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Archive for April, 2009

Earthbags are ideal for building greenhouses due to their resistance to moisture damage. Most anyone can build with earthbags, which can cut construction costs. When filled with insulation such as perlite or scoria, earthbag walls and foundations enable you to grow plants year-round.

Excess heat from a greenhouse attached to your home, like the one pictured below, can be vented into the main living space to reduce energy costs. In the summer the excess heat can be vented outdoors. This plan uses standard patio door replacement glass to reduce costs and is easy to extend lengthwise.

Attached Earthbag Greenhouse

Attached Earthbag Greenhouse

Plans for this earthbag greenhouse can be purchased from Dream Green Homes.

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Much as been written about the technical aspects of building with earthbags and how they can be used to build safe, durable, beautiful, low-cost structures. But many readers are unfamiliar with this building method and are wondering what earthbag buildings look like. This inspired me to create a virtual tour of some of the best projects on the Internet. All of the projects are accessible from our Projects page.

Ready? Let’s take a tour of some of the finest earthbag projects:
OM Dome, Koh Phangan, Thailand: Master builder Trevor Lytle oversaw the construction of the world’s largest symmetrical earthbag dome (27 foot diameter) for a spiritual temple at the Pyramid Yoga Center.
The Pegasus Children’s Project, Kathmandu, Nepal: Using a technique developed by Cal Earth in California, architect Nader Kahlili worked with the Pegasus Children’s Project to build a small sustainable village of over 40 “super adobe domes” to provide permanent shelter. This project accommodates 80 children, 10 staff, and a small school in the Himalaya Mountains.
Kelly and Rosana Hart’s earthbag/papercrete home, Crestone, Colorado: Completed in 2000, this 1250 sq.ft. home was made with earthbags filled with scoria (crushed volcanic stone) and covered with papercrete plaster. The passive solar design performs well at over 8,000 ft. in the Colorado mountains. For more information, see Building with Bags: How We Made Our Experimental Earthbag/Papercrete House, 1-1/2 hr. DVD.
Earthbag Domes of Akio Inoue, Tenri, Japan: One of the most experienced and knowledgeable earthbag builders, Professor Inoue has completed at least 23 earthbag buildings in 7 countries. Most projects have been built in developing countries to help those in need recover from war, earthquakes and poverty.
Honey House, Kaki Hunter and Doni Kiffmeyer, Moab, Utah: Authors of Earthbag Building – The Tools, Tricks and Techniques, Doni and Kaki are leading pioneers of the earthbag building movement. The Honey House serves as a drafting studio and cost less than $1,000.
Alison Kennedy’s earthbag home in Moab, Utah: Many earthbag homes are domes, but this house demonstrates how earthbags are equally suitable for structures with vertical walls. Bright and colorful, this home is one of my favorites.
La Casa de Tierra, Ojochal, Costa Rica: This earthbag rental house is beautiful and practical. From certain angles it is difficult or impossible to tell it was made of earthbags.
EarthDome House at Terrasante Village, Tucson, Arizona: This small dome is right at home in the desert. It is made of earthbags with a ferrocement roof insulated with recycled styrofoam. Domes like this can be built for around $1,000.
Building an Earthbag Dome: An article by Rob Wainwright, describes how this 4 meter diameter dome was built at a sustainability education center in Australia. This dome includes a rubble trench footing with a French drain, passive solar design, rammed earth flooring and a living roof.
Sand Castle, Steve and Carol Escott, Rum Cay, Bahamas: Their two story home on a remote island features a first floor made with earthbags filled with sand and crushed coral (marine dredgings), and a second story framed house covered with a hip-style roof. Their home has withstood several hurricanes so far without major damage.
Tatu Penrith’s Sandbag Hideaway, South Africa: Built with the Eco-Beam building system, this home features high ceilings and a great view overlooking vine-covered hills and the bay. Its modern, artistic appearance will appeal to many.
Kentucky Dome Home, John Capillo, Berea, Kentucky: HomeGrown HideAways, a natural building school, arranged a workshop to teach earthbag building and help John build his home. It features a 16 foot dome, a larger circular area on the south and a wooden roof.

Click here to read the entire article

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Many earthbag builders are fond of curved houses. That’s great because earthbags readily lend themselves to curved shapes. But what about the roof?

Thatch roofing is one good solution, depending on your climate and local codes. Here are a few links to get you started.

Exotic East, Bali huts and thatch

Installation instructions
This is clever because it saves lots of time. The pre-made panels are 2.1 meters long.

Thatched Roofs: An Introduction, an article that discusses the three main thatching materials in use today.

Fijian thatch panels
I like these because they’re flexible and would work great on curved roofs. Here’s a pic.

Fijian thatch panels from www.bambooandtikis.com

Fijian thatch panels from http://www.bambooandtikis.com

Thatch panels are available in different shapes.

6- 4’x4’ panels with free delivery to US.

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Jerry Collette of www.recycledrice.org is planning to use prepackaged rice hulls that come in 50 lb. polypropylene bags to build an earthbag tipi at the Pine Ridge Reservation. (See www.earthbagbuilding.com/bulletin)

ricelandblock

He says that they cost about $6 US each, so it is not exactly dirt cheap, but there are definite advantages. Rice Hulls make excellent insulation, so this tipi should be very cozy year round. Each block can be used immediately without the need to even fill it, so the process of building should go very quickly.

Each bag measures about  11″ x 20″ x 30″ so they are quite large, again adding to the speed of construction and mitigating the cost of the blocks.

I think this is a very interesting idea that may appeal to many people, especially in areas where these bags of rice hulls are available. The block pictured comes from Jonesboro, Arkansas.

