If you’re planning to move off-grid, or even build yourself a little mud home, what should you look for in a piece of land? It’s important. Your land is the ultimate make-or-break factor in whether you thrive off-grid or not. The trouble is, if you’re coming from an on-grid set up, you probably won’t realise just how important some elements are, or which things are deal-breakers, and which aren't.
Below is my list of top six crucial things to look for when choosing a piece of land to live in.
Water is life. Without it you can’t grow anything, wash your clothes, shower, or clean your dishes. You need it for building, for living, and for growing. And you need a lot more than you realise.
You want to have at least one (and preferably two) water sources on your land. Don’t trust any agent or seller who says, “Oh I’m sure you could connect it to this or that source.” People always say this. Water is simply too important to take a chance on. You want to see it with your own eyes actually on the land.I’ve already written an in-depth guide covering this, so take a look if you haven’t already.
Where does the rain water flow?
It’s not all about finding water though. Sometimes it’s about getting rid of it. When the rains come, you need to be sure you’re not going to be sitting in half a metre of water. So study where the water flows. Sometimes there are gulches or ditches that will give you a clue. Lots of clayey soil around the living area is also a bit dubious. Obviously, if your land is basically a swamp, then it’s going to be tricky, and there’s only one way to be really sure, and that’s to visit it during or just after a big rain.
It’s a common mistake for those who’ve come from an urban setup. The off-grid life is very outdoors, and the elements impact everything. If your land is north-facing in the Northern Hemisphere or south-facing in the Southern Hemisphere, you risk having very little to no sunlight hitting your land in winter months. The direction your land faces can cause drastic micro-climates, even within a matter of metres.
Without sun hitting your land you will struggle to grow vegetables, you risk more severe frosts, and won’t be able to use solar power adequately. Not to mention the impact on your mood.
In Spain my land was actually east-facing, but I was on the top of a mountain, so I still got plenty of sunlight, even in winter. However, the west-facing plots opposite me were sunless and frozen for three months in winter. Why? There was a mountain in just the wrong place that blocked the sun from them. So do note that it’s not always about the angle of the land.
Many people forget this one. Unless you are on the equator and cooking using gas (not the most self-sufficient idea, but an understandable way to start off), then you’re going to need wood. The colder your climate, the more you need. It can be pretty staggering how much wood you burn in really cold climates. So, make sure you have some sort of wood source either on your land or next to it. Wood is heavy. You don’t want to be carting it miles up hill if you can help it.
I like things like ash, willow and hazel copses or backwoods. If you are using things like hazel, willow, or ash, it’s actually amazingly sustainable, because these trees love to be pruned and regrow very fast. Those woods also burn very hot when properly dried out.
Another option is to be positioned close to a wood yard. They always have off-cuts you can use.
Almost no one checks this, because no one values the earth beneath their feet. They’re about to start though, seeing as we’ve rendered half of it lifeless. Your land is made up of a treasure trove of elements, and if you take the time to look, you could be sitting on valuable resources. So dig below the surface a little and see what’s there. If it’s just sand, and you have dreams of food gardens, you might want to reconsider.
Fertile soil: If your land was used for light pasture, you may be lucky enough to find fertile soil. This is soil that hasn’t been degraded by intensive agriculture, so it’s still full of the microbes needed to grow healthy food. It can be peaty and rich to touch.
Clay: Gardeners hate it, mud builders love it. If you want to build a mud home, do yourself a big favour and buy land with clay in it somewhere. Clay isn’t a scarce resource. It’s everywhere. If you see hard, cracked ground on a dry day which turns slippery when wet, that’s almost certainly clay.
Rock: Check what kind of rock is on your land. It’s a very valuable resource. My barn and two huts were made entirely from the limestone rock of the land, not to mention all the perimeter walls. There are many kinds of rock, and I'm not a geologist, but here are some common ones to recognise:
Limestone: One of my personal favourites, because hey if it’s pure enough you could potentially make quicklime out of it. It’s also a good hard rock for building.
Granite: Granite has been used for a very long time in construction. This tough ancient rock can be polished and turned into worktops, window sills, and much more.
Slate: This flat black rock is very useful. If you’re in a slate area, you can use slate for roofing tiles (see Galicia in Spain). It’s also wonderful to repurpose it for plates, shelves, flagstones, and more.
Sandstone: Softer than limestone or granite, sandstone is easy to work, so you can carve it into shapes. In times of old it was carved into oil lamps, statues, bowls, and more. It’s also used today for flagstones and building blocks.
