Building with earthbags (sometimes called sandbags) is both old and new. Sandbags have long been used, particularly by the military for creating strong, protective barriers, or for flood control. The same reasons that make them useful for these applications carry over to creating housing: the walls are massive and substantial, they resist all kinds of severe weather (or even bullets and bombs), and they can be erected simply and quickly with readily available components. Burlap bags were traditionally used for this purpose, and they work fine until they eventually rot. Newer polypropylene bags have superior strength and durability, as long as they are kept away from too much sunlight. For permanent housing the bags should be covered with some kind of plaster for protection.
There has been a resurgence of interest in earthbag building since architect Nader Khalili, of the Cal-Earth Institute, began experimenting with bags of adobe soil as building blocks for creating domes, vaults and arches. Khalili was familiar with Middle Eastern architecture and the use of adobe bricks in building these forms, so it was natural for him to imagine building in this way. The Cal-Earth Institute has been training people with his particular techniques, and now the whole field has expanded considerably with further experimentation by his students and others.
I have taken Khalili's ideas of building with earthbags that are laid in courses with barbed wire between them, and come up with some hybrid concepts that have proven to make viable housing. Instead of filling the bags with adobe soil, I have used crushed volcanic rock. This creates a very well insulated wall (about as good as strawbale) that will never rot or be damaged by moisture. As a covering for the earthbags I used papercrete (see the papercrete page). This worked to seal the bags from the sun and the weather, without necessarily creating a vapor barrier...the walls remain breathable. But papercrete may not be sufficiently durable or a good choice in warm and humid climates because mold could form on it.
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The Native Spirit house plan blends a hexagonal dwelling with a soaring tower, all built of earthbags. If one chooses, the un-bermed portion of the main house can be built with strawbales. The first floor of the tower serves as a cool pantry that keeps food cool without electricity. Other levels can be used as office space, a second bedroom or storage. The top level is an observation deck - truly a stunning feature in such an affordable home. The hollow, central column in the main structure can be built with stone or CEBs (compressed earth blocks). The stove pipe runs up through the column and the thermal mass helps stabilize indoor temperatures. Large south-facing windows create an attractive plant shelf and provide excellent solar gain. Other features include a large built-in bench, fold-out bed and home office. An airlock entry has a washer and dryer, coat closet and bench.
Specifications: 565 sf interior, plus 291 sf tower (4 levels) for a total of 856 sf; 1 bedroom (fold-out bed), 1 bath, plus cool pantry and 2 bonus rooms.
For more information about this plan, and many others, visit our sister site www.dreamgreenhomes.com, where you will find a wide range of plans for sustainable homes, greenhouses, small buildings, garages, and food storage space for sale. Dream Green Homes is a consortium of outstanding architects and designers, who have pooled their talent and expertise for your benefit.