Designing and building an off grid house for a survival retreat is an exciting endeavor, but one that can be full stress, confusion, and governmental red tape. Off the grid homes, contrary to popular belief, can be built anywhere and be as large as your budget will allow.
Only a small percentage of homes in America are off the grid, but we preppers don’t worry about what is trendy. Being off grid enhances our level of self-reliance, while saving us money on a daily basis.
Going without power, even for a few hours, seems like a nightmarish concept for many Americans, but for a whole lot of preppers, it would be a dream come true.
Not only would you no longer have to ponder how you and your loved ones would adapt, survive, and thrive after the power grid fails during a SHTF disaster, you would finally be free from expensive monthly utility bills as well.
Preparing to go off the grid mentally and emotionally is essential to the overall success of the project. Living off the grid means different things to different people.
Some folks want to live an entirely sustainable lifestyle and reduce their carbon footprint as much as humanly possible. Others want to maintain as many modern conveniences as possible and merely cut the wire that tether them to the power grid and other local utilities.
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4 Off-Grid Sustainable House Styles
Earth Berm Homes
This style of off the grid home uses geothermal mass in the soil to create a steady temperature inside the home and reduce the heating costs of the home.
Even in cold climates, Earth berm homes are often built along sloping terrain, into the hillside, or in a chosen location that has excavated dirt placed and firmly packed around it.
In the Midwest and other parts of the country where winters can be harsh, many off the grid home residents build a full or partial earth Berm home when designing an off the grid house.
Getting a home loan for earth berm style structures is not typically anymore difficult than garnering financing for a conventional home.
Over the course of our years working as a real estate agent and a real estate appraiser in Appalachia, my husband and I have both worked with earth berm, earth covered, and earth bunded style homes.
An earth bunded house has some type of a geothermal mass element used to insulate at least one side of the structure.
An earth covered home home is a structure that soil or another type of geothermal mass element on the roof or is an addition to an earth berm home.
A subterranean style of an earth berm home is more is not common, but could still be feasible to build using a traditional mortgage loan. This type of dwelling is covered entirely with soil except at a single point of visible entry.
Both on and off grid earth berm homes are built out of a wide array of materials. These type of off grid homes offer multiple other benefits, from a prepping perspective. They are essentially fire resistant – if you use brick, cinder blocks, or poured concrete for the walls and a metal roof. They are are also highly defensible.
Paper crete is an extremely inexpensive and earth-friendly manner of building, but the paper-based building bricks do not tend to fare well in 4 season climates where dampness can become a problem.
Papercrete is made by creating a brick form in the desired depth and length and filling it with a mixture created primarily by discarded cardboard and other paper products. Papercrete homes must use metal lath and rebar inside the walls to support the papercrete blocks.
Building a barn or shed out of papercrete can be feasible in most climates, with the money saved by making your own papercrete brick built auxiliary buildings used to help cover the expense of solar panels and other off grid energy system components.
Shipping Container Homes
Shipping containers have become one of the cheapest and most popular ways to build off grid homes. While a shipping container could be sunk into the ground and filled with water to create a homemade swimming pool, the containers cannot support being submerged completely underground when empty, without substantial structural reinforcements.
The containers are 8 feet wide by 8 feet tall, and come in two typical lengths, 20- and 40-foot long. The average price of a 40-foot-long shipping container is about $2,500 and $4,000.
The shipping containers can be used as individual rooms with hallway connectors or cut apart and welded back together to make wide rooms and allow for an open floor plan to make better use of cross-ventilation.
These dandy little homes can be built out of multiple materials as well, and can be designed to be either portable or stationary like a traditional home.
If building a survival retreat that will house multiple members of your extended family or mutual assistance group, a series of tiny houses could be built in close proximity of each other and run off of the same off grid energy system.
Tiny houses made out of old school buses are one of the cheapest ways to embark on an off grid lifestyle. The school bus could be a temporary home while you build a more permanent structure and then used as living quarters for others who may arrive after the SHTF or even as the prepper retreat medical clinic.
Turning metal or wood sheds into tiny houses for off the grid living is growing in popularity. In our rural speck of heaven in Appalachia, it has become almost a common practice for adult children to put such a tiny house on their parents property (whether they are living on or off grid) while they are first starting out.
Some of the young couples grow to love the simplicity of tiny house living and remain in their converted shed homes for years, until their own children are born and they are forced to build onto the tiny house or build a larger home on the family property.
The wood Amish sheds are sold without being finished out on the inside. Dealers typically offer the option to order one in that has insulation for about another $500, depending upon the measurements of the unit.
Paneling and drywall were chosen as wall and ceiling coverings because they were the quickest and most economical options. If my daughter’s family was not moving during the winter and just before Ariyah was born, they would have cut wood from our property to make board planks when finishing out the cabin interior.
The sheds typically come with two small windows, two doors, and sometimes a garage door. We added a large window that was gathering dust in one of our bans and took out the existing garage door and framed around it with T-One 11 boards that match the cabin almost identically – and should not be noticeable after they weather a bit and are stained.
