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Archive for July, 2011

I came across an incredible report from ZERI (Zero Emissions Research Initiative) who is famous for demonstrating how to turn low value wastes into profitable products without creating toxic byproducts in the process. They held a conference in Bhutan and helped identify 21 promising green technologies to vitalize the local economy. This is top notch work. One of the most interesting reports I’ve read lately. The same concepts also are under consideration by the Mindfulness Project folks I’m working with to create a sustainable community in Thailand. They understand how important it is to make profitable businesses within the community so they don’t have to rely on donations and/or live in cities.

Example — Silk for Sutures and Shoes (how to boost profits from silk production)
“A farmer could earn $5 for a kilogram of cocoons with silk, $50 for unraveled silk, $500 for processed textile, $5,000 for top quality fashion silk, but that the prices jump to $10,000 for medical devices like sutures and even $100,000 for sophisticated equipment like silk-based vascular implants…silk farming could generate $350 per acre in carbon credits…the hard cocoon – which is today discarded – has antifungal and antibacterial properties which make it an excellent candidate for shoe soles… more value out of what is available.”

Here are a few more great ideas from ZERI:
– combined heat and power with solar (doubles solar production!)
– vertical wind turbines installed inside high voltage transmission towers
– biogas from sludge and organic solid waste for municipal power supply
– LED and solar charged recyclable batteries
– turpentine (also used as fuel) from pine trees
– interlocking blocks (CEBs) and roof tiles
– bamboo as a structural building material with natural preservation system (non-essential parts of the plants are carbonized and then burned to cure the bamboo)
– concentrate magnesium from dolomite with citric acid
– free Internet
– jewelry from silicone in rice hulls
– soap products locally from soap nuts
– bioplastics from agrowastes

Apply this same thinking to earthbag building. For instance, use the pit where soil is excavated to create a fish pond. Besides raising fish, the pond provides a backup supply of water for dry seasons. Put a blacklight over the pond to attract insects to feed the fish. Irrigate your garden and a grain field with water from the pond (that’s now higher in natural fertilizer). Feed the grain to the fish. Dry and smoke the fish and sell at a premium price. Charge tourists for fishing.

And in case you’re wondering, Gunter Pauli and others at ZERI have over 50 integrated projects like this on four continents.

Zeri home page

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Stone entry

Stone entry


In a previous post we looked at cordwood/log end detailing. Along similar lines, stone detailing also adds excellent value and beauty. With stone, a little goes a long way. Just a little stone around the front entrance, for example, makes a big difference. And, of course, you can gather local stone and build it yourself at very low cost.

Wood stove with stone wall

Wood stove with stone wall


One of the most practical uses of stone is around a wood stove. The stone creates a fireproof barrier and stores heat. Building a stone wall like this can be an interesting experience, as you can read about on the High Mountain Musing blog.

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L.B.’s House in Nicaragua

L.B.’s House in Nicaragua


L.B.’s House in Nicaragua

L.B.’s House in Nicaragua


I went down to Nicaragua, fell in love and eventually wanted to have a house to call my own. It is the first house I have ever had. Really, I probably would not have been able to afford a “normal” house for some time and really when I found out about earthbag building I fell in love with it. I knew that is what I was going to do… It has been an adventure and a half. I will never forget some of the looks from the locals when we told them how we were going to build our house or when they seen us stacking bags up… it brought a lot of head shaking and prayers :-). The local people are very sweet people who are honest and most are hard working and live off of the land. They are very very open to foreigners, unless you’re Spanish…

We started building in November of 2010. It is on a peice of family land in the foothills. We started to pick and shovel thru the side of the hill to level it out. We wanted to be upon the hill a bit for the breeze, the view and less insects. We then put up a retaining wall made of “piedra cantera.” The piedra cantera is a rock that is cut into blocks, and from what I have heard it is not available readily in all latin american countries.

We let the wall dry and started leveling of the hill area. The earth had compacted again and was almost digging it up another time from scratch. We were very very lucky that there was not any big rock formations underneath because when I put up the internet tower there were plenty of them. We were also very fortunate to have great material to work with. I am not a big science guy but I could tell it was quality earth material. It was reddish in color and seemed to mesh together very tightly and quickly.

For the foundation we did the floating rubble trench. It was a mixture of river rock, “piedren,” and “hormigon” which is a volcanic rock. Then we started stacking… we made a bad mistake at the beginning and did not wet down the earth enough. After 2 rows we started wetting it down a lot more. From just letting the earth sit for some time it would compact quickly even dry. We did tamp it well… there is a lot of things I would do different.