Other good things about rocks: If your land is rocky, you’re less likely to have flooding issues. Peat can potentially create bogs, and clay holds water, so it can create sludgy, water-logged areas.
Last but not least. Most people know they want to drive to their land, and access is one of the first things they check. It isn’t impossible to create a house without a road, but you’re opting for a fairly hardcore adventure if you choose do that. I personally don’t think you need the road running up to your house, and am happy to ferry materials 100 metres or so. But you have to know yourself on that matter.
6. Good energy. "I guess land with good energy sells fast." This is what an Qi Gong practicing estate agent said to me after I sold my barn in two weeks. He's right. I personally wouldn't give a damn if a piece of land had all the physical attributes above if the place didn't give me that special feeling. Land isn't dead and static. It's alive and connecting, and it definitely calls in (or repels) people. If you want to know more about this aspect, you might like my Earth Whispering course.
The next things are not necessarily dealbreakers, but things you may not have considered:
Sloping or flat? If your land is sloping (and you put a home at the top of said land with drainage channels) you’re unlikely to suffer flooding, because the rain water runs down and away. The disadvantage of sloping land depending on the gradient is you may need to terrace the land for growing. Flat land has more potential to become bog-like, but is easier on the feet.
Trees: Most people who come to this website are the kind of people who like trees, and are probably going to care which ones are on their land, so I'm probably preaching to the choir here. Trees are for me some of the most important beneficient beings to grace a given spot of land. They offer fruit, nuts, wood, shelter, shade, homes for birds and other animals, beauty, and if you can hear them, an awful lot of wisdom. Of course, some beautiful generous souls are going to reforest the land. It takes time, but it's a great thing to do.
Wind: Wind is an invisible but powerful force. If you live high in the hills or in an exposed position, the wind may or may not drive you nuts. Wind can rip off roof tiles, break tree branches, and prevent you from lighting a fire, so it’s worth considering. The plus side is, you could use it for wind power.
Altitude and snow: Is your potential land buried under a lot of snow in the winter months? Snow is beautiful, but just know what you’re letting yourself in for, because it’s hard work navigating the off-grid life in the snow for months at a time.
Considering going off-grid?
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Last month, I was travelling the byroads of France back to my barn in Spain. Now, I love the drive through Provence for the food and the glorious country roads. Sadly, most of the time as soon as I hit Hotel-Land, I have to grit my teeth and brace myself for a night in soulless concrete. Not anymore! For I have found the Permadise.
It was late August as I swerved this way and that along the tiny bumpy road, fields of sunflowers rolling in yellow waves beside me. Finally I pulled into a remote stone hamlet, and there in front of me a young couple waved from the entrance of a massive stone barn. This was Dustin and Nicole.
Dustin and Nicole are Swiss, and in their former lives Dustin was an engineer while Nicole worked as a mechanic. Yes, already we can see this is a powerful combo for a perma-natural building project. What they have done in five years here at the Permadise is pretty jaw-dropping. A huge barn has been completely renovated using natural and upcycled materials. You cannot imagine how happy I was to see lime mortars in the walls, upcycled wood, and straw bales.
Then there’s the enormous open green house, and I kid you not when I say I was reminded of the Eden Project. Because I’ve never seen such a beautiful, creative way to make a hothouse for your tomatoes as this, and on this scale. Originally a massive ugly old metal hangar, Dustin and Nicole ripped off the corrugated iron and in-filled with all manner of second-hand windows and doors. The result blew me away.
“So what made you move here? Had you always dreamed of this kind of life?” I asked the couple over breakfast. We were looking over a dreamscape of mulched vegetable beds, berry bushes, and fruit trees. It was a world of abundance.
“I had an aunt who lived in the country,” said Nicole. “And I always remember visiting her when I was younger, and enjoying that experience, living close to nature with animals. We were living and working in Basel, a big city, where even the countryside isn’t really nature.”
I nodded knowing exactly what she meant. There’s a huge difference between living and participating in nature, and having it simply sit there as a backdrop.
“I want to be self-sufficient,” said Dustin, pushing a lock of blond hair out of his face. “I can see what’s coming, and if I put the work in now, I can create a self-sustaining permaculture food garden. Eventually it will take care of itself and us.”
As I munched on my egg, probably laid by one of the hens clucking opposite, I revelled in the delights of living as a true Gaian, and talking to people who “get it”.
“It’s always really interesting hearing why people start out on this journey,” I said, laughing. “I did it because I hate working! I just wanted to escape the grind. But once you live in the bosom of nature, you just can’t go back.”
