Natural Building:
How to Build an Affordable Eco-Friendly Home

by Dr. Owen Geiger

Description: Using natural building materials lowers the cost of construction, enabling anyone to build and afford their own eco-friendly home. Natural building materials such as earth, stone and straw are sustainable, safe, nontoxic, easy to work with, and only require minimal tools and basic skills. This article examines earthbag building -- a low-cost, low-tech way of building with earth that is rapidly gaining in popularity.

There are dozens of building methods and design techniques that enable virtually anyone to build their dream home at rock-bottom prices. The solution lies in natural building - using locally available, low-impact materials such as earth, stone, straw and small diameter wood, in conjunction with timeless vernacular building methods.

Our grandparents didn't need a quarter million dollar bank loan to build their house. Instead, they used time-tested skills passed down from generation to generation. They learned what materials and designs worked best in each climate through many years of experience. Much of this know-how got brushed aside in the post-WWII building boom, but the good news is these skills haven't been lost. Countless thousands of owner-builders have made the switch and are now living in comfortable, beautiful, nontoxic homes built of natural materials, and you can too. And thanks to the Internet, information on these skills is just a click away (and usually free).

Natural materials have been the number one preference of homebuilders since the beginning of human history. But look at the junk that's being foisted on us today: plastic coated particleboard cabinets, fiberboard, vinyl siding, sheetrock (paper covered chalk), synthetic carpet, cheap furniture that falls apart in a couple years.virtually all of which off-gas toxic materials into your home for years, mold and burn like crazy in a fire. And the bank wants you to work for 30 years for the 'privilege' of living in one of these soulless boxes.

The reason I love working with natural materials is because there are so many benefits. First of all, most of the materials are dirt cheap: sand from nearby streams or river beds, straw bales from local farmers, clay free for the digging and so on. A thrifty do-it-yourselfer can scrounge a large part of what they need from construction sites and yard sales. And as far as beauty, there's no comparison. A home built of natural materials is more like a work of art that's personalized to match your lifestyle and needs.

Although there are many different natural building methods, let's take a closer look at earthbag building. Originally developed by the military for bullet and blast resistant structures, modern builders are using the same basic process of filling and stacking bags to build homes, shops, offices, schools and more.

Earthbag houses are unsurpassed for their low cost and simplicity of construction. An average person can learn each step of construction in a minute or so just by being shown. It really is that simple, no kidding. No expensive machinery is needed and most people already have the basic tools required around their home - shovels, buckets, garden hose. And earthbag houses can look anyway you like, including roundhouses, domes, curved walls, hexagonal, rectangular, you name it.

Here's an overview of one example to show what's possible. A small home like this can be built for under $5,000:

* Gravel-filled earthbag foundation: The first few courses of bags are filled with gravel to prevent moisture wicking up in the walls. Place the bags on top of a gravel-filled trench to drain water away.

* Earthbag walls: Most people use soil from or near the building site. In cold climates you can use insulation in the bags such as volcanic rock, perlite, etc. to create a superinsulated wall. All you have to do is fill the bags, stack them end to end in level courses and tamp until solid. One or two strands of barbed wire between courses add tensile strength and help hold the bags together.

* Add recycled windows, doors, old pipes for vents, sinks, etc. You can use barrels or tires to form arched openings. Bottles embedded in walls add a splash of color and some extra light.

* Roof: You can build a dome and eliminate use of wood altogether. You also can recycle lumber from construction sites, or gather it from local forests (my favorite). Done correctly, this actually improves the health of the forest and reduces risk of forest fires. A metal roof is a good choice for capturing rainwater. Add plenty of ceiling insulation to keep the home comfortable. Rice hulls and cellulose are two good choices.

* Earth plaster and floors: With wide roof overhangs of 3 feet or so to protect walls, earth plaster is the way to go. Wraparound porches are even better. Earth is safe, easy to work with, beautiful and usually available free or at low cost for truck deliveries. Earthen floors are becoming trendy in expensive homes, partly as a fad and partly because they are resilient underfoot and look great. They look like leather once sealed. Earth floors can last hundreds of years or longer with proper maintenance and, like most of the ideas presented here, are dirt-cheap.

* And be sure to incorporate solar design into every aspect of the home for comfort and energy savings. You can capture the sun's energy to heat and cool your home, enhance daylighting, heat your water and even cook your food with a solar oven.

Owen Geiger, Director of the Geiger Research Institute of Sustainable Building and Kelly Hart have teamed up to create EarthbagBuilding.com and the Natural Building Blog .


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