Instructables
Ever wonder how to build a simple home for very little money, without going into debt? The key is to use low-cost, locally available natural materials such earth, small diameter wood and straw to keep expenses to a minimum. The real fun is incorporating all of these methods into an optimum, comfortable, affordable home.

Our earthbag projects have confirmed what I’ve known for a long time – that building at $10/sq.ft. (materials only) or thereabouts 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. The last page of this Instructable includes a list of $10/sq. ft. projects built by others.

A big reason for the growing popularity of earthbag building is its low cost. You can build shelters for under $1,000. For $1,000-$5,000 you could have a nice, small home that would outlast most conventional wood-framed houses, and be quieter, non-toxic and more comfortable.

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, vine covered pergolas, enclosed passageways or additions, or just leave them free standing. Extending rectilinear structures (adding one room at a time) would be even easier. Building a little at a time like this requires planning ahead for future doorways and other considerations, but it enables you to build debt free.

 
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Owen Geiger (author) 9 days ago

Put a layer of gravel under the floor with a perforated vent pipe that vents through the soffit or roof, then plastic sheeting on top then your floor. Talk to local builders for details if necessary.

In some places the building code involves a gap between the foundation and the ground in case of radon gas. How would you solve this?

wmlaveck1 year ago
Sounds like a great way to build a home, however in Indiana, USA we have to deal with building codes and permits.
Owen Geiger (author)  wmlaveck1 year ago
Contact Structure1.com. They can supply plans or tweak my plans at Earthbag House Plans to meet code.
http://earthbagplans.wordpress.com/
please can you advise,,Im in the process of selling my place,ready to buy a piece of land but the money to build a regular house is not there,in other words,the budget is very tight,I want to build some thing around the 1200 sqft including in it two porches and no garage,,,I would like to either build or have some one build one of your earth bag houses,but there may be a problem with the county codes etc,,please advise,how can I have one of your houses build.,thanks
Owen Geiger (author)  cking3423 days ago

It all depends on your code situation. Rural areas with minimal codes are by far the best, lowest cost places to build with alternative materials such as earthbags.

Owen Geiger (author)  wmlaveck23 days ago

Yes. We always recommend moving to rural areas with few or no codes. You can build at 1/10th the cost this way.

Hi Owen! I have LOVED the idea of an earthbag house for awhile now! My small family of 3 is in desperate need of a place of our own. We're sharing a bedroom in a family member's house... 3 of us crammed in one hot tiny 10x10 room is getting OLD. I would like to know if these types of homes stand up to hurricanes ok? Everyone is telling us to get a trailer, but they're trashy and you *have* to evacuate when there's a hurricane (I live in Florida). I was thinking of purchasing a lot and eventually building one of these homes on that lot. But I don't know how I can convince anyone that this is worth the time and money, as much as I think it is. Have any helpful advice or links? Thanks!

Owen Geiger (author)  histechnoangel23 days ago

Earthbag structures can definitely withstand hurricanes if they're built correctly. The problem is the codes in Florida (and California, etc.) are super strict and it's hard to get earthbag houses approved unless you spend a lot of money on engineering and extra steel and concrete. We always recommend moving to rural areas with few or no codes. You can build at 1/10th the cost this way.

threiner25 days ago

I like that type of building , but the local buildings authority told me that there is no way to build that here in Spain... Any advice on this?

Zdaddy2 years ago
The problem I am facing is where to build. I've seen countless of very cool and interesting alternative home building methods. So I know I am capable of doing it and I'm not ever going to be out of ideas.

I bought 0.25acres of land in the mountains about 45 mins away...only to find out there is no where in my state that you can get away with this kind of living. Luckily I was able to back out of the deal due to the seller not disclosing certain things to me as the buyer, I got my money back. That was a close call!

There is a case right now in San Diego of a man that is being evicted from his land even though he is paid in full and paid his taxes for over 20 years, the new neighbors just dont like that he lives in a mud hut on his acreage. It devalues their home. The city is backing up the neighbors.

I've been running this through my mind for years now and unless I leave the state or build in secret away from prying eyes (which wont ever happen, too much risk and at least in CA there are eyes everyhwere) or buy property and submit building permits (ha! Good luck!) then I can't build my own sand bag home. All californians are doomed to live strapped down to rent (100% interest home) or a mortgage which makes you a slave to the bank.