We all nodded at that. There was such a peace pervading the Permadise. It’s an atmosphere so different from that of the modern world we’re used to. It’s not just the quiet, but also the impact of eating home-grown food, the slow rhythm of the day, the sunlight and other elements, and the effect of living in an ancient building made with natural materials. Oxygen literally permeates the walls.
Now, sometimes in these recycled Permie projects, things can look a bit of a mess one way and another, but the thing that so impressed me about the Permadise was just how good it looked. It was a place of beauty, and the building was as stunning as the garden. I really commend the pair of them for taking on this huge project in such a professional way.
This gorgeous rustic door frame is made from wood cut from the land.
The bathroom has been very creatively designed using natural wood forms, and felt incredibly luxurious.
You can see all the walls have been mortared with lime. As is typical with ancient barns, there were gaps between the roof and the walls, which Nicole and Dustin have beautifully filled in with bottles and cob.
One of my favourite features was this gorgeous staircase built from upcycled wood planks and driftwood. It is often the case that the most beautiful elements of a building are created to hide something. In this case it’s pipework. What a stunning flight of stairs though!
So if you happen to be in central France and looking for a very inspiring and healthy place to stay, take a look at the Permadise. As you know, the Mud Home is ad-free and independent, so my recommendations are always from the heart.
The Permadise can be booked on Booking.com. They also have a nice website here.
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This summer I was lucky enough to housesit for Charlotte Organ. Frankly it was a dream. Apart from being a lovely person whom I hit it off with immediately, Charlotte is also a professional chateau and castle decorator, specialising in lime works and trompe-l’oeil. Charlotte has been in the lime game a fair while. “I became interested in the beauty of surfaces as a teenager when I worked on a S.P.A.B. project [The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings] repairing a Devonshire medieval longhouse,” explains Charlotte.
Charlotte has decorated some illustrious buildings, including Kilcoe Castle for Jeremy Irons. She studied Fine Art at Bristol and then began working as a decorator in and around the city. There she learned various decorative techniques such as colour washing, stencilling, distressing, rag rolling, sponging, marbling, and trompe-l’oeil. The ingenious part is that she’s transferred many of these techniques to lime in a way that is truly original. So buckle up your overalls folks! This is a master class in lime finish.
Why do you need to use lime?
Anyone who’s been around The Mud Home a while is no doubt bored of me banging on about lime, until they use it of course, after which they soon become a fellow lime evangelist. Lime creates a beautiful, dry, and healthy atmosphere, and if you haven’t had a go, you just don’t know what you’re missing. Lime is a natural fungicide and inhibits mould in damp climates. It creates a beautiful, clean finish, it’s inexpensive, contains no toxic chemicals, and boasts a very low carbon footprint to boot.
You can use lime in many ways: mortars, plasters, limecretes, and paints. I have a full article on that here. But Charlotte has used lime paint in ways I had never seen before, to create truly jaw-dropping effects.
Both in her own home and in a great many of her projects, Charlotte uses natural pigments to colour her lime paints, along with some interesting methods to bring out the colour. One technique I adored was how she created stylish and elegant walls by using stencilling. I had never considered stencilling on lime paint before! She sponged the walls with a pigmented lime paint, and then used pure pigment in the stencilling. It looks simply amazing.
Above you can see another interesting technique. Here we have a base coat of pigmented lime paint with squares of pigmented lime painted over the top. The colours were brightened by going over the lime paintwork with liquid beeswax, thinned with turpentine. Proper turpentine is needed here, not white spirit.
Another method Charlotte used was to paint the walls in a base coat of lime paint, and then paint over them using milk (casein) paints.
Here we are again (above photo) in Kilcoe Castle, and Charlotte has created a distressed lime paint technique by rubbing the lime paint and then waxing it.
Charlotte has used lime extensively in her own home, a beautifully renovated farmhouse in southwest France. I found it incredibly inspiring on all levels. In this bathroom you can see a vibrant turquoise lime paint on the walls.
Lime renders and paints adorn Charlotte’s farmhouse. She agrees with me (as does everyone living within lime walls) that it creates a warmer, drier atmosphere. Even on the eye the effect is cosy, as you can see by the lime render and warm tones of lime paint on the staircase walls.
You can see more of Charlotte’s amazing work (and there’s lots to see and be wowed by, I can assure you) on her Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/eneffetdecor
Her website is here: https://eneffet.co.uk
Things to take from Charlotte’s work
I often feel there’s too much worry about the rules of building works. Nowhere is this truer than with natural paints and plasters. I mean what’s the ultimate risk here? Your house isn’t going to collapse because the paint went awry. Charlotte has really proved that it pays to experiment and you can use all manner of exciting decorating techniques with lime.
