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.
Each type has its own advantages and disadvantages, and these specifics can have a significant impact on its suitability for you based on things like climate, terrain where you live, the size of your property, budget, skills and so forth.
Understanding the pros and cons is the only way to choose the design that will best suit your needs. Alright, let’s get started!
Table of Contents
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.
One of the most iconic and popular off-grid homes is the log cabin. These were historically built using logs that were cut and hewn by hand, but today you can find cabins made from factory-milled lumber as well.
Although they are often thought to be lacking in sophistication compared to other types of permanent structures, a properly built log cabin can nonetheless be quite resilient.
Almost entirely sustainable, the appeal and the techniques utilized for traditional log cabin construction have resonated throughout the ages and remain popular today.
These are techniques that most industrious preppers can learn and practice, meaning that building your own log cabin on your own, today, is entirely doable.
Typical log cabins built throughout North America are constructed with the logs forming the walls interlocking at the corners utilizing notches.
The gaps and spaces between the logs are filled with a material called “chinking,” which encompasses a wide variety of mortar or mortar-like infill. The chinking provides insulation, prevents drafts and the intrusion of pests into the interior of the cabin.
One of the most attractive features, visually and conceptually, about log cabins for off-grid living is the materials used for their construction.
Trees can be found pretty much everywhere, and though the ideal tree to use for a log cabin- tall, straight and untapering- is not always easy to find it is possible to shape less than ideal trees so that they can be used effectively.
Whatever trees are used in the construction of a log cabin, traditional types are usually set down on a foundation of stone, or at least propped up on stones at the corners. Modern versions might be set on a concrete or block foundation if you care to invest in one.
Considering sustainment and protection, log cabins are very sturdy and can withstand heavy snow loads, high winds, and even earthquakes when properly built with attention paid to correct joinery.
They’re also relatively easy and inexpensive to build compared to some of the other permanent options on this list.
The main disadvantages of log cabins are that they’re not very energy-efficient, and they can be difficult to heat in cold climates. If you live in an area with harsh winters, a log cabin may not be the best choice for you unless you can ensure you’ll have plenty of fuel for heating.
Additionally, log cabins require more maintenance than other types of “traditional” construction homes, as the logs will need to be inspected and treated regularly to protect them from rot and pests, and even the best wood can suffer from dry rot over time even when expertly maintained.
Mobile homes are an extremely popular option for housing in many parts of the country, but rarely considered as an option for off-grid living. As it turns out, they have quite a few perks for an off-grid lifestyle.
These homes are typically built on a chassis that allows them to be transported, placed and then moved again if necessary, which can be convenient if you need to relocate for any reason.
Mobile homes can be set down on their frames with axles removed and secured with cables or straps or anchored by a more permanent foundational element according to the owner’s preferences.
It is this transportability that makes them such a great option for those who really want to get out and away from the rest of society.
So long as a big rig truck can maneuver with the trailer to your home site and safely deploy it you’ll have a place to call your own in very little time.
Compared to the labor and hassle of attempting to deliver or procure building materials to the same remote site and then construct the home, this is a highly attractive option for people who want to get off-grid in a hurry.
Mobile homes are also usually quite affordable compared to modular or stick-built counterparts that most people would recognize as a normal home.
They can also be outfitted with solar power, water storage and other off-grid features relatively easily, and are often ready to connect to septic systems by design.
This alone might make them the ideal type of off-grid home for people who don’t want to give up modern conveniences but want to free themselves from societal dependency.
However, mobile homes have some pretty significant disadvantages in the same vein. They are nowhere near as sturdy as most other types of homes owing to their lightweight materials and inexpensive factory construction techniques.
These homes are fairly notorious for being damaged by severe weather events of all kinds, and high winds in particular.
Strong storms, hurricanes or, heaven help you, tornadoes will obliterate or topple a mobile home easily. Consider a separate and purpose designed severe weather shelter a mandatory upgrade if you are worried about any high wind events.
Additionally, mobile homes typically have very thin walls, which means that they’re not very energy-efficient.
