Introduction: Step-by-Step Earthbag Building

Picture of Step-by-Step Earthbag Building

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

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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

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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

Picture of 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

Picture of 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

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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

Picture of 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

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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

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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

Comments

BrendieH (author)2016-12-20

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.

Owen Geiger (author)BrendieH2016-12-21

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/

BrendieH (author)Owen Geiger2016-12-21

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.

Wael_ (author)2016-11-23

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?

Owen Geiger (author)Wael_2016-11-23

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.

jeffreyholte (author)2016-11-10

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?

Owen Geiger (author)jeffreyholte2016-11-11

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.

Owen Geiger (author)jeffreyholte2016-11-11

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.

dylannhert (author)2016-09-17

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...

Owen Geiger (author)dylannhert2016-09-18

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

MsCookies83 (author)2016-07-18

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!! :)

Owen Geiger (author)MsCookies832016-07-18

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

MsCookies83 (author)Owen Geiger2016-07-19

thank you! :)

MsCookies83 (author)MsCookies832016-07-18

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

sabin2016 (author)2016-06-10

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

Owen Geiger (author)sabin20162016-06-10

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

KevinD173 (author)2016-06-06

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!

SuzanneS32 (author)2016-04-02

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

Owen Geiger (author)SuzanneS322016-04-08

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.

KamiL5 (author)2016-03-15

Is there a good way to calculate earth plaster material quantities from sq. footage that needs to be covered?

pwoodall (author)2016-02-13

I love this construction method but all the houses I see seem to be constructed on the ground. I would like to use this method for my future retirement in probably Belize or Costa Rica.

Ideally I would like to build on a water facing lot. My question is whether you can build this home on a "raised" wood foundation on stilts like a typical hurricane-proof water facing house to allow for any "water flow underneath" in case of a flood? Would it withstand winds?

Is building on stilts even necessary with this construction method? What sort of lot would be best? In looking at photos most water lots appear to be "sand" based?

Thanks

KeliR2 (author)2016-01-31

Is it necessary in colder climes with snow build up to build a cement stem wall below grade? What are you making your floors from and what is underneath them, between ground and flooring?

Owen Geiger (author)KeliR22016-02-06

Scoria or pumice filled earthbags would be my first choice for a foundation. This assumes you're building in an area with no codes. Scoria and pumice are types of porous lava rock that are insulating and rot resistant. If you have codes then you'll have to build to meet code, and that usually means reinforced concrete.

KeliR2 (author)Owen Geiger2016-02-07

Hello Esteemed Owen!
Thank you for this reply, yes I do have to adhere to the IBC2006 codes in Southern Colorado (the mecca of recent offgrid lawsuits). Do you know if they oppose earthbag walls? I know strawbales and adobe have been used widely for decades, and can be made to conform visually to "normal" houses. I really like the idea of earthbags (I live in hot, dry climate conducive to straw combustion). Is it true that one should predominantly build them in dome shape for optimal stability? How would you best build them into square/rect structures, by framing, or...?
Thank you!

Owen Geiger (author)KeliR22016-02-06

Scoria or pumice filled earthbags would be my first choice for a foundation. This assumes you're building in an area with no codes. Scoria and pumice are types of porous lava rock that are insulating and rot resistant. If you have codes then you'll have to build to meet code, and that usually means reinforced concrete.

dna.hus (author)2015-07-30

Dear Sir/Madam,

We are the
manufacturer and exporter of Jute products. Our newly developed product which
is Water repellent Jute fabric.

Here are some of its uses.

WHAT IS WATER REPELLENT
JUTE FABRIC (WRJF).

1 POTATO BAGS: - WRJF
is used to cargo your potato bags with required humidity, prevent damages and
cure from fungus. Can repellent water during travelling and save the potato
till their final destination.

2 SAND BAGS: - WRJF is
used to make your sand bags to protect from flood water .Shops, Houses or
basements area for a longer period of time.

3 RICE BAGS: - WRJF is
used to save rice for a longer period of time from rain and humid weather.

4 COFFEE BAGS:- WRJF
is used to save coffee seeds in traveling and it doesn’t react or damage with water during traveling
or storage.

5 RAIN COAT:- WRJF is
used to make rain coats. It’s cheap and used multiple times. it feels light
when your raincoat protect you and your fellow members from rain.

6 COVERING PLANT FROM
HEAVY RAIN OR SUN LIGHT: - WRJF is also used to cover your growing plant to
destroy from rain and burn from sum light.

7 COVER CARS:- WRJF it
can cover your car during Snow fall.

8 COVER WET FLOOR:-
WRJF is used on wet floor in your party
area or snow on your roof. Snow can slip down and save your houses from
damages.