More about lime paint (and relevant links):
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The 3 Things You Need to Do:
Believe it or not, mud homes work fine in wet climates if you build them right. What you need to understand at the beginning though is this: mud homes do not work like mainstream concrete and plastic houses, so throw most of your ideas related to them in the bin.
What do you need to consider when building a mud home in a wet climate?
There are three fundamentals you have to get right. If you do these three things properly, your mud home will be well set for damp climates. If you don’t do these three things, it won’t matter if you coat your house in concrete (ouch) or EPDM, you will encounter issues.
1. You need a rubble trench foundation. You do not want a concrete slab. I don’t care what the architect, the codes, or your mate Fred says, they are wrong when it comes to mud buildings. I feel like I’ve said it a lot, but if you’re new to mud building you may not have heard the news. Concrete wicks up water and holds onto the damp. It also doesn’t allow for water to evaporate. That is absolutely not what you want with a mud home. People have all sorts of erroneous ideas about foundations, but with mud homes the drainage is paramount. You want water getting away from your house as fast as possible. The rubble trench is the cheapest, easiest and by a long way the most effective foundation method for a mud house.
If you are building earthbag, you can create rubble trench foundations like this: https://www.themudhome.com/rubble-trench-foundations.html
If you are building another kind of mud home, then it’s basically the same, so still read that article. You can also watch this video, as it shows exactly how to do it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eNN7T4fBQo4
2. The stem wall is very important. The stem wall protects the rest of your house from damp or accumulating rainwater, and stops your walls wicking up water. The stem wall is usually made of stone, and depending on your climate can be anywhere between 30-60cm high (above grade). If you are building with earthbags you can use gravel-filled earthbags instead (see the rubble trench article).
Normally we start the stem wall below grade (below the surface of the ground), so it acts as water resistant footings. Once the stem wall is sturdy and dry, you start to build your natural home on top of it. Some people advocate a vapour barrier between the stem wall and the cob/adobe. I never use one because as soon as a waterproof membrane is added, evaporation becomes impossible. Water will quite possibly seep into your wall one way or another, and if a vapour barrier is there, it prevents fast evaporation. Your wall will stay damp.
3. You need a good solid roof with wide eaves. The roof is the hat of the house, and I’d argue it’s the most important part of the structure. For a mud house in a wet climate, you want nice wide eaves to protect the walls (a good one metre long). If you do this, you are going a long way to protecting your earth plaster from the rain.
Other things you can do:
Backfilling around the stem wall is another great and simple way of keeping rain water away from your walls.
Installing decent guttering on your roof will help massively in preventing the ground below from getting soggy from rainwater run off.
Lime is the perfect substance for folk in wet climates. It “breathes” so it doesn’t obstruct airflow and allows any damp to evaporate. It’s also a natural fungicide. Use limecretes instead of concretes, use lime wash instead of paint. Use lime mortars for stonework. You may even want to add a bit of lime to your earth plaster.
What you don’t want to do:
Don’t cover your mud house in lime render or (OMG) concrete. Please. It’s a terrible idea. The clay in your mud house expands when it gets damp, the concrete or lime render doesn’t. It will eventually crack and fall off. Concrete will do something worse and stop the house breathing too, thus mitigating the half the point of cob/adobe in the process, and making your house damp and prone to mould.
Notes about natural plasters
People worry far too much about their earth plaster, in my opinion. I honestly don’t think it’s necessary or even a great idea to try and waterproof your plaster. The best thing to add to plaster to create a super strong but natural render is horse or cow manure. If you’ve built your footings and your roof well, your mud walls will only need a touch up every now and again, and frankly that’s quite good fun.
Extra Important Tips from Kristen Krash at Sueno de Vida who has built multiple mud houses in a cloud forest:
1. "Make the rubble trench foundation wider than the stem wall by 12-15 cm." This is a good point, and often happens by accident:)
2. "I would emphasize that people don't attempt to use plastic "moisture barriers" or any such thing in very wet climate. Water passes from areas of higher to lower concentration. Always and forever. Period. Meaning water is going to find it's way under or through your "barrier" and then not be able to evaporate. It will just keep moving to an area of lower concentration. As in inside your house.
3. "Don't build little nooks and shelves and such close to the ground level in your interior walls. I know it's tempting to be like "oh I'll just store my pots and pans under this table in this sculpted little nook, how cute!" Yes it is, for a season. Then you will be storing mold. The plaster will crumble from being damp. Keep your walls smooth and hard for at least one meter above the ground."
