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Step-by-Step Earthbag Building

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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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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.
Macki1 year ago
Tst
Macki Macki1 year 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)  Macki1 year 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/
skaar1 year 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.
Owen Geiger (author)  skaar1 year ago
Try it out, compare to other methods if possible and report back.
Owen Geiger (author)  skaar1 year ago
But that means: 1. moving the bag filling device around on the walls. It gets a little tricky walking on walls covered in barbed wire, especially high in the air. And, you'd have to move the form hundreds of times (for each bag). Or, 2. fill the bags on the ground and move the bags up on the wall. That's very strenuous. Try lifting heavy earthbags over your head all day. Or, 3. fill the bags on the ground and lift them with a tractor or some other lifting device. But you'd still have to move them into position by hand.

The standard earthbag techniques eliminate these problems. The final shape is fine. No need for perfect squared bags like this.
it'd be slid to the next one, exactly like the cookie sheet you use... you have 'to move the' sheet 'hundreds of times (for each bag)'.

your point about walking on barbed wire makes sense, if that's how you'd do it... i don't think it's necessary to do that... regardless, how does someone get full bags into place? they walk on the barbed wire? when you get to the top, you don't use step ladders?

you fill the bags and lift them up to the wall, over your head, by hand, you must be incredibly strong... and positioning them by hand, how else is it done? step6.

my suggestion is just to lay them flat in the first place, so there's no 'fiddling' around needed. they must be heavy, and hard on the back to tilt down like that. adding a handle of some sort to make pulling the sheet easier would be too much?

when you lay them down, they have to be moved into place, there's no way around it, if they're filled laying down, they're already aligned. the current method is good, but it's not ideal. the optimum bag sizes, for less wasted plastic, is a side benefit, that's all.
cgherrera1 year ago
Owen, I have seen your plans for the Beachcomber house and would like to build it. This will be a DIY project. We own 5.5 acres in SC (upstate) and would like to build an Earthbag home. We've gotten quotes on well and septic already. What do you estimate the remainder of the work for this home costing?
Owen Geiger (author)  cgherrera1 year ago
I never give cost estimates. You have to make your own cost estimate based on local prices, choice of materials, cost of permits, how much you'll spend on contractors, etc.
jnewport221 year 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.
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)  vspin1 year 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)  jnewport221 year 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.
Chloie1 year ago
Hi,
Thanks so much for sharing this great info. Can you tell me what I need to do when erecting the house to allow for electrical wiring for solar/wind power?
Thanks, again!
Owen Geiger (author)  Chloie1 year ago
Everything is on our websites for free. Use the built-in search engines and search for electrical. 99% of plumbing, electrical, roof, etc. are same as any other building.
http://naturalbuildingblog.com/
Thank you! I had tried several searches but I guess I was just putting in the wron word combos. Appreciate the tip!
mikelz3 years ago
The only thing I can imagine this is good for is providing cover during a fire fight.
Owen Geiger (author)  mikelz1 year 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 mikelz2 years ago
Really? You lack imagination.
Ward_Nox1 year ago
I've been thinking of making somthing like this for a while now, this DIY is helpful
Owen,

Your instructable is fascinating. Based on this, I'm going to make it my goal to build one of these style houses because I want my goal to never have to have a mortgage of any kind. I work in business/marketing but am an incredibly frugal/utilitarian person.

What kind of considerations should I make for cold/rainy climate in Michigan? I'm concerned about mold, rain destroying the structure, snow damage, etc.

Also, how long would you estimate it would take two people to build a structure like this?

Thanks!
Owen Geiger (author)  roastymctoasty1 year ago
Our Natural Building Blog (formerly Earthbag Building Blog) has more info on building in cold climates. Use the built-in search engine using terms such as cold climate, insulated earthbag, etc.

One of the best articles is right here on Instructables.com.
http://www.instructables.com/id/How-to-Build-an-Insulated-Earthbag-House/

To summarize, you want a good roof with lots of insulation, an insulated foundation and floor, and either insulating fill material in the bags or insulation applied to the outside of the walls. And, of course, use good windows, doors and lots of caulk and weatherstripping to weatherize your home.

Speed: It all depends on your strength and skill level. First build a storage shed and use that as a gauge to determine how long it will take.

