap, bottom of the market. We don't really want to spend more than $200,000. The prices of houses here in California have become bloated well past reason, but we have to deal with it. Anyway, it occurred to me that buying a scrap of land and putting something on it that we might actually like might be a possibility. I've always been a huge, rabid fan of alternative, ecologically kosher architecture. I know there are eco house kits but I can't get anyone to even talk to me because they want to know my whole financial story; first to know whether I'm worth an enquiry response. I can't plan without knowing what is out there and how much these house kits cost. Can you think of something within our lowly economic perimeters that might work in a wetter climate like Eureka CA? Starting from scratch with a smart design is something I would rather do than settling for an old wreck in the slums.

A: There aren't really many ecological kit homes available that I know about, other than yurts perhaps. It is often much more ecological to start from scratch with a house that is designed for the exact site where you want to build. Many of the homes featured at www.dreamgreenhomes.com can be adapted to work in many locations. The cost of building varies from region to region...local builders and realtors can give you typical cost per square foot figures for where you want to build. Yes...you can build a very fine house for under $200,000, especially if you can find land that is inexpensive enough. Don't give up!

Q: Does going green in your home have to be expensive? Why or why not?

Measures such as sealing obvious air leaks in the shell of the house, providing good insulation in the walls and ceilings, putting thermal curtains on windows in the cold season, replacing incandescent lights with compact fluorescent, and buying energy-efficient appliances are not terribly expensive to implement.

Q: Is there anything you can do to offset the costs? If so, what?

A: Once such energy-conservation measures have been taken they will actually start to save you money in reduced utility bills. Also, there are often tax rebates offered by either the state or federal government that encourage energy conservation.

Q: Where can we build a home for under $200,000? California is our first choice, but we are willing to move out of state.

A: The main problem of building in California is the cost of real estate, as well as the cost of labor; materials costs are probably similar around the country. My understanding is that it now costs between $200 and $300 per square foot there for new construction. So at the lower end of this, you would be able to build a 1,000 sf house for about $200,000, if you already owned the land. This really saddens me, since it puts such homes out reach of many people.

A few years ago I built my own 1200 sf home in the mountains of Colorado for about $16 per sf...but I did most of the work myself and it took me about three years to do so. And I am good at finding recycled materials and using natural materials that are in abundance in that area. So the cost of building depends on many factors.

A few months ago I toured parts of the Ozarks (Oklahoma and Arkansas) and noticed that there is a lot of relatively inexpensive real estate there (both bare land and developed)...and it was beautiful. Now, with the downturn in real estate generally around the country, you can probably get some pretty good deals, certainly for less than $200,000....so again, it all depends...

Q: I am an environmental studies graduate student at the University of Montana Missoula. I am currently working on the proposal phase of a plan for a nonprofit project I hope to implement in the Chicago area after graduating. The plan is to build a small, alternative high school (80 students), a residential center (30-40 residents) and sustainable school farm. The idea is to provide a safe and stable environment for adolescents in need and to incorporate sustainability and conscious living into the curriculum and treatment program. My vision is that the school and residential center be energy efficient, off-the-grid facilities. I understand that estimating the costs of such a project would depend on a number of variables, but could you come up with even a ballpark figure? I am also interested in your opinion about the feasibility of such facilities operating off the grid.

A: You have an admirable and ambitious goal here. Estimating the cost of such a project is very difficult, because there are so many factors to consider, most of them unknown to me. One approach would be to figure out how many square feet of building space would be needed to house all of the functions that you  mention, and then multiply that by the per/foot average building cost in your area (realtors, contractors, and lenders are likely to know this figure). This would give you a base-line figure to work with.

Yes, it would be possible to have such a facility completely off-grid, but again the cost would depend on many factors, primarily how much power you would need to run all necessary appliances. Large-scale photovoltaic systems tend to be very expensive to set up, so this could increase the cost of your development considerably.

Q: I really wish you had prices for all the types of foundations. Like for earthen, bamboo, straw etc,.... I know it depends how big a home you are building but if you could add per sq. ft for example.

A: There are many variables with foundation design that could affect their cost, so such a chart would be difficult to assemble, and possibly misleading. In general though, a simple rubble trench foundation would be the cheapest and most ecological, an earthbag foundation would probably be next, mortared stone might be next (especially if you didn't count the labor), and poured concrete would be the most expensive and least ecological.

Q: How expensive are homes such as earth-sheltered or organic homes?

