9 Self-Sustaining Home Ideas

Updated: Jan. 30, 2024

Discover innovative self-sustaining home ideas for eco-conscious homeowners trying to reduce their dependence on the grid.

Family house with solar panels on the roof and gardenACILO/GETTY IMAGES

What Is a Self-Sustaining Home?

A self-sustaining home, also known as a self-sufficient, autonomous or off-grid home, is designed to generate its own energy, produce its own food and manage its own waste to minimize or eliminate reliance on public utilities.

As Michael Reynolds, founder of Earthship Biotecture, a world leader in autonomous housing puts it, “Autonomous living… [is] direct living, get[ting] your energy directly from the sun, directly from the wind, directly from the biological systems on the earth.”

While sharing the goal of reduced environmental impact with “green” or “sustainable” homes, self-sustaining homes go further by allowing homeowners to break free from rising utility costs, unpredictable power outages and expensive food supply chains while using recycled or reclaimed building materials.

New construction projects can be designed to be self-sustaining from the start, but existing homes can be made more autonomous as well. Here are nine self-sustaining home ideas you can incorporate into your existing home.

1 / 9
reusing used tires as a wall
Ashley Cooper/Getty Images

Use Recycled or Sustainable Building Materials

Building sustainably starts with using recycled or sustainable building materials. For example, the Earthship homes that Reynolds creates are built using old car tires or glass bottles for wall materials. Less extreme examples of repurposed materials are previously used building materials from Habitat for Humanity’s Restores, which sells gently used items like wood trim and flooring, sinks, appliances, lighting, windows and doors. Using recycled or second-hand materials lessens your reliance on supply chains and reduces the environmental impact of any home renovations.

2 / 9

Foam plastic insulation installed in the sloping attic of new frame house.
photovs/Getty Images

Improve Your Home’s Insulation

A well-insulated home requires less energy for its heating and cooling needs, making insulation a crucial step towards self-reliance. In fact, Reynolds identifies improving insulation as the number one way homeowners can retrofit their homes to become more autonomous.

“The very first thing you can do to your home is to get it so your home doesn’t need as much heat,” says Reynolds. “You can make your building more insulated and reduce your heating and cooling bills by more than 50%.”

Start with an energy audit to identify problematic spots in your home, then work to increase insulation in areas like attics, floors and exterior walls. When adding insulation, consider using eco-friendly products like rock mineral insulation, fiberglass or cellulose, which are made of primarily recycled materials.

3 / 9

Solar water heater
Lucas Ninno/Getty Images

Install a Solar Water Heater

Hot water is not a requirement to live, but any comfortable self-sustaining home is sure to have it for bathing, deep cleaning and laundry. Solar-powered water heaters make this possible and are available for mild and cold climates. The most efficient systems are installed by professionals but cost around $100 per square foot of the home.

Less-expensive, DIY-friendly products exist and can significantly reduce energy bills associated with hot water. These water heaters serve as a complement to an existing hot water system, harnessing the sun to heat water that is then stored or used as needed.

4 / 9

Wood stove in living room
Mint Images/Getty Images

Install a Wood Stove

A great way to become more self-sustaining is to heat your home with wood. Firewood is generally sourced locally and helps to reduce your reliance on large utility companies for heat sources. With a wood stove, you are able to heat your home during utility outages and avoid rising energy costs. Modern wood stoves are also built to be more environmentally friendly and efficient.

Hearthstone, a Vermont-based company, builds highly efficient wood stoves that contain a catalytic combustor that re-burns the gasses and particulates that are released from burning wood at very high temperatures. This increases efficiency, produces fewer emissions and provides longer burn times. There is also a federal tax credit available for 30% of the cost of installation and the stove when purchasing a high-efficiency model.

5 / 9

Garden Compost Bin
Gannet77/Getty Images

Buy or Build a Food Composting Bin

Completely self-sustaining homes manage their own waste and do not rely on outside systems. This includes sewage waste, gray water, household trash and food waste. If switching to an incinerating toilet sounds like too much of a commitment, consider composting your food waste as a step toward self-sustainability.

You can build or buy a composter to manage organic waste efficiently, reducing the need for waste disposal services and minimizing environmental impact. The process yields nutrient-rich compost which can also be used in vegetable gardens.

6 / 9
Rain barrel in front of a modern house, rainwater tank to collect rainwater and reuse it in the garden
Milos Ruzicka/Getty Images

Install a Water Collection System

Installing water collection systems for your home is a transformative step toward off-grid living. These systems harvest rainwater from rooftops, capturing and storing it to reduce reliance on municipal water sources. Water collection systems range from simple to complex with accompanying price tags. More advanced setups pipe collected and purified rainwater into a house to supply all of the home’s water needs, but can be prohibitively expensive and are better-suited to new construction projects due to their complexity.

A simple, DIY-friendly way to collect and store rainwater for an existing property is to buy or build rain barrels and convert your existing gutters into a water collection system. Simply place rain barrels at the bottom of your existing gutter downspouts and use the collected water to water gardens, flowers or wash cars.

7 / 9

Vegatable Garden with lettuce
Jon Lovette/Getty Images

Plant a Garden

A great way to become more self-sustaining is to plant a garden that provides a renewable source of fresh produce while reducing reliance on store-bought food. The soil from a compost bin is a great foundation for a successful and productive vegetable garden and incorporates another self-sustaining home practice.

Consider building a greenhouse as well to extend the growing season, particularly in Northern climates. Grow vegetables that you typically consume and include some that store well, like root vegetables, to provide food during winter months. If space allows, add fruit and nut trees for a more diverse crop.

8 / 9

Energy efficient window and door of a house
Spiderstock/Getty Images

Install Energy-Efficient Windows and Doors

Replacing windows and doors with more efficient ones is a vital step toward achieving a more self-sustaining home. Energy-efficient windows and well-insulated doors significantly reduce heat transfer and in turn, the energy needed to heat or cool a home. Lower energy needs make it easier to run a home off of self-sustaining sources like wind or solar, and homes that remain on the grid will have lower utility bills and a reduced carbon footprint.

Look for windows and doors with an Energy Star certification, which identifies products that meet the program’s energy efficiency requirements. There are a lot of factors to consider when purchasing energy-efficient windows and doors, so do your research to learn about the right products for your local climate.

9 / 9

Solar panels on the roof of a house
moisseyev/Getty Images

Install Solar Panels

Reynolds encourages all homeowners looking to become more self-sustaining and environmentally conscious to get solar electricity.

“The grid is antiquated and goes down in every storm,” he says. “[It’s] powered by nuclear power plants, coal-powered plants and dams that ruin rivers…when the sun shines on every house.”

The cost of adding solar panels to your home varies widely and depends on many factors, including panel type, home size and energy needs, but expect to pay between $14,000 to $20,000 for a two-story home, or half that if you do most of the work yourself. A good place to start is the Department of Energy’s guide for homeowners interested in going solar.

If adding a whole house system seems a bit ambitious, there are lots of smaller ways to incorporate solar power into your daily life. Try solar-powered air conditioners, exterior lights or phone chargers as a foray into the world of solar energy.