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Posts Tagged ‘sandbag homes’

Reader’s have asked for our YouTube videos on DVD. Even though they’re free on my YouTube channel, some people have slow Internet access and can’t watch them. Some may prefer to watch them on TV. So we’re now offering a limited number of DVDs that include all 61 videos (as of October 30, 2010) and a text file (NotePad format) with all the text. The text is provided so you can easily print and read everything, and/or translate into other languages. Again, everything on the DVD is already available for free on my YouTube channel. This is a special offer for up to 20 readers who really want/need the information on DVD. Note: Sorry, but it’s impractical to sell more than 20 at this time. If there’s a big demand, I’ll look into selling a downloadable version.

Ordering instructions: Be patient. Your order may take three weeks or so. The nearest bank is about 60 miles away and we go only every two weeks. If you’re still interested, the cost is $15, limit one per customer. First come, first serve. Email me at strawhouses [at] yahoo.com. Please put Earthbag DVD in the subject line of your email. If you’re selected as one of the lucky ones, I’ll email you my mailing address in Colorado, where you can send a check for $15 made payable to Owen Geiger. The cost includes postage and handling.

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Our earthbag projects have confirmed what I’ve known for a long time – that building at $10/sq.ft. (materials only) is possible. Other aspects of earthbag building — strength, durability, sustainability, etc. — are all important. But perhaps the most important point is affordability, because building at $10/sq. ft. makes housing affordable to virtually everyone on the planet.

Earthbag foundation: placing gravel-filled bags

Earthbag foundation: placing gravel-filled bags

Are you on an extremely tight budget? (Ha, who isn’t nowadays.) Then I suggest building small using local natural materials, building in stages and adding on as you can afford it. For instance, build one roundhouse and live in it until you’ve saved enough to build another. You could join the roundhouses with arched or gabled covered walkways, enclosed passageways or additions, or just leave them free standing. Extending rectilinear structures would be even easier. Adding on like this requires planning for future doorways and other considerations, but this approach allows you to build debt free.

Here’s a brief list of some other projects built at or near $10/sq. ft (scroll down a little).

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Do earthbags really become hard as rock or is this exaggeration? I did a little experiment on the roundhouse we’re currently building to find out.

The answer depends primarily on the choice of fill material and the degree of compaction. The moisture content and curing process also play a role. We used road base – the material used under roads in many parts of the world – moistened slightly and tamped solid. The video shows the result after about one or two weeks of drying.

Note the ringing ‘ching-ching’ sound when I tap the earthbags with a putty knife. It almost sounds like I’m hitting stone. I tap a compressed earth block (CEB) for comparison. CEBs contain about 6% cement and are rammed in a press at high pressure, so you expect them to be harder. But in reality they’re fairly similar as you can hear for yourself. In both examples, densely compacting correct soil mixtures create very strong building materials. They begin to approach the strength of stone at a fraction of the cost and labor.

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Many people want to know the lowest cost way of building. Here’s a short comparison of costs to build an earthbag house using ‘free’ options versus buying the building materials:
hand dig soil on site = free versus deliver soil $200
gather materials and make thatch panels = free versus buy thatch panels $100
hand sift soil for plaster = free versus buying it already pulverized and screened $50
(You could itemize all building costs in a spreadsheet and evaluate various scenarios.)

This shows how you can save money if you want, but at what cost? Do you want to dig for two or three weeks to save $200? Possibly. But maybe your time could be spent more efficiently doing something else. In this example, at 14 days of labor, that’s about $1.79/hour for your time digging soil by hand. (8 hours per day x 14 days = 112 total hours divided into $200 = $1.79/hour.) This includes soil to raise the building site and for the earthbags.

The same is true with thatch. For example, we roofed our roundhouse in one day using $100 of pre-made thatch panels. I can’t even guess how long it would take to do it ourselves from scratch.

Now, I’m not saying to buy everything. I’m just trying to help people understand the options. For our project, we’ve decided to buy these materials because our time (in the case of buying versus digging soil by hand) is worth more than $1.79/hour. In other words, I can do enjoyable, rewarding work and make more than $1.79/hour. I also enjoy natural building, so I’m not going to contract out all the work. But it may make sense to hire someone to fill and carry buckets. There are lots of options and everyone needs to find the right balance that works for them. You may find it advantageous to spend $2,000 and finish your small earthbag house in one month instead of three, and that the least expensive approach is not necessarily the most efficient or best choice for you.

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My Favorite Slider

My Favorite Slider

Here’s a drawing of my favorite earthbag slider that makes it easy to place bags on the wall without getting hooked on the barbed wire. If you want to make one, start out by cutting a sheet of 1/16th thick steel about 13 inches wide by 16” long. Tack weld a piece of 1” by 1-1/4” angle iron on one end for a grip and then weld the back edge. Radius the front corners 2” or so. Grind off sharp edges, remove any rust with sandpaper and then spray paint to protect the metal. Recoat after each project since these sliders really take a beating. And don’t skimp on the steel thickness or the barbed wire will quickly destroy it. Typical galvanized sheet metal is inadequate.

