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How to Build a Sod House in 8 Easy Steps

Humans have come up with some incredible ways of building structures to live in. The sod house is one example. These home-building technologies are not just a thing of the past either. Recent technologies have been very effective like earthbag homes and even 3D printed houses!

A small standalone sod house

The American homesteader in the early 1800s would have forged into prairie lands and realized they had to create shelter without trees in these large open fields. The ingenious method of using sod to create a home was born.

What Is Sod?

Have you ever had sod placed on your property? Sod is basically that big role of mature grass that can be laid to create a new lawn. The roots of the grass are deep and strong so the sod can be cut out into large pieces.

Rolls of sod for improving the look of a yard

Sod is actually sold in rolls. Large rolls of living grass that can be transplanted to create a lawn wherever you need it.

A sod home is created by layering large bricks of sod. If you know when to harvest quality sod then you can stack these bricks up to the roof and they will be strong and durable. This creates a layered and living home. A sod home can be built into the side of a hill or it can be standalone.

I like the sod house because you can take advantage of it when you have limited building materials to create yourself a livable long-term shelter.

How Durable Is a Sod House?

Now that you know what a sod house is, the next question is, ‘how durable is a sod house?’

How durable can a home be that is made out of grass?

The sod house was common amongst American pioneers who were interested put down stakes in the prairies where building materials were sparse. These homes were incredibly insulated thanks to the use of sod. They were much more insulative than just wood homes or cabin homes.

A very big sod house for a family

The average sod home could last for around 6 years. By that time you would have to have built a more sturdy home or created a new sod home. These homes are still built in some places today because they work and they are very cheap to build.

When Is the Best Time to Build a Sod House?

The best time to cut sod for your sod house is in September. This is when the roots of the grass are deepest and will hold your sod together. Otherwise, the sod could crumble when you dig it out and that will not hold your sod home together.

The quality of your sod house is entirely dependent on the maturity of the root growth of your grass. Be sure you choose a location with plenty of healthy grass.

Building in September will also give you plenty of time to get the house up and ready to go for the colder months that will be approaching. The insulated sod home would have been a great place to shelter from the howling winter winds of US prairies.

How to Make Sod House Bricks

The sod home is made up of sod bricks. The key to making good sod bricks is consistency. You are going to need a lot of bricks to build a house from sod.

Each sod brick should be about 4 inches thick, 2 feet long, and the width of your spade. Keep it simple. So, you can sink your spade into the ground down to about 4 inches, and mark the spade with a marker to keep consistent depth.

Sod bricks for a sod house

Next, you are going to use the spade to cut out the perimeter of a sod brick from the measurements above. If you are not concerned about being exact with your size you could just sink the spade into the ground, then sink it into the ground at a 90-degree angle to your first cut and make the same cut right next to that one and then another 90 degrees cut to create the outline of the brick.

Then you can finish by cutting the brick out the rest of the way.

This can all be done with a simple shovel. Once you get the process down you are going to just start cranking out sod bricks. It can seem a bit overwhelming but pictures of sod homes show that you are going to need a lot of bricks if you plan on building even a small home.

If there are two or more people building the sod home then you can assign one person to dig bricks and the other to stack them. I would recommend building a nice pile of bricks before you start stacking to create the perimeter of your home.

How to Build a Sod House

1. Choose the Location

The process starts by first choosing a location. To get the most out of your sod home you are going to want to try to give it some windbreaks, make sure that it gets some sunlight, and is easily accessible.

2. Mark the Perimeter

Mark out the perimeter of the home with bricks or just use your shovel to mark it all out. Make sure that you mark a location for a door so you know where you want that to go during the stacking process.

3. Lay the First Layer

Start your first layer of bricks for the perimeter grass side down. That might seem counterintuitive but trust me on this one. That very first layer that separates the home from the ground you are to flip the bricks grass side down.

