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Help building a green house or a self sustainable home

Christine Belanger | Posted in General Questions on

I’d like to build my own home or at least design it. But I’d like to know what I’m talking about — rather not stick my foot in my mouth. I tried to find a contractor but had no luck. They are all out for the money, said I can’t build anything less then 200K and that’s for cheap materials.

Any help would be awesome. Thank you.

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  1. Richard McGrath | | #1

    What exactly are you looking to build and where ?

  2. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    There are literally hundreds of free articles on this web site on green building. You can access most of them using the GBA search box. I suggest you start by reading this one: Green Building for Beginners.

    Don't forget to click the links in the article, and to read some of the articles mentioned in the "Related Articles" sidebar.

  3. Christine Belanger | | #3

    Thank you, I will check out all the great resources on this site first and go from there.

    Im not looking to build anything big, 3bd room would be nice tho. I currently live in las vegas, nv but the area i live in, the homes are ranch homes and sell for 500k and up

  4. Nate G | | #4

    $200,000 for a modest house made from cheap materials is ridiculous. A huge amount of the money's in the labor, builder's profit margin, local market conditions, etc. The more labor you (competently) do yourself, the lower your cost will be. For an example of someone in Texas who did this, check out

    Not knowing much about building, he made a lot of mistakes, but still wound up with a safe and comfortable house. If you learn more than he did when he was starting out, your results will be superior. I highly recommend that you read all the articles listed at You might also want to check out

    AAC could be a decently user-friendly material that's well-suited to your climate, especially in this dry-stack version: Build the walls thick and strong (probably two of those blocks thick), stucco the outside, plaster the inside whenever you feel like it, and laugh at termites forever.

  5. Dan Kolbert | | #5

    "$200,000 for a modest house made from cheap materials is ridiculous."

    What are you basing this on? How many houses have you contracted for?

  6. Dan Kolbert | | #6

    And Christine, you write "They are all out for the money." What do you suggest their motivation should be?

  7. Nate G | | #7

    A sense of scale. I understand the economics of building, but $200,000 is an enormous amount of money. If it costs that much to build "a modest house made from cheap materials" in a part of the country with an abundance of space, then something is deeply wrong with our society.

  8. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #8

    We have two perspectives here. Christine and Nate think that a new house should cost significantly less than $200,000, and that working for money is a sign of corrupt intent.

    People like Dan and I -- that is, people who have supported themselves as builders -- know that a successful business needs to make a profit, and that a new home costs more per square foot than an older home.

    I am not offended by the idea that a new house costs $200,000. If you want a less expensive home, buy an existing home in an affordable neighborhood, or build yourself a simple cabin in a rural area.

  9. Richard McGrath | | #9

    Maybe you should look into these Christine . An associate of mine has worked in them in NM and says they seem pretty good .

  10. Nate G | | #10

    I do not think that working for money is a sign of corrupt intent. I love money. Everyone loves money. But in general, a sign of a healthy market is price deflation as competition and technological change drive up quality and productivity per labor hour and make things cheaper over time. In housing, we've seen the opposite: dramatic price inflation, far outpacing the rate of inflation for other goods and services. In addition, buildings have gotten flimsier and less durable in the push to build with ever more highly-processed wood products while sealing up the building envelope to keep operating costs low. Given that shelter is a basic human need and house problems are harder to rectify in the future than they are to prevent in the first place, I think that this is an unfortunate situation.

    I think the basic problem is that of what is basically a unique site-built product in a country with expensive labor. It's like mass production just passed everyone by. The individual pieces like framing members and windows may be mass-produced with quality control and economies of scale, but since they must be site-assembled, this exposes the process to high labor costs and introduces the possibility of installation errors; the more labor, assembly, and installation required, the higher the cost and greater likelihood of mistakes.. You can get a worse product and spend more money. It's like the difference between a ground-source heat pump vs an air-source heat pump. The former must be custom-designed, fabricated and assembled on-site, requires coordination between many trades and winds up very costly; the other is a highly-engineered packaged system that almost always works well, only needs installation by one person, and is much cheaper.

  11. GBA Editor
  12. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #12

    The price of housing may be too high, but what's the solution?

    In most Scandinavian countries, the government provides subsidized housing for low-income citizens. That's one solution. However, the solution requires citizens to accept high taxes in exchange for housing security.

    In the Soviet Union, the government provided housing for everybody -- but the quality was low, and many families had to share cramped quarters. Waiting lists were long, and divorced couples often had to live together for years after divorce.

    If you can produce manufactured housing cheaply -- better quality for a lower price -- you should start a factory. Many people have tried, but no one has quite succeeded yet.

  13. Christine Belanger | | #13

    I was talking in a general term as far as the cost of building. Im sure most people love money, I for some reason dont. It seems to cause more issues the fixing them. But anyways I have been looking to buy a home for over 2 yrs. I have called countless realtors, and contractors all of them same answer, unless I have around 200k then I should wait, or settle for a different area of the city. As soon as I tell them the amount I have been approved for they seem to laugh, they say" we will look into it and call you back" but the never do. So Ive left thinking that the amount of time to help me isnt worth it to them, thats why I made the comment their only in it for the money. Cause if I had millions we all know they would be more then happy to help me. But I dont, Im just looking to have a home for my kids. Id move somewhere else, but one of my sons is autistic, so Im trying to keep him in the same school and same area. I have found tons of programs and companies that have cheaper floor plans. I was just hoping to find out how to get it to work for me & my family. Sorry If I stepped on anyones feelings.

    Thank you for those with helpful tips and great info.

  14. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #14

    We would all like to help you. But building a new, custom green home in an established neighborhood is usually expensive. In most communities, buying a small existing house or renting an apartment is usually less expensive than building a new custom home.

