Natural Homebuilding and The Code
You want to build a house with a natural homebuilding method like cordwood, straw-bale, cob, or earthship. Or maybe you just want to build a house off the grid. In this post, I’ll detail exactly what we did to meet the needs of our local code officials while still being able to build our cordwood house on our terms.
One of the biggest obstacles we had to building a cordwood house was ensuring that our house would be code approved. We originally got interested in building a cordwood house as a “one day maybe” thing almost 10 years ago, but when we decided to take actionable steps, we realized that there was a lot more to the process.
- Though we chose cordwood masonry, this can easily apply to other natural types like straw-bale or earthship, as well as to anyone who wants to build a more traditional home by themselves and/or off the grid.
- We have gone through this process in the state of Kentucky, so our experience is limited to this state.
- Our county has more required inspections than other counties in our area.
- Not having inspections doesn’t mean you shouldn’t build to code.
- Your country/state/county/municipality will have different restrictions and code approval processes. Continue reading to find out more about dealing with these.
- In spite of the “hoop-jumping”, there have been many benefits to the code approval process and having to work with a building inspector. Check below for those.
- This post is not a substitute for real legal advice. If you have a question about your particular area, call relevant officials or lawyers in your area.
Your experiences in other counties, states, and countries will certainly vary, but this is what we went through to be able to actually build a house:
1. Call relevant officials in the county in which you want to build.
Each jurisdiction is a little different. If you are unsure, search for your county’s official website and call the main number listed if there is one. You may need to check with any of the following:
- Building Inspector
- Planning and Zoning
- County Clerk
- Fiscal Court
- Health Department
- Utility companies/co-ops
2. The building inspector is your friend and resource.
It is easy to assume that government rules and regulations are only there to impede you as a free citizen, but I highly encourage you to view your local building inspector as a friend and resource. Your inspector WANTS you to build your house. YOU want to build your house. You are on the same team and need to work together to make sure you end up with a house that is not just “code approved”, but safe, strong, and reliable for decades to come.
3. Have a deep knowledge of your building method and plans.
We had done years of research on cordwood building using these books:
Between these books and attending a building workshop with Rob and Jaki Roy, we were able to gain a confidence in the technique enough to have meaningful and educated conversations with code officials. This is important because our inspector said on multiple occasions that Mark’s knowledge of the building process made him feel much more comfortable with our project and therefore more willing to help us through the permitting process.
This not only applies to our knowledge about cordwood techniques, but also understanding different types of building components and best practices. Bear in mind, our experience up to this point was working on our little house in the suburbs, as well as single projects along the way like Mark’s Eagle Scout project building a bridge in a local park. We’d never actually built a complete house before, but the knowledge we’d acquired through other home projects and reading everything we could about building helped immensely.
THE MOST HELPFUL BOOK WE USED FOR MEETINGS WITH OUR BUILDING INSPECTOR IS CORDWOOD AND THE CODE, WHICH YOU CAN PURCHASE HERE FOR $26.
Worth. Every. Penny. This book guides you through the common concerns that code officials are likely to have with cordwood masonry and how to address them.
Straw-bale enthusiasts can find more information about their building codes here.
4. Meet with your code official and leave your resources with them for a while.
This is something that Mark did in his first meetings with the inspector that REALLY paid off. He brought in ALL of his cordwood books, including Cordwood and the Code and gave the inspector a few weeks to look through all of the books to learn more about it. When Mark returned to pick up his materials, the inspector expressed how intrigued he was by the information and how much he enjoyed reading about a building technique that isn’t the “same old same old”. To use a phrase, the inspector got to “geek out” over it a bit. This made subsequent meetings much more positive for everyone.
5. Ask officials what requirements exist for your county, city, and/or property zone in order to build a new construction yourself.
Not only will inspection requirements vary from place to place, there may be additional affidavits you have to sign as an owner-builder working without a contractor. For example, we had to submit a form saying that we would be the only ones working on our plumbing and that we would not contract it out.
We have 10+ acres in a rural zone, so our requirements are different than if we lived within city limits or within a different zoning type.
