Gimme Shelter (And I’d Like it to Look Like…a House, Please)

Sheri Dixon
17 Min Read

There are several options available to the new landowner-slash-rural-inhabitant, some appealing, some viable, some neither one. It all depends on the zoning requirements (or lack thereof), the budget (or lack thereof), and the temperament of the person(s) involved as to what is considered acceptable shelter.

Of course, variables like climate, ultimate goals, and personal rules regarding sustainability and “green” practices will figure in there as well.

Before setting a house down anywhere, things like electricity, water, and sewer have to be taken into consideration. To a certain extent these are fixed expenses—digging a well and septic tank, running electric and phone lines are dependant on the skill of the landowner as well as zoning requirements. Does your zoning allow for off-grid living? Do you even WANT off-grid living? Whether stringing electric lines or setting up a solar array, digging an outhouse, or installing a septic system, some things can be done by the average Joe or Jane as long as they pass final inspection, some not so much.

Once the bones of daily living are in place or planned for, it’s time to flesh it out as it were. Time to get a house up.

There are many beautiful and inexpensive options for building a home literally with your own hands; by definition these are time-consuming prospects. Cob, Earthship, earth-sheltered, Earthbag, Strawbale—all wonderful ways to build a home that blends in with its environment and will last at least one lifetime.

Yurts are a quicker option and can be either owner-built or bought as a kit… some assembly required.

There are some odd people who still think a house needs to look like…a house. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

There’s a temptation to move something, anything “out there” to live in either permanently or “till we get the house up”. The appeal of a used mobile home or camper is that they’re generally pretty affordable and (sort of) contain everything you need to live like outlets and toilets. The drawback is that they’re completely disposable… like diapers. And like diapers, disposable does not equal biodegradable. Mobile homes and campers dot the landscape of America oozing insulation and growing mold, shedding skirting and half-heartedly melting onto the Earth in a pathetic attempt at appearing to be organic in origin. No matter how well cared for, the end remains the same, and it ain’t pretty.

We’re going to look at three different options for housing that not only look like what we in the Western World consider human habitations but that also go up easily, quickly, and more affordably than the average stick-built home.

As luck would have it, the first two are actual dwellings on our place. The third we learned about on a tour in Huntsville.

Conventional-looking House Option One: …To Grandmother’s House We Go

If your budget is not completely barren (say you have somewhere in the neighborhood of $20-$30,000 to get sheltered or can qualify at your bank for the same) and you’re looking for something fast, sturdy and almost completely painless on your part, consider the small abodes commonly known as “Park Models” because they’re the darlings of retirees who choose to live full time in a campground setting but want something more substantial than a camper or mobile home.

This is only a good option if you either have a very small family or don’t mind living REALLY close together because, by design, these are very small, usually two bedrooms at most.

If your family can survive the sustained cocoon-living long enough to burst out and into whatever larger home that eventually goes up on your land, these are cute, attractive, and hardy enough to remain in place as a little guest house or office.

Our experience with Park Model homes is with our friend Edna’s. Edna is 92 years young and spry enough for independent living but just fragile enough to need company several times every day to be sure she’s got everything she needs. Edna had an apartment in Oklahoma City and came for a visit to see if she liked Texas. When I showed her the “little houses” as she calls them, and we pointed out where hers would sit on our land, she was sold.

We visited the factory where they are built on a metal frame for transport, but with the same standards and finishes as a stick-built home: drywall, wood trim, conventional cabinetry, wiring, plumbing, flooring, and windows, siding outside and asphalt shingles up top. They also include a full-sized stove and refrigerator.

Edna sat surrounded by swatches and charts and picked out her colors, floors and counter coverings, woodwork, and “extras” (she opted for a garbage disposal, a tub instead of shower, a full laundry area instead of a spot for an apartment-sized stacking set, an oversized closet with built-in drawers and a handicapped toilet).

Edna likes our log home, but doesn’t want to live in one. Between her age and her preferences, she wanted what she’s used to: electric heat and air conditioning with a wall thermostat and a home that generally behaves like her apartment did. We told her to pick anything she wanted, this is HER house. Then I was able to negotiate down to her desired price, and her house was built to specifications and delivered within a few weeks.

Her “little house” is 12ft X 30ft and includes a six-foot covered porch. Inside is a full kitchen/living room area in the front as one big room and a large bedroom next to a full bath and laundry area in the back. There are no hallways and the bathroom has a pocket door into the front and a pocket door directly into the bedroom for ease of access. It really is laid out ideally for an older person.

Storage is plentiful in the kitchen, there’s a built-in TV cabinet with storage underneath, there are cabinets above the washer/dryer and the double closet in the bedroom with drawers built into it all across.

While I’d never allow a mobile home onto our place, this just tucks back into the trees, a little buttercream-yellow Grandma’s House with a porch full of flowers.

We’ve been very impressed with how tight and sound this little tiny house is; it’s beyond a doubt better-constructed and finished out than her apartment was in Oklahoma City.

We used Athens Park Homes in Athens, Texas, which is only about 15 minutes from us but there are several different companies nationwide that build this type of small modular home.

Conventional-looking House Option  2: Montana Mountain-man Retreat

Edna’s son Joe lives with us, too. That’s how we met Edna. When we started building our house, Joe had his delivered.

As I was watching our house go up inch-by-inch, one day a big truck just pulled into the yard and slid Joe’s house off the tail end.