A: Green homes do not necessarily cost any more than conventional houses to build. In fact over their lifetime they will usually cost less, because they tend to be more energy efficient. Earth sheltered homes might cost a bit more initially, because the materials that allow a home to to buried can be expensive.

Would it be very possible for average people to have these green homes?

Yes, if you can afford to build a conventional home, you can probably afford to build one that is greener. And it is possible to remodel or retrofit an existing house for very little money.

Q: My friend John and myself own 5.24 acres in East Wenatchee, Wa. John has a single wide mobile home with his family and has his own septic system, plus electricity. I have a separate septic system and a electric box ready to be hooked up to a home, and we both share a well. I am a single parent and went through a bad divorce, which completely ruin my credit, so now no one will give me a loan to purchase a home. A friend turn me on to this web site and I am real interested in these structures, and thought I could get some advice or an opinion or be pointed in the right direction on which structure to consider looking into. I pay rent right now on a 3 bedroom home, but would like to get a trailer on the land and start building something. If you can help in anyway I would really appreciate you time and advice.

A: One thing that you might do is take a look at some of the home plans that are presented at my other website: www.dreamgreenhomes.com and see what might work for your family. Many of these designs are rather modest homes that could be built for much less than their larger cousins. There are many degrees of green construction, and one of the best approaches is to use what is available right on your property, such as parts of trees, stones, soil, etc.

Q: Dr. Geiger makes the claim that the earthbag method is the simplest house building method of all the earthen based choices. He never claimed it was the easiest of ALL the green house building choices!?!? Is strawbale construction even easier that earthbag? In short I'm looking for the quickest, cheapest green housing type of ALL the popular choices, not just earthen ones. I think strawbale is quickest, fastest and easiest but I wanted to hear what you thought.

A: If there were a race between two teams building the same design with earthbags and with strawbales, the bale house might win, because the walls do go up amazingly quickly. But I don't think that it win by much, since all of the other tasks in building a home are virtually the same. On the other hand, earthbags are really more versatile and can used to build domes, for instance, that you wouldn't (or shouldn't) try with strawbales; in this case, the earthbag house might win the quickest, cheapest race since roof construction is time consuming and costly.

Are you saying a rectangular box house needs a time consuming and costly roof whereas an earthbag dome can avoid all that? That is a great argument to make a house out of many domes.

Yes, that is true. But earthbag domes have other issues to contend with, including space utilization and appropriate waterproofing.

Q: I am conducting research in order to compare different types of homebuilding - pre-fab, mobile, on-site, green building. Basically, I am trying to construct a comparison to show how over the lifecycle, green building is less expensive, more sustainable, etc. I appreciate any and all help!

A: That's an admirable goal, but not easily done, because there are so many variables. When people ask about the cost of the green home plans that I sell, I say, "The cost of building varies somewhat from region to region, but most plans can be built for no more than the average building cost per square foot for new construction in your area. Some of the designs that call for expensive solar equipment might cost more; some of the designs that use simple earthen concepts might cost less. Other factors, such as how much you are willing to do yourself and how good you might be at finding good deals on building supplies, can make a difference...so in other words, it all depends...."

As awareness of the need for green building increases, there are more options for manufactured housing that in some ways meet criteria for green construction, so this is becoming more viable. But ultimately the most sustainable building is likely to be site-built, using local natural materials.

Q: What does green building do to make it more affordable?

A: Energy conservation will save money over the long run. Often the natural materials used to build with are available locally for very little money. The use of recycled building materials also saves money.

Q: We want build a lightweight and low cost house in Pakistan. Would you kindly give us your proposal?

A: I know that the weather can be quite extreme in Pakistan, so you would want something that provides good insulation. Fortunately, most insulating materials are also lightweight. Natural materials that might be considered insulating include straw, rice hulls, volcanic stone (like pumice), and some wood. Of course there are many manufactured materials as well, but these tend to be more expensive. It is possible to incorporate lightweight materials in concrete, and this has been done with repulped paper and volcanic stone.

If you have tree parts available that can be harvested ecologically, you can build cordwood houses. And then there are many possibilities using earthbags, that include filling the bags with rice hulls, volcanic stone, etc., and you can read much more about this at www.earthbagbuilding.com. Clay and straw can be combined to form light straw-clay, a hybrid between cob and strawbale.

