Tips for Planning an Unconventional Home



So you want a tiny house on wheels, a treehouse, a hobbit hole? How about an earthship or monolothic dome? Your dream house might be a little off the beaten path. You may even have visions of an entire community filled with off-the-grid custom homes.

Therein lies the problem. Most of us are still on the grid in one form or another. You don’t want to waste a lot of time and money on building something brilliant, only to have your dreams crushed and pulled out from under you by the interference of nosy neighbors and your local permitting agency.

Which is exactly what happened in Oakland, Ca.,  when some well-meaning if misguided outside-the-box visionaries set up a container home mini-community on an overgrown lot.

Cases like this one are why it is essential to keep in mind a few practical considerations when planning your ideal custom home on wheels, tree shack, or gaudy cave mansion.

Indiana pimp house

The firt thing you will want to do is research local building and planning regulations. Someone in the planning permission office at City Hall will be happy to explain these regulations in layman’s terms if you are persistent. Then you can apply for the permits that will legally cover your project.

Every local building permit agency has its own little idiosyncracies, but here are a few tips to get your project started the right way.


You’ll want to consider carefully where you want to put your dream house. If you are planning on setting up camp in a metropolitan  or other highly populated area, you should anticipate running into a whole flock of issues, just like the container-folk did.

Any time you have a neighborhood with different lifestyles living next door to one another, you are going to butt heads. People who could actually afford to buy residential property near San Francisco were going to have conflicts with a tribe of boxouse container-living hippies. It doesn’t take a fortune teller to predict that.


One mistake those guys made was ostensibly causing a ruckus by welding and drilling at night. Check your local noise ordinances, and always be aware that coexisting means respecting others’ rights, as well as your own.

If your dream property is out in the middle of the woods, perched on the side of a mountain, or hidden in a vast swamp, you will have less run-ins with more traditional residents complaining about noise or unsightly structures. ( Your spontaneous room additions and swinging tree bridge are also less likely to be discovered.) However, you will still want to research local building regulations to factor in the environmental impact of construction and personal safety before beginning construction.

For example, will the construction require the removal of trees? This often requires a permit to preserve native species. Pete Nelson, a well-known treehouse builder and author of the book  Treehouses: The Art and Craft of Living Out on A Limb, began a prolonged battle with the Department of Development and Environmental Services in King County, Wa., when he built “The Temple of the Blue Moon” on his riverfront property.

temple of the blue moon

Nelson’s main violations were removing two trees without a permit and building in a flood zone. Even if you feel that regulations don’t apply to your situation, as Nelson does, illegally ignoring them won’t make the regulations go away.

Mobile Homes

So you are ready to live in a residence you can take with you, like a comfy snail shell that provides both shelter and freedom.


Maybe you are ready to tour the U.S. , stopping to rest in campgrounds or parked at the side of a magnificent glacial lake.

It’s time to dig in to that savings account. Traditional mortgage lenders consider mobile homes a major risk. There is a mainstream loan program under the FHA that supports mobile properties. If the manufactured home is attached to a foundation, you can purchase your mobile for as low as 3.5% down, depending on county loan limits.

Prefabricated modular homes are also covered under certain FHA loans, and these are more lending-friendly.

Thinking of a tiny house on wheels that will actually move when you do? It will be way more difficult to obtain a loan to finance it. If you have excellent credit, you can check with your bank to see if they have a loan that will suit your needs. “Tiny House Lending” also matches buyers with lenders based on credit history, prospective loan amount, and your state of residence.


Living Underground

You want to build down instead of up. Some truly wonderful houses have been built around caves and boulders.

An underground home is usually built one of two ways — as a submerged earth shelter  or an earth-bermed shelter. The earth-bermed shelter will have one or more exposed walls and an exposed roof, like Bilbo’s house in Lord of the Rings.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the advantages to this type of shelter are many, especially when it comes to conserving energy. Being packed in earth keeps the home cool in hot weather and safe from freezing temperatures when it’s cold. The shelter blends naturally into the surroundings, and requires less outside maintenance. An earth shelter will cost less to insure because it is protected from natural disasters, storm damage, and Terminator-style apocalyptic scenarios.

The downside is the initial construction cost will be up to 20% more than building a traditional house. You may have to fight ongoing problems with moisture condensation to avoid mold and mildew taking over. The shelter will be more difficult if you decide to sell it, partially because mortgage lenders will give the buyers a hard time.

If you have your heart set on an underground home, consider the climate and terrain before building. Earth shelters do best in extreme temperatures with low humidity. You will want to choose gently sloping terrain to avoid additional excavation costs. Permeable soils that compact well, like sand and gravel, are ideal for your shelter because they allow water to drain efficiently.

Plan the drainage system and construction materials carefully. Added insulation can help combat problems with condensation. You will want to make sure you have adequate ventilation. Also, be aware that radon gas is produced when rocks dissolve.

DOE codes require that every sleeping space has a window to the outside world. The opening should be 5.7 square feet, a minimum dimension of 20 inches, and no more than 40 inches above the floor.

You will have issues whenever you buy a house, and no one said that you can’t make a success of your personal hobbit hole.

The Atlantic Beach Dune House down the street from me was built around 1975 by the famous architect William Morgan. The earth-bermed duplex was constructed in a sand dune made by Hurricane Dora in 1964. How Morgan got permitting for this one from the Atlantic Beach City Commission is beyond me, but maybe things were different back then.

atlantic beach dune house

How anyone can afford the flood insurance is another question. The lair was for sale for as long as I can remember. It sold in 2012.