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House Building: Ultimate Guide for Using Earth to Build Your Home

Updated on October 30, 2012
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AdobeCobCompressed EarthPapercreteEarth PlasterEarthbagRammed EarthSod
Compressed Earth
Compressed Earth
Earth Plaster
Earth Plaster
Rammed Earth
Rammed Earth

Do you want to have a naturally-built home? What is a more natural building material than the earth itself? If you go straight into the ground and use what is there to build your home, it starts off as earth-friendly from the get-go. Of course, other natural materials have this quality as well, but there are a surprising number of alternative home building options that use the land itself. This article explores different options such as adobe, cob, compressed earth, earth plaster, earth bags, light clay, rammed earth and sod.


If you really want to get straight down to building with the earth, the first homes you are going to be looking at are adobe homes. Built out of what is essentially mud, these homes are sturdy structures constructed out of one of the most natural materials on Earth. The adobe mud is a combination of earth (clay) and sand, mixed with water and strengthened with straw. The mud is shaped into adobe bricks that are baked in the natural heat of the sun until they are stiff and sturdy for building. In alternative instances, the process of shaping the adobe into bricks is bypassed, and the adobe is shaped directly into the wall structure. However, it is much more common to create adobe bricks for building than to create adobe walls.

These homes are popular all throughout the Southwestern United States, due in no small part to the fact that they naturally improve home cooling in warm regions. Adobe is also a favorite amongst many people who are not only environmentally aware but also concerned with their cultural roots; the use of adobe for home building dates back to Spanish settlement in the United States and the Native American displacement days.

Despite the fact that adobe homes are most commonly found in the southwest, they can built almost anywhere. The great thing about adobe is that there is suitable earth in nearly all locations which can be used in combination with water and natural materials to create the adobe bricks. This means that you should be able to find adobe near you no matter where you live. And this further means that you’ll be able to significantly reduce the initial cost of obtaining materials because there are limited transportation costs associated with adobe building.

The adobe can be used not just to make the bricks of the building but also to complete the building. Adobe flooring can be poured for the foundation of the home. Adobe plaster can be used to bind the adobe bricks together for construction. And the joints of the home can be filled with adobe mortar (or even sand). To maintain adobe over time, you should use a building design that allows for protection of the walls (such as eaves) and the foundation (up off the ground) as less damage is done to these designs over time. Once built the adobe home is designed to last for a long time with only minimal maintenance. This means that, although the outright cost is high, the long-term cost may not be nearly as expensive.

The use of adobe is good for the environment in a number of different ways. For one thing, it significantly reduces the amount of wood that you will need to create the structure for your home. Adobe homes generally use about half the wood that a normal construction home uses. Further reduction of wood use can be achieved by making wise choices in the design of the adobe home and the use of the adobe for not just walls but also roofing. Creating the right design will also help you to maximize the natural heating and cooling properties of adobe so you can significantly reduce your energy waste (as well as your bills!) 


Cob combines earth with straw to create an alternative building material that is highly similar to adobe. The major difference between the two types of alternative building materials is that the cob has more straw mixed into it than the adobe does. Another difference is that it tends to be less expensive, as it is not as trendy in popularity as adobe so costs have not been driven up.

Cob tends to be used by people who want to do all the work on their building themselves. And these people tend to be in really good shape because building a cob house is no easy task. Cob is mixed using a traditional organic process in which the materials are combined together and mixed with the feet (think squashing grapes but with much less gaiety). Although it is possible to use mixing equipment to create the cob soil, this tends to minimize the earth-conscious efforts of the builders and therefore defeat part of the purpose of building with cob.

The soil may be shaped into bricks as with adobe, but this is rare. Instead, the cob is molded together into unshaped balls of soil that can be tossed between workers on the building site. It is a very fun experience, building a cob house – especially if you have a big family to help in the process. A cob home tends to represent a freedom of spirit and may be very freeform in design. It is the kind of home that you build straight from your own creative heart. But it is time and labor intensive to build a cob home so you should know what you are getting into before you get going.

Compressed Earth

Compressed earth is a method of building that uses mechanical tools to compress earth into bricks that can be used for construction. The full name of the method is called Compressed Earth Block; it is often called CEB for short. There are several factors that go into the selection of compressed earth block for the building of a home. Internationally, culture and available labor are major issues. For the alternative home builder, labor may also be an issue because of the difficulty of the compression process. One of the major reasons alternative home builders select this method of building is that the bricks are made into a uniform shape, which facilitates the building process. It also leaves room for a lot less waste in the construction of the home, which is of clear importance to the environmentally-conscious builder.

Compressed earth block is particularly earth friendly in that it uses the soil from the earth without ruining the area for further agricultural development. In other words, because it is usually only the topsoil that is removed from the materials site, the land can still be used for farming and other purposes. This leaves a much smaller eco-footprint than many other forms of building, even in comparison with some other earth-based building.

CEB is a versatile building material; flooring and roof tiles can even be made using this material. Additionally, it is a fairly easy material to build with. Many people find that they can use advanced methods of alternative home building without having to acquire too many new skills, making this a preferred home building material choice for many people who are not builders but who want to create their homes with their own hands. Blocks can be shaped into interlocking sections, which reduces the need for mortar and other binding materials and significantly simplifies the process of construction.