  15. Nate G | | #15

    Price deflation is neither good nor bad, just a reality. As markets mature, prices fall as quality rises. The freer the market, the lower the prices and the better the products. Consumers like this. Today you can buy a 50" TV for $400; a decade ago, it would have cost $4,000 or more. Same with a digital camera, or a smartphone. I can get a car today that has GPS, power everything, a zillion safety features, better reliability, and higher gas mileage than the cars of 30 years ago, and for more or less the same inflation-adjusted price. If I buy it 2 years used, I can probably get it cheaper on an inflation-adjusted basis. Americans today spend far less on food and clothes than they used to because the prices have gone down. All of these things are examples of price deflation, and this is good for consumers. Whether this is good for producers is another question, of course, but capitalism in its purest form has always been about privileging the interests of consumers over those of producers. Producers love to use government to tilt the playing field back towards themselves which is also neither good nor bad, just another part of reality.

    Assuming we agree that lowering prices is good--not everyone does, since this necessarily means less revenue for producers, which means less profit for producers with inefficient organizations--then the solution to lowering prices is the same one that worked for every other industry where it was tried: standardization, mass production, and dehumanizing low-skill rote labor instead of site fabrication and high-cost individual craftsmanship. To a certain extent, we already see this with windows and doors and packaged HVAC units and the like, but there's still total site fabrication and assembly of walls, foundations, roofs, plumbing systems, tile floors, etc. But these components still require a lot of labor to join together; there's no plug-and-play modularity and there are many ways to do it wrong.

    Building codes are a clumsy solution to the lack of safe, standardized assembly methods; they attempt to govern the installation of complicated components when the better solution is to either 1) design products to work together from the start such that it is almost impossible to install them incorrectly without the failure being immediately obvious (window upside down, heat doesn't turn on, etc) or 2) standardize and verify the manufacture and installation under one roof to ensure that it's done right before it would need to be re-done at someone's expense.

    As for starting such a business myself, the entrenched conservatism of the industry worries me. People hold very protectionist attitudes, keenly aware that cost innovation threatens their jobs and retraining would cost them money. And they're right; it does and would. But for virtually all other modern markets, the era of the craftsman is dead except for the high end luxury part of the market. It's only a matter of time before this happens for new construction, too. But in the end, you're right. I need to put my money where my mouth is. We can check back on this in a few years. :)

  16. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #16

    If the average American homeowner found that their home was worth less with every passing year -- in other words, if housing prices were deflating -- most people would be quite unhappy. That's what happened from 2008 to 2011, and the results were quite disruptive.

  17. Nate G | | #17

    The average American homeowner does indeed observe that very thing that unless they constantly put money into updating, modernizing, and maintaining their property. A new custom house built for $300k today (house value alone) will not be worth $300k anymore in 40 years if the owners haven't replaced the roof, replaced the carpets, replaced the appliances, replaced the HVAC units and water heater, refinished the hardwood floors, repainted the interior, updated the bathrooms and kitchen, treated it for termites three times, etc.

    When we talk about housing prices rising, we're really talking about land prices, not housing prices. If you buy an average house in San Francisco or New York City, your property bill will probably show that the house is worth $100-200k and the land it sits on is worth $200-800k. The house itself is generally a low-quality deteriorating consumer good whose value deterioration is masked by rising land prices and halted by owners' efforts to constantly maintain, repair, and update them at their own expense. In hot markets, people buy houses for the land and demolish them if they're too old because most of the value is in the land, not the house.

  18. Christine Belanger | | #18

    Well from what I can see, just as a person with no housing background. The time for people to start saving with using solar or even a self sustaining home is going to be here faster then we think & to buy a house that may not be in demand 30-50 yrs from now when Im wanting to retire isnt something I see as a long term investment. If Im going to buy something Id like to believe that it will hold sometype of value to someone. I cant see how we have projects like Habitat for Humanity were the cost of the land,closing costs & materials for a 1300sq home is bought for 85k. So yes it is possable, now yes that doesnt include labor. I guess Im an old soul in that believing that, it cant be all about money and sometimes its about doing something because its right. That goes for everything, but maybe im nieve then so be it.

  19. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #19

    You should certainly sign up for consideration for a house built by your local Habitat for Humanity chapter if your family meets the income guidelines. Habitat for Humanity is a great organization.

  20. Nate G | | #20

    You hit the nail on the head, Christine: The low cost of building Habitat for Humanity houses is due to the exclusion of most (but not all) the cost of labor and the lack of a builder's profit margin. They also get some of their land for free. Finally, 1,300 sf is also a good modest size (my 3 bedroom house is smaller and I love it). If you want to replicate this, you need to do the same: keep the overall price low by building small, reduce the labor cost by doing most of the work yourself, and build on land that is very inexpensive.

    The future is hard to predict, but it's doubtful that a house today will be worthless to people 50 years in the future. But if you want to maximize its future value, you'll want to either 1) keep up with the trends and fashions in housing for the next 50 years and/or 2) design and build your house to be as timeless as possible, bypassing the fashion angle. It will also help to design and build it in a modular fashion, allowing for necessary repairs and upgrades to things like the wiring and plumbing over the life of the house without having to destroy structural or finish materials to access them. This will make yourself and future owners more likely to do this necessary repair and modernization work and make the work easier and cheaper to do.

  21. Dan Kolbert | | #21

    I wish you luck, Christine. As Martin suggested, Habitat my be precisely what you're looking for. Some Habitat chapters are truly in the forefront in their communities in building not only low-cost but high performance homes.

    I have to take issue, though, with the idea that there's something "right" about you getting the house you want for the price you think it should cost.

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