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Posts Tagged ‘earthbag domes’

The following report from an anonymous experienced builder in Haiti is about a new earthbag dome that’s already failing. My intent is not to bash these particular builders (I don’t even know who they are), but rather use this example as a learning opportunity to encourage good design. It’s great that people want to help others, but also we encourage everyone to learn as much as possible about earthbag building and cultural issues before embarking on projects. Those in Haiti are desperate for decent shelter, so please, let’s do everything possible to build safe, durable, culturally appropriate housing.

Failed Plaster on Dome

Failed Plaster on Dome


…The problem now as always is that the technology is being executed by people with minimal skill, experience or quality control. I by no means mean to put myself above that, however more and more I can see that technically well executed projects are better demo’s! Here is a picture of a demo building located north of the city. While I personally love round buildings this as a home for Haitians is very silly. When we stopped in to take pictures the other people who lived in the housing compound came to say hi. They were not interested in living in such a structure as its shape was incorrect and the roof seemed heavy and the plaster was already coming off.

Seriously, this building gets a D- at best for the quality control. It’s a pity but this is now what several organizations think when they hear about Earthbags. I’m glad there are more culturally sensitive approaches out there and look forward to supporting them however we can.

The plaster was finished in the last two weeks and is already delaminating. Though they used cement to stabilize it this as you know is not a practice that works with “any” soil — you have to test for compatibility. In this case there are too many silt and smaller clay particles for cement to be effective. The smaller particles bond with the cement and surround it effectively making the bonds weaker rather than stronger. Now it will be a few weeks by my estimate before the bags themselves deteriorate. (I left a few out in the sun for kicks and after one month they were gone.) I give the building 4-6months if no steps are taken to protect it better.

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Earthen Hand Dome in Mali

Earthen Hand Dome in Mali


Scott Howard organized a workshop in Dogon Country, Mali, last winter. He built this unique dome with the help of workshop participants and some of the villagers there. The majority of the structure was completed during the two week-long workshop. It is a catenary arc about 16.5 feet tall with a loft. Serving as a library for many villages in the area, it is the first earthbag dome in Mali. Earthen Hand natural building offers a variety of international workshops these days.

I found the above photo in Scott Howard’s article A Wholly Different Way of Building at the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia website. Scott raises a lot of questions in this fascinating article on the best ways to waterproof earthen domes.

Photo credit: Earthen Hand

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The group at Konbit Shelter has made phenomenal progress on their triple dome in Haiti. Be sure to check out their blog for full details and, if at all possible, it would be great if you could find a way to support their project.

Konbit Shelter in Haiti

Konbit Shelter in Haiti

Konbit Shelter in Haiti

Konbit Shelter in Haiti

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From time to time we answer reader’s questions.

Q: Why aren’t people making roofs from earth using domes or Nubian vaults? In impoverished areas the cost of a tin roof is sometimes a year’s salary.

A: Domes and vaults evolved in extremely dry areas of the Middle East, where wood was scarce and lack of rainfall wouldn’t destroy the earthen roofs. People are often captivated by the unique look of domes and vaults and want to build them in other climates. Earthbag building extends the possibilities beyond desert regions, yet still domes and vaults are somewhat vulnerable to moisture problems, and so if this is your plan then you’ll want to design and build them very carefully. Options include using cement stabilized soil or waterproof materials such as lava rock as fill material, cement plaster and elastomeric roof coating. Also, eyebrows over doors and windows are recommended to provide extra protection for these areas. Building a roofed dome is probably the best option in rainy climates.

So yes, wood roofs/metal roofing are costly, but you can see that domes and vaults also have costs: cement for stabilized soil, cement plaster, roof coating, eyebrows. There’s no free lunch unless you want to live in a grass hut or something. Plus, earthbag vaults are tricky to build and therefore limited to small spans.

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The Dometown Project

The Dometown Project

I’ve been corresponding with Richard Laurens who is developing a geodesic dome design that rests on earthbags and is covered in earthbags. His original plan was to use rammed tires to support the domes, but now he’s convinced earthbags are more practical. I’m encouraging him to use scoria-filled bags since he plans to build his designs out west near a source of scoria.

I’ll let Richard describe his project in his own words.

The Dometown project is a name I gave to my plan for a small cluster of dome shaped homes. I would start with one, and keep on building them. The center clear parts are greenhouses.