Some requirements we have faced include:
- Soil testing for a septic system – HEALTH DEPARTMENT: We have no sewer access, and other systems like greywater and lagoons are either not allowed or would be required to be built the same as a septic system, so it would be silly to build it twice . It’s a disappointment from a “green” standpoint, but we also understand their reasoning from a health and land management perspective in our area. Our expansive clay soil required us to do a “fill and wait” septic system, wherein we had our topsoil scraped and moved to the leach field, then waited one year to let it settle before using it.
- Septic Pumping Contract – We were required to also have a septic pumping contract with a plumbing/septic company before we would be granted our septic permit. The contract was only $25, and would ensure that our septic tank would be pumped out regularly until the leach field could be used. It’s a pretty silly expense though when you figure that our wait period ended months ago and we don’t even have a tank to pump yet! A fine example of bureaucracy in action.
- Building Permit – BUILDING DEPARTMENT: There are sometimes many different forms required to get the permit itself and this varies from place to place. Ask what your requirements are and if you will have to consult with other departments to get it put together. This can be one of those things where different agencies all have a hand in the building permit but don’t always talk to each other, so make sure you ask around.
We are still required to have inspections on the framing and will have a final inspection before it will be officially finished. Sometimes the stress of having to meet certain requirements and wondering if our work will pass muster is a bit daunting, but having to report to a building inspector hasn’t been all bad.
The Perks of Having a Building Inspector
This will vary from place to place, but in our case having a building inspector to consult has been very helpful. It’s easy to see this process as a lot of bureaucratic red tape (and having once paid $75 for someone to “look” at a new furnace, I totally get this). But our particular inspector has a vast amount of construction experience and a deep knowledge of current building code. When we came up with issues that some of our construction friends were uncertain of, we were able to ask the inspector and not only get some solid guidance for how to proceed with our project, but we were also able to make sure that our work would pass inspection later since he was the one who told us to do it that way.
He has also been very flexible and open-minded to our project as a whole. Early on in the process when Mark was having preliminary meetings with him, the inspector was really interested in our desire to build with cordwood. He found the building method fascinating. Everything else that passes by his desk is some cookie-cutter house built by a home building company. He doesn’t get to see natural building methods pass through his office too much, so it makes it a little more fun for him to see something like this take shape.
Don’t skirt the system.
If your area requires a building permit, DO IT. Don’t think that you can just build in secret and skip the process. One property we looked at actually had an unpermitted 16×24 cabin that didn’t meet code in a LOT of ways and was too big to fly under the permitting radar. We didn’t want to deal with the headache of securing a permit AFTER it was built by someone else or the potential liability of dealing with it, so we picked another property. In many ways, the permitting process is there to protect you as a builder, not just pad government coffers. Use the code to your advantage and don’t try to game the system. As the old saying goes, “Cheaters never prosper.”
Build it to code.
It is completely realistic for natural building methods to meet code. For example, our cordwood walls exceed our code requirements for exterior wall R-values. All of the house’s “innards” are or will be code approved as well. This means trusses secured with requisite hurricane clips, chimney a nominal height above the peak of the roof, outlets spaced the required amount apart, and so on.
Also, if you DO find a parcel of land in an area with no inspections or restrictions, there is still a possibility of future code enforcement. For example, say you have a statewide building code that the counties are supposed to enforce. If a county chooses not to, say because there isn’t enough money for an inspector, the state may still have the option of coming in and deciding if your new construction is up to code or not. And if it isn’t, there’s a real possibility that you will have to redo everything or even lose your home. They may never do this, but it isn’t worth jeopardizing your work. Do it right the first time.
You CAN build with natural methods in a code-approved world.
The short story is that you need to do your research and keep an open mind. If the parcel of land you want is in a very regulated area, don’t let it daunt you. Call up your relevant officials and keep asking questions until you get sufficient answers. If you still want to buy land in that area and it makes financial sense, DO IT! You may want to find land in an area far from society and regulations, but it may not always be practical for your situation. No matter where you find your spot of Earth to call home, YOU still have the power to make your natural home-building dreams a reality.
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