Our daughter and son-in-law just complete the finishing touches on the wood Amish cabin they purchased for $7,000 to turn into their own tiny house on our homestead. The home is 14 feet by 36 feet and they live in it with their two toddlers and a newborn. It is cozy but does not feel cramped at all.
The tiny house off grid cabin has a fully-functional kitchen with an apartment sized refrigerator. It has an fairly open floor plan with the kitchen, eating area, and living room taking up half of the cabin.
A bathroom and sleeping areas comprise the rest of the cabin. If the children were older, loft bedrooms at each end of the cabin would have been a great space saver.
The two built-in work benches that come standard in the Amish sheds were moved and turned into kitchen counter space, and a sink added. The sink and bathroom share a wall for ease of plumbing purposes.
The wall and a door that was a cast off from a nephew’s remodeling project, were added to give privacy for the bathroom and bedroom. A floor to ceiling curtain separates the bathroom from the sleeping areas to provide privacy while not decreasing air flow or heat from the wall mount propane heaters.
Homemade toddler trundle beds give each of the little ones their own sleeping space. Getting creative with storage in a tiny house is essential.
Making a modified bench style couch allows for extra storage beneath the seats. Putting casters on dresser draws so they can be rolled under the bed for clothes storage is also a huge space saver.
Homemade fabric hanging baskets and pouches provide additional storage for small items and toys.
Cloth toys bins that can be stacked and double as dollhouses, toy barns, and folding play mats allow the children to have toys on hands to amuse themselves with when not outside playing (as children should be, but which happens far and far less in our modern society).
Nearly every inch of wall space is used for decorative storage in the converted shed home as well. It cost our daughter and her husband about $5,000 to finish out their cabin, making the total home cost around only $12,000!
Our tribe (my favorite term for mutual assistance group and prepping loved ones) did all of the manual labor and we scavenged as many of the interior building materials from around our homestead.
Teaching children to live simply and the joys of using their imaginations and playing in the great outdoors before moving into an off grid house of any proportion, will help make the transition not only far more smooth, but an exciting adventure as well.
Earthship Off Grid Homes
This is likely the newest style of off grid homes. They are made almost upcycled (or recycled) and natural materials. Earthship homes use a combination of geothermal mass, wind turbines, and solar energy to power the off the grid dwellings.
They also have self-contained water and sewage treatments systems and both harvest and boast long-term storage systems for collected water.
Earthship homes almost always are created in a way to boost natural cross-ventilation to better regulate indoor temperatures. They are simple open-floor plan and single story homes.
Living off the grid does require a significant investment of both your time and money, and lots of planning, but the ultimate payoff is definitely worth it. You can never be fully prepared if you rely on the power grid and modern conveniences to help get you through your days and nights.
Both types of off the grid living, and all the many different styles in between require skills and knowledge to maintain your own forms of alternative power, and realistic expectations about the typical daily living conveniences your chosen systems can provide.
If you have tons of extra money to play with and a location that has ample sun year-round, running a dish washer and a washer and dryer, can be entirely feasible.
However, this is going to require about a $40,000 solar panel system, lots and lots of battery packs and sunlight year-round – or a combination of other forms of alternative energy working at peak performance daily.
After establishing how big of an alternative energy system you budget can afford and your location will support, it is time to sit down with members of your family or mutual assistance group and do some math – likely a lot of math.
You will need to know both how much power you should expect to get from your system on a daily basis in each season and how much power each appliance or modern convenience will require to run.
Then it is time to makes a wants and needs list in order of priority.
Discuss how much manual labor each off grid chore that will be required to replace a modern convenience will take, who will be responsible for the chore, and who will take over and complete the chore if the person typically responsible is no longer able to complete the task.
This type of chore chart should be completed two ways, one that divides up the work during normal times, and one designed to address the far more hectic and dangerous duty schedule after the SHTF.
Keeping the alternative energy system functioning properly and all essential manual labor household chores moving along even when security details and other post-doomsday disaster tasks must be undertaken in an all-hands-on-deck manner.
The only true drawback with building an off the grid home is the initial cost – it can be substantial. While the price tag on solar panels has come down over the past decade, you would still be looking at between $20,000 to $40,000 to fully power a typical 1,700 to 2,000 square foot home.
Top 4 Solar Panel Grants
Green Retrofit Grants – The United States Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD) offers grants through its Office of Affordable Housing Preservation.
The Green Retrofit Grants are designed to provide solar panel systems and other types of alternative energy system sources for property owners in impoverished areas. The HUD program typically has a $250 million budget. Recipients have up to two years to spend their awarded funds.
REAP Grants – The United States Department of Agriculture offers up to $20,000 grants via the Rural Energy for America Program. The program is designed to help both small rural businesses and farmers implement sustainable energy systems.