Q: Within a North American market, what is the least expensive building material or method to build a home? We are a retiring couple and have had read about rammed earth homes for many years. We like the idea of using the material from the site and both the ‘greenness’ and aesthetics of the final outcome. We have more recently started to read bout the gunite/shotcrete pump method and about Grancrete or phosphate concrete/ceramics and other products. We were wondering if any of these are suitable, yet, with North American building codes and if there is a possible per square foot breakdown?

A: This is actually a rather complex question because there are so many variables that determine cost. Materials, design, labor, professional fees, permits, etc. all factor in.

Just in terms of materials, obviously if you can use the soil beneath your feet to build with, you are talking dirt cheap. I know somebody who built a nice little adobe home by making his own compressed blocks from the soil on site, and he spent less than $1000 for the entire house...but it was very modest. Rammed earth would probably cost more because of all the necessary forms and heavy equipment usually used for construction. Earthbags can be quite inexpensive and can use a wider variety of soil types. Cob is also quite cheap, but very labor intensive.

If you happen to have lots of short pieces of wood available, you can build a cordwood house cheaply, and this might provide better thermal qualities for your climate. Strawbales provide wonderfully insulating walls which go up very quickly, but then there is much more labor in plastering and finishing the house.

In the end all houses require a similar outlay of funds for completion of plumbing and electrical needs, and usually for roofs, doors, windows, interior partitions, etc., so the choice of wall material is only a percentage of the cost. Really the best thing to do is choose the best materials based on appropriateness for your climate and for how "green" they are. Most industrial materials are going to cost more, both economically and ecologically.

Q: I am a retired senior trying to make my dream come true of having a homestead in the country and building a sustainable house that will not cost me an arm and leg, but last and is green. When I saw the video about the lady in England teaching classes on building a cob home and her students helping her do it. I was just floored and it only cost her I believe $900 to build her cottage.

A: It is possible to build a simple house very inexpensively, especially if you do much of the work yourself, use materials that don't cost much, find bargains on recycled materials, etc. Good luck with this!

Q: The movement toward a sustainable future is a commendable effort. Though, it should be available to more people. You have such great information regarding the building of a green home, though it is shocking to see that it so so expensive. These resources should be able to be obtained by all people and with today's modern advancements and technologies to share this type of thing for free or dirt cheap is usually the norm. It is disheartening to see that people would still resort to how much money can be made. Any thoughts?

A: Through my various websites I share a great deal of information freely. Even the plans presented at www.dreamgreenhomes.com can be studied for ideas, or even copied for no charge. If people want to buy the full plans as stock plans, then these are considerably cheaper than if you paid an architect to make custom plans. So my orientation is to provide information as cheaply as possible. I do think that it is unfortunate that so many people do look only at the financial bottom line. I am now reading a book called "Slow Money" that talks about this very thing!

Q: What important factors do people need to consider when they decide to build an eco-friendly home at low cost.
Do you know of people who have done this really cheaply and how they achieved it? What materials did they use and how did they manage to keep the costs so low?

A: If you want to build dirt cheap use the dirt beneath your feet. Fill earthbags with it and stack them up; make mud bricks or adobe blocks; ram it into forms for rammed earth walls; pound it into old tires to make earthships; smear it over the wall as an earthen plaster; pour it into a lustrous adobe floor; cover your roof with it and plant a garden up there. The sky is the limit... but keep it down to earth.

Q: When you say it cost 16/sqft to build, what all does that include? The walls, the floor, electric, plumbing, roof, etc?

A: This assumes doing most everything yourself and using very low-tech building ideas. It doesn't include things like land, building permits and utility hookups; just the most basic of necessities.

Q: I'm a 28 year old about to move from the Bay Area, motorcycling about to buy land in Colorado or New Mexico. If you have any suggestions on how to own my own small natural house on the cheap, Iwould love to hear!

A: If I were in your shoes I would think about making a small portable shelter that can be moved to a variety of locations as you investigate where you really want to settle. I have done this a lot in my life, even wrote a book called "Rolling Shelter: Vehicles We have called Home" My most recent version of this is an old 1982 RV that I completely remodeled for a total of about $3500. This approach can avoid most building codes and other restrictions.


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I specifically disclaim any warranty, either expressed or implied, concerning the information on these pages. Neither I nor any of the advisor/consultants associated with this site will have liability for loss, damage, or injury, resulting from the use of any information found on this, or any other page at this site. Kelly Hart, Hartworks LLC.