What we really need is an instructable on how you can make it possible to build homes like these.
Owen Geiger (author)  Zdaddy2 years ago
We have a blog post on Counties with Few or No Building Codes. It's our most popular topic, so obviously people are interested in learning more about this.
http://earthbagbuilding.wordpress.com/2010/01/24/counties-with-few-or-no-building-codes/

The blog post lists some of the best areas and some general advice. Be sure to read the comments. In general, there are lots of areas in the western US where you can build with earthbags, and other areas too.

California is probably the most difficult state to deal with. Any highly populated state is difficult. We always suggest building in rural areas with few or no codes. I don't know how else to explain it. It's more of a personal journey one has to go through. Everyone's opinion about climate, geography, town size, etc. is different. You'll have to figure out what works for you.
Where did this blog/url go in your above response , Owen? I copied and pasted , and looks like it has been moved. Did a search , found it in older posts and still cannot open. Would love to read up on this and see where may be the best place to go! Thanks!
Thank you for the links Owen! You seem passionate about this, its an inspiration. I wont give up! :)
Owen Geiger (author)  Zdaddy2 years ago
The other alternative is hiring an engineer to stamp your plans. The only engineer at this time is Precision Structural Engineering, Inc. Their engineer stamp will enable you to build virtually anywhere. www.structure1.com

However, be forewarned. Code approved structures will cost significantly more than ordinary earthbag houses. Way more. About several times the cost.
gsolano1 year ago
Thanks. I just can't imagine how it could cost more. We'd like to build the Torus. There are 6 of us. What would be the rough cost of just the building, not interior, cabinets, etc.
And how long would it take to build something of that size with 7 workers, for instance?
Thanks again.
Owen Geiger (author)  gsolano1 year ago
See How Much Will My House Cost?
http://www.naturalbuildingblog.com/how-much-will-my-house-cost/

Other common questions (FAQs):
http://www.naturalbuildingblog.com/faqs/
gsolano1 year ago
Thank you so much for this fantastic info. I really want to build an earth bag home. I'm confused by the price per sq foot. I've seen many posts that say that it is much more affordable than a traditional home but when I've called some builders, they've told me they cost the same or more. And that's with only paying the builder as a consultant and all volunteer labor. I was so excited that we could build and be somewhat debt free and now I'm depressed. :( Please advise.
p.s. I realize that you could spend $100 on a doorknob or $5. I am really talking about the basic home; walls, roof, basic doors, windows, earth floor. I can do cabinets and interior over time. Thank you for your help!
Owen Geiger (author)  gsolano1 year ago
Why would you believe a builder who says the cost would be the same if you use all volunteer labor? He's obviously going to pocket the difference! Come on! And who said you need a builder (contractor)? Why not hire a carpenter guy who's low on work? Make sure he's reliable, of course. Don't advance them any money. Take out the building permit yourself so you are the owner builder. If he screws up, let him go and get someone else.
Owen Geiger (author)  dexterm1221 year ago
You don't need GPS. That's the ultra modern, high end equivalent of transits. And besides, it's probably best to pay professional surveyors to ensure it's done correctly.
ttaichi2 years ago
Hi Owen! I need help.My family and i want to build a earthbag house in Serbia.Please tell me how to set the water heater to this type of house?Please answer me on tanjat39@gmail.com
Thank you very much!
sasham ttaichi2 years ago
Skip earth bags, and come to Vojvodina (area of Serbia) where there are countless superior earthen homes, beautifully designed and skilfully built.
Owen Geiger (author)  sasham1 year ago
How do you know they're superior? Have you carefully studied earthbag building and visited lots of earthbag projects? How many hours have you spent on research?

That said, you can learn a lot from traditional building methods. I like to learn from the old ways and apply a bit of modern ingenuity to make something even better.
xaderz2 years ago
Not only do I love your instructables, but what you stand for. Thank you for making all this available to the public for free. By the way I love love the http://www.300house.com/ project you are working with.
Owen Geiger (author)  xaderz2 years ago
Thank you very much! Please spread the word.
Owen Geiger (author)  monkeysandllamas2 years ago
Study lots of houses and choose what looks best to you. It's really a subjective thing that no one else can decide for you.
I love earthen houses! I have been fortunate enough to live in one for a short period of time, and I love the way they stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer. The house I stayed in was heated by a wood stove, but the radiant floor heat would be heavenly!
czflgator2 years ago
BTW While you're out in the country looking at land, check with feed stores or ranchers to see about getting free bags to put the dirt in. Nowadays most livestock feed comes in polypropylene bags and they usually don't recycle them, so you'd be saving them from winding up in a dump and saving money as well....
czflgator2 years ago
If you can purchase land in agricultural zoning, check the codes for building barns. Usually you can have an "office" in a barn, plus a bathroom. In my area, you can have a bathroom and office area, but not a full kitchen. Of course, once the permits are pulled, the structure built and signed off on, who's going to know what modifications you make?
wazupwiop2 years ago
Hello Mr. Geiger,
I am 16 years old, and "green housing" really interests me. I have always wanted to be a Civil/Electical engineer, but I was wondering what college degrees you would recommend to get into the field of this kind of housing. It seems like there is a lot of eco-science involved, so I just wanted to get your opinion.
Thanks!
Owen Geiger (author)  wazupwiop2 years ago
Construction is a huge field. There are architects, engineers, project managers, expediters, cost estimators, foremen, supervisors, designers, surveyors, city planners, etc. There are also lots of business opportunities in producing building materials, software, etc. So the first step is to identify your natural skills, talents and interests and then align those with promising job prospects. For instance, the big money is typically in commercial work, but maybe you're not interested in 'green skyscrapers' and urban development. Maybe you'd like a more academic route in materials science. Or you could get good at a few related skills.

