Low-Cost Multipurpose Earthbag Building

With this novel technique you can make an earthbag building to serve as a studio, garden shed, chicken coop, or root/storm cellar — no permit required!

| August/September 2009

One of the most practical structures on a small farmstead is a multipurpose building that can serve as a storage shed or cool pantry above ground, or as a root cellar or storm shelter below ground. You can build this multipurpose structure for about $300 using earthbag construction (bags filled with earth and stacked like bricks). And the skills you learn by building the dome will serve you well if you plan to build a larger earthbag building — or even an earth home.

In many cases, no building permit will be needed for this little building, because it’s below the minimum size required by most building codes (for structures that are not inhabited and not attached to a residence). But because codes vary by region, check your local building regulations before you begin.

Earthbag structures provide a cool space in summer and an escape from the cold in winter, which means this earthbag dome is well suited for many purposes. Depending on your needs, the most practical combination of uses might be a root cellar/cool pantry for daily use and a disaster shelter for emergencies such as tornadoes or hurricanes.

The earthbag dome has a natural look and blends in with the land. It has a solid, organic feel — just what you’d expect from a design inspired by nature that has been combined with a little modern ingenuity and thousands of years of earth- and dome-building wisdom.

Building With Earthbags

No expensive forms or equipment are needed with earthbag building, and the technique is faster and easier than other earth-building styles — including cob, rammed-earth tire construction, and adobe (if you have to make your own bricks). Earthbag buildings are more water resistant than those made with straw bales, making them suitable for earth-bermed and below-grade structures. If your site is susceptible to flooding, earthbag building is one of the best options — after all, sandbags have a long history of use for flood control. Just use an appropriate fill material, such as gravel, in lower courses.

The cost of building with earthbags varies. You can almost build free if you take the time to scrounge the materials, (used poly bags and barbed wire, recycled wood, and local soil and gravel). Few tools are required. Here's a “middle of the road” cost estimate that assumes you’ll buy the major items but also take time to shop around. For example, if you don’t have used polypropylene bags, you can almost certainly find a local farmer who does.

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