How to Design a Self-Sufficient Home

In the comfort of your self-sufficient home, you can surf the web, cook a gourmet dinner and soak in a jetted hot tub, without ever receiving a monthly utility bill.

Off the grid

Not only can this save you money, it also gives you a chance to test your survivalist skills before a catastrophe disrupts the electrical power grid. Self-sufficient homes range from tiny cabins in the mountains to luxury retreats at the beach. The common denominator is their ability to function independently of public utilities, with the "green" benefit of being environmentally sustainable.

Step 1

Choose a site, then get to know it well. Hot or cold climate, urban or rural setting, shady or sunny lot, the details will make a difference in the building style and materials you use.

Step 2

Hire an architect (recommended but optional) with training and experience in self-sufficient home design. If you're organized and really want to test the limits of your self-reliance, you can research the necessary components and draw the plans yourself.

Step 3

Establish a budget. This will help guide your decisions and prevent unpleasant surprises. A self-sufficient home can cost 10 to 20 percent more on the building end, according to John Spears, president and CEO of the International Center for Sustainable Development, but the future utility savings often add up to more than the extra mortgage payment.

Step 4

Consider the mechanical systems. You'll need to heat your home, have a dependable water source, and dispose of personal and household waste. A primary solar power system with battery storage will operate your lights, water heater and electrical appliances. In many locales, a rainwater collection system can provide drinking and bathing water. And the composting toilets on the market today turn personal waste into fertilizer that can be used right in the garden.

Step 5

Source your materials. Generally, self-sufficient homes are built of local materials, sometimes even to the point of bricks manufactured from earth excavated on site. All materials should be natural and non-toxic. Some, like stone, capture the sun's heat, then slowly release it, reducing the reliance on a powered heating system. Light-colored roofing and siding reflect the sun, keeping the house cool.

Tips

  • If you build with access to the public grid, you can sell your excess power to the local utility.
  • Windmills can make good backup power systems, and usually cost less than solar.
  • You can design a home with varying degrees of self-sufficiency, by installing solar power, for example, but connecting to city water and sewer. It's also possible to retrofit some existing homes with self-sufficient systems.

Warning

  • Even though your self-sufficient home will be off the grid, it's still subject to local, state and national building codes.

About the Author

Since landing her first journalism job editing a small-town weekly in 1992, Deb Barracato has written for and edited newspapers, regional magazines, books and online publications. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from University of Maryland.