9 CATTLLES:- WRJF is
used to cover cattle like cows, goats, camels, horses from raining season or
from winter season. Or you can use this WRJF to cob either huts. It is going to
protect from rain too.

10 IMPORTANT DOCOMENT
COVER:- WRJF material cover your document for humidity season or protect from
water too.

11 WOODEN HOUSE:- WRJF
material cover your wooden roof we can used the fabric under the wood to
protect small gaps and water cannot come inside your house water.

Look forward to
hearing from you.

Email: - adnan@tgeastern.com

Regards,

Adnan

GrizzlyT (author)2015-04-28

Why not just use cob, dirt, clay from the ground you are building on, and mix with straw, woudnt have to buy the bags, just the straw,, what, 9-12 a bail and mix it in, sounds cheaper than the bags.... and you dont have to worry about if you get plastic or not... same ordeal.... this is what Im thinking on doing out here in wyoming, but, hard enough to just get the land...

Owen Geiger (author)GrizzlyT2015-05-11

There are advantages and disadvantages to every building method. Use what makes the most sense to you and works best in your climate. In Wyoming, I would use post and beam with free poles from the forest plus straw bale infill for maximum insulation.

Earthbag is waay faster than cob. Maybe 10x faster. Try it and see. Tractor cob or roto cob are much faster than regular cob. Rent a rototiller for the job and save hundreds of hours of manual mixing. Again though, strawbale is much more insulating.

GrizzlyT (author)Owen Geiger2015-05-15

I like the idea of cob, but, even still, any way its done, local city authorities on trying to work with building regulations wont contact me on anything, and there are no workshops out here to learn anything like that,,, There is suppose to be a cob house outside riverton wyoming, and a cob church out past the airport, outside of riverton also,,,( I live in lander wyoming ),,, but, no matter how many ways you work around it,,, no one will help you just to find the information to read on to learn about if certain things are needed to meet their building codes or not,,, Only one person had explained to me that I would be able to use a sunmar composting system if I desired outside of city limits,,, but, guess if you live in city limits you have to hook up to the city water and such,, no if's and's or but's... My really big issue, is I would love to build log style home with landscape timbers,,, which I would probably be better off,, even thought about putting cob or something down in-between the landscape timbers,,, ( kind of like a 3 wall system, landscape timber, cob or something, then another landscape timber..),,, but with land as expensive as it is here, we rent, and hard to find a place, and with the wife also, concerned at the fact that it may take us too long to build anything ( if starting in April or May because of weather issues ),, that we may not have one built in time to move into for the winter... ( and wife is skeptical on everything ),,, dont want to waist the money if we cant be guarenteed.... this is where many of my problems come in at... I know I can construct a home probably within 2 months tops with landscape timbers,,,( and love that idea, cob or no cob )... Then, it comes down to the foundation, and roof system... which I have no idea about,,, but if we buy land, we also need to move in asap because we would have to leave the home we are renting because our payments would be going toward the land.... hard to find ways around that.....

Owen Geiger (author)GrizzlyT2015-06-08

The best option may be to put a cheap mobile home on the land as a temporary residence to satisfy the code nazis. Then build a post and beam strawbale house that will give you speed and ease of construction, and superinsulation. Start small and add on later. There's a blog post on our Natural Building Blog that shows how to build code approved post and beam houses with straw bale infill. It's fast and easy because standard Simpson type anchors are used throughout. Here's the drawing:

http://www.naturalbuildingblog.com/wp-content/uploads/post-and-beam-straw-bale.jpg

Owen Geiger (author)Owen Geiger2015-06-08

Read this blog post that goes along with the image I just posted:

http://www.naturalbuildingblog.com/post-and-beam-hardware/

MelissaM12 (author)2015-05-27

I'm moving to Oklahoma and was wondering if this is the best way to build other then stick building. I live in Washington state now and this would never work with all the humidity but Oklahoma is dry most of the year, however it floods and has tornadoes. What do you suggest?

Owen Geiger (author)MelissaM122015-06-08

Build a tornado/flood resistant earthbag design in areas like OK.

mikelz (author)2011-02-04

The only thing I can imagine this is good for is providing cover during a fire fight.

Owen Geiger (author)mikelz2015-05-11

Update: Ask the survivors of the recent 2015 earthquake in Nepal. Every earthbag structure in Nepal (50-60) is intact with little or no damage. Now we're getting requests from about 100 NGOs who want to build this way.

Also, the earthbag roundhouse in Vanuatu was one of the few structures left standing in the area after the recent hurricane hit the islands. So obviously earthbag buildings are more than just bullet resistant, eh?

