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Posts Tagged ‘cold climate’

Hart house in Colorado made with scoria-filled earthbags

Hart house in Colorado made with scoria-filled earthbags


There are lots of options for building insulated earthbag houses. At this time, scoria and pumice are my favorite. These materials are fireproof, rot proof, easy to work with, don’t attract pests, lightweight, etc. Kelly Hart pioneered the use of scoria bags in his dome home and carriage house in Colorado, and in my opinion this method deserves much more attention.

My Instructable above describes numerous ways for building insulated earthbag homes, and we keep learning more good options:
Foam glass gravel
Expanded clay granules
Foamy geopolymer with perlite
Lightweight geopolymer
Perlite Roundhouses
Rice Hull Earthbag House (make sure to keep the rice hulls dry or they will rot)
Solar Pit House (uses recycled polystyrene)

Good examples of insulated earthbag houses:
Half Moon Earthbag Earthship
Northern New Mexico House
Earthbag Scoria Casita

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Solar Pit House Section View (click to enlarge)

Solar Pit House Section View (click to enlarge)


Specifications: 1,127 sq. ft. interior living space, 441 sq. ft. interior greenhouse, total = 1,568 sq. ft. interior, Footprint: 36’x53’

As explained in the previous blog post, this modern solar pit house is based on the traditional pit house. The construction is much the same. Additional ‘modules’ have been added to create an elongated rectangular design for added living space and windows added on the south for solar gain. Each module is based on wood posts set in geopolymer or concrete footings. Wood beams approximately 10”-12” diameter are joined at the posts with half lap joints and pinned in place with rebar or logging spikes. Smaller poles around the perimeter lean against the beams. 24” wide earthbag walls with a reinforced geopolymer or concrete bond beam rest on rubble trench foundations.

The entire structure is surrounded by insulation and moisture barriers, both of which can be obtained as recycled materials. The Solar Canadian [their blog is currently unavailable for some reason] reported that farmers use large plastic bags for storing grain for one year and then discard them. They should make a perfect moisture barrier. And, as discussed in a previous blog post, recycled polystyrene is available. In this design, loose polystyrene is used around the perimeter, and home-made rigid board insulation is used on the roof and under the floors. Be sure to test the rigid board insulation so it doesn’t compress and cause cracking in the slab floor.

Other features:
– Sloping, earth-sheltered design has no vertical walls exposed to the harsh wind. This greatly reduces heating cost.
– Radiant floor heating is the recommended heating system. At least one back-up heating system is called for due to the extreme climate – either a wood stove or propane heater.
– A window wall separates the greenhouse from the main living space. Solar powered, heat activated fans blow heat from the greenhouse into the home, and cold air return vents draw cool air back into the greenhouse.
– Double door airlock reduces heat loss.
– The entry or mud room has space for coats, boots, shovels, snowshoes and greenhouse window insulation (possibly more polystyrene panels).
– The entry vault helps block westerly winds and prevent drifting snow from accumulating on the greenhouse roof.
– Pantry provides long-term food storage to reduce trips to the store.
– Storage room for greenhouse supplies and potting bench.
– Buried cisterns (not shown) with gravity flow design or back-up water hand pumps in case of blackouts.
– Joseph Jenkins sawdust composting toilets greatly reduce water use. Water conservation is important since water deliveries are expensive and unreliable in remote areas.
– Enhanced livability over current low income housing: traditional design for cultural acceptance; warmer (huge psychological boost when the floor and air temperature are always comfortable); more pleasant living environment with abundance of plants and much greater daylighting (combats cabin fever); fresh food production and higher oxygen level; superinsulated design with far lower energy costs (money stays in the community); adequate space for extended families and storage; greater self sufficiency.

Note to other designers: I’d like to refine this design with input from other design professionals and make all drawings freely available on the Internet. Please email me at strawhouses [at] yahoo.com if you would like to contribute. Or just leave a comment here if you’re short on time.

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Traditional pit house at Mesa Verde

Traditional pit house at Mesa Verde


Modern Solar Pit House for extremely cold climates (click to enlarge)

Modern Solar Pit House for extremely cold climates (click to enlarge)


I’ll never forget the Native American museum exhibit of a pit house in Anchorage, Alaska. I couldn’t stop staring at it. Pit houses are so simple and yet so effective that people lived in structures like this for thousands of years with relatively minimal environmental harm. This building method and lifestyle really captures my imagination and provides many lessons for modern societies.