Plan carefully because the housing market looks like it's on a long downward spiral due to a poor economy and the collapse of the housing bubble. Also think about what is most in demand and what jobs can't be offshored to lower cost workers. Will your dream job even exist in 20 years? Or will that field be automated? Lots of considerations.
I live in Ohio, and the state is asking for people to pursue engineering of any kind. They need electrical engineers at the car manufacturing plants, and they need civil engineers because the state has plans to expand cities and roads.

Another reason why I expect engineering to grow is that the world's population is growing. Two weeks ago, we just passed 7 billion in population. In 50 years, 8 billion people will live on earth. This is a big issue in larger cities like New York, where they cannot expand horizontally, but only vertically. New York needs Civil Engineers to design their building and etc. While I don't necessarily want to design sky scrapers, I still think my job will be around in 50 years or so.

I see the possibilities of green housing in the Plain States. States like Ohio, Iowa, and Nebraska face cold winters, but we also have really large plains. I could see these houses built out in the rural areas.

Thanks!
Owen Geiger (author)  wazupwiop2 years ago
Engineering has always been a stable career and seems like one of the best options for the future. That's one reason I majored in civil engineering. That's what they teach at West Point. They want their officers to be real thinkers and problem solvers.

There are many different specialties. For me, building highways was very boring.( I still had to take all those classes.) My interest is obviously affordable housing. So look into all the various career paths to find what's right for you.
broper2 years ago
nice ible
emacafee12 years ago
Possibly a silly question, but what do you do with all the ash from your woodstove? I was under the impression that the ash and smoke from treated lumber is sorta toxic.
Owen Geiger (author)  emacafee12 years ago
I never burned treated wood. Not sure where you're getting that from. The pallets we used were from a local company, not an international shipper. International pallets are treated.
"Heat with wood scraps from sawmills, cabinet shops"

I work at a truss factory, and alot of people dive the bins for fire wood. it's all surface treated 2x4, which Health Canada says a big NO to burning, but i'm looking into the whys and what ifs. When i read Cabinet Shops, i assumed some of your wood was treated. my bad.

anyways, thanks for the tip on the pallets. keep excellent.
On further reflection, i don't think the wood i work with is treated at all. I was put under the impression by listening to someone who is pretty ignorant. Pardon my contagious misinformation. thanks for the excellent instructables.
cerve3 years ago
http://www.shinawest.ru/
k24tea3 years ago
Thank you for your informative and inspiring instructable. These houses are amazingly attractive and appealing to me. In the '70s I thought I wanted to build a geodesic dome house, but that desire was quickly supplanted by admiration of adobe when I moved to New Mexico. Now, nearly 40 years later, I still yearn to build an earth house with wooden lintels and beams shaped by nature. Earth bag construction seems so much less labor intensive than making all those adobe bricks!

At this point I'd like to ask two questions, please:

1. I have some forested land in southeastern USA that I'd like to build my house on. Is it feasible to build an earth bag house in a humid climate that gets frequent rain in summer? Or would it require quite a lot of weather-related maintenance?

2. I imagine it would be somewhat easier to get a construction permit in rural areas than in cities, but even there it could be very hard to convince the Powers That Be to issue a permit for and give unbiased inspections on a method and design that doesn't meet conventional expectations, even if it meets all the code requirements. Any advice re. getting approval from the local planning/building authorities in USA localities where they're not already familiar with adobe construction?