SSSSSSSSHHHHHHHFFFFF… Thump. And he had a house. Sort of.

Joe chose to finish out a storage shed-type cabin shell, which is a good deal if your budget is smaller than Edna’s but still in the black—for instance in the $10-$20,000 range—and you are willing and able to do some (or all of the) finish work yourself.

He ordered a 12ft X 24ft cabin with a four-foot covered porch, and laid it out so there’s a living room and bachelor’s kitchen on the front and a full bathroom/bed nook in the back. We ordered a few extra windows and had it wired for electricity, which along with the price of the cabin accounted for about half of the total project; the rest was the finish-out including insulation, the plumbing fixtures and all the interior wood, vinyl flooring and light fixtures.

Heat is supplied by a wall unit propane heater with a thermostat, and in the summer he’s got a window unit air conditioner for when he’s not being a Snowbird and getting his Montana Fix.

The exterior is stained T-111 siding and the roof is shingled. The interior is identical to ours, knotty aspen. Once the requisite guns were hung on the wall, the camo curtains put up and the big-screen TV in place, it became a Man Cave inside and out, but an absolutely darling one. (Of course, you didn’t hear that from me…)

Shopping locally, we found a business in Athens who sells cabin shells, garages, carports, barns, etc. and they can be found most anywhere- one of the larger companies around here is Atlas.

Conventional-looking (Mostly) House Option 3: One Man’s Trash is another Man’s House

So your budget is down to a single digit after buying the land and doing all the prep-work for setting a structure in place. But the good news is you’re pretty handy; not a master tradesman/woman but you know your way around a hammer and can run a level with a fair amount of accuracy.

Fine. Gather materials and build yourself a house.

“What? Where do I get materials? That stuff doesn’t just appear on its own, ya know”.

Of course not. But all you have to do is look, find, ask and haul.

Which is exactly what Dan Phillips has been doing and is helping others do.

Dan is the man behind The Phoenix Commotion, a way of building houses that focuses on two goals: beautiful owner-built homes and taking from, not adding to, the endless acres of construction landfill currently in our nation.

While Dan is quick to admire alternative building styles, he admits that those are not his Thing. While others use materials that are of the earth and sustainable, Dan ferrets out supplies from construction dumpsters that are completely usable, but may have minor flaws that destine them for the landfill. Windows with one cracked pane, doors that are dented, the cut ends of all types and sizes of lumber—all parts that can be put together to make a house, along with some other creative ideas for fun and fill-in, such as using bleached and sealed cattle bones for everything from drawer pulls to stair treads, installing a cork floor made from actual corks, or enlisting garage-sale crystal condiment trays as decorative windows.

According to Dan, Craigslist and Thrifty-Nickel-type weekly neighborhood papers are goldmines, as are lumber mills and large manufacturing plants. The point is to decide what you need and then go find it. Even in the large companies you should totally ask them for what you want—all they can do is say “No”. Be forewarned though: if they say “Yes” you need to be prepared to take ALL of whatever you’re looking for. They can’t let you cherry-pick through all the stuff marked for the dump—all or nothing, baby.

While we’ve used a good deal of “reclaimed/reused” materials—the tiles for the kitchen counters were discontinued swimming pool tiles I found on Craigslist, all the tiles used in the showers were saved back for us by a local carpet store when they changed lines, our favorite lighting fixtures are rummage sale finds and our toilets are a ‘60’s mint green and a ‘70’s harvest gold from the ReStore. Dan takes this mindset not just several steps, but huge leaps beyond.

He mentors would-be owner/builders on how to find the materials needed, then on the basics of building their own house… themselves. Based in Huntsville, Texas, he keeps a donated warehouse full of items—doors, windows, wiring, plumbing, fixtures, lumber, siding, shingles—for people to go through to find what they need, circumventing the laws that say “you may not take building material from a landfill and use it to build”. Because Dan can take stuff from the landfill, put it in his warehouse and THEN it can be used. Wink, wink. Imagination and perseverance, two things necessary for Homesteader Survival.

While Dan’s creative ideas using reclaimed materials would provide him with a very hefty paycheck if he catered to the high-end, willing-to-pay-to-be-green, lookit-me-I’m-so-shabby-chic-trendy crowd, he concentrates on those who simply desire one thing: a Home they otherwise couldn’t afford; many times Dan’s students can’t even qualify for Habitat for Humanity projects. Partnering with churches, community groups, local banks, Phoenix Commotion helps people build their own home with their own hands AND keeps perfectly good building materials out of the ever-growing landfills.

His ideas are worth replicating, and invaluable when building on a dust-on-a-shoestring budget, and he is available for limited consultation. (

A homestead is not just a pretty picture on a Christmas card; it’s a constant evolution, a process, a living changing entity.

Just like feeding our families is an ongoing challenge to only put into our loved ones healthy, nutritious foods so we have healthy, happy families, so the building of our homestead should involve putting on it only stuff you want there for the literal long haul. It makes no sense to spend money and time on something you’re going to want to erase any trace of down the road.

In the manner of “Measure twice, cut once”, “A job worth doing is worth doing right” and “I before E except after C” your homestead will be a never-ending (hopefully upward) spiral of many thousands of steps. The less back-tracking that needs done the better for you AND your land.

Congratulations and commendations on making it this far. A lot of folks don’t, you know. Whether interest wanes or life intervenes, there are people who will never stand right where you are at this very minute.

Now, go on and take that next step…

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