What can rule-bending alternative builders teach us about smarter shelters?

by Derek Markham (@derekmarkham)

Earthship houses in New Mexico

CC BY 2.0 littlemoresunshine

Modern building codes and zoning regulations, while helping to set safety standards that can save lives, can also serve as big barriers to building small, sensible, and affordable dwellings with alternative materials and techniques.

The quest to build, or even just live in, a low-impact house of your own can be a challenging one, especially if you’re on a budget and want to build a home with materials and techniques that are outside the norm. And if you live in an area with strict codes and zoning regulations, that challenge can be incredibly frustrating, and one which might lead you to consider moving to a less populated, and less regulated, part of the country.

Some rural areas of the U.S. still have no regulations, or very few, for building, and have attracted a number of “renegade” builders who are skirting the edges of legality while trying to build the smartest home for themselves and the environment.

In my neck of the woods here in southwestern New Mexico, I know a number of people who are living in alternative dwellings that would probably drive a city building inspector or code compliance officer absolutely nuts, but which fit their own needs perfectly. These homes range from converted school buses to adobe and cob tiny homes (casitas) to straw bale buildings and earthships and papercrete domes, most of which are not legal dwelliings approved for residency. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s perfectly fine, because those homes aren’t meant to be rented or sold or used for anything other than the people who built them, and these houses fall under what I would call ‘an acceptable risk’ in the quest to build and live in your own shelter.

This documentary from Kirsten Dirksen of *faircompanies takes a look at some of these “rule-bending builders” of alternative homes and buildings in the U.S. Southwest, and offers a number of insights for those interested in building their own tiny house or other alternative dwelling. In addition, the film presents some great food for thought about our current system of building codes and zoning regulations, which hasn’t seemed to keep up with the pace of alternative building innovations.

She titled this documentary “A Spaghetti Western on Lean Urbanism,” and it’s well worth a watch if you’re at all considering making the move to a leaner and more appropriate dwelling.


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