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Building From Scratch - The Journey Begins

Updated on April 9, 2015
Believe it or not, this building is made of adobe bricks. Adobe bricks are earthbag bricks without the bags.
Believe it or not, this building is made of adobe bricks. Adobe bricks are earthbag bricks without the bags. | Source

Why Earthbags

There are a number of reasons Josh and I decided using earthbags for the walls of our new home worked best for us. The main reason was the economics of building a house on your own drastically reduces when building green. Using seed, grain, and feed bags as the vessels for the bricks costs a sixth of the price of regular bricks. Another reason for using earthbags was security. An earthbag home won’t flood, blow away, or break if a tree falls on it. A third reason is also economical and green - an earthbag home reduces heating and cooling costs which reduces our consumption of electricity.

This series of articles describe the story of my journey with my fiancé, Josh, and our children. We bought land in Kansas to be near family. On our land, we will build a home by ourselves. The home we want to build is a not-so-new concept of using earthbags as walls rather than regular bricks. Enjoy our journey and share in our triumph as we share bits of the how-to from our project. After the home is finished, we will publish a book on the process.

Perry Lake, Kansas

Before building on our new land, Josh and I tested filling earthbags at our current home in Illinois to guarantee we had a physical skill set to match our research knowledge. From Josh’s farm here, he stored used 40-lbs. chicken feed bags, saving 60 for a good start toward our 2,000 needed bags.

The bags he saved measured 18-inches wide and 30-inches long placed flat on the ground. When we filled them, they measured 15-inches wide, 25-inches long, and 5-inches thick. The filled measurements were equal to what we had researched in width and thickness, but an inch longer than the 24 inches written in the research. In the long run, we feel that will save us on earthbags, but not by much. However, every earthbag counts.

Size After Tamping

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All bags must have a uniform thickness for stability.Bags less than 15-inch wide can cause a weak wall.
All bags must have a uniform thickness for stability.
All bags must have a uniform thickness for stability. | Source
Bags less than 15-inch wide can cause a weak wall.
Bags less than 15-inch wide can cause a weak wall. | Source

Number of Earthbags for 10' Length of Wall

Height of Wall
24" Bag Length
25" Bag Length
7' Wall
90
85
8' Wall
100
95
 
 
 
All figures are approximate.

To fill the bags, we tilled our little tomato garden, loosening the dirt into small clumps. We still needed the dirt to be free of rocks, worms, and clumps, so we had to figure a way to weed those out. Josh had a homemade sifting grate from our own gardening projects of tomatoes, hens-and-chicks, and flowers around the house.

Josh set the grate on top of our wheelbarrow and shoveled dirt on. I wore gloves to protect my hands from sharp rocks or bits of broken flower pots that had remained in the garden during winter. Do not leave your ceramic flower pots outside during winter. The cold cracks them and while snow covered, they were easy prey for boot-clad feet.

We rubbed the dirt around, using the small rocks as additional tools to help break up the clumps. As the dirt moved around, it fell through the diamond shaped holes of the grate. I picked out worms, setting them to the side. While we worked we talked about how we could set the worms we’ll find in our new land into a worm bucket for fishing later. The worm bucket will be useful since we are moving to a village on a lake.

After we filled the wheelbarrow with sifted dirt, we filled the bags. Josh cut the bottom off a 5-gallon bucket which we slipped inside the bag. The bucket helps measure how much dirt you are placing in your earthbag. You need to keep the amount of dirt in each bag uniform to ensure the bags are all the same size. Doing so will lead to a more stable wall because the earthbag bricks will not lean and can easily hold the next course.

After filling two bags, we tried out making a corner rather than just a small wall. Corners should have a buttress, the walls extend past the corner from one side or two, for more stability, but we did not do that here because we were just testing, but the house we will build will have them.

Also after filling two bags, we timed ourselves. We timed how long it took to sift the dirt, fill the bag, and then tamp it into place. We didn’t have the barbed wire to set between the courses, so that time adds on later at the site, but we found we could sift, fill, and lay a bag in about 15 minutes. That fifteen minutes included filling the wheelbarrow and dumping the rocks from the grate making it a pretty good speed for just two people who were just starting out. We noticed we got faster and better as we completed each bag.

When you shake a filled bag, the earth shouldn't shift. The bag should be filled to the point where the size does not change.
When you shake a filled bag, the earth shouldn't shift. The bag should be filled to the point where the size does not change. | Source
If at all possible, fill the bag where you want to place it. Saves time and back pain.
If at all possible, fill the bag where you want to place it. Saves time and back pain. | Source
Dancing on earthbags adds fun to tamping. Do make sure to properly tamp, not just dance.
Dancing on earthbags adds fun to tamping. Do make sure to properly tamp, not just dance. | Source

Josh and my brother-in-law have plans to build a tamper when we move to Kansas, so for now, we used an old pot filled with rocks and our feet. It was rather entertaining tamping the bags down with our feet, dancing a little on each bag, feeling the earth move into place.

The test run was successful not only because we learned the measurements for the bags were what we had researched if not better, but also because we discovered the work to create the bags was not as daunting as we expected. We high-fived like footballers and hugged after finishing six bags in about an hour. Yes, six bags an hour will not build a house in a month, but we’re just two people. We have more coming in Kansas. It was also our first six bags and our speed increased as we reached the end of the hour.

Josh plotted and planned innovations to make the process more efficient, which we will discuss in chapters of the how-to book coming thanks to our Indiegogo crowdsourcing project. We are jubilant with our test run on a sunny Saturday afternoon in March. We are more happy to know our success is your success when it comes time for you to venture out of the concrete jungle into your own earthbag home.

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