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I was a guest on an internet radio talk show Wednesday, April 15, 2009 in the afternoon, discussing topics related to green home building. Quite a bit of the discussion was about earthbag building.  See  http://truthbrigade.com/

If you missed the live show, it will be archived at http://recordings.talkshoe.com/TC-11887/TS-212923.mp3

I don’t actually make my appearance on the show until about 20 minutes into it.

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I just read this article about the toxic effects of new houses that used drywall material shipped from China to the US in the last few years. Many people are getting quite sick and can no longer live in these contaminated homes. Nobody quite understands exactly what the cause is, except that the suspect drywall seems to emit toxic sulfuric fumes, especially under hot and humid conditions. These fumes are so corrosive that they can turn copper pipes black. It is estimated that at least 100,000 homes are likely affected by this problem, many of them built during the height of the housing boom when domestic drywall material was harder to find.

Wow. What a devastating example of the imbalance that exists in our modern times. Contractors, wanting to provide more wealth for themselves and those buyers who expected to soon turn around and make a profit on the houses they bought, turned to Chinese producers of building products. To meet the demand the Chinese carelessly threw together raw materials that appeared to be safe enough to use and shipped them across the ocean to the eager market. Everybody was making money…so why not?

Compare this to a more wholesome, sustainable scenario, where only local, natural materials are used for building, and speculation is not driving the economy. This never would have happened.

Thousands of lives are being ruined by this situation, through loss of health and economic loss, paying for houses that cannot be safely lived in. What a double whammy! The author of the article assumed that these houses would eventually have to be torn down to deal with the problem; I doubt that this is true since it is quite possible to pull out all of the drywall and start over with that phase of the construction, which is actually one of the last stages of building. Still, the impact is enormous.

If anything is to be learned from this, it should be that we need to take a serious look at how we go about using resources and making money.

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The folks at The Year of Mud: Building a Cob House have put together a great site, including very informative articles on creating mosaics in earth plaster and building a reciprocal roof (we’ll save this for a future topic). Dirt cheap techniques like mosaics can really enhance the appearance your home.

Mosaic in earth plaster

Mosaic in earth plaster

In addition to mosaics, there are many other low cost ways to enhance the beauty of a home. Years ago on my previous home in Colorado I built some wainscoting with red-colored tamarisk branches (“salt cedar”). The brightly colored branches were nailed (with a small brad gun) on top of turquoise painted wood paneling. A piece of fancy wood trim with a thin turquoise wash finished off the top edge. Total cost: about $10 for a 12 foot wall. Tamarisk branches can be lightly rubbed with various colors of paint and used in cabinet doors, valances, room dividers and more. They’re also great for shutters, because they block excess glare yet allow a soft, filtered light through.

Other options include scraffito designs; adding niches and recessed shelving in walls; embedding bottles, stones, sea shells and drift wood in plaster; creating cob wall sculptures and stenciled designs; using decorative finishes such as aliz, stain, lime wash and sponged designs; you can even imprint leaves, sea shells, etc. in the plaster to create interesting textures.

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Tim Merritt, earthbag enthusiast and reader of our blog, sent us this roof idea from GardenDome.com. Tim is considering using these domes on top of earthbag walls to create more interesting shapes and save labor on the roof. The GardenDome.com website showcases over 60 domes of all different sizes and shapes. You can order their 250 page catalog and CD from their home page. You can view the roof shown below by clicking here.

Dome from GardenDome.com

Dome from GardenDome.com

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One of the biggest issues in society is the cost of housing. Hundreds of millions of people can’t afford housing (even in the US, Europe, etc.). So, there’s a huge demand, but a lack of affordable supply. Here is a prime business opportunity for those who are knowledgeable about earthbag building, since earthbag (sandbag) houses are strong, low cost, durable and can be built to match virtually any style.

Whoever builds good quality houses at an affordable price will be swamped with orders. It almost doesn’t matter how you do it (cluster development, spec building, building to customer specifications, etc.). The key is providing the right house design at the right price. With the right plan, you could build a small, simple house every few weeks, sell it and build another one, over and over and over. (Example: Double Wide Earthbag House Plan, a house that mimics trailer houses, but can be built on the ground.)

While competing builders use expensive manufactured materials like plywood, 2x4s, fiberglass insulation, sheetrock, concrete foundations, linoleum, etc., you could build with low cost natural materials like earthbags, rice hulls, earth plaster, floors of earth, stone, recycled brick or tile, and so on, and sell at a lower price. Sure, people will have some uncertainty about buying a house made differently than the norm, but at the right price they will come around. The bottom line is people need affordable housing and virtually no one else is offering it.

I would look for a small town with minimal building codes to speed the process along. Find a community who is receptive to these ideas and isn’t totally destitute. Make sure you have a house plan that people like! Build one or two earthbag houses to get skilled at the process and refine your techniques. Have an open house, rent a booth at a home show and start taking orders.

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Creating scale models is a great way to learn earthbag building techniques and help visualize your future home. Tim Merritt sent me some pics of models he’s been working on and I was so impressed I wanted to share them with other readers. Tim used modeling clay for his models. Kelly Hart created models for his house using miniature sandbags sewn to scale. See his Miniature Bag Kit.

Clay Model of Earthbag Dome

Clay Model of Earthbag Dome

Tim got the idea for this dome by studying a section view of the Pantheon in Rome. One possibility for this design is to use a half vault as a buttressing wall instead of a complete vault. This would work like a flying buttress on a cathedral to provide horizontal strength. I would experiment with deleting the buttresses shown in the first picture (except possibly those against the flat, back wall). Creating buttresses on the outside of the vault is another option. The main point is modeling makes it easy to try out various configurations to see what looks and works best. Thanks again Tim for contributing this interesting and creative design.

Finished Clay Model of Earthbag Dome

Finished Clay Model of Earthbag Dome

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