Best Books: Building and Home Repairs

Sharon November 4th, 2009

Hi Folks - Way back a long time ago I mentioned that the forthcoming AIP book needs an updated and improved bibliography, and noted I’d be asking for your help.  You all came through with a great list of cookbooks, and now I’m getting back to the writing, and it is time to do some other topics. 

So tell me - what are the best books you’ve seen about ecologically sound, low impact building, insulating, home repairs and woodworking?  Got some favorites?  Please list author and title and why you think it is worth having.  This is an area where I particularly need some help - the last time I did any major research was almost 8 years ago, so I’ve probably missed a lot of new material. 

Thanks so much!

21 Responses to “Best Books: Building and Home Repairs”

  1. Frogdanceron 04 Nov 2022 at 2:55 pm

    I don’t have a book, but I do have a blog about a couple in Tasmania who are building their own home in the most ecologiaclly responsible ways possible. They grow their own food and have taken huge steps to live and work as carbon-neutral as they can.

  2. donon 04 Nov 2022 at 3:27 pm

    “Insulate and Weatherize”, by Bruce Harley. Taunton Press 2002

    As an avid energy conserver, this is my bible. The author is an engineer, and does a great job of dispelling a lot of the myths surrounding this subject.
    (As an engineer myself, I really appreciated that.)

    In addition to the subject topics, he also covers heating and domestic hot water systems in good detail.
    This book can be a guide to the DIYer, or to the guy who wants to be a knowledgeable consumer.

  3. Steve in Hungaryon 04 Nov 2022 at 4:02 pm

    Unfortunately I don’t know of any suitable books. What I do know is that since I was a young man decent hand tools have virtually disappeared off the market.

    You know, stuff like taper ground panel saws that could be resharpened and set by someone that knows what they are doing, and then handed down from generation to generation.

    I had the good fortune to pick up a set of sixteen (top quality) auger bits from a web site - for (equivalent) $7. You can still buy them new in the States,but not in Europe. Cost in the States - about $38 a piece. That’s $608 for what I bought for $7.

    I’m just planning for the future and trying to cut out my fossil fuel use entirely.

  4. risa stephanie bearon 04 Nov 2022 at 4:10 pm

    Well, we are out of date here, but we read Ken Kern back in the 70s and his The Owner Built Home was what gave us the courage to build our own home and other buildings.

  5. Rebeccaon 04 Nov 2022 at 4:22 pm

    The Hand Sculpted House by Ianto Evans, Micheal Smith, and Linda Smiley

    This book is amazing. Absolutely fantastic. I did a Natural Building Apprenticeship at the Ecovillage Training Center (The Farm, TN), and our coordinator, Wade, had a huge library of natural building books-from timber framing to plaster to strawbale, etc. I’m sure he could fill you in on some good ones. Here’s his blog:

  6. Kate-bon 04 Nov 2022 at 8:40 pm

    As I am friends with two of the author’s named above and as my daughter went through the apprenticeship program they run at Cob Cottage Company, I would have to second Rebecca’s recommendation above for anyone interested in cob and cob/strawbale construction. The only caveat I would add is to recommend that any owner/builder become familiar with the laws in their respective state on code/permit issues.

    I have spent consider time in these cob buildings, working, learning, and enjoying their living space. I have used cob ovens for cooking and helped build a cold air diversion wall for our gardens. I have also looked at other cob buildings used as outdoor spaces and for the money, I see tremendous value in this style of building.

    Ianto Evans was an architect in the Wales for many years before coming to Oregon to help found the Oregon school of cob. He also has a fantastic little book on Rocket Stove Mass Heaters (Rocket Mass Heaters: Superefficient Woodstoves YOU can build” (Ianto Evans and Leslie Jackson, Cob Cottage Company, ISBN 2006, ISBN#0-9663738-3-9)). We have used these as the primary source of water heating for the bathhouse and have found that so long as one understands the fundamental design principles and the proper use and maintenance of these heaters, they are very efficient little heaters. Used in combination with cob building, heat can be safely channeled into parts of the building itself, into benches and even bed platforms where the cob will hold in the heat for many hours.

    I know that’s kind of a shameless plug, but my two natural builder children have these books and I will be receiving my copy of Hand Sculpted house in the next couple of days to assist me in any cob building projects I may encounter in my travels this year.

    Another couple of books on natural building that many of the folks I have met find very helpful are Builders of the Pacific Coast and Shelter by Lloyd Kahn. I think oftentimes people don’t even fully realize what kinds of creative things can be done to create housing with a truly small environmental footprint. These books highlight showcase the most skillful applications of the craft.

