Sustainable Tiny Homes – Breathe Through Stovepipes

Sustainable Tiny Homes – Breathe Through Stovepipes

Sustainable tiny homes can come in some weird designs. Yes, I have seen one that breathes through stovepipes.

The one in the image above is not a private home. It is a reconstruction of an ancient isle of Man Round House and serves as a meeting place at the Ancient Technology Centre.

It is very similar to a completely covered earth house I saw 12 years ago in an unregulated township north of New Liskeard, Northern Ontario.

That one did have a number of stovepipes sticking through the earth roof, some for fresh air to come in and some for smoke from the stove and stale air to go out. It was before the days of smartphones with good cameras. Regrettably, I did not get a photograph of it.

The person showing me around the area assured me that the house was very comfortable even in the -30C temperatures that are common in that part of the country.

That particular design only had one door and very few windows. It was really just a hole in the ground with a few poles holding up a roof covered by 2′ (60cm) of soil. A good growth of grass on the roof helped keep the house cool in summer.

It had I was told, been built by the owner without the assistance of an architect or engineer. That’s the beauty of unregulated townships for home builders who want to do their own thing without having to comply with building codes.

If it had not been for the stovepipes, I would have thought it was just a grassy knoll.

Places to build your own non-compliant home are no longer very common in North America or Europe so to build a sustainable tiny home or one of any size needs a bit more planning than the maverick builder in Northern Ontario was required to do.

Some of the types of homes listed below may not be acceptable in many urban or suburban areas in your country. Provincial, county or township building codes may prevent some types being constructed in rural areas.

Sustainable tiny homes made from earth

There are a number of designs for earth houses, all use the technique of earth sheltering:

  • Underground
  • Partially underground
  • Earth berm types

Two good websites to visit are: and

Underground houses

Underground houses are just that, built entirely underground with an earth covered roof, often only one door and few if any windows.

An underground house is made by digging a hole in the ground, building retaining walls to stop the sides caving in. Erecting a supporting framework for the roof and covering the structure with soil.

Underground houses can be simple units with 2 or 3 rooms or large multi-level complexes for many families.

Advantages of an underground house:

  • Naturally insulated – lower construction and energy costs
  • Aesthetically unobtrusive – helps retain natural appearance of the building site
  • Easier to secure with few access points
  • Lower footprint – more efficient use of available land


  • Needs well-drained soil types
  • Retaining walls can be expensive to build
  • Plumbing and sewerage disposal can be difficult
  • Needs forced air ventilation
  • Lack of natural light can be a health issue
  • Difficult to evacuate in event of fire or flood
  • Compliance with building codes can be difficult

Partially Underground Houses

There are three basic methods of building partially underground houses:

  • By excavating a pit similar to the underground house construction method and reducing the level of the grade on one or more sides
  • Making the pit shallower so that part of the walls and the roof are above ground level
  • Digging into a sloping site so that the wall on the lower side is exposed and the roof is all or partially above ground level.

Roof designs for partially underground homes include conventional, soil and vegetation covered.

Advantages and disadvantages of partially underground houses are similar to those for underground types to a greater or lesser extent depending on design.

The most striking advantage is the greater exposure to natural light and the major disadvantage would be the need for additional insulation in climates with extremes of heat and cold.

underground house

Rolf Bachmann – Wikipedia Creative Commons

Earth Berm Houses

This type of construction includes houses built on flat ground with earth or turf, piled against the walls and houses built into the side of a hill with additional soil piled up against one or more sides.

Roofs can be conventional or earth covered.

Advantages and disadvantages are similar to the two previous types.

A good example of earth berm houses is seen in this photo of Icelandic turf houses.

Turf houses, tiny home living, sustainable living

Chris_73 – Wikipedia Creative Commons

For more information on building an earth sheltered home, check out this book:The Complete Guide to Building Affordable Earth-Sheltered Homes: Everything You Need to Know Explained Simply (Back to Basics Building)

Other types of sustainable tiny homes

There are many other types of sustainable tiny homes, but one of the priorities of sustainability is to look at the amount of land each housing unit occupies.

Two of the big advantages of the earth homes listed above are:

  • the small footprint each house leaves
  • the lower usage of non-renewable building materials, sand, cement, insulation

We will be looking at other types of sustainable tiny homes in future posts, however, it is important to look at sustainability from a global perspective.

This article by the World Economic Forum focuses on an initiative in Wales, the One Planet Development, to help people become self-sufficient without using more than their “fair share” of resources.

The “fair share” it refers to is about land. By dividing the total land mass by the global population, the developers of the project calculate that each human should not use more than 1.88 hectares ( 4.14 acres). The One Planet Development aims to show that it is possible to survive on that allocation.

It does not specify whether that is based on the equitable total land allocation per person for living, food production, recreation, resource extraction for production of consumer items, manufacturing etc.

The project requires residents to achieve 65% self-sufficiency of food, energy, water and waste disposal within 5 years.

Residents have used a variety of construction methods to build sustainable tiny homes and some larger buildings. Methods include straw bale and reclaimed materials.

One of the motivations for people applying to join the project is the unaffordability of conventional housing in rural areas. The article mentions that in the 1980s, it took a household of 20 somethings 3 years to save up the deposit for a house. Now that has stretched to 19 years.

The scarcity of residential plots and the difficulty in getting building permits for additional houses on parent’s farms us another serious problem.


Non-renewable resources including land and building materials are being consumed or used at an ever accelerating rate.

The tiny house movement and projects like the One Planet Development show that it is possible to live well without adding to resource depletion.

Sustainable tiny homes of earth or other types of construction will be key to solving three problems:

  • Shortages of non-renewable resources
  • Conversion of land from food production to residential
  • Affordability of housing

It’s time to take the tiny homes idea seriously and time for all levels of government to facilitate the construction of tiny homes.

Do you think allowing more tiny homes to be built will help solve those three problems?

For more information on tiny homes, please visit our website here.

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Sustainable Tiny Homes – Breathe Through Stovepipes