How To Make Unbuildable Land Buildable with Rainwater Collection

I’ve been playing with the idea of finding ways of building on unbuildable land. The term unbuildable land typically refers to property located in a place with a lot of code restrictions. There probably are places that you’d be hard-pressed to build a house too, like a cliff or lake bottom, but even in those extreme locations, I bet there are people clever enough to pull those feats of engineering.

So for the sake of argument, lets say that most unbuildable land is ‘unbuildable‘ because of some rule, regulation, or requirement that other humans have placed on the community. I’ve been using California Pines, a giant failed subdivision in the remote northeast corner of California, as a basis for this design exploration.

In order to build at California Pines, a local realtor told me that you must have a well drilled ($10,000) and an engineered septic system ($20,000) installed before building permits for a cabin would be issued.

But what if you were able to come up with a simpler low-cost water system and were able to convince the powers-that-be that it was a perfectly viable option? You’d be half way there and only need a waste water system.

For example, imagine an open (or closed-in) 16′ by 16′ shed that collects rain water, houses a little PV solar system, and shelters your firewood. This could theoretically be the first structure you build on the lot and while your away it happily collects rain water and stores it away in the two 350 gallon tanks.

A first flush valve redirects the first couple gallons of dirty water, from the bugs, dust, and bird poop that has collected on the roof. This keeps the stored water as clean as possible. Before drinking the water you’d run it through a filter. The solar electric system on the roof isn’t needed for the rainwater collection, it’s just a handy addition. The little storage loft/shelf is for storing the batteries and electronics for the solar system.

It rains just over 12 inches a year at California Pines. The roof on this shed is about 200 square feet which should collect about 100 gallons of water for every inch of rain. So in a year, this small roof should give you 1,200 gallons of water, which would overflow the 700 gallons of water storage pictured here. Luckily it rains fairly steadily year-round in Modoc County so your water supply would theoretically be used-up if you visited your property regularly.

To make your presentation to the powers-that-be stronger, you could refer to coastal communities like those in British Columbia, who have recognized that continued well drilling is not the most viable long-term option for supplying water to homes. I found an excellent document from the Island Trust Fund website that outlines exactly what they are recommending. Download a copy of their Rainwater Harvesting FAQ (pdf).

Another precedent setting example are the rainwater collection efforts being made in Texas. The Texas Water Development Board has also embraced rainwater collection as a viable alternative to drilling more water wells. Take a look at this The Texas Manual on Rainwater Harvesting – 3rd Edition (pdf).

Armed with a low-impact, low-cost, and sustainable solution like this plus examples of communities making rainwater collection a common alternative to drilling wells, might just help you change the minds of your local policy makers, and make your previously unbuildable land, buildable.

36 thoughts on “How To Make Unbuildable Land Buildable with Rainwater Collection

  1. David says:

    Living in Central Texas the ground water is really ruff (hard full of all kinds of minerals). I know several people who have made the decision and spent the money for rain water harvesting. It is a real deal. One couple has 4 childern, a 40,000 gal tank, 3 bath rooms and NO WELL on the property. During last years drought they did not run out of water and were giving water away. Rain water is the real deal.

  2. David says:

    A good option for the solar piece would to have a simple hot water panel, with an electric one w/battery to to power the water pump so that the water could be kept from freezing in colder months. Also keeping the water circulated would keep it from going stagnate id imagine. It would have to be small enough to keep it from making the water really hot, but big enough to keep it from freezing.

      • mj says:


        Great Topic! For your readers the Earth Ship people have done some amazing things with water catchment.

        To complete your topic please cover waste disposal / waterless compost toilets / humanure and simple DIY french drain / greywater disposal systems in future posts.

        Cheers -mj

        • Michael Janzen says:

          Thanks MJ… actually the earthship work is at the front of my mind as I work on this. They’ve really pioneered a lot of this simple technology and really deserve a lot of credit.

          But tire homes are hard for a lot of folks to understand. So I’m trying to make similar ideas a little easier to visualize with smaller DIY projects like this one.

    • kristy says:

      ill let you know when im done prob be almost a year before our construction is completed. we are building our own tiny home on wheels 30 feet by 8.5 feet by 13 feet with one bump out in great room. totally off grid using solar and a portable wind generator turbine i located for 384.00. i have been looking for water ideas and i was thinking because i live in canada aka cold and lots of snow in the winter.
      was thinking of using heating coils in the roof to melt ice and snow to use as water along with a heater type item to heater water to above freezing in the storage tanks. this is great info to use for this thank you so much if you have any more ideas of anything and wanna let me know im free to info need all the help i can get.
      for many years i have been struggling trying to pay rent im sick all the time the docs don’t fully know why and its frustrating. so i figured if i can build one of these and live in it i wont have to struggle to pay rent every month worrying how i am going to pay it again this month ( which has seemed like every month for 3 years now)

  3. Rickles says:

    Brilliant work Michael! You never cease to amaze me with the things that come out.

