Archive for December, 2008

I prefer heavy duty 2-gallon plastic buckets for filling earthbags, the same kind used for bucketing cement.  They’re strong and small enough that everyone can handle them comfortably.  In fact, they’re just the right size.  Because they’re larger than the metal cans typically used, work progresses more rapidly.  Two rounded shovelfuls fill a 2-gallon bucket perfectly.  Or you can save your back and pull the material into the bucket as shown.

filling-bucketsEach bag (ours are about 18” x 30” when empty) takes four buckets of soil.  In some cases only three buckets are used so as to avoid ending a bag above a previous joint.  (Always stagger the joints as in masonry construction — “one over two.”)

Leveling: Measuring the contents of each bag and placing them with a bit of care is the best way to go, much better than just random filling.  The walls are almost self-leveling if the bags are the all same size.  Only an occasional bag will require a little extra tamping to obtain very accurate results.


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Stabilizers make earth walls stronger, more moisture resistant, and reduce shrinking and swelling.  Water is the number one enemy of earth buildings and adding stabilizers (particularly in rainy climates) is one way to create more durable structures.

Lime (Type S – Hydrated Lime) is one of the best stabilizers for clay soils, and more environmentally friendly than cement.  With the addition of fly ash to hydrated lime, the walls will be almost as strong as cement and can be used with clayey and sandy soils.

Wood ashes and other stabilizers and surface coatings are described in detail in Handbook for Building Homes of Earth.  This Peace Corps handbook explains which stabilizers work best on different kinds of soils, how much is needed, as well as many other topics on building with earth.  It has recently been added to our Articles page.

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Strawbale houses were first built shortly after the invention of the baling machine.  Settlers in western Nebraska who had access to this machine were quick to realize the potential of large, insulated building blocks.  And the rest of the story, as they say, is history.  This same potential now exists for earthbag building.

Ensor Equipment automated bag filling machine.

Ensor Equipment automated bag filling machine.

The benefits of building with bags are described in detail throughout this website.  But earthbag building does have a downside – filling, moving and tamping the bags is labor intensive.  The labor can be reduced somewhat by using lightweight volcanic gravel, but it’s still a lot of work.

This could change with the invention of the automated bag filling machine.  Originally designed for flood control projects, the Ensor Equipment bag filling machine has enormous potential for changing the future of earthbag building, especially large scale projects such as housing developments, warehouses, factories, shops, schools and other civic structures.

To read the rest of the article, click here.

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Readers are asking about two bag filling devices on the Internet — EZBagger and GoBagger.  They scoop and funnel sand directly into bags.

My preference for a bag filler was explained in my post titled Bucket Chutes (December 16, 2008).  I explained how you can modify a standard $1 bucket in couple of minutes for something very similar.

The main drawback to these other devices is they are designed for small bags.  From their websites it looks like they’re using 12” bags or something similar.  I’ve never heard of earthbag builders using 12” bags.  Most are using 18”-24” bags to obtain wide, stable walls.  It would be physically impossible for all but professional athletes to scoop up enough material to fill an 18” bag the way they show (and work steadily all day long).

Plus, most earthbag builders are using soils with about 20%-30% clay – adobe soil, road base, reject fines, etc. – not pure sand, which can shift and cause structural problems.  The clay portion is important for stabilizing the walls.  It would be very difficult if not impossible to scoop up these types of soils in the way that’s being advertised.

But judge for yourself.  I’ve never used either product, and don’t intend to.

EZBagger Their claim: One person can do 3 times the work… No price listed.
GoBagger Their claim: One person can do 5 times the work… Out of stock

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Originally published by Owner Builder Magazine, this excellent article by Rob Wainwright of Permaforest Trust comes complete with many useful building details, as well as quite a few beautiful photos.  Rob explains how they built their four meter dome step-by-step clearly enough that others could build one similar.

Permaforest Trust domeThis project is now featured on our Projects page and our Articles page.

Part 2, Finishing Off an Earthbag Dome, also by Rob Wainwright, is not yet online but is available direct from Owner Builder Magazine, issue 147, June/July.

The Permaforest Trust website is a treasure trove of informative articles on living lightly on the land, with hours or days of free reading material.  Highly recommended.

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James and Suzanne McConnell, co-founders of The Foster Village, are creating a self sustaining earthbag eco-pueblo pilot program for foster teenagers near Ojo Caliente, NM.  Children living full time in an eco-pueblo along with their visiting parents, when appropriate, will work side-by-side, interacting and caring for animals, gardening, building earthbag domes, milking goats, making cheese – engaging in natural activities designed to reconnect them with nature and creation. The goal is reconnecting children and their parents, when possible, to their purpose in the world and their position in the circle of life.

