Subscriber OnlyProperty Clinic

Will planning rules allow me to build an off-grid cabin for more sustainable holidays?

I would happily forego foreign holidays for good if I could have something here

I’m taking my first sun holiday abroad with the family in five years shortly, and I have mixed feelings about doing so. The simple truth is that I have been uncomfortable with how counter-sustainable two weeks in the Canary Islands actually are. Living in the midlands, I find the west coast of Ireland absolutely stunning; however, holidaying in these parts of the country is very expensive, pushes rents upward for locals and is generally not very sustainable either. I envy the Scandinavian culture of summer houses: timber homes in coastal or scenic areas where families can take time out from their busy lifestyles.

Being somewhat familiar with carpentry, plumbing and home electrical projects, I would be comfortable building a small summer house off the grid and would happily forego foreign holidays for good if I could have something here. There are many fantastic designs online that are very aesthetically pleasing and potentially more sustainable than towing a caravan around from place to place.

My question is: how does Ireland’s planning permission consider small timber dwellings that are not part of the primary residence? Some of these dwellings can be on wheels, built on a long trailer, and towed on to a site. Or they can be flat-packed and modular for quick assembly and fixed on a very modest-sized site. Many of these “tiny houses” can be completely off the grid, so the usual considerations in planning might not be as relevant. Could you advise on the possibility of a small summer house (fixed or movable, off or on the grid) with regards to Ireland’s planning regulations?

There is now huge demand for housing with growing numbers of homeless people and ever-increasing housing lists. The task of housing everyone appears insurmountable. I always feel that those who can provide their own home, on their own land, should be strongly encouraged. The fact that one can provide their own home must be balanced, however, with how this will affect others and the environment receiving the new house. The reality is that the bureaucratic hurdles of planning permission can typically be discouraging and a disincentive to those who initially opt to go it alone.


Planning law is concerned with third-party rights and the impact a development will have on its surroundings. Such things as design, visual impact, the requirement for safe access from the public road, availability of services and the like are assessed by the local authority. The development must also follow principles of sustainability. The fact that a property may be “out of sight”, or “off grid” as you describe it, does not mean that it is exempt from these requirements. Even a caravan placed in front of your house for an extended period requires planning permission.

A new home will require a wastewater treatment system. Can the site accommodate this successfully? The site would need to be tested for percolation or soakage. A fresh water supply will be needed. Is there a public supply with capacity, or can the site accommodate a new well, together with a new wastewater treatment system? Traffic movements will also increase within the local road network as there will be post, bin collections and other deliveries. The impact of these traffic movements must be considered. If you opt for “on grid” there will be a demand for services such as ESB, telephone and broadband, again with potential impact on the surrounding area. Naturally, these will not arise if you decide to opt for “off grid”.

Local authorities will generally be guided by their local area plan which sets out a strategy for the proper planning and sustainable development of a specific area within a local authority. So they will be able to advise you on the planning permission process in that region and any particular condition for building in the area. In many areas applications may be decided upon by housing need – for example, if you already have a house in that area you will not be granted permission for another – or on local need, ie you can only build a home if you have an association with the area.

The plan will also usually give guidance on design of one-off houses. Design guidelines will typically require that a new house be in keeping with the local vernacular design in terms of form and finishes used. Regrettably, log-type cabins do not typically meet these criteria and will generally be discouraged unless located as you suggest in a forest or lakeside environment. I would recommend early engagement with the local planners to sound out your proposals. If you’re not confident in attending a pre-planning meeting by yourself, you should enlist the help of an architect or chartered building surveyor who has knowledge of the local area and deals with planning matters.

Houses, regardless of their size or location, need planning permission. It may seem over-restrictive, particularly as the development you propose is small and out of the way. However, if your proposal is in keeping with the design guidelines for the location and all other aspects required by the authority are met, there is no reason why your application should not have a successful outcome.

Coupled with planning law, the proposed house must also meet all the requirements of our building regulations. There are many reports within our industry of imported log-type cabins being non-compliant, particularly in relation to thermal insulation. This may in some way explain why this type of development can appear to give very good value for money when compared with indigenous products. There appears to be little knowledge of our regulations among some timber cabin suppliers. It is very important, therefore, that if planning is obtained you seek guidance from a chartered building surveyor – which you can find on – to ensure your proposal will comply with the building regulations, and suitable opinions of compliance can be obtained from the manufacturer and installer.

Noel Larkin is a chartered building surveyor and a fellow of the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland

Do you have a query? Email

This column is a readers’ service. The content of the Property Clinic is provided for general information only. It is not intended as advice on which readers should rely. Professional or specialist advice should be obtained before persons take or refrain from any action on the basis of the content. The Irish Times and it contributors will not be liable for any loss or damage arising from reliance on any content