Related: My Favorite Tamper

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In addition to drawing your plan on graph paper, I suggest marking things on the floor or outside in the dirt to help you visualize your future home. (This assumes you’re building a small structure.) You can scratch an outline of your rooms on the ground with a pointed stick or use stakes to define the shape. You can do something similar indoors using masking tape, etc. for individual rooms. Twelve inch floor tile is particularly convenient in getting a quick feel for dimensions. You can even use cardboard, clothes baskets, etc. — anything that’s around the house — to show the position of furniture and other key elements. This process can be very helpful in visualizing actual sizes versus relying on just drawings.

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Roundwood Braces

Roundwood Braces

One way to save money and reduce your impact on the environment is to use unmilled roundwood when building your home. Wood in the round is much stronger than standard dimension lumber and requires less processing. In our case it enables us to use local, sustainably grown wood instead of wood shipped hundreds of miles. Plus, because we’re using eucalyptus wood our roundwood is fairly durable and insect resistant. Using roundwood does take a bit of extra work, but I feel the benefits make it well worthwhile.

We use roundwood for many purposes, including corner braces to keep window and door bucks square, braces to prevent bowing of frames, long poles to keep window and door bucks plumb, stakes and even nailers for attaching electrical junction boxes, shelving, etc.

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Using a standard-sized module can simplify the building design process. An even two foot module, for instance, is easy to plot on graph paper. This makes it easier to draw plans and calculate materials and costs.

Another benefit of 24” earthbag modules is increased overlap between courses. Many earthbag builders just fold over the ends of bags for expediency. This creates bags about 20” long and overlaps of about 5” assuming standard 18”x30” bags measured when empty. A 5” overlap is marginal in terms of creating a strong running bond. See drawing below.

Earthbag overlap: 20 inch versus 24 inch long bags

Earthbag overlap: 20 inch versus 24 inch long bags

In many situations you’ll want to use fewer bags to reduce waste and save money. You can do this by filling bags to capacity and sewing (needle and thread), stitching (galvanized wire) or pinning (nails or bamboo slivers(?)) bag ends closed. This saves bags, but also creates 24” long bags – a convenient sized module to work with – and 9” overlaps between courses for stronger walls.

Maybe you don’t want to spend extra time closing bag ends. Another way to get 24” long bags (when filled) is to buy longer bags. You can buy 18.5”x34” bags and fold the ends under. One supplier of these longer bags is Donald Davis Bags.

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From time to time we’ll post answers to reader’s questions.
Q: What methods can be used to close the ends of earthbags?

A: Most people fold the bag ends over and then butt the folded end tight against the previous bag. (This keeps the contents intact and prevents spillage.) That’s the fastest way. If money is tight or you just want to minimize the number of bags required, you can sew the bags closed with cord or 15-20 gauge galvanized wire, or pin them closed with nails. These methods use fewer bags because you can fill them more completely. This simple step can reduce the total number of bags required by about 17% when using 18″x30″ bags: folded ends 20″ long; sewn ends 24″ long.

Kelly Hart’s Earthbag FAQ provides answers to all the most common questions about earthbag building.
(Note: the Q and A above is by me, not Kelly.)

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It deeply saddens me to see one disaster after another occurring around the world, especially since much of the tragedy could be prevented by building earthquake-resistant earthbag houses.

The recent earthquake in Haiti is but one more example of this. Theo (Father Marc Boisvert) runs a project for the poor in Haiti. Their earthbag Sun House fortunately escaped unscathed even though nearby structures were devastated. According to Theo’s blog “…no one hurt and no structures damaged.”

Earthbag Sun House in Haiti was undamaged by recent earthquake

Earthbag Sun House in Haiti was undamaged by recent earthquake

Nearby structures were severely damaged

Nearby structures were severely damaged

Note: the Sun House example by itself is not conclusive proof of seismic resistance. More testing is called for, but anecdotal evidence and test results keeps growing and so far is extremely compelling.

Bryce Daigle’s testing and thesis, for example, details how earthbag walls obtain maximum compressive strengths almost 10 times as great as those typically achieved by conventional stud-frame housing in terms of load per metre of wall length. Testing Proves Earthbags Very Strong

Nadir Khalili’s tests in Hesperia, California demonstrated how earthbag structures exceeded the strength of the testing equipment with no deflection or failure, and received code approval in the most dangerous level — seismic zone 4.

Properly built reinforced concrete structures, which can be engineered to high earthquake-resistance, are not affordable in Haiti and countless other areas around the world. So even if building codes are in place, builders in these areas will find a way to circumvent them. That, and excessive codes will prevent people from building affordable housing. After years of studying the situation, earthbag and strawbale construction appear to be the most practical solutions.

Additional resources:
Earthbag Testing page
Post-tsunami Affordable Housing Project
Emergency Earthbag Shelter Proposal
Additional testing is underway by Engineers Without Borders at the University of Florida.

Contact the author from our About Us page for more information.

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