Considering they are designed with modern climate control systems in mind for both heating and cooling, this can make keeping a mobile home interior comfortable, or even livable, challenging if you are going without either one.
If you live in an area with an extreme climate, a mobile home will demand extra resources and energy to heat or cool.
Yurt (Traditional or Modern)
Yurts are a type of large, round, supported tent, constructed on a permanent, semi-permanent or temporary basis.
Yurts have been used by cultures in Asia for several thousand years, and unbelievably they’re still popular today even in modern settings.
Yurts are also quickly gaining interest among people elsewhere in the world who want to live a more minimalist lifestyle.
Yurts are made by stretching a fabric cover over a structural frame of wooden or metal poles, and usually feature an installed door frame, interior posts and tensioning bands to tie the entire structure together.
Modern yurts may feature featherweight but extremely strong materials like fiberglass or carbon fiber. The fabric coverings can be anything from canvas to nylon, and are usually waterproofed to protect against the elements.
Yurts are surprisingly durable structures compared to most other shelters in this category and can also be made properly mobile by being built upon a large cart or sledge, allowing them to be moved with minimal prep.
You might say they were mobile homes before the concept of the modern mobile home was even invented.
Yurts are very easy to set up and take down compared to any other type of home on this list, which makes them a good option if you need a temporary dwelling or you’re not sure where you want to settle down just yet.
Or maybe you just like the idea of roaming around on a larger parcel! They’re also quite affordable to make or buy, especially if you opt for a used one.
The downside of yurts is that they don’t offer much in the way of protection from severe weather events compared to more permanent structures on our list. In strong storms, you’ll definitely wish you were inside a more sturdy structure!
But despite their primitive appearance, a properly designed and constructed yurt is surprisingly insulating, keeping occupants quite warm in the wintertime, and remaining cool in the summer.
The internal temperature can be moderated through the addition of sun covers or various types of fabric to surround the roof and walls. It is also possible to warm and cool yurts using various modern and primitive methods.
Perhaps the biggest downside of a yurt for prospective off-grid homesteaders is that the design does not really lend itself toward any interior modern conveniences like plumbing or built-in electrical service.
You might be using an outhouse or running cables inside from a generator or solar farm if you want to make use of said utilities inside your yurt.
Overall, yurts are a good choice if you’re looking for something cheap and easy to set up, and easy to move, but they might not be the best option if you need year-round protection from severe weather or want modern conveniences built in.
Straw Bale Home
If you’re looking for an off-grid home option that’s cheap, permanent and can be built around a modern floor plan, then a straw bale home might be a good option.
These are homes with walls made out of, as you might guess, bales of packed straw, which is then covered in plaster or stucco.
These walls might or might not be supported by other framing members, but in any case the majority of the structure’s integrity (or in some cases insulation elements) are provided by the straw alone.
Now, you might be thinking this sounds like the most outrageous material ever for building from. Most of us remember the story of the Three Little Pigs and what happened to the pig who built his own home from straw!
But the modernized version of this centuries-old technique has much to recommend it. Straw bale homes are extremely cheap and easy to build, especially if you have access to straw bales for free.
They also inherently provide excellent insulation against heat and cold, which makes them suitable for nearly all climates.
Best of all, straw as it is used in this method of construction is naturally fire retardant, giving you a considerable advantage should there be an accidental fire in the home or a nearby wildfire.
Straw bale building techniques have been around for centuries, and though they are seen as antiquated or even borderline primitive, you might be surprised to learn that they are seeing a resurgence that continues today.
With a high degree of environmental friendliness, then naturally fire retardant and non-toxic qualities of straw, excellent insulation capabilities and affordability of this construction type, plenty of folks who want to start modern homesteads are turning to this venerable technique.
But it isn’t all good news: straw bale construction techniques are highly vulnerable to rot and mold from moisture.
Though once finished they are highly resistant to rain and inclement weather, the straw must be scrupulously protected during the building phase in order to prevent moisture retention which could lead to instability and mold infestation down the line.
