Options for Alternative Buildings

Here we are looking at options for building alternative structures, especially small buildings for the suburbs which can accommodate people in a sustainable way in urban gardens.

Small buildings made of natural materials like rammed earth, cob and straw bale with bamboo, timber, tile, slate and small stone inclusions, can all be built by hand in small urban permaculture gardens that provide good human food and sanctuary.

I have included here photographs showing appropriate small buildings from a demonstration site in San Francisco at the home of Lindsay Dailey, one of our PRI team. There are some very interesting features here, including the use of Tadelakt, a Moroccan system of ceiling render with polished lime render using a river stone and a soft soap sealer. Many different varieties of recycled materials and other appropriate building materials that are easily replaceable, like bamboo and small timbers, straw and mud have been used.

This site has simple cooking systems and retrofits of standard buildings so that alternative insulation materials ensure appropriate energy use. It also has garden seats and all kinds of other attractive features.

It is a wonderful example of what people can do for themselves to make living conditions appropriate, down scaled, economic, easy to maintain, easy to replace and energy efficient. All this is possible in amongst urban food production. This is the future of the urban landscape of humanity — safe, sensible, comfortable, energy efficient, characteristic human habitat, with waste stream productivity benefiting the environment, minimal food time, zero food miles, zero food guilt, and meaningful lives in a caring, sharing community.

Chicken house

Geoff Lawton

Geoff Lawton is a world renowned Permaculture consultant, designer and teacher. He first took his Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) Course in 1983 with Bill Mollison the founder of Permaculture. Geoff has undertaken thousands of jobs teaching, consulting, designing, administering and implementing, in 6 continents and close to 50 countries around the world. Clients have included private individuals, groups, communities, governments, aid organizations, non-government organisations and multinational companies under the not-for-profit organisation. In 1996 Geoff was accredited with the Permaculture Community Services Award by the Permaculture movement for services in Australia and around the world. Geoff's official website is Geoff's Facebook profile can be found here.


  1. This is terrific.

    Please can we begin to teach young children and teenagers how to construct these buildings and how to grow their own food forests?

    Best wishes


  2. What we are looking at is a number of nice photo’s without a single indication of how such a structure was actually achieved.

    Come on Geoff, either put your money where your mouth is, and write an all-embracing feature that can be used in the real world, or declare that such articles are fit only for dentists waiting rooms where we may need a little distraction without any real substance.

  3. Thanks Geoff.
    For these options , ideas. The chook house is fine for me as my ‘doghouse’.
    Peterfd!!!! Uncalled for comments!
    These options are to inspire you to do your research into all the available techniques and methods out there. I just studied with Cal-Earth on the Superadobe System.
    These options give Light / Positivity and a chance for people to build easy structures for say: ailing elderly parents needing home care. It makes it affordable and doable.
    So Peterfd try this site for many techniques and enjoy:
    Peace- Love – Respect for all.

  4. The technical expertise on how to build the structure does not exist at PRI, or if it does (I’m pretty sure Geoff built his own houses and is likely clever with his hands) it is not presented to students in a format that allows them to go forth with a proper design skill. Conveying technical know-how is not really done at PRI.

    Better to purchase the straw bale DVD found online. Most of the instructional information you need to practice permaculture is much better presented in other courses or resources.

    Books and DVDs are the best way to go.

  5. I am obviously new to Cyberspace, Interested in the Options of Alternative Building article ….not totally mind shattering stuff but interesting, informative with good photos…but just options. and then i read on ,,,, personal put downs . If the article was to be about how to build an alternative house it would have done just that, Also If it was about an introduction to Alternative housing it certainly wouldn’t be a” scanty” article,….. but why the agro ?… something about something I obviously know nothing about nor want to know nothing about that vaguely relates to the article. certainly nothing specific. . I really appreciate the fact that you are prepared to include the negative comments but can we somehow keep it friendly and constructive – a little bit more of Permaculture People Care maybe. i have no idea how or when Geoff finds the time to write such an article. It is just so easy to criticise in Cyberspace .. from a distance… Would we say the same stuff with the same negative intent to their face? I am as guilty as anyone else on this one but please, there has got to be some sort of higher good in all this.. Lets keep it positive … and friendly…. the faults you see are all your own!

  6. Great pictures guys. This is my first post but I have been reading the dail articles posted for nearly a year. I am currently intending to do a projct in my backyard to integrate chooks into a crop rotation and I am particularly interested in the design shown in the last two pictures. Ideally, I was after a cob house which would satisfy all the chickens needs of shelter, ventilation, water harvesting and hopefully go toward muting some crowing. Any help would be much appreciated

  7. i am currently in a situation where i am moving my family from a rental and looking for ideas for a new home to put/build on a friends property. options have surfaced and been scrapped; shipping containers, atco huts, kit homes, caravans, buses, and variables of these in between. finances are ok but the options we have considered still seem overpriced. This article has been a timely reminder of some very useful techniques i had neglected to contemplate.


    i plan to document our move including the construction of our home, aquaponics installation, aquatic kitchen garden, establishing a food forest, vegetable garden and more. fun times, see you on wpn!