Thanks for any insight you can offer on these questions. Your instructable has inspired me to get cracking on some preliminary plans!
Owen Geiger (author)  k24tea3 years ago
Thanks. You can get a permit by going through Precision Structural Engineering, Inc. http://www.structure1.com/

They've pre-approved my earthbag plans: http://earthbagplans.wordpress.com/

Add wide roof overhangs and lots of windows in hot, humid climates and earthbag will work great. More here: http://www.earthbagbuilding.com/articles.htm#climate
Thanks for the links. I'll check them out before I get too involved in the design. I've also hust finished reading your other Instructables. Lots of good stuff you've done! It looks like I may be able to realize my "dream house" after all -- small, affordable to build, energy efficient, easy to maintain, fits well into the surrounding environment. What's not to like?!

I can imagine this as a project for Habitat for Humanity or other non-profit organization, with lots of volunteers working alongside a few pros to build homes for the needy. You should get an award for your efforts toward affordable & sustainable housing!
Owen Geiger (author)  k24tea3 years ago
Thanks. Earthbag is perfect for affordable housing, including disaster areas where typical building materials are hard to get. Reports are trickling in from groups doing this and we post their stories on our blog. http://earthbagbuilding.wordpress.com/

We've heard of two new earthbag projects in Haiti where Habitat was aware of the houses. The earthbag houses were a fraction of the cost of the Habitat houses and cooler. Stay tuned because one of these projects will be on our blog soon.
greichert3 years ago
.. i like this kind of buildings :-)
Here's a really cheap system for doing earthen floors: http://www.instructables.com/id/Cheap-and-Easy-Brick-Floors/
Owen Geiger (author)  velacreations3 years ago
Great! I'll probably put this on our Earthbag Building Blog soon.
That's great! I am a BIG fan of your blog. Feel free to link to the original article on my site: http://velacreations.com/cebfloors.html

We have a lot of projects that might be of interest to your readers. We love dirt-cheap building and homesteading!
Owen Geiger (author)  velacreations3 years ago
Okay, thanks. I'll do that.
Bennions893 years ago
How would you make unplanned holes in a earth bag wall for new windows or doorways?
Owen Geiger (author)  Bennions893 years ago
You want to plan ahead as much as possible to prevent this from happening. Otherwise you'll have to chisel away at it. Keep new openings as small as possible and have a plan for dealing with the header/lintel.
raja6813 years ago
i live in iowa where it is very cold in the winter but im not complaning but wut should i do for a roof because of the snow and wind and wut not
Owen Geiger (author)  raja6813 years ago
Earthbag building is a wall system. You can use any type of roof you want. Most people use trusses because they provide lots of space for insulation. The two most energy efficient trusses are raised heel trusses and flat bottom trusses. Both give you added insulation right above the walls.
I am about to move to IA. I love your spiral Dome Magic 1. Would it still be possible to build where it's mostly flat land? How long is the estimate building time of say 3 people or maybe 6 people helping? Would there be any extra cost to make it Iowa winter proof? Thanks so much for your designs and info they are really beautiful and inspiring!

Owen Geiger (author)  tharrington3 years ago
I was born in Burlington and spent a fair amount of time north of there near Sperry. Great farmland! But also very cold in the winter.

The Spiral Dome Magic will work well there. Flat land is great. I actually prefer that over building below grade. Berm the earth up against the sides so the water flows away from the home. This also buffers it from the cold.

Building it with scoria (lava rock) would be my first choice. There's lots more info on our blog about building with scoria.

It's impossible to say how long something will take. There's a big difference in strength and building skills. Also, the method you use will affect how long it takes. Scoria will go several times faster than tamping earthbags. It's like handling bags of popcorn. No matter how you do it, figure on at least several months of hard work.
Great, thanks so much. I just tried a google search for scoria, do you know how to find or search for large amounts of scoria near Fairfield Iowa? I was thinking I would just build the Dome first and live in that so I could take my time building the rest stress free:) If I get the okay to build this I will be looking forward to seeing the design plan:) You are amazing with your willingness to spend time giving responses to everyone and I really look forward to using your designs! Thanks so much.
Owen Geiger (author)  tharrington3 years ago
Scoria is sold as decorative rock for landscaping. Check landscape suppliers in large cities. Here's one blog post that discusses how it's used in earthbag building:
http://earthbagbuilding.wordpress.com/2010/10/03/using-scoria-for-earthbag-building/
Forgot to mention that I am certified in Natural Building and Permaculture and any help I have will be with mostly experienced people so we should be on the faster side than slow side of building it:)
Daybringer3 years ago
Hi Owen!
I checked out some of your designs. They are awesome!
I really liked the Three-Pod Floor Plan.
Owen Geiger (author)  Daybringer3 years ago
Thanks. Lots of people are taking these basic designs and customizing them. Right now I'm doing a six pod with a pool, etc. in the protected courtyard.
all of the homes are so beautiful!!
Owen Geiger (author)  porcupinemamma3 years ago
It's really fun looking for homes like this on the Internet. I've been using Google Images a lot. Use various search words like earthbag, adobe, the name of a country, etc. and you can turn up thousands of similar images.
Thanks so much Owen for providing links, images and resources to these wonderful alternative material building ideas.