I was looking at different designs for a while but as soon as I seen the Mediterranean design I knew it was perfect for what I wanted. I think it is a great design for keeping cool in a tropical environment and is a floor plan that can make a small place look bigger. Our place is 12×14 meters or so. The only thing different is we are splitting the bedroom in half so it will have bunk beds and the other half would be the bathroom against the wall. Once we had the walls up we did the crown [roof] and that seemed to really bring the house together tightly. Before the crown you could hit in one area of the structure and feel it vibrate pretty well, but after the crown it seems to really solidify the structure strongly. We then did a typical (for the area) zinc roof.

We are later going to do a thatched roof because it looks cool and we are thinking it will insulate it a bit more. Also, we do have an area that is open in the roof that allows light in and heat to escape, it looks pretty cool. We still don’t have our inside walls up nor a floor… but we are getting closer. We are doing all the plaster finishing right now. We did 2 big layers of cow poop, clay (local earth), wood chippings and hay. We are now doing another 2nd coat which is 45% clay, 45% sand and 10% cement. I am not sure what to do for the final coat but we are going to test 30% clay, 30% sand, 30% lime plaster and 10% cement. I have some other mixtures I am looking at too, but it is pretty foreign territory to me so I am going to try some different things. Please let me know if you have any suggestions. As we move along further I will keep you updated.
L.B.

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Hybrid designs like Ronin’s earthbag/ISBU home illustrate how sustainable materials can be combined for optimal results.

Hybrid designs like Ronin’s earthbag/ISBU home illustrate how sustainable materials can be combined for optimal results.


Ronin’s CORGANIX shipping container/earthbag hybrid design is gaining a lot of traction. His post yesterday at Renaissance Ronin Blog triggered 33 emails and mirrored content on about 30 sites. This is a new approach for earthbaggers that’s well worth considering. In this case, Ronin is selling the ISBUs with a pre-finished kitchen and bath. He estimates it would take a plumber and electrician about one hour each to hook up the utilities. You’d have a safe, disaster-resistant shelter to live in (check local codes first) while the surrounding walls and roof were built. Creative designs with workable solutions and excellent value like this one are bound to catch on.

The following discussion provides a snapshot of the main questions people are asking.
Dear Ronin,

I’ve been reading about your Hybrid (Earthbag/ISBU) house everywhere! It seems that it’s caught on like wildfire. MANY of the lists and forums I participate in have threads talking about it.

But something still troubles me. If you build a home with a STEEL SPINE (ISBU) as you say, isn’t the achieved r-value STILL a concern? Isn’t that box still an oven?

Signed,
Dirty hands but active mind…

Dear “Dirty hands”…

I suppose it’s better to have dirty hands and an active mind… than the other way around… ;)

Here’s the deal;

While the “heart” of the Hybrid Corganix home is an ISBU, it’s completely surrounded by earthbags, except on the ends. Those exposed ends are insulated using SPF to achieve extremely high R values. We’re talking about insulating less than about 1/6th of the shipping container, based on a 20′ High Cube. That greatly reduced surface area requiring insulation saves the home builder a TON of money.

Further, the TOP of the ISBU is covered with high-performance SIPs (Structual Insulated Panels) to insure that it performs exactly as required.

The real meat in this hybrid home is in the earthbag system. You see, the ISBU is just “a box filled with goodies” that is incorporated into the home as a “housing system”. The use of the ISBU allows us to “preassemble” the guts of the house so that you don’t have to. You “set it and forget it”… (I know, I know… too many late nights watching infomercials. Sorry, RONCO!) ;)

The idea behind the Earthbag/ISBU home is to use the earth as insulation. This is a little confusing to some, but here goes. The standard use of the term “R-value” doesn’t necessarily apply to earthbag homes in the way most people are taught to believe it would. Simply put, R-value represents the resistance of any given material to it’s conductivity and transfer of heat.

Homes constructed using Earth utilize all that created “thermal mass” to store the heat during the day and then… release it at night. That earthen wall structure just becomes a simplified battery used for heating and cooling. And earthbag home acts like a drive gear in a machine… it keeps the temperature fluctuations within the structure relatively small (and sometimes even constant), provided you use somebody like Dr. Owen Geiger to help you with the math.

