Why Earthbags?

I’ve been asked several times “Why did you decide to build with earthbags?” There are several reasons why my wife and I chose this method of construction. One is that we were able to quickly develop the skills needed to build this way. It’s pretty simple actually. Another is that it’s affordable. I bought 3000 grain bags for $600 and still have quite a few left over for some other projects. Our fill is made of clay-rich soil and reject crusher fines from a local gravel pit. The crusher fines cost me $1.25 per cubic yard. The clay was free. It’s just been laying around my property for about a million years or so. All the tools were pretty cheap to buy or easy to build myself.

We were looking for something that just the two of us would be able to do with no outside help. Paid contractors cost a lot and friends who offer to help just want to visit, get in the way and eat some barbecue. So we did it all ourselves. We also wanted to show others interested in possibly building their own home that it CAN be done with very few resources.

Of course there are other options. Straw bales certainly have advantages when it comes to insulation, but small square bales aren’t as easy to come by around here as they used to be. Cob is easy to make and super cheap but I wasn’t looking forward to putting my feet through that much pain. (I actually used cob for the office portion of our new home, and it worked great). Originally the plan was to build an earthship. Tires rammed full of earth make very solid walls (but so do earthbags). During research however, I came across a site detailing some of the negative issues with this method. It said several had been started and abandoned for various reasons, usually the intense amount of labour required. The line “U-shaped piles of broken dreams” first made me laugh, then rethink my approach to my goals.

Why do any of this in the first place? We want to have a home that will last us the rest of our lives. I’m in my late forties, so I figure I’ve probably got about another 70 years or so to go. I sure as hell don’t want to be building another home when I’m 120. Seriously though, this structure is part of my retirement plan. It should last a VERY long time. Also, passive heating and cooling is part of the design, allowing us to be energy self-sufficient. We’ll be off grid, producing all our own electricity using solar and home built wind turbines.

Here’s another question I get asked all the time, “When will that solar stuff pay off? You could probably stay on the grid forever with what it’s costing you”. This one causes me to ‘get up on my hind legs’ a bit. First of all, when will that 40 inch flatscreen TV you bought to replace your 32 inch pay off? Oh, I see, never. When will that shiny SUV or BMW pay for itself? What, it’s worth less than what you owe on it? Mmm Hmm.

The power around here goes out all the time, often for no apparent reason. My system will pay for itself the first time I don’t loose a freezer full of meat. Or when the entire grid goes down (yes, I do believe that will happen) and I don’t even notice. Not paying the greedy, uncaring overpriced power company every month is a nice perk too. At one point, the power company threatened to cut off my power if I didn’t pay another person’s bill. “Sorry Mr. Muddome”, they said, “It’s right here in the computer. Sure it’s not your name or land location, but the computer says you should pay it. And since it’s really cold outside, we’re pretty sure you will see it our way.” I guess my system pays for itself the first month I no longer have to pay the power company.

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14 thoughts on “Why Earthbags?”

  1. It worked, looks great and it’s solid. Congratulations! No need to justify.

    As for earthships, I’m pretty good with a sledge hammer, but no way does building an earthship interest me. I made a short and low retaining wall that way, and it was more than enough.

    Usually it’s no problem to get friends to show up for a one day event. I had ~15 people the day I assembled the panels of my dome home. It was only my dad and I the weeks and weeks of building panels and doing site prep. Don’t get me wrong, my friends put in on heck of a day and we got all the panels up. I thought I was lucky to get 2 -3 people to help me roof it as that was not nearly as much fun.

    Once again, nice work!

  2. Sure you got that right. When I built, the local power thieves demanded $50K just to bring me a monthly bill. Thought to myself NO WAY and went solar. Simply cannot tell you the number of times I came down off my hill and found my neighbors huddling with a candle hoping the power would be back before the freezers thawed.

    Never again will I rely on commercial power no matter where we live.

  3. I just found this blog, I love it. I’ve been in the fantasizing / dreaming phase of building my home. There’s a long drawn out time before I’m at the point of building it. But I appreciate all the efforts taken here to help guide people to theirs.

    Something else I’ve heard about using Earthship style of construction; when you’re all done and finished, and ready to move in, those toxins from the tires can leech into your home! Such a bummer, cause it’s a great idea, but nobody building a natural built structure wants toxicity coming in.

    I don’t want to seem nit picky about this comment, I simply want to bring this idea into the conversation about solar electricity. When you say the greedy power companies we must understand that all stored electric power comes from a greedy source. First of all, solar panels necessitate intensive mining. Corporations that own these operations understand that it’s bad for the environment to produce, but because it brings them a lot of profit they continue. Also, the act of storing electricity requires batteries, which are the furthest things away from “green” or greed. Off grid still depends on fossil fuels, which are certainly greedy. You didn’t make the claim that they aren’t, but I just wanted to point out that they are. I agree that considering the alternatives, solar is not a bad choice, I just want to make it clear that it’s not a choice free from greed. Especially when considering the idea that humans do not need electricity to survive. Of course, this can only happen for a fraction of folks today who have the money, who’ve acquired the skill to subsistence farm, who have the land, who long to leave the world of electricity behind, and quite honestly at that point who wish to leave some to all of their social lives to parish.

    To simplify, I just want to say that I don’t think it’s wrong what you did by using panels, I’m not a purist. I just want to point out that greed spans many spectrums, including green energy. It’s a better alternative because they aren’t bothering you as much as the power companies, and you don’t have to rely on them anymore!

    Thanks for reading, and I hope I don’t give the wrong impression. Love what you do.

