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How to Build a Sod House: A Step-by-Step Guide

Settlers in the US and Canada, especially in the Great Plains, built sod houses due to limited wood. These resourceful homesteaders used the Homestead Act to claim land but lacked resources for traditional homes. Sod houses, made from the earth, offered sturdy and insulated shelter.

Constructing a sod house required careful planning and specific skills. Choosing dense sod with roots like buffalo grass was crucial for strong bricks. These bricks were cut and laid to form walls that insulated against winter cold and summer heat. Layering the sod bricks in a staggered way, trimming them to fit, and placing the grass side down helped bond the earth for a lasting structure with proper maintenance.

Keep reading to learn more about how to build a sod house!

A Sod House

Key Takeaways

  • Sod houses were a practical solution for Great Plains settlers given the limited resources.
  • Proper selection and layering of sod were crucial for creating a durable home.
  • Sod homes required regular maintenance to preserve their structural integrity.

Planning Your Sod House

Constructing a sod house requires careful deliberation on various elements crucial for its longevity and habitability. These elements include a strategic location, the right materials, and an effective design.

Selecting a Location

Choosing the right location is pivotal for the sustainability of a sod house. Settlers on the Great Plains preferred a site with close proximity to water sources such as creeks while ensuring it was situated on elevated land to prevent flooding. They looked for a location with thick, densely-rooted prairie grass, necessary for sturdy sod bricks. Additionally, the orientation was chosen to offer protection against prevailing winds, and consideration was given to ensure enough natural light could enter the future door and windows.

  • Water Accessibility: Near a creek or water source, but elevated to avoid flooding
  • Grass Quality: Prairie with densely-packed roots such as buffalo grass and little blue stem
  • Wind and Light: Protection from prevailing winds, orientation for natural lighting

Gathering Materials

Settlers faced scarcity of conventional building materials like wood on the treeless plains, leading them to utilize sod from the prairie as their primary building material. Construction required basic tools including a sod cutter, shovel, and spade, to excavate and shape sod bricks for the walls. Wood was still needed but reserved for the roof, ceiling, door frame, and window frames. Gathering materials also involved sourcing stones or other compact materials for the foundation to ensure stability and durability.

  • Primary Material: Sod (from prairie grass)
  • Tools: Sod cutter, shovel, spade
  • Other Materials: Wood (scarce), stones for foundation

Designing the Structure

The design of a sod house factored in the durability of construction and the practicality of the interior space. The foundation was laid out first to set the parameters of the sod structure. The walls were constructed from sod bricks, meticulously laid out to create a firm and weather-resistant barrier. Designs included provisions for a door and windows to allow for ventilation and light. The roof was typically sloped slightly to ensure proper drainage, avoiding any structural weakening from water damage.

  • Foundation: Strong, level, made from compact materials
  • Walls: Sod bricks laid in a staggered pattern for stability
  • Door and Windows: Included in design, framed with scarce wood
  • Roof: Slightly sloped to prevent water accumulation

The planning process was rooted in resourcefulness and adaptability, accounting for both the challenging environment of the plains and the scarce materials at hand.


Construction Techniques

The construction of a sod house requires careful attention to detail during each phase: setting a strong foundation, carefully erecting walls, and securely constructing the roof to withstand the elements.

Laying the Foundation

To begin, settlers would look for densely-rooted grass such as buffalo grass or wheat grass that can hold dirt together effectively. It’s essential to clear and level the area where the foundation will be laid. The ground inside the marked area is dug out to create a flat surface. This dugout serves as the earth floor of the house.

Building the Walls

Once the foundation is set, the construction of the walls commences. Sod bricks are the primary building material, usually cut into 2-foot strips and 4 inches deep. These bricks are laid grass side down, and in subsequent rows, they’re staggered lengthwise and crosswise for stability, much like laying bricks. These sod blocks need to be tightly packed to create solid walls.

Wall Construction Steps
1. Cut sod into 2-foot bricks.
2. Lay the first row trench-deep.
3. Stagger the bricks in a brick-laying pattern.
4. Trim sod blocks as necessary for a tight fit.

Constructing the Roof

The roof is the final and a critical part of building a sod house. Frequently, wood was used to create a frame to support the roofing material. A traditional method involved laying thatched sod on top of the wooden support. This method requires the sod bricks to be placed grass side up, compressing them into a thick, insulating layer. In some cases, settlers might use tar paper to provide additional waterproofing to the sod roof.

Roofing Steps
1. Construct a sturdy wooden frame.
2. Place thatched sod grass side up.
3. Compress sod for insulation.
4. Optionally, apply tar paper for waterproofing.

Maintaining A Sod House

Maintaining a sod house is essential to preserve its structural integrity and comfort. Proper measures to prevent erosion, control the climate, and protect the house from various elements are crucial for longevity.

Preventing Erosion

To prevent erosion, it is imperative to maintain the root system of the sod, which binds the soil together. Settlers frequently inspected the sod and performed necessary maintenance. They might also plant additional grass to keep the roots thick and healthy.

  • Reinforce the sod: Regularly reseed the roof and walls with native grasses to ensure a dense root network.
  • Drainage Management: Ensure proper drainage around the house to prevent water accumulation during rain, which can lead to erosion.

Insulating for Climate Control

Insulating a sod house is vital for comfort in extreme temperatures. The thickly-thatched sod walls provided natural insulation, but additional measures were often taken.

  • Add Layers: A layer of stucco to the exterior helps to improve thermal mass, keeping the interior warm during winter and cool in summer.
  • Interior Adjustments: Use heavy fabrics or install a secondary internal wall for added insulation against cold and heat.

Protecting Against Elements

Protecting a sod house from water, wind, and fire hazards is essential for its durability. Maintenance to prevent damage included regular inspections and prompt repairs.

  • Weatherproofing: Apply a coat of lime plaster or similar substances to prevent mud from washing away in the rain and to help make the sod fireproof.
  • Physical Barriers: Erect physical barriers such as stone or wood to shield against wind and snow, and redirect rainwater away from the base of the house to avoid flooding.

Wrapping Up Everything You Need to Know About a Sod House

The sod house is not typically a survival shelter that is used by bushcrafters in the woods. This home-building technology was created out of necessity in the prairies where trees and wood were sparse. Our pioneering ancestors would have raised families and built homesteads all while calling a sod house HOME.

Having a shelter that would last up to 6 years would have been a very good thing for them. Not to mention the fact that it only cost you a spade and some lower back pain! One could argue it is harder to get a house right now with the current market!

If you’re looking for more shelter ideas, check out these Survival Shelter articles.