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Archive for March, 2011

Mesh Bags of Recycled Foam

Mesh Bags of Recycled Foam


Patti Stouter has been experimenting with all sorts of things, including using mesh bags of recycled foam. She wants to build a Nubian vault with these bags of foam on a rebar frame.

Scrap materials are often large enough to fit well in cheaper open weave vexar mesh tubes. This stretchy plastic tubing is used for onion bags, and makes firm rolls of scrap foam or packing peanuts 10”- 12” in diameter (25- 30 cm). Softer materials like strips of grocery bags can be fluffed and used as a cavity fill, but may require a sturdier mesh base for the plaster.

Note: test a sample bag before making large purchases to ensure they will work for your project.

Note: There’s lots of content on our websites about building insulated earthbag houses. Use the search function in the upper right of the page and search for terms such as insulated, cold climate, etc. Here’s one link on insulated earthbag houses.

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Today we’re experimenting with rice hull ash and road base. We’re using a small measuring device so we can get about 10% rice hull ash. This is what rice hull ash looks like. It’s hulls from rice that’s been burned. It looks like ash from a forest fire. It’s a natural pozzolan which can make the soil harder. We’re going to start off with about 10%. I’m adding it in thin layers and tamping it. This will simulate an earthbag. Okay, it’s pretty solid, just like you would tamp an earthbag. The idea is to use rice hull ash in replacement of cement. That big bag over there was only $3.60 and, of course, cement is much more expensive. Now we’re making a second test block with no burned rice hulls, no ash, just the road base so we can compare the two blocks. We’re just adding a little earth at a time, the same consistency, the same amount of moisture we put in earthbags. Just spread it out in thin layers. You notice the plastic on the tamper so it doesn’t stick. So here’s our finished rammed earth block with no ash. We’ll see how they compare after they dry. This one had a little more moisture and seems like it’s stronger, but then again this one has ash, which should add some strength, so we’ll see. I noticed this was crumbly when I took it out of the form, which means it probably had a lack of moisture. Some people may think this is just earth, it can’t be strong. But this is rammed earth, which can last thousands of years. You can learn more on our earthbag website. But just this here alone can last thousands of years. It gains its strength from clay. The clay is like a flat platelet, kind of like the shape of my hand. You put the platelets together and under pressure they create a molecular bond that’s very, very strong. Very compact, very dense. So this can last for a very long time. We’ll wait a little while and take it out of the form. Make sure you use very strong forms. And also note, you don’t have to tamp it and you don’t have to make it in blocks. This is just a test. You could build a whole wall in the same way, not individual blocks. So there are many things you can do with this technology. And this plastic – we tested this out – and it works really well. Here are the final blocks. You can see that this one had more moisture. You can see the smooth, solid clay on the top and even on the sides. You can see more pore space here, more small holes between the particles, so I’m guessing that this is going to be stronger even though we put the ash in this one over here to make it stronger. So we’ll see in maybe a week or two. If you do this, I highly recommend metal forms. The wood form is just too fragile, too easy to break. And with a metal form, you could tamp it much harder and get very, very strong blocks.

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This just in from Kelly Hart:

“Dr.Jenny Pickerill recently traveled around the world on a Winston Churchill Trust Travelling Fellowship on a quest for information and insights on how folks in England (where she teaches at the University of Leicester) might better address needs for sustainable housing. One of her stops was in the rural area of Colorado state, where I live, and I had the pleasure of spending time with her, introducing her to some of green building activity in this area. Back at home in England now, Jenny has issued a preliminary report on her findings, which she is allowing me to quote below. I feel that her conclusions are pertinent to most places in the world.”

Read the rest at Kelly’s Green Home Building and Sustainable Architecture blog. (His blog was rated #1 on the topic a while back.)

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Some natural builders may be interested in building houses for profit. One suggestion is to find out what people want in your area. And so we’re going to look at a few houses here. This is what people are buying. These houses are made with brick, concrete and tile, but you could build the same thing, the same exact style using earthbags, straw bales, adobe, whatever. You know this is what people want and so you don’t have to worry as much about selling the house. Just build what people want. These houses are very affordable. You see they’re using a carport instead of a garage; no closets, no upper cabinets. The size is 24’x36′ (864 interior square feet). So they’re very small, very simple houses on small lots.