Use lime plaster on the inside to prevent mold.
How would I secure roofing to this structure? Also, I live in a northern climate (michigan). What material would best be used to "plaster" the walls?
Owen Geiger (author)  anotherchavez1 year ago
Most everyone builds a bond beam on top of the wall. Reinforced concrete is most common and the best choice for large structures. Wood bond beams are suitable for small buildings. Avoid freezing of plaster of in cold climates. You can use cement, lime or earthen plaster depending on the size of your roof overhang.
wheeldeals2 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?
Owen Geiger (author)  wheeldeals2 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
Isurvival3 years ago
I thought that those underground houses can only be built with a bunch of concrete, but this is a great, eco-friendly method, that can do the work for neally free :D thanks for the great idea...
Owen Geiger (author)  Isurvival3 years ago
Earthbags are a lot stronger than people realize. They're also known as geosynthetics or geotextiles, and are used for giant road and industrial projects.
See Geosynthetics Magazine: http://geosyntheticsmagazine.com/materials/geotextiles

You can get earthbag engineered plans through Precision Structural Engineering, Inc. at http://www.structure1.com/

My Earthbag House Plans site has over 110 designs to choose from: http://earthbagplans.wordpress.com/
Mr. Geiger, I live in TN and the property I own is mostly red clay. Is this suitable or would I need to mix it with sand or something? Also, what would be the best roof to use for this climate?
Owen Geiger (author)  mljr42 years ago
The earthbags will be stronger with some gravel or sand added. Experiment a little to find the best mix. Make a few test bags and keep track of the ratio of ingredients. The final bags should dry very hard.
isn't there some sort of permit needed to build that sort of structure? always nice if there isnt.....
That's the beauty of my future home site, It's in county jurisdiction and well away from any towns in that county. I will not be getting the home inspected or buying any permits, the main reason for getting it inspected is to have it approved for insurance purposes, I have no need to have insurance on it, its not like a earthen house can burn down to the ground, and the house will be built cheap enough if there is ever any reason to repair a section, it won't cost very much at all. Building cheap and living cheap is the name of the game here. These houses can be a great alternative if you plan to never leave it, no worries about market prices, interest rates, mortgage, and if you are more self sufficient on power and water then you have virtually no bills pertaining to typical housing. With the predicted upcoming economic fall and "second great depression" this is a alternative that is one of the best choices you could make.
Owen Geiger (author)  thomas_hemme81883 years ago
Building codes vary from country to country, state to state, even city to city. You'll have to talk to your local building officials.

This is a huge subject of interest, because it has a major bearing on the cost of construction. You might want to join the discussion on our blog: http://earthbagbuilding.wordpress.com/2010/01/24/counties-with-few-or-no-building-codes/
johnsv62 years ago
Any way to have a photo of finished bag? Wire vs sail twine?
Owen Geiger (author)  johnsv62 years ago
Watch my YouTube videos where I show every step in detail.
http://www.youtube.com/user/naturalhouses

Not sure what sail twine is. You can use whatever works. Try it out. Something about the thickness of fishing net twine is all you need. Thin wire works. I show various methods in my videos. The latest, fastest method I've settled on his two short pieces of wire. I do a race with a lady to see what's fastest.
D00M993 years ago
I'm sorry, but could you break down the last paragraph in the intro? I would really love to build the Earthbag Dome when I grow up but I kinda want to know what the last paragraph means in simple terms.
Owen Geiger (author)  D00M993 years ago
I had to condense this so the Instructable isn't too long. This paragraph addresses:
1. site preparation (preparing the building site): standard building procedure
2. rubble trench under the dome: this is standard building procedure
http://www.buildnaturally.com/EDucate/Articles/RubbleTrench.htm
3. the stake at the doorway guides the curvature of the dome: tie a string or cord to this stake and use it to check the distance to each course of bags. In other words, each course is inset slightly (= corbelling). If each course matches this radius then your dome will have the desired curvature.
Maestro ,

How do you calculate the the "indentations or curvature" of the earthbag course in order to create the dome? How do you use this stake, string and cord? I have bought the Earth Building Guide and can't seem to find the information I'm looking for. How do you know how much to move the bag inward (indentation) in orde to create the dome.

I'm planning to build in Nicaragua nex year. Thank you for your wanderful work and your guide.

Saludos,
Pro

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