Friday, March 11, 2011

Why I'm Building With Earthbags

When I first started researching alternative building methods several years ago, earthbags weren't even on the radar.  I never once came across them in my many hours of wandering the Internet.  With this recent round of research, I discovered them right away, literally within minutes of Googling "alternative building methods."  Why?  Because of two men, Owen Geiger and Kelly Hart, who have taken it upon themselves to disseminate information about this method freely and widely.

After reading on their Earthbag Building website and on Owen Geiger's Earthbag Building Blog, I was quickly sold.  Earthbag building is a simple, dirt cheap way to build an elegant, incredibly strong structure with little or no building experience.  

Geiger also has a blog featuring nothing but a cornucopia of earthbag plans he's designed, which further simplifies the process.  For a very reasonable cost, you can order any of these plans from him.  The plan I've picked out is the Enviro Dome:

I've chosen this plan because it's one of the simplest to construct while still providing enough space for my needs.  I also like the fact that it can easily be added onto later.  Using the dome structure means that you don't need a separate roof, which is another plus; you just earthbag it all the way up, using a simple compass to keep the angles accurate.

On another level, the dome structure appeals to me because it resembles a beehive (I don't call myself The Pollinatrix for nothing.)  For years, I've been fascinated by the peregrini, wandering Irish monks of the early Celtic church who would set up beehive-like cells wherever they stopped and stayed for a while.

Monastic beehive cells, circa 6th century,
on the island of Skellig Michael, off the coast of Ireland
Soon I will get to live in my very own 21st century "Be Hive," as I've come to think of it.    

Geiger estimates that you can build a house with earthbags for around $10/sq. ft., using recycled and scavenged materials.  The polypropylene bags needed can be bought from a variety of suppliers at low cost, especially if you buy misprints.  However, these bags can also be obtained for free with a little perseverance.  I've starting looking for local suppliers, and recently found my first bag benefactor, a company in Santa Fe that goes through 20 - 30 bags a week, which would otherwise be discarded.  I am in fact going there today to pick up my first free load of bags.  I figure if I can find about five more suppliers such as this, I can likely build my house without ever having to purchase bags.  It's just a matter of finding businesses like farms and ranches, breweries, etc, that regularly use materials like grain and feed that are packaged in these bags.

One of the wonderful things about Owen Geiger is that he is 100% invested in helping people build this way, as was quickly proven to me when I first began commenting on his blog.  Every time I've asked him a question, he's responded within a day or two with a helpful and detailed answer.  When I first commented that I had decided to use earthbags, and sent him the link to my blog, he immediately responded with enthusiasm and suggested that I use scoria for my bag fill, as its plentiful in my area (there's a volcano nearby).  Kelly Hart built his earthbag house this way, and it's just brilliant.  Scoria is highly insulative; I recently came across the blog of a couple who've built their earthbag dome house this way in Montana, and they say they've been warm all winter in it with just a crappy woodstove.  Scoria is also much lighter than dirt, so the work goes "ten times faster," according to Geiger.  It's also way less messy than using a dirt fill, which needs to be mixed with water.

Since choosing this method and starting this blog, I've discovered a variety of other bloggers who are either in the process of building with earthbags, are planning an earthbag house, or have already completed one.  Just peruse my blogroll, and you'll see what I mean.  I've even found a couple of people in my area who are or will be building with earthbags.  All of this is just incredibly encouraging, to see that truly anyone, no matter how inexperienced at building, can do this, and do it very inexpensively.  And to be part of what feels like a true movement at a time when that movement is really taking off is exciting, especially when there is a sense of community simultaneously building around it, no matter how "virtual."  


  1. A bee-house sounds so cool. I'd never heard of earthbags before, this is such an education.

  2. Eryl, when I first discovered earthbags, it seemed too good to be true, but after much research, I've realized it's all for real.

  3. I love the house plan, particularly how the kitchen is placed. Very clever. How did we live before the internet?

  4. You do like where the sink is? I'm not so sure about it. I'm thinking I'd actually like to switch it with the stove, but I'd love to hear what you like about the placement; there may be something I'm not considering here.

  5. Love the stone hives. i hope you got a good deal on your land. When I was searching the price on 10+ acres was out of my reach. I looked near Abiquiu and it was possibly more expensive. I'm very happy with my 20 acres in the Big Bend.

    I was planning to do a scaled down enviro-dome, but am now planning a central 16' dome and 2-12' domes for a bedroom and bath.

    How did we live before the internet?

  6. Hey,
    I'm looking to get scoria/pumice too. Have found a mine of each near us--Colorado Lava and crminerals. Is that what you've come across? Maybe you'd want to split a delivery? :-) Seems like the most expensive part.

  7. I wish I could use scoria, but stabilized soil will work best in my area. Love seeing all these earthbag projects. I was originally planing to go the rammed earth route because it's so beautiful, but domes really got me. Love them.

  8. Ah, polli, it makes so much sense that you would build yourself a bee-hive and your being attracted to the Irish monastic beehives makes even more sense. It has an igloo, cocoon, womb look to it which must simply feel delightful :-)
    Blessings on your bee-hive :-)

  9. jicky - Yeah, if I was looking for 10+ acres at the price I'm paying for 1, I'd be looking elsewhere for sure.

    I can't wait to see your domes go up. When do you start?

  10. Aly - I wasn't familiar with either of those sources, but Googled them, and neither are the one that I've been told about, which I still don't the name of but is more in the immediate area.

    Splitting a load sounds like a great idea. We should definitely talk when you get here, and in the meantime, I'll try to get more info about the source I mentioned.

    Are you planning on mixing scoria and pumice?

  11. Claire - My domes will not exactly look like those beehives, as they'll be much taller (with lofts), but in essence it's the same feel, I think. Cocoon-like, as you say.

  12. Going with just scoria because pumice had possible moisture issues. Since I don't actually need much I could probably just get it from town but somehow from the mine sounded nice...:-)

  13. Could there be a more suitable dwelling for a the pollinatrix?

  14. im 57 and own 1 acre in hawaii. i want to build a healing center for healers to come share their knowledge and skill with each other. a place that is totally off the grid but elegantly comfortable. they will learn to heal the way they interact with nature. i have always envisioned myself living on top of a mountain that looked like nothing more than a mountain, blended with the natural environment, a cave but not a cave. light is important to me. finally a way for me to build. i can do what i want for my self with my heart and love in every part of it.

  15. What a wonderful vision, Dibrah! Will you be blogging about this?

  16. Oh my! How pleased I am to find you all. After a recent meeting with Deepak Chopra, and my own desire to initiate sanctuary and wellness, this is the building style which I have decided upon as well. I live on an acre on a little lake in the mountains and have always imagined myself 'sage'. I commence the initial design stages. It speaks to my spirit and I envision 'being' in this space and sharing. I want to incorporate a classic style, modern day wood cook stove, with hot water tank incorporated over a geothermal foundation, with thermal mass, indoor gardens and fish tanks supplying garden nutrients. Best wishes all.

  17. Your plans sound awesome. I checked out your website - what a beautiful place you have!

    I very much relate to the "desire to initiate sanctuary and wellness." Couldn't have put it better myself.

  18. Hi
    I have both 14" & 18" UVI stabilized woven pp tube on rolls. Sold by the 6000/lf roll only FOB my facility in Southern California. Strong prices.
    Steve 949-338-5978