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Archive for September, 2011

Gary Zuker’s Hobbit House outside of Austin, Texas

Gary Zuker’s Hobbit House outside of Austin, Texas


Gary Zuker’s Hobbit House outside of Austin, Texas

Gary Zuker’s Hobbit House outside of Austin, Texas


I just posted a photo of this house yesterday, but I’m posting some more pics since it’s one of my favorite houses. Very few houses are so beautiful that you can turn in any direction from any point and get magazine quality shots like these. It has exquisite detailing. I’d like to walk alone barefoot through their house in silent, slow motion and really take it all in. Gary Zuker’s story about building the house is very inspiring as well. I hope you have time to read the full article and closely study all the photos.

You could build a similar house with earthbags instead of cob in a fraction of the time. Anyone can prove this on their own by building small samples of equal size. For instance, I could make a 2’ long by 1’ high section of wall in the time it takes just to mix the cob. Maybe I’ll do a YouTube earthbag/cob comparison video when our son gets home from college next week…

This house ranks up there with the Taos Art Museum and Fechin House in Taos, New Mexico, another of my favorites.

Source: Natural Home and Garden

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Gary Zuker sized and polished reclaimed granite for his kitchen countertop in his cob house near Austin, Texas.

Gary Zuker sized and polished reclaimed granite for his kitchen countertop in his cob house near Austin, Texas.


Zafra, one of our readers, left a comment today that said, “I would argue that government itself is not the problem, but corporate control of government is. As a rule, if you see government interfering in progressive movements it’s to protect the corporations and industries (banks, insurance, timber, chemical just to name a few that have to do with housing) to which it is beholden, or by which it is owned…”

This is an earthbag blog, of course, and so we don’t want to get sidetracked on politics. But the problem has become so enormous that it now affects virtually everyone. A lot of people are getting increasingly angry as government agencies make it more and more difficult to live a simple life… I’ve always said to “vote with your wallet”. Try not to support the big corporations that are at the root of all these problems. Building DIY, low cost housing without mortgages, using locally available natural materials is one big step to starving the beast.

This is interesting to me, because I usually approach the issue from the other angle. I’ve always been interested in natural building because it’s lower cost, more user friendly, safe and nontoxic, and the end result is more beautiful and personalized. But now I’m seeing how you can have all these advantages and help snuff out big corporations at the same time as a bonus. Cool.

Image source: Natural Home and Garden
[Note: this is one of my favorite houses. Be sure to click the link at the bottom of the article to see the photo gallery of this house. This is the sort of thing I’d like to put on a Pinterest page.]

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Lightweight, insulating geopolymer is ideal for many applications.

Lightweight, insulating geopolymer is ideal for many applications.


As reported in a previous blog post just recently, low cost raschel mesh tube material is now available. (Thanks again to Patti Stouter for tracking this down.) Affordable mesh tubing means hyperadobe is now a more realistic option for many earthbaggers. A growing number of people think hyperadobe is the fastest, easiest earthbag method currently available. It all goes back to Fernando Soneghet Pacheco, the original developer of hyperadobe, who improved the superadobe technique because after having done a course he realized that there were a few problems. The hyperadobe is superior because mesh bags or tubes are narrower, so less soil is needed and it’s cheaper. You can also save money with doors and window bucks (rough frames) as they don’t need to be so wide. The soil dries much faster. The mesh material increases stability and in some cases can eliminate the need for barbed wire. In addition, plaster bonds more readily to the mesh.

The real purpose of this blog post is to point out how lightweight fill materials such as scoria and pumice can be used in the hyperadobe system to create superinsulated buildings in harsh climates. Options include loose scoria and pumice with no binder (requires some additional reinforcing), and scoria, pumice, recycled polystyrene, perlite or vermiculite bonded with clay. Although it hasn’t been done yet, I believe stiff mixes of pumicecrete, perlite geopolymer cement, cellular lightweight geopolymer concrete, hempcrete and other similar materials could be used. This idea ties in with my blog posts about Lightweight, Insulating Geopolymer Earthbags. The main addition here is the suggestion of using mesh bags and tubes to improve the system. Please let us know if you experiment with some of these materials.