    For design principles, most folks I’ve met here highly recommend A Pattern Language and The Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander. One of the fundamentals of Mr. Alexander’s planning approach is that “To have a sense of place is to have a sense of space.”

  7. Carolynon 04 Nov 2022 at 9:09 pm

    Hi there, I’d second the nomination of A Pattern Language.

    And although I know that solar thermal hotwater and heating systems are not high on the list of truly accessible and sustainable technologies, but if you are going to cover this subject at all, I would recommend Solar Water Heating: A Comprehensive Guide to Solar Water and Space Heating Systems by Bob Ramlow with Benjamin Nusz. New Society Publishers.

  8. Robinon 04 Nov 2022 at 9:29 pm

    Yep, yep, yep, a third vote for The Hand Sculpted House by Ianto Evans, Micheal Smith, and Linda Smiley.

    Also, The Independent Home by Michael Potts. Good range of stories and ways of going about sustainable homes.

  9. Margieon 04 Nov 2022 at 10:08 pm

    A good source for books by Ken Kern (The Owner Built Home, etc.) is, run by Charmaine Taylor of Taylor Publishing. She has many books that would fall in your categories.

    A great “picture/idea” book is Built by Hand: Vernacular Buildings Around the World by Bill Steen, Athena Steen and Eilo Komatsu (the Steens of straw bale books fame), 2003.

    Straw bale books should be included. The walls breathe, are good insulation, and use a by-product of grain farming.

    The Barefoot Architect: A Handbook for Green Building, by Johan van Lengen, came out in English in 2008. It was originally published in Mexico. The book flap says the Mexican Government “bought 40,000 copies and placed one in every library in the country.” The chapters are Design, Humid Tropics, Dry Tropics, Temperate Zone, Materials, Construction, Energy, Water, Sanitation, and Appendix. All with low-tech instructions. It’s published by Shelter Publications,

    Margie Kepner

  10. Claireon 04 Nov 2022 at 10:25 pm

    The book that I have used the most and recommend is Homemade Money: How to Save Energy and Dollars in Your Home, by Richard Heede and the staff of Rocky Mountain Institute. Copyright is 1995 and publisher is Brick House Publishing Company. I don’t know if it’s still in print.

    From RMI’s website,, I recommend Cool Citizens: Household Solutions, also by Richard Heede. Found in the Publications section of the website under Climate, it’s C02-12, Cool Citizens: Everyday Solutions to Climate Change: Household Solutions Brief (PDF-504k). It can be downloaded for free.

    This report rates energy-saving measures for their relative efficiency at reducing carbon emissions and for the cost per unit of reduced carbon. It then shows people how they can prioritize changes they make according to how much they want to reduce their carbon emissions and puts forth a sample household carbon neutral plan, to be achieved over 10 years (the report was published in 2002, so the 10 year point they chose was 2012). It includes a table to calculate your own household’s carbon emissions and a ranking of 39 energy-saving actions to take. I used this report extensively in our efforts to cut our household net carbon emissions to zero, and to tell how close we are to that goal (still working toward it, but we’ve already reduced it by well over half of our 1990 emissions). So far this is the only place I’ve found that gives average people the info they need to calculate their household carbon emissions and the most effective actions to take to reduce them. Highly recommended!

  11. JLeuzeon 04 Nov 2022 at 10:36 pm

    It’s not exactly a how-to guide, but I really enjoyed Richard Manning’s “A Good House: Building a Life on the Land”.

    I found it to be an inspirational book, it helped me to think about the impact of different aspects of building and maintaining a house. Manning built his house in Montana, and I’m in Minnesota, so others that are in a similar sub-arctic region might be interested in it.

  12. Raymond in Portageon 04 Nov 2022 at 11:06 pm

    I found this to be a fascinating book with lots of good advice:

    Old Ways of Working Wood by Alex W. Bealer

  13. Keith Farnishon 05 Nov 2022 at 8:43 am

    “The Green Self-Build Book” by Jon Broome is a beautifully illustrated and photographed book, especially written for UK self-builders. The book covers a huge variety of techniques, budgets and levels of commitment. Worth including especially because USA laws and regulations are fundamentally different from those in Europe.

  14. FarmerAmberon 05 Nov 2022 at 10:11 am

    The “Food and Heat producing Solar Greenhouse: Design, Construction, Operation” by Fisher and Yanda is amazing. It has very detailed design and construction advice, excellent diagrams, and lots of good information for how to maximize the use of a passive solar greenhouse to provide heat and food for a home. I would highly recomment it.