I'm currently almost finished with a small "Eco Shed" that I've been building to provide rain water, solar/wind power, firewood storage space, etc.. for my family.

Currently, it's just a simple 30' degree pitched roof, on posts, with tin roof and guttering, running down to a rain water tank kept underneath the structure to minimise the amount of direct sun onto the tank. Solar panels mounted on-top, with a Wind generator pole bracketed to one of the side posts.

It's designed to fit onto a normal medium sized car trailer, for easy(ish) moving from house to house (while we are currently renting), and then hopefully to find a more permanent home when we find some good and affordable land to purchase.

It's currently a recycled pine-timber structure, but once this is finished, I am definately going to try my hand at a small earthbag structure, as I am discovering more and more that building mostly with timber, even recycled, seems like an impractical use of wood, compared to saving the good quality timber for important "wood jobs", like door/window frames, internal supports, etc..

Your "How to Build an Earthbag Roundhouse" is just stunning in the photos,

congratulations and many thanks again for continuing to inspire my own love of alternative construction.
^_^
Owen Geiger (author)  Sylphhawkins3 years ago
Thanks a lot. Your portable shed idea sounds great.
Well, you sure have found some amazing ones. Thanks!
ElvenChild3 years ago
How would you get electricity?
Owen Geiger (author)  ElvenChild3 years ago
The same way you do now -- either from the mains (power lines from electrical companies) or renewable energy.
i think what he meant (and what im curious about) is since its earthbags, its not like you can cut/drill into the wall and install outlet boxes and wiring.... does this all need to be set up during the barbed wire phase?
Owen Geiger (author)  tuckersaspy3 years ago
As usual, there's a simple workaround and it's free on our blog. I'm assuming you've installed anchors (wood poles or scrap 2x4 blocking) between bags as you built the wall, and you're planning to run wiring in the recesses between bags. And now you want to add some extra boxes for outlets or switches.

Installing Additional Electrical Boxes http://earthbagbuilding.wordpress.com/2010/07/17/installing-additional-electrical-boxes/
ah that makes sense, thanks :)
right now im just in the planning stage but i read all your instructables and think earthbags is definitely the way to go
Owen Geiger (author)  tuckersaspy3 years ago
I have a question for you and anyone else who sees this. This Instructable is far less popular than the others. I thought it would be the most popular and am trying to figure out what's going on. See, it covers many various options instead of just one. People can choose what's most suitable for their climate and local situation. These ideas mean virtually anyone can afford their own home. So what's going on?
well those got into the instructable's news letters. I think that people reading these already have houses so they don't want to build anything big so there just building domes, or they don't trust themselves to build stuff this big so they're starting out small.
It's possible that it's just because it doesn't go into depth on any one technique, really. It's all great information, of course. It's just that an instructable with focus on getting something done one specific way seems to be more popular than one with more generalized information on that subject.
although your one on the earthbag dome was in the instructables newsletter this week, only reason i stumbled on this one is that i was interested after reading that one
i have no idea, this is one of the best written and most informative instructable i have ever seen... maybe people like the step by step instructions instead of being knowledgeable
Now, if only THEY would get the message!
poldira3 years ago
Is a fireplace built in a good idea with earthbag construction?
Owen Geiger (author)  poldira3 years ago
Wood stoves are far more efficient. Install as usual.
While I appreciate the efficiency, I was hoping to add a fireplace for beauty and enjoyment, not necessarily to heat this house. Are there any safety precautions needed? I noticed that the utah ranger station featured on your site looked like it had a fireplace built in. Is this the case?

Thanks
Owen Geiger (author)  poldira3 years ago
Use standard building practice. There's nothing special.

Not sure what they did on the ranger station.
mrguy191873 years ago
Do you know the building technique for the brown and white rounded dome? Is it earthbags or something else?
Owen Geiger (author)  mrguy191873 years ago
The Eco Truly Domes are adobe. Probably stabilized adobe.
volund3 years ago
I have been loving your recent instructables, tons of awesome info and ideas, really inspiring. Keep up the great work
Owen Geiger (author)  volund3 years ago
Great to hear, thanks.