Talk about doing it the hard way — Stephen and Rhona Graham spent six years building their own low-impact, contemporary-style home using ‘exotic’ building materials such as car tyres and used beer cans. The result is a simple, handcrafted retreat that meets their needs perfectly, as Jenny McBain reports.

Rhona and Stephen took on a formidable task when they set out to build a very unusual eco house on a miniscule budget. This was an ambitious project from the outset because the couple had set their hearts on using a variety of different techniques to create a so-called ‘earthship’ — a type of construction still very new to the UK.

The Project

  • Name: Stephen and Rhona Graham
  • Build cost: £80,000
  • Build time: 6 years
  • Location: Sutherland

They took their inspiration from reading about such homes in the USA, where this kind of building is more prevalent. “We liked the concept, which is about using recycled materials like tyres and tin cans to make a house,” Rhona explains.

The remarkable hybrid of methods employed in its construction is evident at first glance. Inside the kitchen and living room, a few exposed rubber tyres tell the story. “We decided to use tyres with rammed earth for the walls and to combine that approach with straw bales, an earth shelter and a turf roof,” says Stephen.

The Grahams live in a small hamlet called Skerray on the north coast of Scotland, near to Tongue. Neither has a high-earning job: Rhona is an artist who derives most of her income from working in the local post office and Stephen hires himself out as a handyman. But for six years Stephen has dedicated himself almost exclusively to the building project.

The couple had about £12,000 in savings. They set a budget of £80,000 and put money into the build process as they earned it along the way. Some was borrowed from family and the rest came from a £22,000 grant – available to those who work the land in remote areas in Scotland – and a £32,000 mortgage.

Luckily, they did not have to worry about the expense of finding a plot. Rhona’s parents are crofters — tenants of a smallholding. Crofters have protected rights under Scottish law and so they were able to assign eight acres to Rhona and Stephen.

A planning application was lodged in November 2003 and, because of the unusual nature of the building, it took 18 months for planning permission to be granted. Work began in May 2005 and was finally completed at the end of 2011.

Community co-operation is a key cornerstone of rural culture and help from local volunteers was very much appreciated at crucial moments. One of those instances involved the manoeuvring into place of a 330kg steel beam to support the turf roof. “One of the biggest incidental expenses of the build has been beer — but the empty cans didn’t go to waste. We were able to save them and use them for the building,” Rhona concludes.

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