With sustainability practices in the forefront of many people’s minds, they often turn to recycling or switching to high-efficiency appliances or light bulbs to minimize their carbon footprint. But what about going bigger? How about building a house almost completely of natural or recycled materials?
Recently, I learned about earthbag homes and the benefits of this construction method versus conventional construction building methods. So you’re thinking, “What is an earthbag home?” Everyone at our editorial team meeting this morning asked the same question. And no, it’s not a giant sand castle.
Earthbag homes are similar to adobe-style brick structures Native Americans built in desert areas. Just as Native Americans used clay and water to make bricks to build their homes, earthbag homes use dirt and clay mixed with a little water to fill sand bags, which function as the bricks. Once the bags are filled with the dirt-clay mixture, they are laid like bricks with barbed wire between each layer of bags. The barbed wire helps hold the bags in place as they dry—kind of like mortar used with bricks. Once the bags harden on the barbed wire, people often cover the interior and exterior walls with plaster or stucco to re-enforce the structure and help weatherproof the exterior.
What blew me away about these homes is that you can’t even tell they were made with earthbags. Some people cover the exterior with siding, wood, or stucco and look like a conventionally-constructed house.
So why build an earthbag home? One remarkable aspect is that many people are building these homes themselves with little or no outside contracting. Numerous websites, YouTube tutorials, books, and DVDs provide clear plans and methods to go about building an earthbag house. Many people with zero construction experience have created YouTube channels tracking the progress of their homes and what it was like to build one.
Another major benefit of an earthbag home is the cost savings. Initially, earthbag houses are cheaper per square foot to build than traditional houses. TheGreenestDollar.com notes that Kelly Hart, creator of Earthbagbuilding.com, constructed a complete earthbag house for just over $30,000, and it provides over 1,200 square feet of living space. On average, traditional home building costs anywhere from as low as $50 to hundreds of dollars per square foot depending on the location and building materials used.
Earthbag homes also provide long-term savings on heating and cooling. The walls, which are usually 10-12” thick, stave off heat in the summer and hold in heat during the winter—just like conventional housing insulation, but without the dangerous chemicals. Furthermore, you can optimize your design to utilize natural light and air flow for more saving. Lastly, most people use the earth around their building site to fill the bags, so the main building material is completely free courtesy of Mother Nature.
Earthbag houses offer more than just cost saving though. Architect Nader Khalili, founder of The California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture, helped design and construct an earthbag house that withstood floods, gale force winds, below-zero winters, scorching summers, and earthquakes in the Mojave Desert. Further tests performed by the International Conference of Building Officials deemed Khalili’s earthbag home fire and hurricane resistant.
The major drawback right now with earthbag homes is they may not comply with your local building codes because they aren’t a widely-known form of home construction. People who built earthbag homes also expressed difficulty in getting loans or insurance. However, as earthbag homes become more popular, more states, banks, and insurance companies are backing people who build them.
As an alternative method of construction, earthbag homes are gaining popularity. The initial and long- term cost savings make this method of construction one to highly consider when building a house. However, while the cost savings is a great benefit, the structural strength to withstand pretty much every natural disaster out there is what draws me into learning more about these homes.