Beehive Floorplan

In addition to The Foster Village, Broken Earth began offering Beehive Home Building Courses in the spring of 2008. This program is structured a bit like the Habitat for Humanity program, whereby people who have participated in a course will be the first in line to receive help building their own Beehive Home. Other similar courses cost over $1,500, their course cost $150 and runs three times as long. Workshop sign-up page: www.brokenearth.org/beehivehome/courses.htm

More information on beehive dwellings: www.brokenearth.org/beehivehome/index.htm

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To keep earthbags open during filling I recommend a bucket chute – a plastic bucket with the bottom one inch cut off.  A 4-gallon bucket fits perfectly in our 18” wide bags.  Simply insert the chute in the bag opening and you’re ready to add fill material.

Credit for this clever idea goes to Trevor Lytle, the master builder of the Om Dome in Thailand.  (See Om Dome: Trevor Lytle Interview for more information.)

The price is right – about $1 at a discount store.  It doesn’t have to be heavy duty, a regular bucket is fine.  And it’s easy to make: just cut off the bottom one inch with a handsaw or saber saw.  Sand the edges a little to remove burrs and you’re good to go.

Some earthbag builders prefer a metal stand.  Both systems work, so try both to see which one you prefer.  For me, the time and effort to build a metal stand was a deterrent.  I’m always on the lookout for easier, better ways of doing things and the bucket chute is a good example.

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Simple Earth Buildings for the Humid Tropics by Patti Stouter is the third in a series of PDF documents that she has written (and made available for free) about building in hot and humid environments. This 17-page document focuses on several basic home plans that could easily be built with earthbags.

Patti writes, “These buildings have been sized to conform to the rules that have kept mud block
buildings without cement, asphalt, or steel standing for centuries in areas without serious
hazards. Modern earth buildings too often use cement when it is not necessary.”

In discussing building styles, Patti suggests, “Earthbags can be shaped in many ways, and you should make
buildings that fit your area and lifestyle. Buildings for hot, humid areas need windows to let breezes cool them off. Yet earth buildings are strongest with fewer windows. Rooms where people gather overheat easily
and need more windows. You must decide how much of the walls need to be openings.”

Much of what she emphasizes are design principles, such as ways to create strong walls using earthbags. For this she suggests the use of piers or buttresses, jogged wall patterns, or curved walls. One key to wall strength is allowing about a square meter of wall material between windows.

She also discusses the use of earthbags to create a substantial raised foundation for more conventional buildings that use lighter materials, often preferred in these climates.

Strategies for building sequentially, so that the house can grow as the needs of the family expand, are mentioned.

I think this little book is valuable for anyone thinking about home design, even in other climate regions.

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Looking for the perfect furniture for your new earthbag home?  Everyone’s familiar with bean bag furniture, but most brands use polystyrene fill, a possible carcinogenic.  Consider making your own furniture filled with rice hulls as an all natural fill.

Rice hulls are surprisingly comfortable.  I discovered this by accident about six months ago when I sat down on an earthbag filled with rice hulls.  Rice hulls are strong yet flexible, odor free, flame retarding, rot resistant, and resist settling and compression.  Best of all they’re practically free, since they’re a by-product of harvesting rice.

You will need to make or buy an outer removable cover of canvas, denim, cotton or leather with a zipper.  An inner liner (possibly of earthbags) makes it easy to remove and clean the cover.  One low cost option is to simply cover rice hull-filled earthbags with a blanket or piece of fabric.  This makes moving, adjusting or refilling the bags a breeze.

Shapes include standard bean bag chairs, large chairs for two or more people, ottomans, lounge chairs, floor pillows, kid’s furniture, benches, cushions for other furniture and almost any other shape you can think of.  For example, a bay window loveseat (possibly with storage underneath) could be made very inexpensively.

Here’s a sampling of styles you can find with a Google search: www.awesomebeanbags.com

In addition to the typical uses in dorm rooms, recreation rooms, apartments, etc., bean bag furniture is popular with expectant mothers, the handicapped, and those with injuries or casts.

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Patti Stouter and I have just completed a proposal for Emergency Earthbag Shelters.  The basic premise is many times tarps alone do not provide sufficient shelter for humanitarian relief operations, while tents may not be available or cost effective.  What is often needed is a simple family shelter solution that is easy to transport and erect, less expensive than tents and uses standard materials that are globally available.

shelter-picSimple earthbag shelters are ideal for emergency use.  Sandbags (earthbags) are only slightly more expensive than tarps by themselves, but provide superior protection against wind, rain, heat, cold, snow, bullets, fire, flooding, hurricanes and noise.

Earthbags are light and easily transportable, adaptable to many different situations and provide a more dignified living space than just a tarp.  They reduce the impact on local resources by minimizing need for wood.  Recipients can modify the space to meet their needs.  In addition to many other advantages, emergency earthbag shelters could be incrementally upgraded to make permanent shelters.

Special thanks to Patti for doing such a great job on the illustrations!  She’s also submitted three other reports on earthbag building in the last few weeks: www.earthbagbuilding.com/articles.htm.

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