    On a final note, just want to say that you’re home is probably the most beautiful round earthbag structure I’ve yet seen. It doesn’t look like it’s from space!

    Eric

    1. Eric,
      Thanks for reading and for commenting. I agree there is greed in the corporations that produce all the components I will use to go off-grid. They aren’t doing what they do to improve the world. They are doing it to improve the bottom line for shareholders. And, honestly I’m not going off-grid, growing food, or building with natural materials to save the planet. Sure, the way my wife and I live is in many respects environmentally sound, but I have my own somewhat selfish reasons for doing so. My retirement plan involves disconnecting from the economy as much as possible. It just so happens self sufficiency using sustainable methods accomplishes my goals.

  4. You are a man after my own heart and are very fortunate to have a wife that supports you and helps you in turning your masterplan into reality. My wife, bless her, just doesn’t get it. She wants to live in the same kind of house, same kind of neighbourhood as her sisters. Things aren’t going to change anytime soon but i keep hoping. So I appreciate your sharing and envy your situation.

  5. Howdy from Texas! So glad I found your blog, had also thought about an Earthship, but have decided to go with earthbags vs. the rammed earth/trash/tires approach as I’ll be building my “Dome, Sweet Dome” in the Chihuahuan desert down by Big Bend. Thanks for all the info and pics as I’m sure I’ll be referring to your site often in the upcoming months. Cheers!

    1. PecoBull,
      I’m always glad to hear that another person is building with earthbags. It’s a lot of hard work but I’ve found it to be very rewarding. Good luck with your build and please keep me posted!

  6. Hey Muddome, I was curious if it was possible and practical to use earthbags as the walls for an earthship instead of rammed earth tires. I really like the design of earthships with the large amount of lighting and passive solar, but I really like the idea of using earthbags, minus the tire off gassing. Let me know if you think they will be strong enough and thick enough for the earthship structure. Sincerely, Sam

    1. Sam,
      Oops, sorry I missed your comment…. I do believe that earthbags would be plenty strong enough. But please do more research instead of just taking my say-so. The rammed earth principle is the same either way. We almost went the earthship route, I have a spot out back that looks like a tire repair shop with a large mound of tires. In the end it came down to a couple things for us. Finding enough tires of the same size proved to be difficult. The other was that ramming tires appears to be a lot more labour than tamping the bags, which was more than enough work for me.

  7. muddome,

    I’m another earthbag enthusiast. I like what Michael Reynolds has engineered with the earthship model but I don’t see why we can’t build it from earthbags? To me, earthbags are the logical choice. Oh, and his global model is doable with earthbags. The benefit we get that earthship owners don’t is a home with breathable walls. Earthbag homes do a better job of regulating temperature over concrete. Yes, to produce a home in the earthship style may take some concrete but it won’t take nearly as much concrete and it won’t require anywhere near the labor or manpower to erect. I’m even playing with an idea of connecting two rows of earthbags into one wall for extreme insulation and protection against wind, and high rains. Let’s face it, people have been using sandbags for a long long time. When you look at what people use to protect their homes from tornadoes it’s sandbags, not tires.

    Anyway, I’ll try to keep you updated on my progress. What I want to do is something similar to doctordirtbag. Look him up on youtube. His house is amazing. He attended courses at Cal Earth and a class with Michael Reynolds and he’s tying the two systems together. His earthbag home has to be the largest one I’ve seen to date. I think he told me it’s around 2,200 sf.

    Best thing about a global model earthbag home? You can shave several hundreds of thousands of dollars. I’m using wholesale solar for my solar needs. That saves me thousands of dollars alone. So, to construct an earthbag home in the same style that’s around 2,000 sq can probably be done for under $100,000. I think way under 100k in fact. That, to me, is very doable. Best thing is that it won’t take four months to complete. With a crew of ten the house portion can be built in a couple of days. I believe the greenhouse portion can be constructed over a week or two. This is where the greatest amount of wood and metal will be used since the greenhouse will take up the expanse of the entire front of the building. Anyway, my goal is to create an affordable model home for people to live in that is self-sustaining.

    1. Hi Mark,
      I like some of your ideas. One thing I wonder about though is the need for two rows of earthbags. It may just be a whole lot of unnecessary labour. I can’t say for sure though. What I can say is that as I type this it is -40 outside and we are toasty warm in here. Of course we’re running a good woodstove and most of our place is bermed pretty good, about 8 feet deep along the north side.

      1. Yeah, I’m sure Cal Earth or Owen Geiger should be able to help me figure this out. I’m sure the greenhouse is going to be the warmest. I will be using more of the green house space them the earthship people because I don’t need to raise fish. So, that means there is no reason for a pond unless I decide to grow algae. Also, I’m planning on building in AZ so we’re not subject to the extreme cold temperatures that people see in the east. Oh, and I’m not sure I will need to berm any of the house to keep it warm. Earthbag homes do a better job of capturing the heat in the daytime and releasing it at night. That’s because, as we know, there is very little concrete to get in the way and the walls are truly breathable. I do like the Global Model earthship style that Michael’s earthships have evolved to. I just don’t think it needs to cost that much. As a guy on youtube was saying “fifty years ago we did our own plumbing and electricity”. Why do I need to pay people thousands to run tubing through my house and electrical wire when I can take a few short courses and do this myself? In closing, I really think the biggest expense for me will be the roof and/or greenhouse. Oh, and I forgot to mention, I’m going to construct a second greenhouse in the backyard. The food in the external greenhouse will be grown with hydroponics.

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