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Urban Nomads

Constructed using methods perfected long ago, focused on craftsmanship, and made of natural, durable materials, these unconventional homes sure don’t look like anything else in the neighborhood.

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EARTH BAG

The white domed structure behind Hillside Farmacy stands out in its East Austin neighborhood. Made of 220 tons of locally-found clay, packed into bags, stacked, and coiled into circular rooms, this 650-square foot structure has three levels, eight domes, 22-inch thick walls, and an earth floor. It’s an Earthbag House, and is currently the home of Thea Bryant and her four kids.

A part of the Natural Building Movement, Earthbag houses (similar to straw-bale, cob, or adobe homes) focus on locally sourced, high-quality, durable, and long-lasting materials. They are easy to build without a ton of tools or skills. They’re for those with small budgets, enthusiasm, and a desire for a healthy home.

“Natural building lends itself to old-world skills that are more basic,” says Bryant. “You can learn them more quickly, and yet there’s no compromise in quality…it’s the oldest building system on the planet. It’s like a giant piece of art with low-to-no toxins.”

Owner Bill Stone wanted a natural home to eventually retire in and approached Bryant for her expertise in building the first structure like this in Austin (she had been immersed in the natural building movement since first reading the book Earthbag Building in 2003).

Construction began in January of 2008 and took 4,000 hours over four years (with breaks in between construction). Stone handled project management, funding, plumbing, electrical, permits, and foundation while Bryant experimented with building methods and mastered the clay. They used a house plan originally designed over 40 years ago by engineer Nader Khalili as an emergency housing option for the United Nations.

Building an Earthbag House requires a lot of manual labor, but here, construction volunteers kept labor costs down. The final cost for materials came in under $15,000. Wondering about the permitting process? Bryant and Stone report it was a patient and collaborative effort with the city (and not as hard as you might think).

Bryant, who’s been living in the home since last February (initially as trade for her labor but now renting), started a career teaching workshops on natural building methods and materials while constructing this house. And she’s using the experience as a stepping stone: Bryant is starting a natural home neighborhood with a partner on some land in South Austin near the zoo. They’ve been accepting investors who will learn to build their own natural home or rent one built through workshops.

A project that became a concept house for the Earthbag method in Austin, Bryant’s never surprised when a curious stranger knocks on the door to this unique home; it’s a neighborhood curiosity and a city-wide inspiration.

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BARNS

Farm animals have been sleeping comfortably in barns for quite awhile, but it’s not the sort of structure you often see humans tucking into at night. Unless it’s a reclaimed old wood barn restored by Waco-based Heritage Restorations. Founded by Kevin Durkin in 1997, Heritage Restorations finds old historic barns, mills, cabins, houses, and other buildings from the 1700s and 1800s to disassemble, move, restore, and repurpose into homes.

Heritage Restorations has moved barns and old structures mostly from the Northeast (where the oldest and best-crafted ones are located) to over 25 states and international locations like China, New Zealand, and Australia. You can also find them sprinkled around the Hill Country; Durkin estimates they’ve taken on 50 projects in Texas so far.

Yehoshua Gutkin’s reasons for choosing a historic barn for his Frederiksburg home were simple: With only about 200 barn homes so far repurposed by Heritage Restorations, it’s a home like no other, with a charm that fits right into Texas Western style.

“I came from Germany where we dream of cowboys and Indians,” Gutkin says. “I always wanted to do something very Texas. And this [house] is very authentic. I kept the character of it, inside and out."

Gutkin’s 200-year-old barn was found in New York, disassembled, and brought back to his six acres of land just outside of Fredericksburg, where he trains horses. At 2,200 square feet, his house features an expansive living room and kitchen, sleeping loft, master bath, and a couple of guest bedrooms. The house was finished last May, and Gutkin moved in over Christmas.

Living in historic charm doesn’t mean you can’t live in modern comfort: Because these timber frames can be enveloped in insulation, they’re much more energy efficient than traditional buildings. There’s no heat gain in the summer or loss in the winter. And they’re a great base to add your own sustainable elements, like reclaimed materials for hinges or flooring.

The price tag for a custom house runs from $150 to $350/square foot and beyond. And though these structures might not be ideally preserved—where they originally stood and for their original use—this repurposing allows for more beautiful buildings to be enjoyed.

For Gutkin, pride for his unique barn home translates to complete dedication. “I don’t want anything else,” he says. “If I ever built another home it would look just like this.”

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YURT

From the moment she saw it—a piece of land just past the airport in Del Valle, Texas—landscape architect Francesca Hernandez knew it was for her. On the hunt for a few acres to start a farm, she needed a fertile piece of earth with ample space a close drive to Austin.

No water, no fence, and no electricity—these were three rough acres. Yet after demolishing an unsalvageable existing double-wide trailer on the land, the field was wide open for a dwelling that would be perfect for Francesca, dog Rosco, cat Dingo, and her farm plans. She considered everything from an airstream to a manufactured home, but a friend’s suggestion resonated: A yurt. The portable, bent-wood structures have been successfully housing people for thousands of years. Hernandez scored an unused 24-foot diameter Pacific Yurts package on Craigslist for a deal.

With some friends and self-reliance, Hernandez’s yurt took about three days to assemble earlier this summer. Russell, her farm collaborator who lives in a tent on the back of her land, helped build the wood platform the yurt rests on. Francesca installed and finished the tongue-and-groove cedar wood floor, a thick and sturdy option. She also took on the massive task of making the yurt’s inner liner, a task like “sewing a wedding dress for a ship,” she says.

The land, dubbed Whirlaway Farm, will explore heirloom plant varieties, develop aquaponics (in a soon-to-be-built greenhouse), and raise animals. It’s currently home to two goats and some bees, with more goats, rabbits, and chickens on the way.

“I have a long-standing interest in agriculture,” Hernandez says. “I strongly believe in having a connection to your food and knowing where it comes from. One of my goals with the farm is to have workshops to share this experience.”

Highly customizable, yurts can be fancy or simple. And energy requirements are much lower than a traditionally-built home (especially if you choose land with a well) — Hernandez shells out under 50 dollars a month. Yurts do have a few downsides: Even with instructions, the assembly had a slight learning curve and some hiccups. A few ants have taken to exploring the interior. It’s hot in the day during the summer. But Hernandez has plans to upgrade her basic yurt into a more permanent structure with wood walls, a sleeping loft, an interior kitchen, and a bathroom.

For Hernandez, who’s originally from Austin and has travelled and lived internationally, the yurt is a beautiful and functional home for the next phase of her life.

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