Step-by-Step Earthbag Building

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Introduction: Step-by-Step Earthbag Building

About: Owen Geiger is the former director of Builders Without Borders, a Mother Earth News Green Home Adviser, The Last Straw Journal Correspondent and the director of the Geiger Research Institute of Sustainable B...

This Instructable explains each main step of construction for building vertical earthbag walls. Videos on my Earthbag Natural Building YouTube channel demonstrate the process.

For those who don’t know, earthbag building uses polypropylene rice bags or feed bags filled with soil or insulation that are stacked like masonry and tamped flat. Barbed wire between courses keeps bags from slipping and adds tensile strength. The final plastered walls look just like adobe structures. Thousands of people are now building with bags to create their dream homes, home offices, shops, resorts, rootcellars, storm cellars and survival shelters. Non-profit organizations are building schools, orphanages, emergency shelters and other structures.

I got involved with earthbag building when the Indian Ocean tsunami hit Southeast Asia in December, 2004. As the director of Builders Without Borders at that time, I searched all available affordable, sustainable building methods and decided building with bags was the most practical. They’re flood resistant (used for flood control), earthquake resistant (passed an ICBO shake table test), bullet and blast resistant (used for military bunkers), and now engineer and code approved plans are available. Just search for earthbag house plans on the Internet.

Our websites at EarthbagBuilding.com and Earthbag Building Blog explain just about everything you need to know for free. And if you’re looking for house plans, my Earthbag House Plans site features over 110 sustainable plans that can be purchased through Dream Green Homes. My new Earthbag Building Guide and Earthbag Building DVD are now available.

The following instructions assume you have cleared and leveled the site, removed topsoil, positioned fill soil around the building site to minimize work, dug a trench to stable subsoil, put about 12” of gravel in the trench, and added corner guides and stringlines.

Step 1: Tools and Materials


Step 1. Tools and materials (listed left to right): woven polypropylene bags (about 18” x 30”), bucket chute (4-gallon bucket with bottom cut off), 4 or 5 heavy duty 2-gallon cement buckets, stringline, metal chisel and scrap steel for cutting barbed wire (or bolt cutters), hammer, sheetmetal slider (about 13” x 16”), 15 gauge galvanized wire, knife, wire cutters, tape measure, 4-point barbed wire, corner guide, grub hoe or grape hoe, level, tampers, bundle 500 bags, shovel.

Step 2: Fill the Bags


Step 2. Fill the bags: Use the same number of buckets for each bag. Fill bags approximately 90% full, leaving just enough to sew the bags closed. This technique ensures each bag is filled to capacity to save bags, and each bag is the same size, which helps keep walls level.

First Foundation Bag

Step 3: Sew or Stitch the Bags Closed


Step 3. Sew or stitch the bags closed: fold the bag end over; use 15 gauge wire about 9” long with one end cut at a sharp angle; make one stitch on one side and bend the end over; make a stitch in the center and pull the corner over; make a stitch in the other corner and pull the corner over; poke the remaining wire into the earthbag. This technique facilitates handling, prevents spills and enables bags to be filled to capacity.

Stitching Bags Closed

Step 4: Gravel Bags on Lower Courses


Step 4. Lower courses: place gravel-filled bags (double-bagged for strength) working from the corners and openings to the center. Align bags to stringline; tamp the bags solid and level after the course is complete. Always put tops of bags (the ends you’ve sewn closed) butted against other bags to prevent spillage. Maintain a running bond as in masonry.

Second Foundation Bag

Step 5: Add Barbed Wire


Step 5. Add barbed wire: use two strands of 4-point barbed wire in-between each course of bags; bricks or stones temporarily hold the barbed wire in place.

Barbed Wire

Step 6: Place Additional Courses With Sheetmetal Slider


Step 6. Use a sheetmetal slider to place additional courses so bags do not snag on the barbed wire: fill the bags on the slider; sew the end closed; tilt the bag into position and push it against the previous bag. After the bag is aligned, hold the end of the bag and jerk the slider out. Continue with gravel-filled bags until you are safely above the height where moisture can cause damage.

First Bag Second Course

Step 7: Repeat the Process Using Earth-filled Bags


Step 7. Repeat the process using earth-filled bags for upper courses, but with a few minor changes: turn bags inside out to avoid protruding corners; use lightly moistened soil; lightly tamp the contents after each bucket of soil is added; pre-tamp each bag after it is aligned in position. This last step lengthens each bag to ensure good overlap.

First Earth Filled Bag
Tamping First Earth Filled Bag

Step 8: Make Custom-sized Bags

Step 8. Make custom-sized bags to fill odd-sized spaces: measure the opening; fill the bag to the approximate level; cut off excess bag material; fold each side of the end toward the center and tuck under the bag; place the bag in the wall.


Step 9: Tamping


Step 9. Tamping: Tamp earthbags solid and level after each course is complete. Tamp the high points first. Once the wall is approximately level, evenly tamp the entire wall several times as you continually move the tamper so as not to create low spots.

Tamping First Course of Earth Filled Bags

Repeat the process for the remainder of the walls, adding doors and windows as you go. Check often to keep walls plumb and level.

If you like this Instructable, please check out my other one that covers almost every detail for building a roundhouse: How to Build an Earthbag Roundhouse

Owen Geiger is the former director of Builders Without Borders, a Mother Earth News Green Home Adviser, The Last Straw Journal Correspondent and the director of the Geiger Research Institute of Sustainable Building .