Earth sheltered housing is the way to go, especially in harsh, cold climates like Canada. I’m surprised more people don’t build along these lines. Why not take what’s proven to work and update the design to suit our needs? That’s exactly what I did with this design. I was looking at pit houses on the Internet and realized you could just add windows on one side and greatly improve the design. And instead of a square, make it rectangular for additional solar gain. Yesterday’s post showed the proposed Solar Pit House floorplan. Tomorrow’s post will examine the section view and structural details.

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Dear Owen, I am currently doing research and compiling data in order to draft a proposal here in Canada largely related to solving an epidemic within our First Nations communities in regards to a lack of adequate housing. I could go on for hours and hours about the immense and serious problems in this area, but I’ll keep it as brief as possible.

Many of these areas are in arctic or subarctic conditions and I am curious if there is any data available on the viable use of earthbag building in such areas. I am certain that this should be possible especially given that a majority of families in the most remote areas live in temporary housing with little or no insulation, and thin walls.

My first thought when trying to come up with a solution to this problem was earthbags due to their sustainable nature, low cost and widely available materials. Many of these reservations have absolutely no sources of income or employment and survive entirely on government assistance so cost effective solutions are incredibly important while having to be as close to permanent as possible.

Though I am nothing more than a humble artist, recent events in our country have given me a strong passion to work towards this cause.

Thank you very much for your time and consideration,
Hideo Luc Goyer, Cloudgazer Studios

Owen: The two key issues for you are:
1. Locating a source of affordable insulation. Tamped earth without insulation would be as cold as living in a cave. Maybe you could buy scoria by the truck or train load to get a big discount. Scoria and pumice provide decent insulation and don’t mold, rot, burn, etc. It’s lightweight and easy to work with. Our Earthbag Building Blog covers this subject in detail. (Use the search engine on the blog.) [Update: a later email explained how recycled polystyrene is plentiful in Canada.]

2. You’ll definitely want to create a passive solar design with lots of large, south facing windows to maximize free heat from the sun. Thick, high mass walls and floor will absorb the heat, and a thick layer of insulation around all sides (including under the floor and on the roof) will trap the heat inside. You could even grow bananas or other tropical fruit with this sort of design.

Preliminary Solar Pit House design (click to enlarge)

Preliminary Solar Pit House design (click to enlarge)


Note to other designers: I’d like to refine this design with input from other design professionals and make all drawings freely available on the Internet. Please email me at strawhouses [at] yahoo.com if you would like to contribute.

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The Earth-Sheltered Solar Canadian Greenhouse

The Earth-Sheltered Solar Canadian Greenhouse


The Earth-Sheltered Solar Canadian Proposed Structure

The Earth-Sheltered Solar Canadian Proposed Structure


Follow the adventure of building an earth-sheltered structure in Canada, six hours north of Winnipeg. In brief, they’re exploring how to optimize Mike Oehler’s earth sheltered concept using earthbags. Their greenhouse was a success (an amazing feat that far north), and now they want to build a larger structure. Their plans remind me of ancient Native American designs in Alaska (minus the glass, of course). So the challenge is how to improve upon the indigenous designs that evolved over centuries.

“It will take a couple of years, but in the end we are going to put up an earth-sheltered solar structure that will serve as a shop, wine lab, and hopefully a diesel distillery, along with a small apartment. It will be built in the same fashion in which we built our underground greenhouse, except that it will have a dirt roof, and an atrium between its front wall and a retaining wall uphill. This week we slowly started clearing trees from this area…an hour in the morning and an hour of cleaning up. When this is done I shall survey the plot. Then we will call in a track hoe which will excavate the hole for us.”

Source: The Earth-Sheltered Solar Canadian

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We’ve been discussing the Eternally Solar earthbag building system at length. Engineering tests show their walls exceed building code requirements even when filled with sand. Their bags are also used to form lintels and bond beams.

As exciting and practical as this is, there’s a wide range of other options. Their earthbags can be filled with different materials for optimum performance in different climates. Simply choose low cost, locally available materials that are appropriate for your situation.

Option A for cool climates: 1. insulation in outer tubes, 2. clayey subsoil in the center (for stiffening the wall), 3. sand in the inside tube for thermal mass.

Option B for cold climates: 1. scoria, pumice or perlite in outer tubes, 2. clayey subsoil mixed with scoria, pumice or perlite in the center, 3. sand in the inside tube for thermal mass.

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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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Kelly Hart and I have been following the The Year of Mud cob house blog for about 2-3 years. Ziggy, the builder and author of the blog, learned the hard way that cob (actually, earth building in general) is not a good choice in cold climates.

