elements of a diy sustainable house

5 Elements of a DIY Sustainable House

Steve Russell - October 26, 2022

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Maybe you’ve grown weary of the housing crisis and purchased an affordable off-grid parcel to build your homestead. Perhaps you already have a home and acreage but have decided to put your DIY skills to the ultimate test. Your mission? Building a sustainable house like something straight out of “Grizzly Adams” — only with more modern amenities (and fewer bears). 

Construction techniques vary, as do your material selections and features desired. However, all green homes share certain qualities in common. Here are the five elements of a DIY sustainable house to factor into your build. 

1. Power 

You need power for climate control, if nothing else. However, you need not remain beholden to the grid. Technically, you could get by with little but a wood stove and candles for light, but it would probably decrease your enjoyment of your home. Furthermore, it might make permanent residency impossible unless you shunned all trappings of modern life, growing and hunting your food and knitting clothes from furs and wool. 

Solar is your best bet for powering your DIY sustainable house. However, your typical rooftop arrangement may not suffice, depending on your home’s size. The standard tiny house roof allows room for only two panels producing roughly 600 watts of electricity. However, it takes at least 4,000 watts of energy to remain comfortable and well-lit while powering your appliances. 

What’s the solution? Install a solar panel grid elsewhere on your property. While it may seem non-traditional, this arrangement has surprising benefits. For example, it allows you to use your plot’s sunniest spots. It also makes keeping your panels clear a breeze in the winter. No more climbing on rooftops to wipe snow from your power source — it’s much easier to reach on the ground. 

Depending on your property’s location, you might be able to harness wind or water to power your DIY sustainable house, too. If you have a plot along a river, a quality micro hydropower system can generate up to 100 watts, enough to fuel many small appliances like computers and charge cell phones. A wind turbine offers another alternative, but check local ordinances first — some dictate the minimum and maximum heights, for example. 

2. Water 

Your next order of business is to supply water to your DIY sustainable house. You need this not only for drinking and cooking but for washing and bathing. If you opt for a flushing toilet over a compostable model, you’ll also need it to wash your blackwater down the pipes. 

If you have a running stream on your property, you’re in luck. However, it’s relatively rare to find parcels with unpolluted sources. You’ll need a prefilter and softener to ensure no microorganisms sicken you. 

Another option is to dig a well. Here’s where you could incur a significant expense. It costs anywhere from $25 to $65 a square foot, and you may need to go deep to locate groundwater in some locations. Folks in arid regions could end up paying over $15,000 and still needing to worry about droughts. 

Finally, collecting rainwater is another alternative. Most jurisdictions have no problem with this activity. However, some states prohibit the practice by law — consult your ordinances to be sure. 

3. Food 

Next up on your DIY sustainable house agenda is food. You need to eat, after all. 

You might have a garden, a greenhouse or both. Fortunately, it isn’t too hard to stay green by using repurposed materials such as used patio doors to construct a place to start your seedlings and keep a fresh supply of lettuce all year. 

Please don’t let those scraps go to waste. You’ll need to fertilize your crops, so construct a compost bin. Your apple cores and banana peels will eventually transform into a rich loamy mulch for protecting your garden. 

You can subsist on a fully plant-based diet, so there’s no need to raise livestock. However, chickens are relatively low-maintenance, and you may delight in the antics of these intelligent creatures. Eggs make a fabulous lean protein source; you don’t even need a rooster waking you up at dawn to make them lay. In fact, it may be easier without the cock-a-doodle-doo, as homesteads with both genders should collect eggs daily and keep them chilled to keep them from becoming chicks — unless that’s what you want. 

4. Connectivity 

It’s a fact of modern life that you need the internet for many things you used to do by phone or in person. Nowadays, it’s a rarity for post offices to carry income tax forms — everyone files online. 

You have several choices. Broadband cellular with a hotspot is one option, although you may face significant lag times and slow speeds. Many people prefer satellites, although they can go down in extreme weather conditions. Low-flying satellites like Starlink can sometimes have interference issues if you’re too close to the mountains. Your best bet is to talk to nearby neighbors to find out what solution works best for them. 

5. Waste Disposal

Finally, you’ll likely create some waste. If nothing else, you need to use the restroom. You can save your precious water by investing in a composting toilet. While many people express concerns about odor and contamination, the microbial action breaks down any disease-causing germs. Also, proper maintenance means virtually no smell. 

Your compost bin should manage most of your food scraps outside of meat. The rest you should save until you can transport it to a suitable waste disposal and recycling facility. While you might feel tempted to burn rubbish, you should avoid doing so. Some materials release hazardous chemicals into the air when combusted — the opposite of sustainability. 

Elements of a DIY Sustainable House

It doesn’t matter if you’re moving off-grid or starting a challenging souped-up she-shed project. With a little know-how, you can construct a DIY sustainable house. 

Although these vary widely in architectural style and size, the above five elements apply to every DIY sustainable house. Consider these factors when planning how to make the best use of your parcel. 

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About the author

Steve Russell

Steve is the Managing Editor of Environment.co and regularly contributes articles related to wildlife, biodiversity, and recycling. His passions include wildlife photography and bird watching.