4. Stagger the Next Layer

Stagger your next layer of bricks to build the second layer. This means place your next sod brick so that the center of the brick lines up exactly where the two bricks beneath it met. Look at a brick wall if you need an example.

This is a building method that everyone uses to create stronger brick and mortar structures. It works and that’s why people do it. You may need to cut some of your sod bricks in order to make it work perfectly.

That can be done with your spade, too.

5. Insert Door/Window Frames

After about 2-3 layers you are going to consider doors and windows. Simple wood frames can make doorways or you can just build a small opening into it to get in.

A very large sod house

Simple doorways can be made by leaving a gap in your rows of stacked bricks and stacking the bricks about 3/4 of your height on both sides. You can lay a collection of thin sticks or branches across the top so they touch both sides.

Then stack your bricks on top of the layer of sticks you created and it will create the frame of the door.

6. Lay the Roof

Once the walls are the height that you want them to be, you can move on to creating the roof. You could do a thatched roof with sticks and stack your sod bricks on top, you could use a piece of plywood if you have one or you could use a tarp.

7. Fill the Gaps

At this point, you should head into the sod house and start filling any gaps in your bricks with some grass. Look for areas where light is coming through or wind is coming through and you will be able to plug that all up with torn grass.

The sod house insulates really well if you get rid of all the drafts.

8. Hang a Tarp Inside

The final step is to hang a tarp or a sheet from the roof in a U or W shape. This part is important because as your home settles dirt will fall off the bricks that make up your roof. If you have this tarp or sheet hung then it will collect them.

If not the dirt is going to fall on you, your food, and your bed. No good.

Historical Background

The concept of building with sod dates back centuries, with structures using similar materials and techniques appearing in various cultures across the globe. When European settlers started colonizing North America, they adapted these techniques for their own use. One notable example of early sod houses is the 10th-11th century Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows, near the northern tip of Newfoundland.

Homestead Act

The Homestead Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1862, greatly impacted the use of sod houses in North America. This legislation allowed any 21-year-old citizen or immigrant intending to become a citizen to lay claim to 160 acres of land on the Great American Prairie. Settlers, known as homesteaders, were required to pay a filing fee, farm the land, and live on it for five years in order to obtain ownership.

Pioneers on the United States and Canadian prairies often spent their first years living in sod homes due to the abundance of prairie sod and the scarcity of other building materials. These settlers used the thick, tough grasses of the prairie to form walls, roofs, and floors for their homes. Prairie sod provided excellent insulation, protecting the settlers from harsh weather conditions.

In conclusion, the historical background of sod houses is deeply intertwined with various cultures and the settlement of North America. The Homestead Act of 1862 further promoted the use of sod houses by pioneers, providing a cost-effective and practical solution to housing needs on the prairie.

Construction and Design

Selecting Location

When building a sod house, it is crucial to choose a suitable location. A fairly level area covered with thick prairie grass, such as buffalo grass, is ideal. The grass’s deep roots help hold the sod bricks together during construction, and building during September typically provides the best conditions since roots are at their deepest.

Foundation and Walls

Before constructing the sod house, it is necessary to lay a strong foundation. Excavate the ground to create a flat surface, then build a foundation with stones, logs, or bricks. Next, cut patches of sod into rectangles, often 2’×1’×6″ (60×30×15 cm), from the chosen area. Stack these sod bricks to create the walls of the house.

The walls should be at least 1-2 feet thick, providing enough insulation to keep the interior temperature stable. Stagger the sod bricks and fill the gaps with mud or clay to create a weather-resistant structure.

Roof and Windows

Roofs for sod houses often consist of wooden beams covered with a layer of sod. Alternatively, a tar and asphalt waterproof membrane can be used to create a sod roof. Consider placing shingles or other materials on top of the sod for added protection.

Windows in a sod house should be sturdy and well-insulated. Use wooden window frames to securely hold the glass panes and provide support to the sod walls. Avoid installing windows in areas where they may be exposed to strong winds or water damage.