If a farmer or homesteader can prove a minimum of half their income stems from an agricultural businesses they can pay for at least 75%of the planned project expenses to qualify for grant funding.
High Energy Cost Grants – This USDA programs aids rural residents who are subjected to high energy costs. Grant funds can be used to buy, build, install, replace, improve, or repaid on or off grid energy systems.
Renewable Energy Grants – This Treasury Department program, also regularly referred to as the 1603 program, reimburses homeowners for a portion of their solar panel system installation costs by way of income tax credits. The money is not distributed until after the solar system has been purchased by the applicant.
Solar Panel System Low Interest Loans
Home purchase, equity, and refinance loans designed to help defray the cost of making the house energy efficient by purchasing and installing solar panels, are offered through the FHA and VA departments.
Typically, the home owner can save more money on their electric bills than they will have to pay on the solar panel system loan payments. A tax credit up to 30% is often offered to loan recipients.
Interest rates on the government-backed solar panel system loans usually ranges between 3.5 to 7.5 percent. The interest on the loan may be tax deductible and the loan are often offered in 7 to 20 year terms.
Top Solar Panel System Loan Packages
- FHA Power Saver Loan
- Multi-Family Housing Loan
- VA Energy Efficient Mortgages
- Conventional Energy Efficient Mortgages
Water Collection Systems
Choosing an off the grid home location should focus first and foremost on identifying and manipulating a water source. Without water, life on an off grid survival retreat or homestead will not be possible.
A drilled well already present on the property is a great starting point, but should not be relied upon exclusively to provide water for the off grid home. Wells run low, run dry, and can become contaminated.
An existing well can be converted rather easily from an electric pump to an off grid power sytem – but doing so can carry a rather hefty price tag and will be a drain on the off grid home’s available power, especially during cold weather months if only solar panels are used to provide energy to the home.
A pump, either powered by alternative energy and/or a manual pump, and a large collection tank, will be required to have a fully functional well year around on an off the grid retreat.
Collecting potable water from a pond, running creek, or stream, is also recommended for an off the grid system.
The water can be disinfected for human consumption and can also be used as part of a hydro-power system to supplement the energy churned out by a wind turbine, solar panels, and conventional generators.
Setting up a gray water system at the off grid home site will help you conserve valuable water and redistribute it for use in gardening and for other non-human consumption purposes.
Even in my extremely rural area where no building codes or zoning laws exist, we still have to deal with the county health department when setting up a sewage system on either traditionally powered or off the grid home sites.
Make yourself keenly aware of the sewage and waste disposal laws where you live before sketching out any plans for an off grid sewage system. In many rural areas, using a buried leach field or septic tanks is still legal. The use of open air lagoon pits is becoming increasingly against the law in many states.
Composting commodes are generally permissible, at least outside of metropolitan areas and homes located in neighborhoods with homeowners associations.
Proper disposal of human waste is essential, especially after the SHTF.
Alternative Energy Options
To decrease the costs of powering your off grid prepper retreat by using additional forms of alternative energy as well. As we have noted many time previously here at Survival Sullivan, choosing the right land, makes all the difference on many fronts.
Using wind turbines, hydro-power, and geothermal, will reduce the drain on solar panels, especially if you live in a wooded area on a region with 4 seasons.
Purchasing only the minimal amount of solar panels needed will defray a lot of the initial expense when building an off the grid home – you can always add more panels onto the system later when you budget allows.
Making the off grid home as sustainable as possible, from a design perspective, will allow you to take advantage of passive heat and cooling winds.
If the survival retreat home has southern exposure and the bulk of the windows face in the same direction, the heating requirements of the home could be reduced by as much as 25 percent – another money saver.
Using wood burners to heat the home, instead of a conventional furnace will also vastly reduce the drain on an off grid energy system.
A copper coil system attached to the wood stove can heat and recirculate water for both a passive heat water pipe beneath the floor system and replace the need to a hot water tank in the home.
External wood furnaces that can be fueled by using large pieces of wood, like tree stumps, can also be an integral part of an off the grid home heating and hot water system.
A wood heater of this type would negate the need to run an interior wood stove all year around to garner hot water.
Gas, diesel, and propane generators can also be used to provide energy for an off the grid home, but will not be economical to use on either a daily basis or to fulfill all the needs of standard home.
Generators, of course, are of value on any prepper retreat, but should not be relied upon not only due to the overall expense of running them nearly 24/7, but because the purchasing of fuel during a SHTF situation would not be feasible.
Any survival retreat generator should be of the multi-fuel variety and its users capable of making their own bio diesel to decrease the cost of operation and increase the longevity of use during a long-term disaster.
Tara Dodrill is a homesteading and survival journalist and author. She lives on a small ranch with her family in Appalachia. She has been both a host and frequent guest on preparedness radio shows. In addition to the publication of her first book, ‘Power Grid Down: How to Prepare, Survive, and Thrive after the Lights go Out’, Dodrill also travels to offer prepping tips and hands-on training and survival camps and expos.