Frequently Asked Questions

Do I have to have an Architect or Engineer to build an Alternative or Natural home? How can I get a Permit and is it even possible?

The answer depends on you local Building Department.  The International Building Code basically states that in order to build using ‘Alternative Building Methods,’ the local jurisdiction will decide.  Typically, in most states, cities, and counties, they will require one of the following:

  • a Permit set stamped and signed by a licensed Architect (must be licensed in that state)
  • drawings from a licensed Structural Engineer, stamped and signed (must be licensed in that state)
  • if you have a really stringent Building Official, they will require both
If you are really lucky, then you will end up with a Building Official who does not require any of the above, or will let the project be an ‘Experimental Case Study,’ though this is rare in my experience.  The first step is to find out what city or county your Building Department resides in and give them a call, ask for the Residential plan reviewer and tell them you’d like to build a home using Alternative Building Methods and what will they require for a Building Permit.

Do I Need a Building Permit?

This is up to you. Legally, yes you would need one. Some people build without permit if they live in a very rural area or live in a county/city with no mandated building codes.  However, if you do not get a Permit and your jurisdiction became aware of this, most likely a ‘stop work order’ would be placed on the project, you’d get fined, and possibly have to tear down what you started.  The benefits of getting a Permit is that you are opening the doorways for many others to do the same down the line.  You will also be able to be public about your project and advertise it, host workshops, and when it’s complete have home tours, etc. without the fear of getting caught.

How Much Does It Cost To Build a Natural or Alternative Home?

This is a very common question, without an easy answer. We have been taught that building a home costs X amount of dollars for this or that because we only have one way to build homes that open accepted on the world market.

Natural Building is different, here we have artisans crafting a home the way homes where built 100 years ago and more. A naturally built home is not looked at as if it is a commodity ready to be sold off at the end of its usefulness with hopes of gaining profit by its rise in area valuation. Naturally Built homes are typically homes that the owner plans to live in forever and passing it down to his and here children and so on.

You can spend as much as possible as well as little as possible.  The factors that would determine this would be square footage, the overall building program, who is providing the labor, where are the materials coming from, as well as what kinds of other factors there are such as solar panels, living roofs, plumbing and mechanical systems, site work, etc.  If you are planning to build on an empty lot, you must take infrastructure into concern such as septic, wells, power, etc.

Many have read or assume that a Natural Home means that you can build for very little money. This equation assumes you have nothing to do except work on your home for the next several years, you are doing all of the labor yourself, all of your materials are salvaged, you probably don’t have plumbing or electrical needs, and you are not getting a Permit.  There are fees associated with getting a Permit because either an Architect or Engineer (or both) is doing the brunt of the work as well as taking on liability for your project.

Even a Naturally Built home will have some conventional elements such as site/foundation work, possibly timber framing or other structure, a roof, countertops, toilets, etc.  All of these items add up.

The cost of a project will also depend on how detailed and customized you want it to be.  So in other words, if you want an extravagant custom house with lots of artistic touches and you want to move in in eight months, be prepared to spend $200-$300/sqr ft. If you are an owner builder looking for a solid shelter, made of salvaged and natural materials, hopefully finished in the next handful of years, think $45-$80/sqrft. (these numbers are ‘rules of thumb’).

There are many factors to determine when considering cost.  I like to discuss the budget upfront in the very beginning, because then the project can really be shaped to meet your budget that you have in mind.

How Much Will the Design Fees Cost?

Again, a hard question to answer until I know more about the project at hand.

It depends on the size of the project, the level of detail and customization needed, and the requirements by the Building Department.

From the design end, an Alternative project can often times take much longer than a conventional one, simply because there is so much research involved in order to make the Building Official happy and no standard details to draw from.  The work entailed to design a home and take it all the way to a Building Permit status can be as much as 80-100 hours.  In addition to the work, when stamping and signing a construction set, the Architect or Engineer is essentially taking on ALL liability for the project and allowing the city/county to wash their hands of it; with liability comes risk, and if someone is assuming the risk for your structure, there must be a fee associated with this.

Often times when someone wants a home designed or drawn up, they will want to talk about their likes and dislikes, what they want in the house and how they want it to function. This now becomes a CUSTOM designed home.  I like to tell my clients to think about it in terms of any other custom made item; you would not walk into a suit shop and ask for a custom tailored suit and not expect to pay a premium price for the suit, the same holds true for a home.  If you want to keep design fees to a low, then coming to me with a plan already worked out and little to no design work expected, can keep the fees much lower. But as with anything, a customized project takes time and labor to create.

I always tell my clients to shop around. It’s always good to have 2 or 3 different fees to compare.

The first step would be to set up an Initial Consultation; click here to read more about the scope of Services offered.

Do I have to only be interested in building a new home, off the grid, on lots of acreage  or can these methods work for renovations or additions?

Natural Building is all-encompassing and can be applied to new construction, renovations, additions, or even simple back-yard garden features.  There are ways to retrofit conventional homes (you should see my house!) with Natural methods.  You can also take a non-structural approach if you are interested in more of the aesthetics and want to explore natural plasters and paints (interior or exterior).  Applying concepts such as Passive Solar and Permaculture can be applied to any homestead; new, old, small or big.  Whatever the project, Natural Building can play a role, large or small.

Most of the Naturally Built Homes Look Like Hobbit Houses; But I Like a More Modern or Contemporary Architecture Better; Does My House Have To Look Like a Hobbit House?

Absolutely not!  Natural Building is rooted in the past but can certainly take on any shape or style intended. I’ve seen some very sleek, modern designs using natural wall systems.  The concepts are still there, whether or not your preference is ‘Hobbit House’ or ‘Frank Lloyd Wright.’

Does Natural Building Really Work in South Carolina? It’s So Humid Here!

It absolutely will work!  Look around the world; there are many places FAR wetter, more humid, damp, cold, hotter,….you name it, than South Carolina and natural buildings have flourished….even through hurricanes, earthquakes and more!  With proper planning, foundation work, and roof overhangs, a Natural home will last forever.  Of course there are some methods which work better than others, depending on the climate and weather patterns, etc. but this can be determined and worked through during the design process so that you are building with the most appropriate wall systems.  There are also many finishing techniques which will create a more water-resistant surface.  Modern day advances also teach us about proper seismic and hurricane detailing.


If you have a question you’d like to have answered, contact me!