Moisture is also highly likely to cause cracking in finished straw bale walls, allowing even more moisture in which will then lead to more cracking and so on.
So long as you are able to take steps to protect the straw bales during the construction and through the finishing phase, you shouldn’t expect any problems.
Tests have shown repeatedly that properly constructed and finished straw bale structures show interior moisture levels well within acceptable limits for any structure, much less one made from straw!
Overall, straw bale homes are a good choice if you’re on a tight budget and need a larger home that is easily insulated, but you’ll need to be aware of the challenges involved in the construction process.
Probably the most interesting and attractive type of off-grid home on our list, cordwood homes are structures made out of logs that have been cut into short lengths, then stacked “crosswise” and held together with mortar.
The resulting walls have a unique appearance and can be easily made from local materials for minimal cost, making this another excellent option for those who really want to build their home themselves.
These homes have some serious benefits in an off-grid context, namely the fact that prospective owners can easily do the work themselves with a little bit of prior study and preparation, and the fact that larger logs can be cut to length or shorter ones can be used as is in the construction of the home.
The walls of a cordwood home can be load bearing as they are when used with a rounded or curving building plan, or reinforced by posts and other structural members to support greater spans in a square configuration.
This type of home might be particularly attractive to homesteaders who want a permanent structure that affords strength, beauty and dependable insulation for minimal cost, especially when compared to a modern stick-built home.
By gathering plenty of wood and cutting it to length and then mixing mortar as needed using a variety of adaptable recipes, you can start building your home today, log by log, if you wanted to.
The downsides of cordwood-style construction is that it is quite labor-intensive to build, even if the labor involved is not as hard as hoisting traditional, full-size logs for a cabin.
Put another way, a one- or two-man team might have a much easier time overall constructing a cordwood home even if there are more “steps” involved.
Care must also be taken when selecting and sizing wood to prevent expansion which may cause cracking in the mortar.
Overall, cordwood homes are a good choice if you’re looking for a strong and attractive off-grid home, but you’ll need to be prepared to put in the work and pay attention to material selection.
RV and Trailers
RVs and travel trailers are another popular option for off-grid living. These “homes on wheels” offer a great deal of flexibility for people who want to just get away from it all with no fuss and no muss.
Using an RV as your home, everything is self-contained, and wherever you decide to park you’ll be at home with all of the conveniences that entails.
Modern RVs feature their own toilets, showers, fully featured kitchens, sleeping quarters, relaxation areas and more. Unfolding an exterior awning allows you to relax or cook outside.
Generators can supply power and recharge onboard battery systems, and built-in or attachable solar cells can allow further replenishment of electrical energy.
Probably the biggest advantage of the RV-as-home is that you can always sit down, turn the key and move it somewhere else in very short order and for any reason.
You won’t need to limber up the chassis and axles before calling a trucker as with a mobile home, or start laboriously breaking down a cabin or yurt only to reassemble it elsewhere.
Pull up your outriggers and take off, nothing else required. This flexibility and adaptability is extremely appealing all on its own.
These rolling abodes can seemingly do it all, but as you might expect the drawbacks are in direct proportion to the advantages.
These vehicles, though they are an all-in-one solution, are extremely large and expensive.
If you consider them as a residence or shelter you’ll be dramatically overpaying for what you get in terms of storage, square footage and amenities compared to the other types of home on our list.
They are also highly vulnerable to severe weather, to an even greater degree than a mobile home.
Considering that they are a motor vehicle you’ll also have the maintenance concerns attendant with a large truck to contend with, and unless you hook up your RV to exterior storage for water and drainage for sewage, you’ll eventually have to refill or offload both kinds of tanking as needed, an aggravating chore.
RVs are one option that seem to have just as many advantages as they do disadvantages, but this has not stopped countless people from depending on them as their primary off-grid home.
If you don’t mind mildly cramped and somewhat abbreviated living conditions, an RV might afford you everything you want without tying you down.
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.