Earthbag homes were created in the 1970s by Iranian architect Nader Khalili.
Khalili had previously worked in the countryside of Iran where he taught villages how to build homes out of adobe.
However, after he came to the U.S., he realized that adobe homes weren’t always practical or economical.
He created the earthbag home knowing that the elements of the earth could still be used to create an affordable and stable home.
Here’s what you should know about earthbag homes.
1. What is an earthbag home?
An earthbag home is a structure built with sandbags.
Construction begins with using fill material found at the construction site.
Normally, this fill material is sand, dirt, clay, and gravel.
The sandbags are made of polypropylene, which is a fireproof and waterproof material.
When combined, these earthbags can endure heat, wind, and cold.
To create an earthbag home, the bags are placed side by side (like bricks) to build vertical walls.
To prevent the earthbags from shifting once placed, barbed wire is placed between each layer.
To cement the structure and improve its appearance, earthen plaster is used on the exterior.
This provides the exterior with a smooth, polished look.
Some owners choose to paint the plaster or leave it its natural color.
Earthbag building is similar to masonry because the bags are staggered.
Because of this, the builder must plan everything (framing doors and windows) before beginning.
2. What materials are used for earthbag homes?
To create a stable home, you must select the right type of “earth” and “bags” for your home.
Any type of soil can be used (clay, sand, silt, gravel), but you must know the right makeup of the soil to help you create a good mix.
Clay: Serves as the glue to hold the sand together
Sand: Has loose gritty particles that form the bulk of the wall’s stability
Silt: Is extremely fine-grained and using too much in an earthbag will weaken it
Gravel: Consists of jagged pieces of rock that are best used at a foundational level
In general, coarse, jagged sands are best because there are lots of sides for the other grains to adhere to.
Earthbag home builders generally recommend a ratio of 70 percent sand to 30 percent clay.
Additionally, some materials should never be used.
These include topsoil, grasses, twigs, and other miscellaneous debris that you’ll sometimes see in topsoil.
This is because this debris can decompose and leave cavities in the bag.
These cavities will undermine the structural integrity of your building.
So, you should clear all of these from any soil that you want to use.
In addition to soil, you’ll need several other materials to build an earthbag home.
Barbed wire: This material is used between levels to hold earthbags together.
Plaster: This material is used in the interior and exterior of the home. Often, it combines mud, clay, sand, and lime.
Wooden forms: This material is used to create windows and doors.
Tamper: This tool, typically made of a wood pole with a heavy metal plate attached, is used to compress the soil.
You can purchase a tamper at a garden store or make your own with a piece of concrete.
Wheelbarrows/shovels: These tools will help you to move dirt during the building process.
Some builders will also use tools like bag stands and funnels to fill in the dirt.
Finally, you can’t build an earthbag home without bags.
Most builders will use polypropylene bags.
These bags are laid in long lines and tamped until they’re firm.
3. What are the advantages of earthbag homes?
You may wonder what makes an earthbag home an attractive option.
This type of home offers numerous sustainability benefits and advantages.
For one, earthbag construction requires very little external energy.
Instead, it relies on raw building materials and reduces the building process’ carbon footprint.
Here are some of the primary advantages of choosing an earthbag home.
Building an earthbag home is considerably less expensive than a conventional home.
Using raw materials rather than cement, steel, and wood means that fuel and transportation expenses are greatly reduced.
You also significantly reduce labor costs because of the ease of construction. Anyone can learn to earthbag!
However, overall, the cost of a specific home depends on many factors.
It’s an easy building process to learn
Earthbag construction is a simple process to learn.
Anyone can learn this building technique, and a lot of the process can be done by just one person (although, it is useful to have help!).
That said, it can take a little while to perfect the process of earthbag construction.
We recommend starting with a smaller project to gain experience before taking on a larger project.
Because earthbag homes use natural building materials, they’re incredibly eco-friendly.
The bags are simply filled with dirt, which eliminates the purchase and transportation costs associated with most building materials.
This process utilizes what’s locally available in the soil and reduces your carbon footprint!
Earthbag homes are built to withstand weather-related hazards like rain and wind.
They are also well-equipped against floods because the building materials are immune to moisture damage, and they can also be reinforced to withstand great forces like fires.
Better by far than a conventional house!
4. What are the disadvantages?
Earthbag homes aren’t perfect. Otherwise, everyone would have one!
It’s often difficult to obtain a building permit
Earthbag building can sound like a new and exciting alternative.
However, a general challenge that occurs when people try to build them is that they aren’t able to get a building permit.
A handful of states have permitted earthbag homes to be built already, but if your state is unfamiliar with the process, then they may deny your request.
You can help mitigate these issues by having a licensed engineer or architect vouch for the safety of your earthbag home.
Nonetheless, this does add to your project’s timeline, and it can be frustrating.
It requires a specific climate
Earthbag homes work best in warm and dry locations.
While they can handle some moisture, they aren’t well-suited to a wet climate.
For this reason, you aren’t likely to see them popping up in Seattle.
5. What are the best locations for earthbag homes?
Not all climates work well for earthbag homes.
We recommend constructing these homes in warm, dry locations with mild temperature swings.