Earth Plaster

It should be noted that earth plaster is not an alternative home building material, per se, but can be an important part of finishing the home. Earth-based clays are used as wall coverings to replace paints and wallpapers. This gives a perfect final touch to the home, improving the décor and supplementing the other building materials. Earth plaster can be used in all different types of construction but is particularly perfect for buildings constructed using other earth-based methods. The main reason that people opt to use earth plaster as a finishing touch is because it can greatly improve the indoor air quality of the home. One of the fears that some people have is that it does not provide a polished look for the interior of the home. This is not true at all. Earth plaster can be made from a variety of different clays and accented with a number of natural pigments to create different colors that can be used in the interior design of the home. This gives a terrific look to the house without compromising the earth-friendliness of the materials used to build the home.


Alternative home building has taken lessons from history, as well as from different industries to make the most effective use of building materials. One interesting development has been the creation of earthbags for building homes. Earthbags are a concept derived from the old sandbags historically used by the military for construction of barriers. The military made good use out of sandbags to create such barriers, which would stand up against the weather and the threat of force by oncoming armies. This speaks to the difficulty of destroying this building material and points to a major reason that this material began to be used by alternative home builders. It offers the option of using earth and natural materials for building, while offering strength and durability in construction and design.

The military originally used burlap bags filled with earth to create the basic building blocks of these structures. As developments have taken place in alternative home building, we have seen a shift in the material that is used for both the filler and the bags. Although burlap bags can be used, and are by some people, they do not stand up to the test of time as well as other materials. Polypropylene bags are now used with much more frequency than burlap. Finding polypropylene bags that need to be recycled is a terrific way to get started on building a structure without compromising the environmental-friendliness of the home building.

Likewise, earth alone can be used to fill the bags. However, many people are finding that other earth-based materials work just as well. Everything from volcanic rock to adobe soil can be used to fill the bags and create natural, earth-based building blocks. The bags stand the test of time best if they are coated in a natural plaster. The one most commonly used is papercrete.

Light Clay

Light clay, alternatively known as light straw, is a variation on adobe and cob. Basically, there is a spectrum of these materials that are made from a mixture of clay, sand, and straw. At one end of the spectrum is adobe, which is primarily clay. At the other end of the spectrum, you have light clay, which is primarily straw. The straw is coated with a mixture of almost liquid clay so that it will easily stick together while remaining primarily a straw structure. The light clay is then shaped into walls. It is often used primarily for interior walls to boost the insulation. It can be used for exterior walls as well, provided that you spend the time and energy to make it thick enough. However, these structures are not known for being able to stand up well over time and require a frame, usually made of wood, to support the home.

Rammed Earth

Many people mistake adobe and rammed earth as the same building material. That is because the material itself is basically the same mixture. The difference lies in the way that the mixture is formed to make the home. The rammed earth home uses machinery to compress the material to create flat surfaces that offer clean lines for design. The walls of a rammed earth home are built thick using this material. The use of the machinery makes this a less environmentally-conscious choice than adobe (depending upon the exact process you use). However, the home tends to be more modern and solid.

Rammed earth is also obviously strikingly similar to compressed earth, the difference being that rammed earth uses the same process to create a large mass of compressed earth, rather than individual bricks for building. On the spectrum, this is at the more machinated end.


Sod has played an important role in the history of home building in America. When people began to push West, they needed to work with local materials to build homes in their new areas. Sod was one of the most common of these materials to be used in the Midwest. Sod homes were constructed all throughout the 19th century as the frontier boundaries were pushed further West. And some of those sod homes are still standing today, a testament to the longevity of alternatively built homes. The difference between sod and other earth-based materials is that sod is earth that includes grass. In contrast, most other earth-based materials are used in areas in which grass is not as common and the earth itself is the basic building material. In places that are wet and in which grass grows in abundance, people build with sod. The earth in these areas may be softer and less easy to build with, but the roots of the grass hold the earth together and create a terrific building material. In comparison with the other earth-based building materials, sod is one of the least expensive options. This is especially true for people living in areas where they can harvest the sod locally.

So there you have it, a wide range of different materials that you can use to build your home – and they’re all basically just earth. Who knew there were so many options?!


Submit a Comment
  • profile image


    7 years ago

    `My name is David Seagrave from KY 12.0EX in Dunfermline,ScotlandI am building what I call a 00 scale Highland estate in 300m2 of weed overgrown back garden Though Fife is on the dry side of Scotland it rains very often! Sunday 24 June I had a brainwave why not create building blocks from the abundant grass which overwhelms my garden,to support the trackbed of the model railway which represents Glen Ogle in Perthshire which Queen Victoria no less nicknamed "SCOTLAND S KHYBER PASS? Previous structures such as that representing the rock faces behind the feature resembling Glen Ogle Viaduct have collapsed in gales .I want to know of such blocks of compressed grass to which mortar is aded during preparation will withstand our tropical downpours Please contact me at

  • isisinanna profile image


    7 years ago from Taos,NM

    You did an AMAZING job on this.

  • peterelmhirst profile image

    Peter E 

    8 years ago from Toronto

    I've never seen the options compiled like that before.

    Great hub Kathryn!

  • Sheila Lee Brown profile image

    Sheila Lee Brown 

    8 years ago from Raleigh, NC

    Looking forward to building my first earth bag house! Great hub.

  • BkCreative profile image


    9 years ago from Brooklyn, New York City

    This is great and just what I am looking for. I am planning my retirement move from the hustle and bustle of NYC but I want to be able to sustain myself in a healthy, natural way.

    Thanks for all this helpful information. I'll bookmark this hub because it will be my resource.!

  • Part-time Writer profile image

    Part-time Writer 

    9 years ago from Way Up North (USA)

    I am interested and have researched building with cord wood. The construction method and looks are similar to brick. Think that I might write about that someday. Thanks for the education to all these construction methods.


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