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Archive for December, 2009

Almost every part of a new home can be obtained at lower cost through using recycled goods and bartering. The concept is very simple. Someone, somewhere likely has an excess of what you’re looking for and will gladly trade or sell those goods at below market cost.

For instance, plumbers replace sinks and bathtubs routinely. Busy plumbers have so many old ones that they can barely give them away fast enough. While some fixtures will be in poor condition, many are replaced because they have a small chip or because people want something new and more fashionable.

You can buy recycled building materials from Salvation Army or Habitat Restores and similar thrift stores. This makes shopping convenient because there’s a large selection under one roof.

Often the lowest prices can be found by dealing directly with people who have items they no longer need. It’s amazing what can be scrounged from remodelers, dumpsters, trash haulers, demolition companies and curb sides (drive around at night in affluent neighborhoods). Workers at city dumps typically sort out items of value and sell at very low cost. And don’t forget about yard sales and Craigs List.

You can use the same process to find low cost earthbags (sandbags). Network with farmers and feed stores in your area to locate used grain or feed bags in good condition. Make sure they are comparable in strength to new sandbags and have been stored away from sunlight. You could buy one new sandbag for comparison, and fill and tamp one sample bag before buying a large quantity.

I know artists who have built their homes with recycled materials, and the end results are stunning. One of these artists mixed various colored 4”x4” tiles using leftovers from tile workers and made the most beautiful countertop I’ve ever seen.

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Restrictive building codes are forcing people to look for alternative housing. Building a portable trailer is one of the best tricks for bypassing building codes legally. No permanent foundation and no utility hookups typically mean very few codes. There’s a wealth of free information on trailer houses and tiny houses on the Internet.

But it doesn’t necessarily have to be tiny. Here’s one example using straw bales or earthbags filled with lightweight insulation such as lava rock or perlite: Double Wide

It’s not difficult to set up a DC power system and live off grid if you’re willing to cut out energy wasters and make some basic lifestyle changes. Laptop computers, LED lights and compact fluorescents use very little electricity. Set up a solar shower, composting toilet, etc. to simplify your life.

Where can you put your trailer? I recommend networking with people in a rural area you’d like to live in. The souring economy is forcing many people to consider additional ways of making money. You may be able to make a deal with a farmer, for instance, who allows you to park your trailer on their farm. Or maybe make a trade with an elderly person who needs an extra hand. You could make offers through Craigs List, Woofer sites, post office and restaurant bulletin boards, etc.

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It’s relatively easy to make your own earthbag tampers, but some may decide it’s simpler and more expedient to just purchase them. Here’s one tamper I came across after a quick search on the Internet: Ames True Temper 8″ x 8″ Tamper, 42 inch hardwood handle, $24.98, available from Lowe’s building supply centers.

Ames True Temper Earthbag Tamper

Ames True Temper Earthbag Tamper

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There’s a plethora of building options not covered in the current earthbag literature, one of which is using wood siding on earthbag houses. Plaster is by far the most common wall finish, but it’s always good to know about other options.

Slab Siding

Slab Siding

Wavy Edge Siding (top portion)

Wavy Edge Siding (top portion)

For instance, you may have access to a portable sawmill and low cost timber and can make your own furring strips, slab siding and wavy edge siding. Gleaning wood from logging operations or tree trimming companies are two examples. Or in certain regions, you may be able to buy offcuts inexpensively from a local sawmill (very common).

2×2, 1×3 or 1×4 furring strips will all work. Rough milled wood is fine for furring strips, which means you can mill your own for very little money. Whether you cut your own wood or buy it, make sure it’s dried properly to avoid twisting and bowing. Take care to keep furring strips in alignment (all in one plane) on the wall or your finished siding will be uneven. Cedar shims will come in handy. Take special care when stacking earthbags, and use corner guides to create straight, vertical corners. Attach furring strips with poly baling twine. Embed lengths of twine as you build, and then add furring strips after wall is built.

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A couple in Alberta, Canada have built what appears to be a very nice little dome sauna with earthbags. They say that they have only spent about $125 (mostly on bag material), with the rest of the materials either dug from their property or gleaned from dumps, etc. The bags were first covered with a layer of cob, then finished with an earthen plaster.

One thing that is different than most earthbag projects that I have seen, is that they used a clear plastic tubing material, instead of the usual woven polypropylene. My guess is that this was 6 mil polyethylene, which is not breathable. I wonder if the damp sand/clay mix inside the tubing will ever dry out. They say that the compacted material is about as hard as concrete, so in this little sauna, it may not matter. With all of the steam created inside, ordinary bags would allow the fill to become moist anyway. They built a rocket stove to heat the space, so I’m sure it gets plenty hot in there.

You can read more about how they built this at earthbagbuilding.com.

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I am very pleased to announce that a new forum has been created where people can share information, photos, videos, questions, and network socially…all about earthbag building! It is The Earthbag Building Network and it is very easy to register and become a participant. I just did, and I hope that many of you will also.

Paul McMaster is the founder of this network, and he says, “I started the EarthBag Network after deciding to build with earthbags and wanting to help more people connect and find out how to do the same.”

Thank you Paul!

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For ease of getting a permit for earthbag houses, buy rural land with few or no building restrictions. Ask building officials about building restrictions before buying land! Some will let you build with alternative materials (earthbag, strawbale, adobe, etc.), some won’t. Although alternative materials are allowed by code, some counties make the process so difficult that it’s not worth the trouble. In contrast, some counties have almost no building restrictions except septic systems. It makes no sense, but that’s the way it is. The world desperately needs sustainable housing, but yet all these codes create barriers to alternative building methods and increase cost of construction.

Building codes were written by the insurance, steel, concrete and timber industries to protect their interests and maximize profits. The same thing is happening today with lobbyists in Washington, and that’s why things are so screwed up.

Even if your building officials allow you to build an earthbag house, it will likely cost several times more than it has to. They’ll want concrete foundations, concrete floors, factory trusses, certified wood, etc. Figure $80/sq. ft. minimum in the city instead of $10/sq. ft. do-it-yourself in rural areas. Example: 846 sq. ft. x $80/sq. ft. = $67,680

This is conservative. You’ll likely pay a lot more after permits, engineering fees, utility hookups, etc. And if you hire contractors to do everything, the cost could double. And at this point you may need a home loan, which drives up the price even more. This is part of the reason why there’s a housing crisis and over a billion people can’t afford housing.

You’ll need to talk to your building officials since codes vary county to county. Even a few miles outside the city in a rural county may mean virtually no codes. Try to locate other houses made with alternative building materials. Print various articles and pictures from our websites (www.EarthbagBuilding.com, http://www.GreenHomeBuilding.com, etc.) and show your building department. Pin them down on specifics. They’ll say something like “you’ll need stamped drawings from an engineer or architect.” Find out exactly what they want.

Building in a city shoots down most options. In most cases it’s not worth the time struggling against the system. Maybe you’ll find a local architect or engineer who specializes in alternative/green building and can help you through the process. Do a google search using key phrases.

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