    This will most likely be the first structure we build on our place in Missouri next year!

    • Rickles says:

      LOL! A buddy had some land in Missouri, he placed his mouldering toilet on a hill (60′ rise in elevation) and nicknamed it “Poop Summit”.

      I’ve been looking at human waste for a while now (wow, that sounds really bad… :)) because that’s one of our biggest issues for our place.

      Many neighbors in our area use leach pits. It’s too rocky and wooded to tear it all up for septic.

      I’ve looked at regular humanure type toilets (Loveable Loo) and others as well as the one from Michael Reynolds that acts more like a solar oven and bakes out “the nasties”.

      Interested to see your ideas for the throne of your rural water gathering castle.

  4. Vanessa says:

    Where I am in Australia (rural Victoria, 100 miles from Melbourne), wells are almost unheard of & we rely totally on rainwater tanks & some form of septic or non septic wastewater system on each property.

  5. Jesse says:

    This is a great idea! I have toyed with the idea of rainwater collection as opposed to a well (or in addition to). I have been thinking all along that a simple enclosed 8×12 shed would be a first build on our property, but this idea may win out for me. However, I think a shed roof, as opposed to a gable, would be a much better idea. It would double the area for solar panels (assuming of course that the roof would be oriented to the south) and make the gutter assembly and roof assembly much easier and more efficient.

  6. alice says:

    This is an excellent idea, combining solar and water collection. Locals say we don’t have a water problem, we have a water storage problem and it makes no sense to just watch the winter rains drain away while the summers are so dry you aren’t even allowed to use a chainsaw because of the sparks. The BC Gulf Island area where I have a place has community piped water from central collection tanks but I can’t connect to it because I don’t have a septic system. Composting toilets aren’t considered a factor when designing septic systems here in order to lessen the capacity and I have very few options because of steep, thickly treed slopes. Most of the really technical septic systems are expensive,unreliable and require a lot of tricky maintenance. Sure hope ‘somebody’ comes up with a really simple, really compact septic system that will be approved by the authorities soon!

      • alice says:

        Wouldn’t be approved here because you need a septic system to deal with the grey water as well as the black. It’s OK to use an “official” composting toilet but you still need an approved septic system to deal with the outflow end of all the water you get coming in from the pipe. They don’t allow it to just drain away in a leaching pit or any simple system. Basic outhouses/pit toilets are no longer approved and a home made sawdust toilet is usually not mentioned in official hearing.

  7. Lesley says:

    We build undergound tanks and swimming pools, faced with strong new building rules in Oz – if you want to build a pool, fine, but you have to supply your own water. This website is a great spot to calculate how much water you can harvest from any roof – which then can give you an idea of how big a tank you have to put in to hold it all. There is actually plenty of water – but we persist in wasting, rather than harvesting. Good design, Michael.

  8. Bryan says:

    These are great ideas for building in remote areas, but California Pines’ problem isn’t the remoteness. It’s a present day scam based on a decades old subdivision. An irreparable, run-screaming-from-it scam.

    The post purchase site preparation costs are there to convince parties that purchased “cheap” land to just walk away from their investment so the land can be sold again (P.T. Barnum had an opinion about this sort of person.) The entrenched property owners association isn’t part of the problem, it is the problem. A problem that isn’t going anywhere.

    The idea of living in a remote area sounds wonderful. The idea of living in a location like that (there are plenty of these “subdivision” across the US) sets off the bad idea siren in my brain.

  9. Deek says:

    Poop in a bucket, and water-needs-wise, sleep outdoors with your mouth open to the sky…

    No seriously, code’s aside, for water’s use in construction (cement) in remote locales, I set up a taut-tart rig (tied to several trees), that funneled ($1.99 Auto-zone car-fluids funnel) into a 55 gallon trash can (with the lid on, and one small funnel hole drilled- so as to avoid evaporation). It worked perfectly for our water-less-site situation.


    • alice says:

      That’s an interesting idea – you could even keep a nice clean tarp all ready to deploy the minute the rain starts, collect all kinds of wash water and be reasonably free of bird poop etc. Much cheaper and simpler to set up, especially handy for temporary camps. I believe sailors used a similar system using spare sails ‘once upon a time’. You could have the attaching points permanently anchored to the trees, side of a building, posts or whatever. If you set the barrel up on a platform you could use a tap to get the water out, even set it up next to a wash house to minimize carrying water.

  10. Malcolm says:

    Deek’s comment reminded me that I have thought for some time that for rain catchment that we should consider building our roofs the other way around. Namely like Deek’s tarp. Have the high egdes of our roof around the outside with the low end in the middle. Regular roof lines that slope down toward the outside are oriented toward getting the water away from our house. If we want to keep the water having a funnel shaped roof might make more sense. Perhaps consider using a thick pond liner for the roofing membrane. I have seen commercial grade pond liner for sale on line for as low as about 50 cents per square foot.