Interior Features

The interior of a sod house generally features a dirt or earthen floor, which can be compacted and smoothed for comfort and cleanliness. In some cases, wooden floors might be used instead. To build interior walls and partitions, use similar sod bricks as the exterior walls, or opt for alternative materials such as wood or stone.

Sod houses can be heated using a traditional stove or fireplace. However, be cautious as these materials can be susceptible to fires. Take precautions, such as installing a stone or brick firewall, to protect the home from potential fire risks.

Overall, the construction and design of a sod house require careful planning, the use of appropriate building materials, and attention to details like location, walls, windows, and interior features.

Challenges and Difficulties

Weather Extremes

Life in a sod house presented various challenges, especially related to the extreme weather conditions on the prairies. Homesteaders encountered hot summers and cold winters, both of which influenced their daily lives. They also faced the threat of severe weather like tornadoes, which were common on the flat, treeless plains. In addition, prairie fires were another hazard that threatened the very existence of sod houses. These fires could ignite the grassy roofs and walls of the structures, making it even more difficult for settlers to maintain their homes and protect their belongings.

Pest and Wildlife Issues

Aside from the weather, living in sod houses also came with its fair share of pests and wildlife issues. Grasshoppers sometimes swarmed in large numbers, consuming crops and vegetation, and even damaging the sod walls of the houses. Other animals, such as buffalo, oxen, and horses, could potentially trample, collide with, or graze on the sod walls, causing damage to the structures.

Furthermore, excavating hills to build dugouts presented the risk of exposing burrows or dens inhabited by other creatures, such as snakes or rodents. These intruders could pose a danger to settlers and their livestock or spread diseases, adding to the already challenging conditions of living in sod houses.

Maintenance and Repairs

The materials and construction of sod houses meant that they required constant care and maintenance. The sod itself meant that the walls could collapse or crumble, especially after heavy rain or during a flood. Regular spade work or brushing was necessary to repair any damage caused by erosion or other natural forces.

A major challenge for farmers was acquiring the equipment needed to build and maintain their sod homes. Railroads were often limited or nonexistent in these areas, so access to resources like tractors, mules, or plows was sporadic. As a result, settlers had to rely heavily on their physical strength and resourcefulness to construct their homes, making do with crude tools like shovels, axes, or mallets.

Overall, life in a sod house presented myriad challenges to early settlers on the prairies. From extreme weather to pest invasions and ongoing maintenance, it was a difficult yet essential way of life for many people during the homesteading era.

Life in a Sod House

Daily Activities

Life in a sod house on the Great Plains involved numerous daily activities that revolved around hard work and survival. Settlers, including men, women, and children, had to adapt to challenging conditions. They often spent their days tending to livestock, working the land, and attempting to grow crops, such as wheat and corn. Due to the lack of lumber on the plains, sod cutting became a crucial skill for building homes and structures. Families had to deal with dirt floors, sod roofs, and wildlife, such as insects and rodents, making their way indoors. Despite these challenges, settlers made do with what they had and often used simple items like muslin to create a semblance of privacy within their homes.

Community and Neighbors

The sense of community was a vital survival mechanism for those living in sod houses. Settlers had to rely on their neighbors for help and support, as they faced difficulties like blizzards and storms. The majority of homesteaders in the Great Plains were immigrants who claimed free land offered by the government through the Homestead Act, enticing them to start a new life in an unfamiliar environment like South Dakota and other parts of the Great Plains.

When building their sod homes, neighbors often collaborated, lending one another tools like wagons and cedar poles needed for the construction. In addition, this sense of camaraderie was seen in the shared construction of community structures like barns and storage facilities. These new communities had to thrive based on the strength of their relationships, cooperation, and mutual support.

Despite the challenges of life in a sod house, settlers in the Great Plains region managed to build tight-knit communities and adapt to the rugged conditions of their environment. Through determination, cooperation, and resourcefulness, they formed the backbone of a growing nation.

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.