  8. I have watched your site with awe and fascination for over a year. I see so much confusion and anger in the world and also see a lot of people wondering what life is about! They are yearning for a simple life with good food water and less stress.

    We have help fund a water conversation park behind my house and we have been amazed at the attention from general passers by.

    I am going to bring these building up in our quaterly meeting and see if we can do something to integrate that with the local childrens home.

    I can say with my hand on my heart your site is one of the most informative and well presented sites I have seen.

  9. I wonder about the energy-efficiency in heating of houses built in ways like this. Im living in a quite different climate – we have long winters with temperatures down to -20°C (sometimes even more) – so people have to heat a lot here. Heating is one of the most energy consuming activities on a personal level, thus one of those thing where one should start first, if wanting to live sustainibly. At the moment I think the key here is to have better insulated houses. And the technology exists.. But it seems to be very High-Tech: passive houses. ( What does permaculture respond here? (I heard about earthships..)

  10. Hi coevicman

    As far as I am aware there are no “Uncalled for comments” on this forum. People say what they think and, for the most part, I believe that’s the way the members like it!

    There are other Permaculture forums that impose censorship, remove comments or criticisms that do not conform to a central dogma, and ban those they feel to be “unsuitable”. In my opinion, such forums present an insular and inward looking image of permaculture and are ill-equipped to help permaculture meet the rapidly changing needs of the world.

    It would seem somewhat ironic that as the peoples of many nations in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula take to the streets to fight against overwhelming odds to gain democratic freedoms and the right to say what they think, you would choose to make such a peculiar statement.

    However, many thanks for the link, I found the site intriguing.

  11. @Sven

    Straw bales have a llmbda at λ = 0,070 – 0,085 W/mK. For you it might be an option to use a two layer wall with perlite = λ = 0,044-0,053 W/mK. For insulation is hyperlite to prefere.

    Stay away from passive houses! Here in Norway the Gaia Group has developed the new Active House as an reaction of these inhumane passive houses, sealed with plastic and ion-killing high tech ventilation:

    For Scandinavian readers see my article about the Active House:

  12. Good luck with any of these once the county building inspector finds your little project. In few places do people still have the right to build their home on their land with their materials and they see fit.

    Priority #1: Restore private property rights and abolish government enforced building codes.

  13. I believe the intent of Geoff’s article was to share some of the possibilities of utilizing natural buildings made of local, low-impact materials in small spaces – not to provide a detailed technical explanation of natural building (I’m happy to answer any technical questions people may have – feel free to post them here and I’ll respond!).

    JBob – The county does indeed know about our project, and we received a permit from the building department to use a technique called “light straw clay” on the one strucuture that was large enough to require a permit. We are working with the county to monitor the building’s performance and write code for the county that will make the technique of light straw clay accessible to others.

    Thanks for reading!

  14. Lindsay–Geoff’s article serves a specific and important purpose and I don’t wish to question its place as part of this resource. But if this isn’t’s natural building primer, where is it? I am somewhat new to the site, and I find natural building’s apparent absence here surprising. I suppose there are good reasons for limiting the site’s content, but I would make the case that if all over the world there are “all sorts of situations that need to be designed in a more sustainable way” (Lawton quoted in the Permaculture Master Plan video), many of which undoubtedly involve building structures, then the internet face of permaculture should include substantial information about natural building.

    Anyhow, keep up the amazing work you’re doing, Lindsay. The pictures are beautiful and the cause is just; thank you!

  15. Oyvind, thanks for the link on active house. Passive House is starting to gain a lot of interest in North America.

    Sven, I would suggest looking into straw bale construction. Find an expert in your area. The walls are around R35 which is double most building codes. Its not suitable in humid climates like coastal areas, in my opinion. The cost of a straw bale house can be lower but usually is not. If the straw is sourced locally it would be ecological. You can use timbers for structure (I dont suggest trying to make the bale walls structural.) The building envelope is designed to permeate vapour (called “breahting”) rather than tightly control it like conventional designs do. PRI has several straw bale/cob hybrid buildings that look good to my eye.

  16. Of course you can do structual strawbale! It’s how the very first strawbales were constructed about 100 years ago. Huff n Puff in Ganmain, NSW are seasoned pros and have developed a great hybrid structual system that they use for most of their builds. They hold workshops (one of which i’ve attended) and have loads of info on their site

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