Owen Geiger (author)mikelz2012-07-29

Lots of people would disagree. Thousands of people all over the world are building earthbag homes. Just google Earthbag Houses and you can easily spend a whole day looking at images on google and reading earthbag blogs.

mlipsham (author)mikelz2012-01-01

Really? You lack imagination.

PerryT1 (author)2015-02-27

You don't discuss what material to use for filling the bags, how to make door and window frames nor firing the home once it is built. What are you putting in these bags and do you intend to fire it as a ceramic or leave it stand as is?

Owen Geiger (author)PerryT12015-05-11

No firing! Read the article Step by Step Earthbag Building Instructable.

oper8or (author)2015-04-06

where do you get the bags, and how much do they cost? I live in the Arizona desert, and would LOVE to give this a try.

Owen Geiger (author)oper8or2015-04-08

Search online for poly bag companies near you. We have a list of major bag suppliers at EarthbagBuilding.com in our Resources section. (scroll down the page) Order 18" wide sand bags or poly tubing. It's a little confusing because there are so many types of plastic products. Not all are strong enough for earthbag building. Get products specifically labeled sand bag, earthbag, etc. Order one bag and test it for strength before buying in bulk.

Owen Geiger (author)2015-02-27

Watch my free videos on YouTube for more details. It's the first link at the beginning of this article.

Filling the bags: Most people use ordinary subsoil with clay and sand. No special mix is required. You want enough clay to bind the sand together so the earthbags are solid. I like road base because it's easy to get and uniform with the ideal mix of clay/sand.

No need to fire the earthbags! That would be a huge waste. Earthbag building is very similar to rammed earth that in some cases has lasted thousands of years. Search Ancient Rammed Earth Structures.

Window and doors, etc.: consult a standard carpentry book from a library. Get one with lots of easy to understand drawings.

artmonger (author)2014-11-16

This seems to be more expensive than it needs to be.... used tires and a sledge hammer... better insulation and you can get a ton of tires for free.... fill the tires with earth... and sledge it in...

these seem more diverse, but nuggit... depends on the project, i guess.

good instructable anyways!

Owen Geiger (author)artmonger2014-11-16

Many people are not strong enough to ram earth in tires. What I tell people is try both as an experiment and time yourself. Ram one tire, then do one earthbag. Earthbags are several times faster per unit of wall area. Plus, you can get recycled bags to cut the cost. Check feed stores, brewers, etc.

etadesse (author)2014-10-12

This post on the left is what I am talking about. What is the space between the two posts? Would you put instruction How to do it and most of all the material.

Owen Geiger (author)etadesse2014-11-07

Sorry, I don't know what you mean.

wheeldeals (author)2012-04-10

Hi Owen,

I have been researching using earthbags here in N. Florida and have decided to use some plans found online. As far as building the walls how long does the process normally take two average guys for 450 sq ft? I am going to start with a small and straightforward plan at first. I have priced the bags and tools to do the job and can spend less than $500 to fully enclose the structure.Any tips or suggestions?

How is your earth bag project coming along? I live in SW Florida and would love to build this way. My husband is concerned about cooling for the summer and damp. Curious as to how you solved these challenges.

Earthbags are popular in tropical climates. No problems with moisture if you follow the recommendations given here and in my earthbag ebook. It boils down to 1. building a good roof, 2. providing adequate roof overhang, 3. raising the earthbags above the splash line to avoid moisture problems. I use gravel bags as a foundation because they're unaffected by waer.

The inside of the house will stay cool year-round if you follow my advice in two blog posts at Natural Building Blog called Passive Cooling Strategies. Lots of low cost, low tech cooling methods are described. No AC needed.

Owen Geiger (author)wheeldeals2012-04-10

Check out our blog for answers to virtually every question (over 1,100 blog posts on every topic imaginable).

Here's the specific blog post about rate of earthbag wall building: http://earthbagbuilding.wordpress.com/2011/12/03/rate-of-earthbag-wall-building/

The speed depends on all sorts of details. Again, search our blog for keywords such as 'production', 'efficient', etc. I usually address this using the term production building or production earthbag building. Really think through every step because you can save lots of hard work. Buy good soil such as road base that can be shoveled directly into bags without mixing. Stack piles around the job site to reduce labor. Fill the bags on the wall so you don't have to lift heavy bags. Consider setting up a big tarp so you can work in the shade. Build a simple shape such as a rectangle or circle.

My YouTube videos show every step. http://www.youtube.com/user/naturalhouses

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Bio: 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 ... More »
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