Kelly has been warning people for years at GreenHomeBuilding.com (the number one most popular site on natural building) that some earth building techniques are not appropriate for cold climates. We also want to make sure our earthbag website readers are aware of the limitations of building with earth in cold climates.

Kelly has an interesting story about this on his website. He stayed in an old adobe hotel in southern Colorado one winter. It was freezing cold inside. Despite the thermal moderating effects of earth (the flywheel effect), if there’s extended freezing cold then the inside temperature can be like living in a cave, because earth is not a very good insulator. That’s why most adobe houses are built south of the Colorado/New Mexico border. That’s the range where colder temperatures start to make adobe impractical. The same is true with earthbags, unless the structure is insulated.

You can find much more on this topic on our websites by searching for “insulation”, “insulated earthbag” and “cold climate”. The key is to either fill the bags with insulation such as scoria or add a layer of insulation on the exterior.

Please note, we love Ziggy’s blog and encourage everyone to check his site regularly. He has lots of good ideas, and his open, sharing approach is conducive to learning.

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Insulated Earthbag Foundations for Yurts

Insulated Earthbag Foundations for Yurts


This Instructable includes complete step-by-step instructions on how to make an insulated earthbag foundation. You can use the same process to make insulated foundations for any type of structure – straw bale, earthbag, cordwood, etc.

Yurts or gers are very efficient and practical in harsh, cold climates, as evidenced by centuries of use in Mongolia. Benefits of yurts include affordability, rapid construction, ease of construction, wind resistance, great looks and portability (ability to take your home with you if you ever move). You may even save on taxes since some jurisdictions do not consider yurts permanent homes.

Many people build their yurts on a raised wooden platform to reduce moisture problems. But wood is expensive and building a platform/deck requires a fair amount of tools and carpentry know-how. Wood is vulnerable to fires and prone to rot and insect damage. It also requires regular painting or sealing.

In addition to the many other uses for earthbags, you can build insulated foundations by filling the bags with insulation such as scoria. The benefits of the insulated earthbag foundation system described here include:
– Very low cost, especially if you can locate recycled grain bags from farmers
– Very simple construction using just a few tools most people already have
– Save energy and enjoy a more comfortable home because the floor and foundation are superinsulated (plus, there’s no wind blowing under the floor to suck heat away)
– No deep footings/excavation required (research Frost-protected Foundations for technical details if you’re interested)
– The finished floor can be raised above grade as high as necessary (Deep snow? Flooding? No problem.)

3D AutoCAD drawings show each step of construction.

You might want to follow the Earth-Sheltered Solar Canadian blog, who’s planning to build an insulated earthbag foundation that’s suitable for extremely cold climates. It’s the same process as outlined in this Instructable, but they will use a deeper trench with insulated earthbags below grade to create a Frost-protected Shallow Foundation (FPSF). Combine these two ideas – FPSF and insulated earthbag foundations as shown in this Instructable – and you’ll have everything you need to know for free.

You can read the complete Insulated Earthbag Foundations for Yurts article by Owen Geiger at Instructables.com.

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Energy performance on most buildings can be improved with insulation, including those made of earth such as adobe and earthbag structures. Although most earthen structures are located in hot, dry climates, there is increasing demand for low-cost, eco-friendly earth building techniques in cold climates. This article explores four innovative methods for insulating earthbag buildings, which extends their building range to cold regions.

Most earthbag buildings use polypropylene grain bags or mesh bags filled with soil. Bags or tubes can be used. We demonstrate bags, because they’re often available recycled for very low cost. The bags or tubes are filled in level courses and then tamped solid. There are typically two strands of barbed wire between courses to bond the bags to each other and add tensile strength. The building process for insulated earthbag houses is nearly the same, although the materials would weigh significantly less and speed construction considerably.

Unlike other earth building methods, earthbag building has the unique advantage of providing either thermal mass or insulation, and therefore can be adapted for cold climates with an insulated fill material. Scoria, pumice, perlite, vermiculite or rice hulls are all suitable insulating materials. These materials are natural, lightweight, easy to work with and non-toxic. Most (all but rice hulls) will not burn or rot and do not attract insects or vermin. In addition, all but rice hulls are not adversely affected by moisture and can be used as part of earth-bermed or earth-sheltered structures. Recycled polystyrene (Styrofoam) is another good possibility. Another possibility is adding foam board or foam insulation on the exterior of earthbag walls, as explained in the 4th option.

You can read the entire How to Build an Insulated Earthbag House instructable by Owen Geiger for free.

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