    I also really enjoy “The Straw Bale House” (I don’t remember the authors’ names) both for its detailed description of how to build with straw bales, but also because it includes some very good how to’s that apply to all buildings.

  15. Cathyon 05 Nov 2022 at 10:51 am

    Any of Sarah Susanka’s books like “The Not So Big House” and the half-dozen that followed.

  16. Julieon 05 Nov 2022 at 11:16 am

    It has been 10 years since I designed my house and had my a wonderful builder friend construct it for me and I only remember using two books both of which have been mentioned here. Pattern language by Christopher Alexander and The Not So Big House by Sarah Susanka. Sarah’s book will inspire with it’s beauty and it’s emphasis on quality rather than size. Christopher’s is so full of information that leads even the most untrained to understand how and why to design buildings (and everything up to towns) in ways that will make humans happy and healthy in their homes,yards and towns. It was no small book, truly comprehensive and I still look at it on occasion.

  17. Sawbuck Up Da Couleeon 05 Nov 2022 at 11:44 am

    A great value and a constanst reference for anyone remodeling, or repairing:

    I wore out my old 2nd edition and the 3rd is even better.

  18. Jocyon 05 Nov 2022 at 12:16 pm

    I’ve just found a great publisher through my local organic shop. I plan to try to find some of the books there on line through our libary net work. From what I flipped through I know I will be buying for me and my husband. The publisher is “New Society Publishers”. They have a great online site.

  19. Sharonon 05 Nov 2022 at 3:21 pm

    I think I’ve heard of New Society Publishers too ;-) .


  20. Susan in NJon 05 Nov 2022 at 6:05 pm

    I’m not sure any of these books set out to be low impact/ecologically sound, but just fixing and maintaining the stuff/house you’ve got is low impact and ecologically sound so I list my complete home repair library below. It’s great to know about hay bale construction, but a lot of folk aren’t going to be building anything new.

    We can read directions and had a bit of shop (or the equivalent in Dad lectures, since there was no shop for girls when I went to jr. high) but we are otherwise not particularly inclined to plumbing and carpentry and have used these books to diagnose and fix and multitude of home issues. Two of these are fairly mainstream books that you can find almost anywhere, including, library, yardsale, clearance rack — which I also think recommends them.

    Black & Decker, The Complete Photo Guide to Home Repair — no it doesn’t all require power tools even the pictures often include some handy B&D orange and black thing.
    Reader’s Digest, Complete Do It Yourself Manual with the editors of The Family Handyman — my brother the engineer and weekend home repair/improvement uber-warrior swears by this one.
    I like comparing instructions/photos between these two books.

    Branson, Gary Home Water & Moisture Problems: Prevention and Solutions (Firefly 2003) — just what it says, very readable, nice two color graphics — gutters, swales, ventilation, leaks, plumbing, floods, mold — problems and solutions, big and small. I found this in a bookstore closing right around when I bought my house in 2006 and just reading it was very useful to understanding how a house works.

  21. Betsyon 05 Nov 2022 at 6:56 pm

    You just hit my sweet spot. I was a building designer for 25 years specializing in greenbuilding and I love books. So here’s my list:

    Low-Cost, Energy-Efficient Shelter by Eugene Eccli - out of print but many copies available at Amazon. Lots of common sense suggestions.
    The Real Goods Independent Builder, Designing and Building Your Own House Your Own Way, and The Motion-Minded Kitchen all by Sam Clark. I’d buy anything he writes. very sensible
    The Integral Urban House by Olkawski et al. Self-sufficiency in the city.
    No-Regrets Remodeling by Home Energy Magazine. Common sense weatherization
    Builder’s Guide for Hot, Humid Climates (available for other regions also) by Joe Lstiburek. Pretty technical but will produce a tight, efficient, water-resistant structure.

    I also second the Michael Potts and Sarah Susanka recommendations.

    Three additional comments:
    Alternative building methods (rammed earth, cob, straw-bale) often sound better than they are. Most only work in a specific climate and soil-based systems are dependent on specific soil properties. And many are hard to adapt to 21st century utilities.

    I would also like to put a plug in for a run-of-the-mill, stick-built house. If constructed tightly with sustainable materials (esp. lumber) and good insulation, you can’t beat it for efficiency. It’s owner-builder friendly, and subs don’t charge you extra to deal with a system they aren’t familiar with.

    Finally, build small. And close to where you work and shop. Those two things will save more energy than any wall system.

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