It's a Small World After All … Living Large in Alternative Spaces

by Brian P. Murphy on 2018-01-31 8:35am

Talk about alternative facts, alt-right, or alt-news and a maelstrom of arguments will inevitably follow. But talk about alternative forms of lifestyle and living quarters and, just perhaps, the positive creative juices will begin to flow.


With housing and home ownership embroiled in crises of affordability, supply, and access, the world has begun to look for alternatives to standard homes and construction. Many have even gone so far as to recycle and repurpose items from concrete tubing to old cargo containers into tight and efficient living spaces. The creativity applied ranges from the inspired to the comical as we'll explore below.

Cargo Container Condos


The U.S. has already taken a leading role with C3 UP, a division of C3 Ventures Flint, in Flint, MI, taking old cargo containers and transforming them into space-efficient homes at a very affordable (housing) starting price of $25,000. Bob Waun, CEO and president of 3C Ventures Flint, has summarized the need for this niche by stating "I think a lot of Americans are talking about living in their house and not living for their house" and expresses his vision for this paradigm shift with "I don't want to build a $50,000 house. I want to build a $100,000 house for $50,000."


Who wouldn't? Free container home design ideas and plans can be found here. See additional photos of container homes here.


Tubular Temp Homes

Source: jameslawcyberstructure.com


On the far side of the globe, in Hong Kong, an innovative firm, James Law Cyberstructure, turned a visit to a construction site where Law discovered he could easily stand inside a concrete cylinder into a whole new take on living quarters. As Law discovered, the actual internal size of the concrete culvert sections - generally reserved for use underground - provided approximately 100-120 square feet of floor space, plus a little extra elbow room gained by building furniture into the wider, curved walls of the rounded concrete shell.


Compared to the container homes, the concrete condos provide only about half of the square footage. But, they also run only a little above half the cost to create. Plus, Law points out, they actually stack more efficiently for an impromptu and inventive highrise than the containers which require significantly more infrastructure for support than their concrete counterparts. Both the container and the concrete shells come with weatherizing and insulating advantages already built in.


Law says that this may not be the answer for long-term housing because the spaces are so small, however, they should work admirably as temporary homes for those not yet able to find something more permanent.

A World of Alternatives

These are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. As demonstrated by the survey below, there are a variety of options basically limited only by the imagination, or, to paraphrase, ”there are more places (to reside) in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Tiny Homes

A currently popular trend for those downsizing from owning too much, or who can't afford or don't need that much space. They can be built on wheels for easy transport, or they can be used by localities, such as Austin, TX, to alleviate homelessness. Learn more about tiny homes here and here.


Earthships and berms are built right into the ground, generally with one exposed face, often facing south. Most are built with recycled materials such as old tires, pop cans, and bottles, as well as reinforced with mud, straw, and other natural materials. Learn more about them here.

Free Spirit Spheres

For the totally independent individual not burdened with the rigors of the ordinary, an opulent orb hanging amidst the oaks might be for you. No neighbors, no yardwork. Learn more here.


An Abōd™ (abode) is a prototype prefab created by the company BSB Design for use as affordable housing in South Africa. The design is simple, durable, and lightweight. They are built and then shipped to their final location for quick and easy assembling. Vibrant colors of corrugated paneling bring a bright and uplifting look to help meet the need for high-quality, low-cost solutions to housing. Learn more at inhabitat.com.


Note: some folks are even using your standard big box hardware prefab sheds and outbuildings as optional living experiences.


Again, we're only scratching the surface, but there are many options available depending on one's adaptability, creativity, and fortitude. Other alternative living spaces are being converted from:

  • tree houses
  • caves
  • grain silos
  • boats
  • buses
  • train cars
  • semis
  • RVs

Alternative Construction Materials

One other option too easily overlooked is the use of alternative construction materials. We've already talked about some of the natural materials used in earthships. Here's a look at just a few more uses for these materials as well as a number of other options for building your home.


“Cross-Laminated Timber”, known as CLT, has been called “plywood on steroids”. It is a prefabricated wood panel consisting of multiple layers of kiln-dried lumber boards stacked in alternating directions, bonded with structural adhesives. Some say it is “as strong as steel”, but it’s much lighter, with superior acoustic, fire, seismic, and thermal performance. Read more about CLT here.

Hay Bale Construction

Exactly what it sounds like, these are homes built with walls of stacked bales of hay. They provide terrific insulation and can be covered with drywall or other materials to clean up the look from the inside (and provide a little allergy protection as well). Learn to build with bales here.

Pallet Homes

Another great method of recycling and repurposing, these handy structures work almost like building blocks. Much of your framing is already done and there's space for insulation already built in as well. Read all about them here.



Earthbag homes are built with bags of dirt, rice, or other durable substances packed into a plastic bag and stacked on top of each other. The process is evident in the photo above (right). Learn more about earthbag homes here.


Add to these, other materials that can be used for your natural, recycled, or repurposed abode:

  • Recycled bottles
  • "Cob" houses - no corn involved, cob homes are made from a mixture of straw and earth and is applied by hand. Make for adobe-like homes with that "hobbit" home appeal.
  • Hemp concrete is a mix of hemp, water, and limestone that lasts a very long time, some say is more durable than real concrete, and, surprisingly, considering the source, is fire-resistant as well as resistant to mold and insects.
  • Igloos molded from styrofoam are well-insulated and lightweight.

Before we close, we want to give honorable mention to a couple of the slightly more conventional alternatives popularized over the past few decades, the geodesic dome and the yurt. And, on the other end of the spectrum, to the much less common "Vardos," converted colorful wagons traditionally used by Romani people, and capsules or pods, which are somewhat reminiscent of the egg that brought Mork to earth back on TV in the 70s, and no larger, providing room for only one. (The claustrophobic need not apply.)


Brian P. Murphy is a writer with At Your Pace Online, an innovative online education company that offers pre-license and continuing education for Wisconsin Contractors, plumbing, electrical, & HVAC as well as for professionals in the real estate, insurance, Water Operators, mortgage loan origination, and tax preparer fields.