I so agree with this. I put my entire living quarters on the top floor of my barn for this very reason.
Resources and relevant links:
Kim’s strawbale hideaway in Scotland shows the foundations, stem wall, and roof you want for a mud house (or strawbale).
A great example of the rubble trench beating any other foundation method is how Gautam and Kim’s earthbag house fared in a monsoon. It also shows the perils of coating your mud house in a crete of any kind.
Kay’s balecob house showcase the rubble trench and stem wall very well.
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Mud mama Kim Fraser has been at it again! Kim’s magical space in Moray is turning into a fairytale empire. There’s a straw bale hideaway pulled straight out of the Shire, Baba Yaga’s hen coop, and now this fabulously funky little coorie hut. What’s “coorie”, you may well ask? The answer to that apparently takes an entire book to explain, so I’ll leave you to do the reading. But for the purposes of this article, the coorie hut is a feel-good place to snuggle up warm.
It will indeed feel good too, because the whole thing has been made with loving hands, local materials, and my two best buddies: good old mud and lime.
“She’s the result of using leftover materials to make something practical and beautiful!” explains Kim.
I love many things about this little hut, but most of all I love that it has developed completely organically with plenty of idea changes. This is what always should happen in a build. The idea that an architect creates an exact plan and your poor house is bolted to it like a prisoner throughout the build, is a very modern situation.
So, how was this quirky little beauty built? Let’s take it from the bottom!
1. Footings and stem wall
Now, this is a tiny structure, not a two-storey home, so there was no need to go overboard with the footings in this case. “The base was made with limecrete and stones found on site,” says Kim. This means the footings and the stem wall are all in one. All mud buildings need a stone (or similar) stem wall to protect them from damp and big rainfalls.
Just for the record, for most larger mud buildings you want gravel footings. It’s simply the easiest, most effective, and incidentally the cheapest way of going about it. Ditch the concrete pad idea. Just forget about that whole thing. That’s another kind of construction which isn’t beneficial for mud buildings.
2. Willow wigwam and mud daub
Next a framework was built using willow. This is a slightly different take on wattling. Basically you can create all kinds of mud (or indeed lime) structures using a wooden framework of some kind.
“She evolved from a willow wigwam to her current form using straw dipped in clay slip for the base layer then an earth daub with lots of straw to retain some warmth.”
At this point Kim still wanted her coorie hut to be a dome without a roof. I’m not going to lie; I raised my eyebrow at that. You can read all about why here. Nevertheless I was curious because heck, if anyone could make a mud dome work in Scotland, it would be Kim. However, eventually she decided to stick a roof on as a canopy.
“Our Workaway volunteers helped with the process and built the wooden roof splitting old logs left from another build. One side is thatched using fireweed, the other side is covered in shingles made from old leftover wood.”
So you see? There’s no reason everything has to be uniform. Kim used whatever resources she had to hand, and actually this two-part roof is one of my favourite features.
5. Painting and decorating
The coorie hut was painted with lime wash and stained with natural pigment, which is a clever way of getting a deeper colour onto lime wash. Later this year, once the threat of frost had receded in late May (May? Good Lord!) Kim laid a limecrete floor with the help of a volunteer called Georgie. But it’s far from over. “The Coorie has taken on a life of its own, and continues to evolve!” said Kim. More clay plaster is being made as I write, so hopefully there’ll be an update on this later on.
n Why the Coorie Witches’ Hut is so inspiring.
Finally, there’s one other major thing I love about this build, and that is that Kim et al. have taken perfectionism, hacked it into roughly hewn hunks, and thrown them on the coorie fire. The last anyone saw of them was in smoke form leaving the chimney. Perfectionism is a curse many of us are burdened with (ahem). It can (and routinely does) completely scupper a build, stopping anything from manifesting, or slowing it to the point everyone loses heart. This little woven hut is going to be very inspiring because it is a wonderful, happy, and lovely example that you don’t have to (or even want to) have everything machine-perfect when you build with mud.
In natural building you can play, experiment, change your mind ten times, try new techniques that no one has heard of, have a rough edge or two (or even make a feature of them), ditch uniformity, and create a beautiful organic space that people are dying to sit inside.
You could actually stay at Kim’s and see the Coorie Witches’ Hut for yourself. Book a place at the award-winning and gorgeous Hideaway Under the Stars. It is absolutely no surprise to me that Kim’s place has a flawless five-star review record on Airbnb, as I stayed at hers once myself:)
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