Photos and videos by Got Chankamol

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    189 Discussions

    First of all, thank you so much for all of this information! My husband and I are in the process of researching building one of your homes. Are home would be built in Northern Wisconsin, so we really like the solar pit design. Since, this plan is free on your site (thank you by the way!) I wasn't sure who/ how to contact the right person if I had a question. I know since we get heavy snow fall here that we'll have to work with someone in our area to make sure it is code friendly. I just wanted to ask you coding permitting do you think it would be possible to add a large skylight to each of the bedrooms and one small one in the bathrooms? Thanks again!

    Was wondering about electricity? Where do the wires go? Perhaps it is a stupid question...

    I am about to return to college for the first time in years. I've been wanting to build an Earthbag house but need my two questions answered.

    2 replies

    The electrical wires go in the recesses between earthbags. Electrical boxes are attached to wood anchors embedded between earthbags. This and all other details are covered in my earthbag ebook with photos of each step:
    http://www.naturalbuildingblog.com/owens-book-dvd/

    Thank you! This will be a weekend project.
    My plan involves:
    Hobbit House with deck on roof. Guest rooms will be added later on.
    Earth bag fence around perimeter with pvc pipe along the top (keeps coyotes out).
    Water tank
    Cellar
    A work shop
    A garage
    Solar panels, fenced off so my crazy dog can't get near them.
    All on a couple acres. Also, big enough for my crazy dog to run around.

    0
    user
    Wael_

    1 year ago

    Please check this project in Almafraq, Jordan
    https://www.facebook.com/groups/1099689303401001/
    Its earth bags house under construction first of its type in the country.
    We are planning also other eco- and permaculture systems like aquaponics, rocket stove mass heater ..
    We lack of local experts though things are going forward.
    I have a question regarding the bags plastic after construction: should it be removed before butting the clay on the walls and how?

    1 reply

    Do not damage the bags. They add lots of strength. Watch my free videos on YouTube to see each step of construction including the basic process of plastering the bags. The plaster 'anchors' or bonds itself in the recesses between bags. The 2nd coat covers the bags entirely. Plaster mesh will help bonding but is not required if money is limited.

    Email me if you have other questions. natural houses @ [gmail.com]

    Sorry, I can't open facebook.

    Hello, I am in northern Wisconsin and would like to build an earthbag small home. The soil on my land is all sand. I would like to use the sand to fill the bags and build in the side of a hill. Would this work for my cold winter climate? What do you suggest for insulation?

    2 replies

    Sand bags shift and become unstable without some type of binder. This is explained in my earthbag ebook and also our websites. Clay is the lowest cost binder. Mixing clay with sand adds extra time and labor. Personally, I would buy good quality soil such as road base that can be put into the bags immediately as is.

    Sand bags shift and become unstable without some type of binder. This is explained in my earthbag ebook and also our websites. Clay is the lowest cost binder. Mixing clay with sand adds extra time and labor. Personally, I would buy good quality soil such as road base that can be put into the bags immediately as is.

    hello, would scoria filled bags for the foundation be structurally sound for high seismic areas? i have access to scoria. I'd be building a rubble trench with the small rock and gravel on the land (limestone and dolomite) I have a caliche clay sand soil that tamps into pretty solid bag. Would the lightweight scoria be compromised under the earth filled bags? Thank you...

    1 reply

    Yes. I've already answered this question on our Natural Building Blog.
    http://www.naturalbuildingblog.com/using-scoria-for-earthbag-building/

    Hello! I'm fairly new to the idea of the earthbag homes but after spending 2 years trying to unsuccessfully find a 4 bedroom home and having an increasing need to lessen our cabon footprint, we stumbled on the earthbag home via another person sharing the interest on facebook. We began to research but there is so much information out here that we really don't know where to start. We have 4 children and 2 adults, we were hoping to build a 4 bedroom, 2 bathroom, 2 level home (basement and 1st floor...possibly a survival shelter on the same level as the basement or lower. I've looked at plans online but again I'm a true newbie so I'm pretty lost. Is there a general direction you would point someone like me to begin looking? Can you give me an estimate on what type of money we would be spending for a structure so large? Are there companies that would build this for you? (i'm not really handy @ major DIY...bows and ribbons yes...building...no) Really any help in the right direction would be greatly appreciated. Thanks much!! :)

    3 replies

    My long comment got deleted. Here's the short version. Check out my earthbag Instructable first:
    https://www.instructables.com/id/Step-by-Step-Earthbag-Building/

    Then get my ebook and DVD if you're still serious:
    http://www.naturalbuildingblog.com/owens-book-dvd/

    All of my plans are here: https://earthbagplans.wordpress.com/

    Earthbag is a DIY building method unless you have cheap labor.

    In Ohio and other cold climates I would use strawbale and post and beam like this: http://www.naturalbuildingblog.com/?s=post+and+beam+hardware

    PS I live in Ohio...so I also know nothing about zoning laws..

    Can we make 'grain storage' from earthbag building? Can it bear the load upto 1000 kg?

    1 reply

    Yes, good idea. Use the same method as making water tanks. See that Instructable of mine.

    This site has supported me a lot to gain awareness in every way about my recent activity such as selling my house! Now I have the best idea to how to deal the buyers! Thanks to samson properties chantilly!

    I want to retrofit my stick construction house with Earthbag construction. Is there any info on that process?

    1 reply

    Yes you can. It's called a retrofit. Basically you just stack bags up on the outside of the house. It's somewhat awkward though. You need a wide roof overhang to accommodate the extra thickness. You'll need to redo all doors and windows. You'll need to dig down to stable soil to support the gravel bags and earthbags. Don't even consider any of this if you have building codes. They'll never allow it in 99% of code jurisdictions.

    Always start with a small simple project like a tool shed so you can learn the techniques.