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Our Earthbag Home

Updated on February 14, 2013

We Built an Earthbag Home and Helped Launch a Worldwide Movement!

Neither my husband Kelly Hart nor I had any idea that earthbag building would take off worldwide when we built our earthbag house in the late 1990s. I'll show photos of what we did further on, but it's only fair to say that Kelly did most of it. I did help. We also had a "teenage slave" as we called him, Peter Rice, who listened to all sorts of progams on his headphones while he filled bags with scoria, put them in place, and did myriad other things for three summers with us.

Earthbag building had been taught by Nader Khalili before we got involved. Now deceased, Khalili had a school--which is still going--in California. My husband Kelly came across the method at a time when we were considering building something alternative, but we didn't know if it would be straw bale or any number of other methods. Kelly was sure he wanted to use a sustainable architecture method, and this is the one that caught his eye.

It took me a while to be convinced, but I got intrigued. And so we spent about 3 years hard at work here in Colorado. Most of the photos on this page were taken by Kelly, me, or his sister Molly. This one shows a triumphant Kelly at the top of the first earthbag dome we built. The photos a ways down of the exterior of the house and small dome after the stucco job was taken later by our friend Patti Stouter of Build Simple.

Our First Earthbag Dome

Our First Earthbag Dome
Our First Earthbag Dome

We began with this little dome.

Earthbags are polypropylene bags that are used for many purposes, such as food storage and sandbagging rampaging rivers. Here, we are using them to build an earthbag house inexpensively and relatively simply. The tarps are over them because the polypropylene degrades in the sun, so whenever we quit work for the day, we covered things up.

Domes are the easiest thing to build with the bags if you don't want to have to add a separate roof. You make a circle and lay a row of the bags around the circumference, leave space for a doorway of course. In many places, people fill the bags with dirt but we live near the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado, and our land was sand rather than dirt. So we ordered scoria to fill the bags with--that is the crushed volcanic rock that you have probably seen in yards. It is very lightweight and all the air in it makes it a highly insulating material. Perfect to build a house out of insulation! It sure took the sting out of those cold Colorado nights.

The door frame was actually perfectly upright, although it looks a tiny bit off here...but the arch over it was inclined to meet the inclined angle of the dome.

Adding Beams to the Dome for a Loft

Adding Beams to the Dome for a Loft
Adding Beams to the Dome for a Loft

This is actually a slightly earlier step...

Here, wood for a sleeping loft is resting on the bags. On the left, the arch of bags to go over the door is in place. And just below the the wood, you can see a window. It was made from a culvert coupler.

Papercreting our Main Dome

Papercreting our Main Dome
Papercreting our Main Dome

We Covered the Bags with Papercrete

Moving along on this page much faster than we did at the time, here the main dome of the house is up. Kelly is stuccoing it with something called papercrete, which we used instead of adobe stucco.

We made papercrete by tearing up newspaper and throwing in junk mail and water plus a very tiny bit of cement. All this went in a container that we pulled on a small trailer behind our Volvo station wagon, along our street. The container had blades inside it that mixed everything up very well.

Next, we would pour the slurry into a form made with screen on the bottom. It would be time for a lunch break while clear water oozed out of the form. Once it had set up that way, we tossed it onto the house, leaving wonderful handprints behind.

Over time, the papercrete didn't hold up as well as we had hoped and later the house got a stucco job over the papercrete. Hey, it was all an experiment! There's a picture of the stucco further on.

Bedroom, Greenhouse, Main Dome

Bedroom, Greenhouse, Main Dome
Bedroom, Greenhouse, Main Dome

Here's a Detailed Webpage About Our House

This link takes you to a long page of photos, Kelly's comments, and a chart about our costs.

Our Finished House

Our Finished House
Our Finished House

Living Room, with Wagon Wheel Window

Living Room, with Wagon Wheel Window
Living Room, with Wagon Wheel Window

Living Room and Dog

Living Room and Dog
Living Room and Dog

Main House After Being Re-Plastered

Main House After Being Re-Plastered
Main House After Being Re-Plastered

The Small Dome, in its Current State

The Small Dome, in its Current State
The Small Dome, in its Current State

How our marriage survived the building of the house...