In fact, I rarely see Owen incorporating anything that even remotely resembles AC into his earthbag homes. Because of the caliber of the design work, AC and Heat are rarely required.

And, if you get out on the ‘Net and start asking earthbag home owners the hard questions, they’ll tell you that they rarely have power bills relating to heating and cooling that approach a single Benjamin. At least that’s been my experience.

Again, it’s a testament to good design and using the materials in the way that they work the best.

Here’s Owen’s response:
I agree completely with Ronin. The earthbags will shelter and protect the ISBU except for the ends of the container which are insulated with SPF. About the only thing I can add is to look into insulated earthbag houses if you’re planning to build in cold climates. See my article How to Build an Insulated Earthbag House for details.

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Mindfulness Project Insulated Earthbag Domes (click to enlarge)

Mindfulness Project Insulated Earthbag Domes (click to enlarge)


Mindfulness Project Insulated Earthbag Domes (click to enlarge)

Mindfulness Project Insulated Earthbag Domes (click to enlarge)


Description: 20′ interior diameter earthbag dome = 314 sq. ft., plus 14.5’ diameter loft = 110 sq. ft., total = 424 sq. ft. interior, Footprint: 23’ DIA plus benches/planters

These domes are a larger version of my Peace Domes. The bottom half is typical earthbag construction. The top half is lightweight insulation to speed construction and keep the domes cool in harsh climates. The insulated portion will be built much like the Insulated Earthbag Vaults discussed earlier. Many of the structures will be covered in tile mosaics similar to Gaudi tile designs.

The domes are part of a sustainable community being planned in Thailand by Sumano Bhikkhu and Dr. Ajahn Somchai Kantasilo called The Mindfulness Project. This is probably the most exciting project I’ve ever heard of and I’m very honored to be designing their houses. More details coming soon.

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Rustic wainscot

Rustic wainscot


Wood paneling on interior walls is a good way to reduce plaster work, add contrast and warmth, and hide any irregular earthbag walls. Image above shows rustic wainscoting from Design the Space.

Just a few of many possible options:
– use recycled wood, possibly resawn to expose fresh wood
– mill your own wood from logging waste, tree trimming businesses, etc.
– use woods with decorative grain such as beetle kill or spalted maple (may be available at lower cost)
– create diagonal patterns
– incorporate colorful twigs and branches
– make custom trim with a router table
– make raised panels on a table saw
– buy paneling or plywood to speed the work
– wire wheel soft grain wood such as cedar to create an interesting rustic texture and/or rub in a background stain for special effect)

Wainscot trim samples

Wainscot trim samples


You can expand the range of options by making or buying special trim. The image above shows a sampling of decorative wainscot trim from The Blue Ox Mill.

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Wall niche at Canadian Dirtbags blog

Wall niche at Canadian Dirtbags blog


Wall niches, also called nooks or nichos in Spanish, are recesses in the walls that create an interesting design element at no cost. They’re used to display art, handicrafts, photos and other objects. You could build one or two wall niches or add lots of niches throughout the home. There are curved niches, niches with shelves, niches with tile accents… the possibilities are endless. Let’s look at two main methods of creating wall niches – full depth niches, and shallower niches.

The crew at Canadian Dirtbags (see photo above) built deep niches that extend through the whole wall. Here’s their building process: build a form and set in the wall in the desired location; build the earthbag wall around the form; remove the form; cut insulation board to fit snugly on the exterior and nail in place; cover insulation board on both sides with plaster mesh; plaster the wall.

You can also make shallow niches that are recessed a few inches into the wall. These can be added after the wall is built. No forms are needed. Follow these steps: mark the niche on the earthbag wall; cut the bags away; chisel away the soil until you’ve obtained the desired size and shape, and then plaster the wall.

Alternatively, you could use the Candian Dirtbag method described above and then fill in the back of the niche with mortared stone or salvaged brick, additional layers of scrap insulation board, and so on. You could fill it the back with most anything, really. Extra insulation would be best in cold climates.

Nicho from Su Casa Southwestern Homes

Nicho from Su Casa Southwestern Homes

Image 1 source: Canadian Dirtbags
(top rated earthbag blog… make some popcorn and enjoy)
Image 2 source: Su Casa Southwestern Homes (an excellent source for southwestern design ideas)
Search tip: For hundreds of design possibilities, search Google Images using search terms such as wall niche, nicho wall, wall nook, arch nicho, etc.

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