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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.

 
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Step 1: Tools and materials

Picture of 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

Picture of 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

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

Picture of 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

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

Picture of 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

Picture of 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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GrizzlyT3 months ago

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)  GrizzlyT2 months ago

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.

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)  GrizzlyT1 month ago

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 Geiger1 month ago

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

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

MelissaM122 months ago

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)  MelissaM121 month ago

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

mikelz4 years ago
The only thing I can imagine this is good for is providing cover during a fire fight.
Owen Geiger (author)  mikelz2 months ago

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)  mikelz3 years ago
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 mikelz3 years ago
Really? You lack imagination.
PerryT15 months ago

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)  PerryT12 months ago

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

oper8or3 months ago

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)  oper8or3 months ago

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) 5 months ago

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.

artmonger8 months ago

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)  artmonger8 months ago

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.

etadesse9 months ago

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)  etadesse8 months ago

Sorry, I don't know what you mean.

wheeldeals3 years ago
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.

Owen Geiger (author)  CoachNickyRoberts8 months ago

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)  wheeldeals3 years ago
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
etadesse9 months ago

Hi Mr own,

I was wondering how the post that is set between sandbags are made ? Is that a plastic zigzag between the two post woods. What is the material nailed in between the two wooden post. Is that one string that is folded and nailed to the two posts?

Best Regards,

Elizabeth

pnom10 months ago

Hello,

I would like to know if this building method is approved in South Africa.

I believe it is provided you meet building codes.

jnewport222 years ago
Owen,

In the state of California is it hard to obtain an actual passed permit and codes for the house. I just purchased my first piece of land and desire to make one of these homes and hope that it would pass permit.
Owen Geiger (author)  jnewport2211 months ago

Contact Structure1.com. They can get it code approved.

jnewport22,

I would love to hear how your project goes as I live in California as well, and the only place I've ever heard of allowing EarthBags is San Bernardino County, but from what I understand, you may need to get an engineer to approve your earthbag plans before "pitching" it to your city. Hopefully Owen will give you a much more educated response..

I have been looking at Compressed Earth Blocks (CEB). I read that they are even cheaper to make, and faster to build with. However, the compression equipment is not so affordable. Under California building code, I heard they are classed as adobe bricks, which I believe is permitted to build walls with as long as they meet the strength requirements.

Here are some links related to CEB:

Owen Geiger
http://www.jovoto.com/projects/300house/ideas/12512

Owen Geiger - lever compression
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BfVIC1P6vOU

Hydraulic compression
http://opensourceecology.org/wiki/CEB_Press

http://www.midwestearthbuilders.com/BuildingInfo.html
Owen Geiger (author)  vspin2 years ago
CEBs are great. Code issue are basically the same as anything else. They're especially good if you live in a rural area with few or no building codes. Then you can build dirt cheap. I know a guy who built a real nice CEB roundhouse about 700 sq. ft. for under $1,000. This is only possible if you do everything yourself with local materials (soil, poles, etc.). He used wood poles that radiate out from a center CEB column. He sloshed on lime wash to protect the CEBs. The only mistake I know of was his roof method. He used rough sawn lumber covered with plastic sheeting and dirt. The dirt had ants and termites that eventually messed up the roof. It's better to use metal roofing. That also makes it easy to collect roofwater, which would have been helpful since he built in the desert. One interesting part of the story is the building process seemed to have healed him of a life threatening disease. The hard work out in the fresh air, change of diet, lower stress, etc. probably saved his life. I think he's still alive and still building alternative structures. He shuns publicity though and so many haven't heard his story.
Owen Geiger (author)  jnewport222 years ago
It's difficult to gain code approval in populated urban areas due to all the code requirements. We always recommend less populated areas. Remote rural areas with few or no building codes are ideal, so you can build whatever you want without harassment. This also saves you a ton of money. Restrictive codes do have some benefits, but they come at a huge cost. Codes can drive up the cost of construction 10-fold. California is one of the worst places unless you're off in the desert or some other remote place. Talk to your local building officials and see what they require. You'll probably need an engineer to sign off on the project. That can cost $2,500 minimum. And, they'll likely make you add thousands of dollars of extra things, force you to build to a minimum size with minimum room sizes, etc. etc.
Where I can get polypropylene bags
Owen Geiger (author)  dudedude12311 months ago

Every major city in the world. They're super common since they're used for all sorts of things. Buy from the nearest city because shipping is a large expense.

Could this be done with shredded tires as the fill? In order to enhance better pro-environmental-ness?
Yeah, probably. You can also use stacked tires in lieu of bags, kinda like how some of the earthships work.
Macki2 years ago
Tst
Macki Macki2 years ago
I have acreage in Greer, SC that I am wanting to build an alternative home for me and my daughter -- any words of wisdom?
Owen Geiger (author)  Macki2 years ago
We now have thousands of pages of free information on our websites. Use the built-in search engines at Natural Building Blog and EarthbagBuilding.com to research every topic. Most topics now have several blog posts and/or articles that cover every detail. You can save lots of time by buying my $20 ebook since all the best ideas are distilled in one book. http://www.naturalbuildingblog.com/owens-book-dvd/
skaar2 years ago
building a wooden form, latched on the side, sliding the bag in, filling and scraping the excess off the top would get a pretty near perfectly sized bag, it would also be easy to sew it closed... even better, a plywood funnel could be built, so filling would be easier.
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