6. Can you build an earthbag home with multiple stories?
Yes, it is possible to build an earthbag home with multiple stories.
If you want a home with more than one story, it’s possible to do so with this type of construction, so don’t let this stop you!
7. How long will an earthbag home last?
When an earthbag home is built and maintained properly, it can stand for centuries.
Here are some steps you can take to prevent earthbags from rotting.
Use a thick cement-based plaster for dome-style homes
Create a roof with extended eaves that protect the earthen walls from driving rain for traditional linear walls
Build a stem wall from rock, cinder block, or another impervious material to protect earthbags from surface water
8. How do you build an earthbag home?
Earthbag homes are easy for anyone to build!
Here are the steps if you want to get started on your own.
Gather your tools and materials
Before you begin, gather the materials necessary to complete the job.
Here’s a list of what you need.
- Woven polypropylene bags – 18” x 30”
- 4-gallon bucket chute with the bottom cut off
- 4 or 5 heavy-duty 2-gallon cement buckets
- Metal chisel and scrap steel for cutting barbed wire
- 13” x 16” sheet metal slider
- 15-gauge galvanized wire
- Wire cutters
- Tape measure
- 4-point barbed wire
- Corner guide
- Grub hoe or grape hoe
- Bundle of 500 bags
Fill the bags
Start filling your bags using the same number of buckets per bag.
You want to fill the bags only 90 percent full so you can properly close them.
This technique ensures each bag is filled while being the same size, keeping the walls level.
Sew or stitch the bags closed
Once your bag is filled, fold the bag end over.
Next, use the 15-gauge wire about 9” long with one end cut at a sharp angle.
Make a stitch on one side and bend the end over.
Then, make a stitch in the center and pull the corner over.
Do the same to the other corner.
Pull the remaining wire into the earthbag.
Stitching your bag this way prevents spills and allows the handling of full bags.
Put gravel bags on lower courses
When you begin to place bags, put gravel bags on the bottom, working from the corners and openings to the center.
The top of the bag (the ends you’ve sewn closed) should butt against other bags to prevent spillage.
This helps to maintain a running bond just like in masonry.
Tamp the bags solid and level them after a line is complete.
Add barbed wire
Use two strands of 4-point barbed wire in between each level of bags.
You can use bricks or stones to temporarily hold this barbed wire in place before adding the next level of bags.
Place additional levels with a sheet metal slider
To prevent snagging on the barbed wire, place additional levels of bags with a sheet metal slider.
You can fill the bag on the slider, sew the end closed and then tilt the bag into position.
The bag should be flush with the previous bag.
When the bag is correctly aligned, hold the end and slide the sheet metal slider out.
Use gravel-filled bags until you are above the height where moisture damage is a concern.
Repeat the process using earthbags
For the upper levels, you’ll repeat the process with just a few changes.
We recommend turning the bags inside out to avoid protruding corners.
You should also use lightly moistened soil.
After each bucket of soil is added, lightly tamp the contents, and pre-tamp each bag after it’s in position.
This final step will ensure there is a good overlap between the bags.
Make custom bags for odd spaces
There will likely be odd spaces that you need to fill.
To do this, make custom-sized bags by filling the bag to the approximate level and cutting off excess bag material.
Fold each side toward the center and tuck it under the bag.
This way, you’ll get a perfect fit.
Tamp each level after its complete
For best results, you must tamp each bag solid and level after the course is complete.
We recommend tamping the high points first to ensure everything levels out appropriately.
When the first wall is level, tamp the entire wall several times to ensure you don’t create low spots.
Frame out windows and doors
Before you get too deep into building your walls, make sure you frame out where your doors and windows will be.
You should also leave gaps for running plumbing and electricity into the structure.
Plaster the walls
Plaster helps stabilize the walls of your earthbag home.
It also makes your house waterproof and fireproof, which are important features.
Overall, you’ll end up with a sleek, finished look similar to adobe houses.
Build the roof
Building the roof is the most challenging part of constructing an earthbag home.
Earthbag homes often have unusual shapes, which means it can be difficult to adhere a roof to the form.
We recommend using the most straightforward roof design if you’re a beginner builder.
Often, this is either a flat or pitched roof.
Roofs are usually made with plywood and sealed for moisture.
9. Which states allow earthbag homes?
To date, this type of home has been built in Hawaii, California, Utah, Arizona, and Kentucky.
It can be difficult to get local building codes to recognize this earthen building technique.
However, you can try to get an engineer’s stamp of approval or educate officials in charge of your building code if you want to pursue it in your area.
10. What are some important construction tips?
Here are some tips you should use when constructing your earthbag home.
Tap down every single bag to make sure each level is flat and stable
Fill the gaps with custom bags to ensure all bags are flush together
Use a slider to place bags as this will ensure the tightest fit possible
Use a level every time you place a bag to enhance the integrity of the structure
What do you think?
Do you love the thought of an earthbag home?
The fun doesn’t stop with the exterior!
Some people choose to incorporate earthbags into their interior as well, constructing fireplaces, sitting areas, kitchens, and so much more out of these bags.
While it’s a nonconventional way to build a home, there are so many benefits, especially when it comes to saving the planet.
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Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants, or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.