  11. Malcolm says:

    On further thought it might even make sense to have a rain catchment roof be more like a tarp than like a rigid surface. Consider building a rigid framework around the edges of the roof capable of holding up the flexible membrane roof and just drape the roof in the middle. The natural effects of gravity will make the roof sag into the center where the water pickup point would be. The pick up point could be at other points too I suppose. I wonder just how strong a thick pond liner would be for this sort of application?

  12. Jeff says:

    How do you prevent the water from freezing in colder climates?

    I am looking to build small off-grid house in Southern Ohio and it gets very cold in the winter. I like keeping things above ground as install and maintenance are easier.

  13. Feinmann Inc. says:

    Great idea! Very resourceful on your part, goes to show that when you want to build somewhere, you are going to find a way somehow, my biggest though was actually what the previous comment asked about, what would be done about the water freezing in colder climates?

  14. Jeff says:

    I thought I would share some things I found on Internet to prevent above ground tank from freezing. I don’t know if any work.

    1. Use a dark colored tank
    2. Insulate the tank
    3. Use submerisble heater
    4. Use air compressor to make bubbles
    5. Dig 3-4 post holes 4 feet deep below the tank. The temperature below the surface of the earth is 52-55 °F (11-13 °C) year round. The warmer air will rise and help to raise the temperature of your tank.

  15. Jeff says:

    I did see a posting from a guy who uses a 600 gallon outdoor tank with a lid and no fittings. Seems the fittings are what usually freeze and break. The tank may freeze and unfreeze but usually without damage or leaks.

    He has a smaller 50 gallon indoor water tank. When the indoor tank gets low he takes the lid off the outdoor tank, drops in a submersibe pump and refills the indoor tank.

  16. Bill says:

    Nice idea on water for remote locations. I was thinking when I got settled somewhere, I would add a rainwater collection system to my tiny solar house. I plan to keep it simple, like gutters and downspot that run into a barrel. Then I can pump the water from the rain barrel into the storage tanks in the tiny solar house. Still have to deal with grey water, but at least could collect fresh water without all the chemicals used to treat municipal systems water.

  17. Nicholas says:

    Hello Everyone. What kind of roof material can you use that is safe to collet water and drink off of? I am very grateful for this knowledge, keep gooing in the right direction!

  18. jane says:

    i need a self sustainig house some day. i have often thought of purifying the water from a rainbarell(outside)with a reverse osmosis filtration system inside i think a series of filters on the opening of the rainbarell would work for the imediate exposure to elements birds etc.if it’s to cold outside just drop the tank from the roof into the house.or place the rainbarell outside a second floor window and bring it in if temp goes to low. as for heating the house what about the inexpensive wood stove/ fireplace thingys.

    • Scott says:

      @jane et al…

      I used a rain chain in conjunction with my rain barrel and it looks way better than a downspout. great design addition while still having the function of water catchment.

  19. K Black says:

    Hi! My long time (40+) year plan to live out “in the middle of nowhere” is about to come to fruition. I bought a piece of land in New Brunswick, Canada. Aside from getting a drive in, my biggest concern, at this point, is the water. It will cost about $4500 for a well. It will also cost about $4500 for a rain water catchment system. I would prefer to go with rain water catchment, as there is PLENTY of precipitation (about 4 inches per month). However, I am worried about the 5 months of freezing temperatures. How do you keep the water running from the roof–when the roof is covered with snow? Also, how do you keep an above-ground tank from freezing up? Not to mention, all of the water lines, pump, etc.? Please advise. Thanx!

  20. PrepperGal35 says:

    Nice idea for areas where it rains year round!
    For California you are kidding me!!!
    NO rain from June through November – that’s six months of the year.
    Have to have a huge holding tank to last 6 months just for human use not figuring in garden/orchard/livestock…

  21. Garry says:

    another alternative to conventional septic systems is a “turd burner” otherwise known as an electric or gas toilet. I have an incinolet toilet installed in my mom’s summer cabin and recently purchased a used one for my man cave cabin….I am not sure on the battery/solar panel system that it would take for an electric unit, but I have also seen propane units…..I also search for ways around the laws, yet are able to get the permits with alternate methods…..

  22. Cyranorox says:

    We are in California and we now collect rain. Our 2-person household used about 105K gallons last year and our water district thinks that is average or a little below. We do have a veggie garden of about 5oo sq feet. We figured about 66K gallons of rain fall on our lot annually. So we get 2/3 of our needs in dry Bay Area weather, no rain for 6 months. We currently have storage for 3000 gallons and hope to add. We can use all that falls; the problem is paying for, and finding space for, the storage.

  23. Shirley Ross says:

    I would love to have a water/solar system like this. I also love to use rain water for drinking and cooking. This shed looks easy enough for an amateur to build. Any suggestions for drinking water filtering?

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