We’ve already reported on hyperadobe in detail, but here are a few links for new readers:
Hyperadobe Update
Open Weave Fabric: Ideal Working Properties
Hyperadobe Continued
Mesh Bags Versus Poly Bags: Differences in Working Properties
Mesh Bag Details
More Hyperadobe Videos
Hyperadobe Update from Brazil

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Bottle wall photo at Christina Atkins’ Pinterest site

Bottle wall photo at Christina Atkins’ Pinterest site


I really love the Internet. I just learned of another cool way to share ideas called Pinterest. It’s an “online pinboard” to “collect the things you love.” I stumbled onto Christina Atkins’ site and was happily surprised to see not only some of my projects, but also other interesting pics. I loved the whole collection. Let’s call it instant bonding of like minds.

Hmm. Maybe I should get a Pinterest site to organize my favorite pics? Maybe pics like these:
Beautiful Houses
Earthbag Roundhouse
Slide Show of Earthbag Buildings
Cool Ecovillage Pics
Adding Character and Style to Your Home
Photo Post #1
Natural Building Photo Galleries

Source: Christina Atkins Pinterest

Update: Luke’s comment below prompted me to explore Pinterest some more. I just found their Home category that has tons of awesome photos. This is a must see collection of interesting home design pics.

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The Arc House could be easily modified into an off-grid Boulder House. (click to enlarge)

The Arc House could be easily modified into an off-grid Boulder House. (click to enlarge)


Do you dream of ‘getting away from it all’ and living in a self-sustaining, off-grid home surrounded by nature? A number of my earthbag house plans would work well for this purpose. If you’re looking for a relatively low cost and easy to build Boulder House then take a look at my Arc House.

Arc Boulder House design summary: build the boulder house at base of sloping terrain near a lake (curved back wall resists thrust of soil), next to a stream flowing to the lake which is harnessed for fresh water and micro hydro energy, and add at least one small solar panel for electronics and back-up power. Want to see a drawing of how it would look? Well, the boulder house would totally blend into the natural environment and be almost indistinguishable from the surrounding environment due to the boulder shapes, texture, colors, and living walls.

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My Earthbag Building Guide covers all the basics of building with bags. In addition to the basic techniques, here are a few more small suggestions that didn’t make it into the book. I say small, but little improvements like these can save a lot of work over the course of building a home.

– Cover the piles of soil to retain moisture and/or prevent getting soaked in heavy rain. This step can cut the time spent mixing and filling buckets in half. Tarping the piles has additional advantages: prevents dogs and kids from scattering the soil; prevents cats from using the pile as a litter box (eew!); keeps leaves out. If the tarps are large enough, they can be pulled over a makeshift frame so the bucket filler can work in the shade and/or out of the rain. (Oh yeah, thank you Owen.)
– Filling buckets: Place the bucket at the base of the pile and use a digging tool (grape hoe, etc.) to pull the soil into the bucket. Done correctly, the soil falls into the bucket with minimal effort. This takes far less effort than shoveling, because you’re dealing with moist, clayey/aggregate soil.
– Filling bags: Don’t pick up the bucket until you’re sure the other person holding the bag is ready.
– Filling bags: Quickly dump or ‘shoot’ the bucket of soil into the bag versus gradually pouring it in. Not only does this speed the process, it means you don’t have to hold a bucket of heavy soil as long. (Multiply the savings of several seconds per bucket times thousands and it adds up.)
– Filling bags: After dumping the soil into the bag, place the empty bucket in the direction of the pile to save steps. You might want to stack the buckets so you can more easily carry them back to the pile.
– Check each others work as you go to prevent errors or break the work flow: Are the necessary tools in position for the next bag? Are you maintaining a running bond? Are the filled bags all the same height? Is the correct number of buckets filled and stacked nearby? (Prevents losing count.) Are the buckets uniformly filled? Is the soil the right moisture content?
– If the worker who’s filling buckets gets ahead of the other worker(s), they can clean up/condense the pile while waiting.
– If the worker who’s filling and placing bags gets ahead of the other worker(s), they can pin the corners of some bags, etc.
– Don’t build too close to trees or you might have problems with tree roots. Tree roots can bust up concrete (and anything else), so be sure they’re not running under your earthbag walls.

