Building Earthen Homes Using the Original DIY Material

Adobe, cob, compressed earth blocks and clay-straw building methods are labor-intensive but tremendously rewarding.

| August/September 2012

  • Making Adobe Blocks
    Making adobe blocks is time-consuming but not difficult. Getting the mix right is key. 
    CLARKE SNELL
  • Building Earthen Homes
    A sturdy adobe home in Santa Clara Pueblo, N.M.
    PHOTO: BILL STEEN
  • Cob Houses
    Cob houses can feel snug and cozy, as this hand-built home in southern Oregon demonstrates.
    WARREN KRILENKO
  • Bottle Windows
    Unusual and beautiful, "bottle windows" are a hallmark of cob houses. When colored bottles are used, the effect is that of a stained glass window, but even clear bottles make a pretty display. 
    WARREN KRILENKO
  • Clay-Slip Straw
    Clay-slip straw is the easiest DIY material for building earth homes, but it can't support heavy loads.
    CLARKE SNELL
  • Applying Earthen Plaster
    Applying earthen plaster to a wall is simple to do, although it can take time for multiple coats to dry. 
    CLARKE SNELL
  • Compressed Earth Blocks
    Compressed earth blocks can be made with a manual or a powered machine. 
    CLARKE SNELL
  • Unusual Glass Windows
    Wall niches and unusual glass in the windows are hallmarks of the hand-built earth home, as in this cob and wood house in Mayne Island, British Columbia, Canada. 
    WARREN KRILENKO

  • Making Adobe Blocks
  • Building Earthen Homes
  • Cob Houses
  • Bottle Windows
  • Clay-Slip Straw
  • Applying Earthen Plaster
  • Compressed Earth Blocks
  • Unusual Glass Windows

Dirt is the original DIY material. In cultures all over the world, people have used earth to fashion everything from bowls to buildings. We know this because so many earthen homes are still around, including buildings hundreds and even thousands of years old. In recent decades, interest in earth construction has risen. What follows are some of the pros and cons of the different types of earthen building, including adobe, cob, compressed earth blocks and clay-slip straw, and some practical tips on things you may want to try as well as those you’ll want to avoid.

Earthen Home Basics

Some basic features and practices apply to most earthen building types. First, the old adage: Give your buildings a good pair of boots and a hat. That means lifting your earthen walls up away from water on a solid foundation and covering them with big overhangs.

I’m a fan of outdoor rooms, so I prefer large patio overhangs all around, except for the south side of the building if we need passive solar heat gain in the winter. To prevent water damage, keep earthen walls covered during construction. A sensible approach in wet climates is to build the roof first on a post-and-beam structure, and then infill with bricks, cob or clay-slip straw.

Second, dirt isn’t insulation. Light, fluffy and airtight assemblies prevent heat flow; massive, dense ones do not. Some people don’t get this. I think the confusion arises because of a unique feature of the most common earthen building climate: hot and arid. In such regions, exterior temperatures tend to fluctuate above and below desired interior temperatures (hot during the day, cold at night). Thick-mass walls can act as an effective form of dynamic insulation. In all other climates, in my view, earthen materials aren’t appropriate for exterior wall systems if your goal is to build the most energy-efficient building. They instead should be used inside the insulated envelope as interior walls, floors and plasters to add mass, soundproofing and beauty to the building.



Third, earthen building is not easy, simple or cheap. Dirt is heavy, and you need to move a lot of it around to build. That’s not easy. Anything heavy that has the potential of falling on your head needs to be taken seriously. As for cheap, a big plus of earthen building is definitely that much of the material can often be found on site and is ubiquitous and inexpensive. But earthen building is labor-intensive, so what you save in materials, you may pay back in hard work. Of course, much of it may be slave labor (i.e., you), but to make an apples-to-apples comparison with conventional approaches, you have to value that time. I could make a free building out of gold if the gold were salvaged and the labor were unpaid.

Finally, the best earthen building approach is one that has a history in your area, because that means local expertise is available, and problem solving and code approval will likely be easier. Being a novice without elders to guide you along can be a lonely, difficult enterprise. Building is hard, serious work — wonderfully rewarding if done right and potentially calamitous if done wrong.

lisa
8/7/2017 9:54:23 AM

Thank your for highlighting different earthen home building techniques. Where did you see the CEB machine. Thank you


coachmarc108
5/15/2013 1:23:10 PM

Earthen home may APPEAR to be labor intensive, but this is a subjective assessment. Compared to having to go to work to earn money you pay so many taxes on, to then pay your mortgage with what's left, and that, for 30 years, I think earthen home are LESS labor-intensive than the alternative. Plus, if you organize a course to teach people how to do it, you will have many hands that pay to help you. 


Geodesiq
5/15/2013 9:46:20 AM

I was disappointed there was no mention of Cal-Earth (calearth.org) method of using bags filled with soil. Less labor, low cost, many beautiful designs, more durable. 







Mother Earth News Fair Schedule 2019

MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR

Next: February, 16-17 2019
Belton, TX

Whether you want to learn how to grow and raise your own food, build your own root cellar, or create a green dream home, come out and learn everything you need to know — and then some!

LEARN MORE








Subscribe Today - Pay Now & Save 64% Off the Cover Price

Money-Saving Tips in Every Issue!

Mother Earth NewsAt MOTHER EARTH NEWS, we are dedicated to conserving our planet's natural resources while helping you conserve your financial resources. You'll find tips for slashing heating bills, growing fresh, natural produce at home, and more. That's why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing through our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. By paying with a credit card, you save an additional $5 and get 6 issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for only $12.95 (USA only).

You may also use the Bill Me option and pay $17.95 for 6 issues.

Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
International Subscribers - Click Here
Canadian subscriptions: 1 year (includes postage & GST).


Facebook Pinterest Instagram YouTube Twitter flipboard
Free Product Information Classifieds

}