How I built my house for £4,000

The mission: to build an eco-home. The budget: laughable. The secret weapon: straw. Vicki Hill finds out how one man got back to nature – and how you can build a den the same way

A A A

When he's expecting visitors, Steve James watches out the windows so he can catch the look on their faces when they see his house for the first time. "It's always the same," he say. "There's an intense stare and total mystification, as if they can't quite believe what they are seeing." This may be because James's house is made of straw and has a turf roof covered in flowers.

James is passionate about eco homes and deeply proud of the cottage, which huddles by a loch near Dumfries. His kitchen is made from a cedar that blew over in a Glasgow park. His sink came from a skip. To one side is a Moroccan marbled shower room, to the other are sofas and a log-burning stove. He sleeps in a galleried bedroom. A compost loo and rainwater filtration system complete the picture.

The total cost: £4,000. "Actually, you could make it for less than that," James says. "I'd cut the wood myself next time instead of going to the sawmill. That would knock off a thousand." He finds the whole concept of mortgages quite amusing.

His home is strong, warm and utterly watertight. The only maintenance is a lime wash on the walls every year or two. The turf roof repairs itself. "I'm building a water wheel next," James says. "In the meantime, I'm getting power from a car battery that my partner, Eli, charges for me at her house. You'd be amazed what you can run from that battery – a digital recording studio, a stereo, tools, lights and a laptop."

James, 52, a software engineer, took 10 months to build his house, finishing it in November last year. Now, he's set up a website about straw-bale homes, runs eco-engineering courses and takes commissions making straw-bale buildings; the latest is a changing room for a Hull primary school.

The benefits run much deeper than simply wanting to save cash and the planet. "Now that it's built, the initial buzz has grown into a sort of permanent primeval satisfaction. I sit here, it's warm and quiet and there's snow flying past the windows, and I think: yes, this is what it's all about."

Straw bales can be used to make all kinds of buildings. If you're just building a summer house, you may not need planning permission. The best way to get started is to go on a course or help someone else build a straw-bale house; James's website can put you in touch with someone.

But it's not hard to do it yourself, he says. "Straw is perfect for a beginner. It's easy to work with and you can make your house any shape you want. You can use straw to make any kind of buildings – from a four-storey office block to a house I know, which is a spiral. Go mad, have fun, start living!" It'll help to follow these seven steps. But you will need a bit of DIY sense – and some manual labour from your friends.



Steve James's website is at www.envisioneer.net

1. Build the foundations

I made a solid, 2ft-high base from rocks. It's sort of like building a solid dry-stone wall – you don't need mortar. Take time to get the rocks to fit together well, but it's good to leave gaps; this will ventilate the straw and keep it dry.

2. Add the wooden floor

You need a wooden frame on which to lay your flooring and build the walls. I used flat reclaimed timbers as joists, laying them in a grid and nailing them together. To create a curve at the front, I used thick plywood. The whole thing just sits on the stones – the straw-bale walls will hold it down.

3. Assemble the roof frame

Make the roof frame, so that it's ready to go on as soon as the walls are up. Start with a sturdy frame the same shape as the base. Attach the rafters and fix them together in a tepee shape. It's easiest to hold it all together with screws.

4. Walls and windows

I used 200 oat-straw bales to make my house. They cost £1 each. First, lay a complete layer of bales around the edge of the base. Using twine, stitch these to the wooden base. Build upwards, stacking the bales like bricks. Drive thin, pointed wooden stakes through them at intervals to hold them together. I got the walls up in five days – with help from friends. You can cut the straw to fit any shape you like, and stuff extra bits in any gaps. All my windows came from skips. I laid a polythene membrane between the frames and the straw, to protect the frames from damp.

5. Get the roof on

Using plenty of manual labour, lift the roof frame into position. Use some stakes to attach it to the straw walls. I built a galleried bedroom into the roof space, laying a tree-trunk through the span of the roof to support the bedroom floor. I nailed on wooden slats in overlapping rows on top of the roof and covered it in natural rubber pond liner. Then a layer of turf went on top, along with a handful of flower seeds.

6. Render the outside

I used a mix of gravel, sand and water from the loch, and added quicklime. This makes hot lime render, which you can slap on while it's warm and make interesting shapes with. My partner Eli used it to make sculptures at the corners.

7. The interior

For the flooring, a nearby sawmill cut some leftover trees from our local forest into planks, and I nailed them to the joists. I used linseed oil to protect and polish them. I made the kitchen window sills, shelves and work surfaces from a tree that blew over in a park in Glasgow. It was a Lebanon cedar – beautiful. The Belfast sink came from a skip. I made the stove myself, using old paving slabs. It heats the whole house with very little firewood, and it makes killer pizzas.

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
Sport
footballStriker has moved on loan for the remainder of the season
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
News
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
i100
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
booksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Implementation Consultant (VB,C#, SQL, Java, Eclipse, integ

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SQL Impl...

SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

£55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering