Earthbag Home Building

Earthbags offer a natural, dirt-cheap way to build a dwelling that reflects your personality.

The author, his wife, and workshop participants recently built this earthbag tiny home.

Photo by Morgan Caraway

My wife, Mary Jane, and I built our first earthbag home in 2009, after being inspired by the Mother Earth News book Earthbag Building. Our circular house was 20 feet in diameter and incorporated a bottle wall and reclaimed French doors. The build took us less than five months, and the total cost was under $5,000. The structure went viral on social media.

Since then, we’ve worked on many earthbag projects, including an Earthship-inspired domicile and a spring-fed aboveground pool featured in this magazine (“Down-to-Earth Pools,” June/July 2021). Along the way, we’ve learned a lot about how to streamline the process of building with earthbags.

An earthbag structure is made of stacked bags filled with earth. In my experience, this is one of the strongest, most versatile, and yet least expensive natural building techniques. The fill material is readily available almost anywhere, and will be either dirt cheap, or free! Bags filled with soil can be used in high-moisture applications that would be unsuitable for wood, cob, hempcrete, or straw bales. They’re perfect for above- and belowground greenhouses, root cellars, storm shelters, benches, cisterns, and much more. Earthbags are mold-proof, fireproof, bug-proof, bulletproof, and rot-proof. This building medium is strong and adaptable. Consider how long sandbags have been used for flood control and military fortifications.

Building your own home can be an empowering and life-enriching experience! Before I share the earthbag building techniques we’ve used for more than 11 years, note that it’s your responsibility to become familiar with local building codes and proper safety procedures. Use due caution.

Earthbag Tiny House

A tiny house or similar small structure is a good project for beginners. Start by drawing up plans on graph paper. Our chosen build site for our own earthbag tiny house had been excavated years earlier for a root cellar we’d decided we didn’t need, so the footprint was already established.

Your first major decision for an earthbag project is the type of foundation. The possibilities include a rubble trench, concrete slab, or concrete footer. Foundations incorporating concrete will be more expensive than other options, and have much greater embodied energy, but they’re often required by code departments. Check the building code exceptions in your area. In many places, you can build under a certain square footage without a permit. I believe most localities will approve a post-and-beam structure with earthbag infill on a slab foundation. For our tiny home, we settled on a bermed floating foundation of the type used for Earthship homes.

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