The two largest obstacles to home ownership are expensive building materials and overly complex construction methods that require specialized skills and equipment. The problem is so acute that over 70 percent of Americans are unable to afford contractor-built homes. With the current downturn in the economy and the loss of millions of jobs, the housing situation in the U.S. is definitely taking a turn for the worse.
Everyone needs a place to live – shelter is a basic need. But since the current system is bypassing the vast majority of the population, it’s time to investigate simpler, more affordable building methods.
The answer may be right under our feet (earth). That’s right; building with earth is a timeless building tradition with some structures lasting many hundreds of years. Over a third of the buildings in the world are earth structures. Earth is probably the least expensive building material (literally dirt-cheap), and therefore holds enormous potential for solving our housing crisis. Some may assume earth buildings are just mud huts. Far from it! If your background isn’t in architecture, you may not be aware of the amazing diversity of earth structures. Look up “earth architecture” on the Internet if you’re not already informed.
There are many earth building methods – adobe, rammed earth, CEB and so on. This article explores the growing popularity of earthbag building (also called sandbag building) and how it can be used to provide affordable housing that’s simple enough for do-it-yourselfers to build their own home. By using dirt-cheap building materials (earth, sand, gravel, recycled materials, etc.) and eliminating expensive contractors and specialized equipment, the cost of construction can be slashed to a fraction of conventional housing costs.
Earthbag building has it’s origin in military sandbag building. For about 100 years, the military have been building durable, blast and bullet proof structures out of sandbags. Also, sandbags have been used for many years to hold back floodwater. Today, builders are using the same basic process of filling, stacking and tamping bags to build a wide variety of structures the world over – beautiful homes, offices, shops, schools and more.
Besides affordability and durability, the other main advantage is simplicity of construction. What could be simpler than filling and stacking bags of earth? The main skills can be learned in a few minutes simply by being shown or watching a video. Almost everything you need to know is available free on the Internet. And most people already have the basic tools around the house – shovels, buckets, garden hose, ladder. The other few tools required can be made quickly and easily or purchased inexpensively.
Here are just a few ways of saving money by building with earthbags:
- Recycled bags are readily available in most places. Polypropylene or burlap bags are ubiquitous, being used for all types of grain, fertilizer and animal feed, and sometimes for concrete, plaster and other products. Talk to local farmers and feed supply outlets.
- Misprinted bags are often available direct from manufacturers at greatly reduced prices. Between misprinted bags and recycled bags (in good condition) you can cut the main expense of earthbag building to almost nil.
- No special mix is required. Most soils, including those on or near most building sites, are adequate or can be adjusted with sand or clay to create an appropriate mix. This makes the other primary material for earthbag building basically free or close to it.
- You can order special mixes of earth from sand and gravel producers, such as road base and reject fines, at very low prices. The main expense is delivery, but this has to be weighed against your time and effort to dig it from the ground. Spending $200-$300 for delivery of an excellent mixture free of large rocks and roots can save hundreds of hours of hard labor. And, they’ll dump it in piles around the building site to speed construction and save even more work.
- No need for a typical concrete foundation. Earthbags filled with gravel make an excellent foundation. This step alone can save you thousands of dollars.
- Build an insulated earth floor and save thousands more. Sealed earth floors can last hundreds of years. Think of all the wood, plywood, linoleum, etc. that can be saved.
- Use earth plaster and save thousands more. With wide roof overhangs of 36″ or so, earth plaster will hold up very well in most climates, requiring only minor maintenance.
- Use recycled materials whenever possible. Door and window forms, for instance, can be made from scrap wood from pallets, discarded barrels or tires. Sinks, tubs, doors, hardware, shelving, tile and many other components can be salvaged for very low cost.