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“An autonomous building is a building designed to be operated independently from infrastructural support services such as the electric power grid, gas grid, municipal water systems, sewage treatment systems, storm drains, communication services, and in some cases, public roads.

Advocates of autonomous building describe advantages that include reduced environmental impacts, increased security, and lower costs of ownership. Some cited advantages satisfy tenets of green building, not independence per se (see below). Off-grid buildings often rely very little on civil services and are therefore safer and more comfortable during civil disaster or military attacks. (Off-grid buildings would not lose power or water if public supplies were compromised for some reason.)

Autonomous buildings can increase security and reduce environmental impacts by using on-site resources (such as sunlight and rain) that would otherwise be wasted. Autonomy often dramatically reduces the costs and impacts of networks that serve the building, because autonomy short-circuits the multiplying inefficiencies of collecting and transporting resources. Other impacted resources, such as oil reserves and the retention of the local watershed, can often be cheaply conserved by thoughtful designs.

Autonomous buildings are usually energy-efficient in operation, and therefore cost-efficient, for the obvious reason that smaller energy needs are easier to satisfy off-grid. But they may substitute energy production or other techniques to avoid diminishing returns in extreme conservation.”

Source: Wiki

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Kelly sent me the following article about government and big industry plans for achieving energy efficiency in buildings. One goal is to achieve zero net energy by 2030. While I agree with the need to slash energy consumption and the overall goal of zero energy buildings, I have almost no confidence these type of plans will be practical and affordable to average homeowners. Housing is already unaffordable for most people. I think we need less government interference, not more. Imagine a giant ‘energy efficiency building bureaucracy’ like the building department involved with every project, and all the associated fees, forms, permits, inspections, regulations, fines, delays, and on and on. No thanks. The know-how to build super efficient buildings is already widely known. Rising energy costs and costs of materials are gradually making the need for energy efficient buildings a no brainer. As costs escalate, people will naturally gravitate to affordable, low impact, low energy buildings like earthbag, adobe, pole building and so on.

Source: The Three Factors Behind a ‘Moon Shot’ for Building Energy Efficiency

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Instructable: How to Build an Earthbag Dome by Owen Geiger

Instructable: How to Build an Earthbag Dome by Owen Geiger


Every year we publish the most popular blog posts for the last 12 months. We’ll do that again in November on our 4th anniversary. Our goal here is to look at the most popular blog posts since we’ve started – the Best of the Bestest. Think of them as hidden gems unless you’ve read all 756 blog posts. (And if you have read them all, then you can start reading the info on our mothership at EarthbagBuilding.com. It’s all free. Enjoy.)

1. Counties with Few or No Building Codes
2. Bullet Resistance of Compressed Earth
3. Low-cost Multipurpose Minibuilding Made With Earthbags (This is my earthbag dome that almost went viral last year and got republished on dozens of blogs… see photo above.) Click here to read the free Step-by-Step How to Build an Earthbag Dome Instructable at Instructables.com.
4. Creating Earthbag House Models
5. Earthquake-resistant Earthbag Houses
6. Earthbag Rootcellar
7. Cost of Earthbag Houses
8. $2,000 Earthbag House
9. Earthbag Survival Shelter
10. Using Earthbags as Ceiling Insulation

