Building with earthbags is essentially building with adobe bricks without going through the lengthy process of making them. You take polypropylene sandbags, fill them with a moist mix of sand and clay, tamp them down hard and connect the layers with 4 point barbed wire. Then, you cover them over with an earthen plaster.

In reality, I didn't use polypropylene bags. Some Brasilians started a type of construction they call hyperadobe which uses mesh bags, or continuous tubing, made from the same material as the onion or potato bags in the grocery store. They don't require barbed wire, though otherwise the process is just about the same.

As I talk about in the blog posts, my design has been guided by simplicity and efficiency. More than anything, what's been most important to me is to live in a house that I myself, with no building experience whatsoever, can design, build and maintain. A natural extension of that has been the desire to live in a peaceful space. For me that means a home that's in tune with nature, thus limiting the use of imported materials for construction, in addition to those that will be needed later on, such as for heating. Please enjoy reading, ask me any questions, get inspired, and come help and learn!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Why Natural Materials?

My friend Julia asked me the other day why I chose to build with natural materials. The question struck me because I never made a conscious choice to build naturally. And yet, a desire to use materials that have low-embodied energy and that will enable my house to be efficient has certainly been, and will continue to be, a key motivator throughout the process.

I suppose, then, that my answer would be: it's just what has made the most sense. Coupled with that is the reality of what I have and have not been exposed to. I haven't been reading books on conventional construction, nor do I know anything whatsoever about it. Thus, I never came to a point that I felt a conflict and a need to choose between the two building styles.

Honestly, I don't know how it occurred to me to open that first book on straw bale building. Why that one and not one on simple stick frame housing? Divine intervention perhaps. Or, what I like to think, is that in seeking to build an inexpensive and efficient house that I, with no building experience, could build, I was led to the only logical conclusion.

In this process I have been continuously coming up with ways to make things simpler. One of the subsequent results is that I have a smaller house than the sprawling homes that we are used to living in in this country. That smaller size means it will be more efficient to heat and cool, easier to build, and significantly cheaper. Taking just one step off of the traditional course has had exponential benefits.

The same holds true with the materials. I build with dirt instead of wood. I don't have to pay for the wood, I can build a house that can heat and cool itself, and I'm not cutting down trees. The pumice that will be used for insulation will come from within an hour away, from a source that I can identify and more or less understand. An additional benefit of using pumice is that it can double as a capillary break, cutting out the need for both gravel and insulation. I don't know how much it costs yet, but I'm guessing its cheaper too. Very different from rigid foam insulation. I don't even know what it is, much less how it's made. And never having worked with it, means I'm unfamiliar with potentially essential (and toxic) aspects such as seam adhesive or glues.

It's turned out like this with all sorts of components (the plumbing being a huge one) and materials: I find myself up against a wall needing to use a product, and trying to find a way out of it not because I'm adamant about using only natural materials, but because it's more expensive and/or seems daunting to work with. If I was a contractor, I would inevitably lean towards those materials because I would be familiar with them. I imagine that's why construction practices continue in the unsustainable, expensive and diy-unfriendly way that they do: it's easiest to continue doing the same thing as before, even if it's not the best, and it probably also makes you feel good to work with something others can't. Your livelihood depends upon it.

Building with as many natural materials as possibly, and choosing those high-embodied energy products I do use with thought, and hopefully making them multi-tasking (my metal roof covers my head and lets me use the rainwater), serendipitously leads me to my most ideal designs, offering additional benefits that would never have occurred to me if they didn't show up by themselves. At some points, designing has felt circular and regressive. That's one side of it. The other is that unconscious creativity has been whirring around, stirring up priceless perks that would otherwise not be included in my home.


  1. Actually, the biggest reasons contractors build expensive, over-engineered mansions with toxic manufactured products is because government-mandated and enforced building codes require it. Even New Mexico has building codes, and though there are codes for Earth architecture, unless you memorize that 800-page tome, you're likely violating a bunch of them. Whether they're enforced in your area or against people like you is another matter, of course.

  2. I would partially agree. Building codes, obviously, are a huge determining factor in what people can and do build. However, as you yourself point out, going into uncharted territories and doing things that may require a lot more work and innovation, such as by reading the 800 pages, is also a significant limiter to change. I've read thousands of pages of material in order to prepare for building a house. If I was a conventional contractor interested in doing natural building, I would have to read thousands of pages and essentially learn a new skill--I assume a somewhat daunting and undesirable prospect for one who is already good at what they do. That doesn't mean, however, that it's not available. The status quo limits us, but we also limit ourselves.