Earthbag Technology: Simple, Safe and Sustainable

Earthbag Technology

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. Since the walls are so substantial, they resist all kinds of severe weather (or even bullets) and also stand up to natural calamities such as earthquakes and floods. They can be erected simply and quickly with readily available components, for very little money.

Earthbag building fills a unique niche in the quest for sustainable architecture. The bags can be filled with local, natural materials, which lowers the embodied energy commonly associated with the manufacture and transportation of building materials. The fill material is generally of mineral composition and is not subject to decomposition (even when damp), attractive to vermin, or burnable…in other word it is extremely durable. The fill material is generally completely non-toxic and will not offgas noxious fumes into the building.

Earthbags have the tremendous advantage of providing either thermal mass or insulation, depending on what the bags are filled with. When filled with soil they provide thermal mass, but when filled with lighter weight materials, such as crushed volcanic stone, perlite, vermiculite, or rice hulls, they provide insulation. The bags can even act as natural non-wicking, somewhat insulated foundations when they are filled with gravel.

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Because the earthbags can be stacked in a wide variety of shapes, including domes, they have the potential to virtually eliminate the need for common tensile materials in the structure, especially the wood and steel often used for roofs. This not only saves more energy (and pollution), but also helps save our forests, which are increasingly necessary for sequestering carbon.

Another aspect of sustainability is found in the economy of this method. The fill material can be literally “dirt cheap,” especially if on-site soil is used. The earthbags themselves can often be purchased as misprints or recycled grain sacks, but even when new are not particularly expensive. Burlap bags were traditionally used for this purpose, and they work fine but are subject to rot. 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, but this plaster can also be earthen and not particularly costly.

The ease and simplicity of building with earthbags should also be mentioned, since there is much unskilled labor available around the world that can be tapped for using this technology. One person familiar with the basics of earthbag building can easily train others to assist in the erection of a building. This not only makes the process more affordable, but also more feasible in remote areas where many common building skills are not to be found.

Do-It-Yourself Earthbag Building — Yes You Can!

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.

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 floodwaters. 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.

by Dr. Owen Geiger

SOURCE : earthbagbuilding.com

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