Buckminster Fuller’s original idea was a home that could be built anywhere for cheap; why not expand that idea into a “life pod” that can recycle water and grow its own food? The basic premise is this: We have a water source, an “eternal” power source (wind, water, or solar), and very contemporary and comfortable self-sustaining dome home. It’s just a very simple solution, and expandable.

The geodesic, or monolithic dome structure is not only appealing to the eye, it is efficient and cheap to build. The dome numbers and designs are nearly limitless, and four simple domes with a fifth dome in the center would make an excellent home with about 2500 square feet of space. That is a good sized home! I estimate working by hand with minimal tools. I can make this house in about a year for around $20,000.

The dome is a 4th degree electrical conduit pipe dome, bolted at the vertexes and welded. I then cover the dome with wire mesh and stack the bags on the outside. The windows are standard ones, placed into a ‘work horse’ type of sconce.

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Earthbag workshop in Koh Phangan, Thailand

Earthbag workshop in Koh Phangan, Thailand

This is just a short summary of my experience teaching an earthbag workshop in Koh Phangan this weekend. We’ll be posting more later because Julien and Hubert, the hosts of the workshop and the driving force behind the project, are doing such outstanding work. They have a number of interesting, photogenic structures on their yoga retreat site where the workshop was held. They’re also developing innovative building techniques based on their site conditions on a tropical island. It’s very interesting to see people take the basic concepts, run with it and create new things.

Workshop participants came from Canada, Europe, numerous areas of Thailand and other places. Most participants said they were planning earthbag projects. One group of seven, for instance, was sent by their employer to learn the techniques so they could build an earthbag coffee shop. Most were planning on building their own homes.

The workshop included seven PowerPoint presentations, whiteboard tech talks combined with lots of questions and answers, a tour of their buildings, and hands-on practice building a retaining wall.

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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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Wooden shakes on domes

Wooden shakes are a sustainable roofing material because they can be made by hand using a froe and locally available wood. You can make shakes from many kinds of wood, but the best shakes come from old trees with tight growth rings. Install shakes over roofing felt, and fasten with galvanized roofing nails. Steep roofs of 5:12 pitch or more will reduce risk of leaks and wind damage.

Wooden shakes can be used on walls and roofs built of pallets. See Pallet Roofs

Here’s a good article by Mother Earth News magazine on making wooden shakes:
The Froe and You: How to Make Hand-Split Shakes

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Here’s an email from one of our readers (abbreviated for ease of reading).

I just had a few questions about building an earthbag home, and I hope you can get me pointed in the right direction. First off, I’m broke, so these questions pertain to me saving up for my future home. My dream home would need to be fairly round, or made up of several smaller domes. Finally, seeing as how I know nothing about construction and have to work most days, how would I ever learn to build one of these things, safely, without practicing on a few first? Even then, I don’t think I’d trust my work. Is there no one I could pay to help me construct it, who would have some experience with this?

My reply:
I’ve written quite a bit about low cost housing. Do a google search for “Owen Geiger” dirt cheap earthbag. Or “Owen Geiger” low cost earthbag.

There’s even a brief summary of the possibilities on my earthbag house plan blog.

By far the easiest, fastest way to build earthbag houses is with perlite or scoria (lava rock) in the bags. You can do a google search for Owen Geiger insulated earthbag for details.

The best dome method is illustrated by Kelly Hart’s free dome building guide. It’s super simple. Build an earthbag storage shed first if you’re unsure. These same structures can be grouped (clustered) any way you want and of any size up to about 20′ diameter.

Kelly Hart’s FAQ page will answer most any other questions for free.

With these methods I’ve just mentioned you can build very good houses at very low cost. The lightweight fill means you can do almost everything yourself at a fairly good pace. You can add one dome at a time. Hiring workers will blow your budget in no time. Slow and steady wins the game.

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We routinely ask readers to document their projects and allow us to publish them on our Projects page at EarthbagBuilding.com. This enables other readers to learn much more rapidly. It’s the old “two heads are better than one” except here we’re dealing with thousands who are working together and sharing ideas. Very powerful.

Eyebrows protect window and door openings on domes

Eyebrows protect window and door openings on domes

A perfect example is a project called Angel’s Dome in Mexico that shows a very practical and simple way of building ‘eyebrows’ – arched protective overhangs – over doors and windows on domes. Even though many domes are built in deserts, many are built in areas of higher rainfall and eyebrows offer a good, low-cost solution for protecting doors and windows from the elements. Angel’s detailed photos enable others to utilize this technique. It’s so effective that we’re planning on using the same method on an upcoming project. Thanks for sharing.

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