My Naturalhouse’s Channel now has 71 short videos on natural building. Due to the overwhelmingly positive response (about 150,000 upload views as of today), I’m planning to add many more videos.

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Raised garden bed made with compressed earth blocks (CEBs)

Raised garden bed made with compressed earth blocks (CEBs)


Many gardeners are familiar with Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening system: raised garden beds of any size divided into square foot (300mm) grids. It’s a very popular gardening system and he has sold over one million books.

With this method you can grow five times more plants in a given space with less maintenance. You’ll use less water, fewer seeds, and have healthier plants and fewer insect problems. Mr. Bartholomew claims it takes half the labor of typical gardening. You don’t even have to dig down in the soil, because the beds are raised above ground. This means you can grow plants almost anywhere, including areas where the soil is really bad. Instead of trying to fertilize and amend lousy soil over a period of years, you use perfect soil right from the start. In short, it’s a fantastic system and works well.

But there is one drawback. Mr. Bartholomew recommends wood for building the raised beds. He probably does this to keep things as simple as possible. Anyone can go to a building supply center, buy some boards and nail or screw them together. But most wood doesn’t hold up well outside, especially when it’s in direct contact with moist soil. In many cases the wood will rot in a few years and you’ll have to rebuild the beds.

We have chosen more durable materials for building the raised beds so we don’t have to keep rebuilding our garden. It’s a good idea to use what is affordable and locally available. In our area we have very inexpensive compressed earth blocks (CEBs for short), so that’s what we use. CEBs are made with a mixture of soil and about 10% cement that’s compressed in a machine.

You can read the complete article by Owen Geiger by purchasing the April/May 2011 issue of The Owner Builder Magazine.

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Earthbag cabin in Portland, Oregon, built by Scott Howard of Earthen Hand Natural Building

Earthbag cabin in Portland, Oregon, built by Scott Howard of Earthen Hand Natural Building


Scott Howard of Earthen Hand Natural Building does it again! This earthbag cabin in Portland, Oregon was “built mostly during a workshop series in summer 2009. We had a lot of fun with building this house.” Click the link to see more pics. I think roundhouses are the simplest earthbag structures to build, and I predict this cabin will spawn a lot of imitations. (I mean that in a good way.)

Visit their 2011 Workshop page if you’re looking for a quality earthbag workshop.

Here’s a good pic of the earthbag cabin under construction.

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From time to time we answer reader’s questions.
Chase: After much research, I am really interested in pursuing a career in natural building, in earthbags, and many other means. I’m not entirely sure where to start, especially since I’m just starting and don’t know much about construction or buying land, but I can’t resist the idea of natural building. Any information you could give me would be greatly appreciated, as in projects I could start to get in some practice, that are simple, easy, and can be done at home.

Owen: You can learn almost everything in your backyard practically for free. Our websites explain most everything you need. Here’s the main Step-by-Step Earthbag Building article to get you started.

There’s a big difference between reading about something and really understanding it through experience, so I encourage you to build sample corners, test bags, arches, etc. in your backyard. Even temporary ones are okay. You can practice every step of construction on a small scale using recycled bags from farmers. Test various soil mixtures. Cut the bags open when they’re dry and look at the results. Did they turn into a hard brick-like mass? Or did they fall apart due to lack of clay? Practice plastering with earth. Gradually accumulate good tools. If you have space, try to build a tool shed or similar small structure. Buy my upcoming earthbag book that should be finished very soon. (It’s in the final editing stage.) Consider taking a workshop from one of the companies featured on our sites. At some point you could consider helping on some international projects to gain greater experience. Places like Haiti and Mexico are really booming. You’d learn a lot and help a lot of people. In addition, you could help on projects near you much like old fashioned barn raisings. Check out our bulletin board at EarthbagBuilding.com to locate projects.

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