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Traditional haystack

Traditional haystack


Hobbit House with haystack roof (click to enlarge)

Hobbit House with haystack roof (click to enlarge)

The ongoing economic recession is putting lots of people in difficult situations. For some, the situation may even seem hopeless. I’m writing this to remind everyone to never give up. Who knows for sure what’s in store in the future, but the main thing is to keep your head together and just keep on going. Look for alternative ways of doing things. Mainstream media and mainstream thinking, which are partially responsible for the mess we’re in, assumes the economy is rolling along and everybody has money. That’s certainly not the current reality. Again, think outside the box to find dirt cheap or even free ways of doing things: alternative lifestyles, alternative incomes (not necessarily a full time job, just a way to make enough money to get by), or alternative building using natural, minimally processed local and recycled materials. The following excerpt is from one of my articles in The Last Straw journal.

Typically, the roof is the most expensive part of a building. Trusses or rafters, sheathing, roof insulation, and roofing – shingles, metal roofing, tile, etc. – are all major expenses. Tarpaper, fascia, fasteners, soffit work, flashing, and roof vents all add up. And, the time and cost of labor to build a conventional roof is significant.

Now imagine virtually eliminating all of these costs and you’ll begin to appreciate the simplicity of the Haystack House. (Actually, straw is used but somehow the term ‘haystack’ seems appropriate.) The idea occurred to me while observing stacks of rice straw that are common throughout Thailand. After harvesting the rice, farmers store the straw in large, conical or domed stacks. Sometimes the stack is raised off the ground on a pole structure. Why not raise the stack a little higher and create a living space underneath? The farmers are making the stacks every year regardless, so the only extra labor for the roof is the ladder work.

A haystack overhead creates a super-insulated roof to protect against the withering heat in tropical climates. Most houses in Thailand are uninsulated metal-roofed houses, so this idea offers a significant improvement in comfort and eliminates any need for an air conditioner.

In keeping with local building traditions, a post and beam frame makes sense. Eucalyptus is a good choice of wood for pole building. It’s grown in Thailand and other countries for pulpwood, and is low cost and naturally insect resistant. Recycled wood is another good option. The finished “roof” (haystack) creates a shady workspace to finish the rest of the structure at a leisurely pace.

The beauty of this design is in its timeless simplicity. Humans have created their own shelter for countless years using available natural materials. Only recently have we started turning this task over to contractors, and the result has been escalating construction costs, excessive debt, often shoddy workmanship, and sterile looking, unhealthy buildings.

Here are just a few building ideas to get you started:
– Limitations: Best for small, simple, single-family residences in rural areas.
– Shapes: Conical roofs for roundhouses may be the simplest. Hexagonal, octagonal, other multi-sided shapes (pyramidal, polygonal, etc.), and hip roofs are all options. An oval house is another interesting possibility.
– Pole frame: Roundwood is less expensive and inherently stronger than milled wood. Notch the posts for the bond beam.
– Decking: This is what supports the haystack. Recycled wood and bamboo are two options. Treat any structural bamboo with borax; otherwise insects will quickly devour it. Ideally, the decking would be moisture and rodent proof. Creating a slight curvature with bowed lumber (so the center of the deck is higher than the edges) would help drain away any water that gets through the straw.
– Loft space: Add floor joists if you decide on a loft. To form the loft space, make a simple framework of bamboo and mound the straw against it. In other words, you could have a loft inside the haystack.
– Miscellaneous: Add a tamped earth floor, cob and/or bamboo furniture, earthen plaster, mosquito net over the bed, and earthen oven, grill and thatched roof verandah for outdoor living and you’ll be well on your way to a small, cozy, dirt cheap bungalow.

Worried about fire hazards and building codes? Move to a developing country, live simply with few possessions and leave your cares behind! Build a house like this for a few hundred dollars and enjoy life.

Hobbit House now available with four roof styles
Full text available by ordering the back issue of The Last Straw journal.

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