Hello, I’m Ember and I’d like to share my earthbag building experience.
Last summer I moved onto a small family farm called Laughing Heart to learn about earthbag building, permaculture and community living. I was there through the WWOOF program and camped on the land and was fed in exchange for working–a great deal for me considering the work was getting to learn and engage things I’d been dreaming about for a long time. The main project for the summer was building the family’s permanent home, a combination of earthbag, light straw clay and traditional construction. This was my first time participating in any type of building project and I was excited and ready for the experience. I was also unsure what to expect or how I would fare in a potentially strenuous situation. My life would be focused on outdoor living; living in a tent (which I’d also never done), working many hours in the heat of summer, and all outdoor amenities–kitchen, dining area, shower, composting toilet–a full-on nature experience!
My first week was focused on settling in, getting acquainted with the land, people and routines as well as prepping for the 2-week earthbag building workshop that would kick off the big project. A roving, earthbag building monk called Dada led the workshop and there were up to 12 participants on any given day, most of whom had no building experience, but everyone had visions of building their own home one day. The materials were collected and staged, the site leveled and foundation poured, the workshop participants arrived and it was time to build!
The first step was getting acquainted with the technical aspects of how the dome works and what measurements need to be maintained throughout the build to assure the structural integrity. Corbelling–slightly insetting each course (row of bags) from the row beneath it–is a key concept in making earthbag domes work. When the corbelling process is started depends on the end height of the dome. The spring line is the vertical row of bags laid directly atop the other, prior to corbelling. We were building three domes (bedrooms) of about 14’ diameter each and a vertical wall tying into two of the domes and spanning the length of the master bedroom (to enclose bathroom/closet space). Each dome would have a spring line of 2’. There were other details shared whose usefulness are more dependant on how precisely one tends to engage projects. Overall, I learned that from a technical standpoint, earthbag building is quite accessible!
Now it was really time to build! We worked in teams and rotated stations as our bodies tired of a task. My first station was mixing. This task entailed putting 5 gal buckets of earth (excavated from the site), sand, clay, water and a small amount of concrete (stabilizer) into a cement mixer, then pouring the completed mix into a wheelbarrow to be taken to the build team. Initially this job was easy and the focus was getting a good mixture consistency (not too dry, too sticky or too wet). After several mixes, the formula was ingrained like my favorite chocolate chip recipe. As the build crew got the hang of their task, they sped up and the mixing became more physically demanding–especially in the heat of the day! Still, I could handle the job for at least half the day. That felt good, as I wasn’t the most in shape I’d ever been.
The next task I took on was filling the bags. The bags are a polypropylene material (same as rice bags) that come in a big roll that can be cut to the length of the row being built. Once cut, the material was tightly fitted over a 4’ plastic tube–this would make it easier to put the mixture into the bag–and one end of the bag was folded over and secured (we used wooden skewers through the folds). There were two people measuring, cutting and fitting the bags to bring to the build crew. One person would hold the bag in place, one person would scoop mixture from the wheelbarrow and pass it to the person pouring the material into the bag. We usually switched roles after emptying 2-3 wheelbarrows. The higher up the rows get, the more people are needed (or at least desired) to keep the bag filling job flowing smoothly. Again, this job was easy…and fun! I certainly preferred being out of the noise/smell of the cement mixer and in a more social setting with the crew.
Over the next several days, I participated in all the stations multiple times: bag cutting/tube-fitting, holding the bag/guiding the form of the row, tamping the bag into place (another strenuous job!), cutting/laying barbed wire between the rows (to prevent slippage) and mixing. As long as I was able to change jobs after a few hours or so, I enjoyed all the components of the building–especially when the crew was big and in a good rhythm. Check out this video to see the crew in action!
In the end, I discovered I’m a builder! While there was more to this particular project than what I’ve laid out, earthbag building itself is a very simple building method. Though parts of it are physically demanding, there are several tasks that those with less strength or endurance can easily manage. We even had the 4 year old boy on the farm helping out with many tasks! As for the benefits of the earthbag structure, the completed domes were the coolest place to hang out in the heat of the day and the warmest in the chill of the morning. And they are incredibly durable–fireproof, earthquake and flood resistant. If you’d like to take a virtual tour of what we built last summer, check out this short video.
If you want to explore earthbag building further, this book is an amazing resource! If you’re wanting to build a home, root cellar, or just some solid garden terracing, consider making it earthbag…I know you’ll be a natural builder, too!
As for me, Laughing Heart has become my home, my community. The earthbag domes were completed, though there is still plenty to do on the house project. This spring we will be plastering, putting in doors, windows and electrical wiring. The big project this year will be working on a neighbor’s home–a combination light straw clay/strawbale build. If you’d like to learn about these natural building techniques and other off-grid simple living practices, check out the Internship Program happening this summer. We’d love to have you join us!