Not all marriages survive the stresses of building a new home. Ours did.

For one thing, we'd been together a long time. We had our 25th wedding anniversary party out in the driveway, with the potluck in the half-finished bedroom dome.

We've learned to compromise. I wanted to make invitations to the potluck that said, "Are We Dinosaurs?" Kelly didn't like that idea, so we came up with something we both liked okay.

Before we built the house, we talked through our ideas. I was happy to let Kelly fulfill a lifelong dream, to build a creative and interesting house. But I was busy with my own projects and didn't want to stop doing them. I agreed to help out when I felt like it, and in fact, I did fill plenty of earthbags with scoria. More importantly, I agreed to take over a lot of what Kelly normally did for our small home-based business, like preparing packages of our books and videos and taking them to the post office.

For years we had shared the cooking and kitchen cleanup 50-50 and I did more of those things during the construction years.

It also helped a lot that we were living onsite in a very comfortable and large bus conversion motor home that Kelly had done a few years earlier.


Kelly had been a filmmaker and video producer, so he made a program about our process of building. We showed some of our mishaps on purpose, since we felt people should know about the risks.

It's available further down this page as an Amazon instant video too.

Here's the First Minute of our DVD

It was originally a VHS video.

Then Kelly Started a Website on Earthbag Building - Here are just a few of its topics

Kelly works on this site all the time. It's amazing what is happening all over the world! Do note that the last link is a comprehensive resource list with numerous links to other earthbag sites.

Earthbag Building Resources at Amazon

Basic Earthbag Building
Basic Earthbag Building
Useful DVD, done by Owen Geiger, with whom we have worked.
Building With Earth: A Guide to Flexible-Form Earthbag Construction (A Real Goods Solar Living Book)
Building With Earth: A Guide to Flexible-Form Earthbag Construction (A Real Goods Solar Living Book)
Now out of print, but one of the best resources. There are usually used copies available.

Here's a Video Kelly Made of Earthbag Building in Many Places

Then What Happened?

We sold our earthbag house to friends in 2005 and we moved to Mexico, thinking we might stay there indefinitely. But after a few years, we came back to the same little town in Colorado.

We visit the earthbag house from time to time. Our friends love it. Life moves on... I wonder what's coming up!

Answers to Some of Your Questions & Comments

1. What about building codes?

We live in a rural county in Colorado which only requires the statewide plumbing and electric codes be met. That's one reason that there has been a lot of alternative building here. When we built, very few earthbag homes had been built. It's still rare but at least some building inspectors have heard of it and will work with you. Here's a page on my husband's website with a list of questions and answers about earthbag building and codes.

2. It's so beautiful. I would like to live in something like that.

There have been a lot of comments like this! I think it's because my husband is truly an artist, as well as due to the unusual techniques. But there is something very cosy and nurturing about living in a handmade house!

3. Could this be done in a wet climate?

Domes are somewhat more likely to develop leaks if it rains a lot, but you could build an earthbag house with a metal roof. See the links to explore ways that has been done.

4. Why on earth would you sell it?

That's what I asked myself when Kelly first brought up the idea. It's a long story but in a nutshell, we had been spending time in Mexico. See my lens About Me and Mexico (also an award winning lens) for that story. We decided to go live in Mexico, and I still couldn't let go of our house... I thought we'd grow old in it!

I dithered a bit. When some friends of ours offered to buy it at a very good price, I continued to be unsure but Kelly was very open to the idea. When I thought of the last name of the friends, Byer, and realized we had been brought "the buyers" my last resistance dissolved!

We had taken on a mortgage while building it, and ever since we sold it, several years ago now, we have been completely debt free. Heavenly!

5. We don't have any money, or any building skills, and we are desperate. We want to build an earthbag house.

Umm... this is not your best choice. Kelly had been doing construction, both on places we had had and at times for income, for many years. There are simpler things to do. We understand your desperation, though, and you could be one of the rare people for whom it would be a good fit. Do explore all the links on this page very thoroughly and those links will give you a lot of information about earthbag building and other eco-friendly methods that can be done cheaply.

This Lens Won a Purple Star - That's an honor that means Squidoo folks thought it was extra good!

Image credit: Purple Star Art.


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