Four years ago, I was camped upon a hill in Turkey watching the canvas of my tent buckle ominously. The wind howled, and rain started to drip onto my forehead. I’d been living in the tent for six months, but winter had suddenly arrived. I needed a house. Fast.
Considering the urgency, I was picky. I wanted something beautiful, round and environmentally friendly. The technique I chose was earthbag. I didn’t regret that choice at the time of building. Four earthquakes later, I still don’t.
It might have been more by luck than judgment, but earthbag building has proven itself perfect for my experience level, my climate, the topographical features of my land and my aesthetic taste. It’s easy to master for first time builders, and fairly invincible in terms of strength.
Earthbag was initially designed for settlements on the Moon and Mars, and was first applied in the construction of emergency shelters for refugees in the Persian Gulf. I am indebted to Nader Khalili, the Iranian who pioneered the technique, because my little earthbag home has liberated me from a mortgage.
The technique has numerous other benefits, some of which I have learned as time goes by. So here’s my list of why you might want to think about an earthbag home.
1. Earthquake resistance. Earthbag is the most indestructible sustainable building technique in existence. Earthbag buildings are so tough they have been known to damage the earthquake-testing equipment and show no sign of structural weakness. This is why the method is now being pioneered in Nepal in the wake of the earthquake disasters this spring. Turkey is also a seismic country. I’ve sat through four quakes of over 5.0 and not even seen a crack in the plaster. By contrast, my neighbour’s concrete wall built by professionals suffered a gaping hole after a quake two years ago.
2. Simplicity. The technique itself is so straightforward, even I mastered it (I hadn’t so much as put a shelf up six months prior to commencing the build). There’s not much more to it than filling up sacks with wet mud, laying them end to end and squashing them flat. Rings of barbed wire are run between the layers to prevent them from slipping away from each other.
3. Energy efficiency. Earthbag homes boast excellent thermal mass. They are particularly suited to hot dry, Mediterranean or temperate climates, as the thick mud walls regulate the temperature. An earthbag house stores both heat and cool. There’s no need for an air conditioner in summer, and in winter – if you place your windows strategically to absorb the maximum sunlight – your house is cozy and warm long after the sun goes down. On the coldest days of the year, I burn my wood stove for about three hours each evening.
4. Perfect for unconventional designs, circular or oval-shaped buildings, domes or arches. You can create all manner of interesting shapes with earthbag. Curvy or round walls are both strong and easy to construct. Earthbag is also famed for its domes and arches. It’s a beautifully flexible building method.
5. Bullet and shrapnel proof. An earthbag house normally has walls about 40-60 cm thick, which is a boon if you’re expecting a firearm attack, or happen to live in a war zone. Unless someone’s popping round with a warhead, you can feel pretty unassailable.
6. Soundproof. Silence is golden. The thickness of earthbag walls means you could effectively use your home as a recording studio without utilizing a single egg box.
7. Fireproof. Electrical wiring faults are no threat to an earth wall. An earthbag home acts as one enormous earthing device, and obviously mud doesn’t burn.
8. Flood proof. One of the major advantages of earthbag building over cob is its endurance in severe floods. The bags hold the structure in place and prevent the mud walls from washing away, no matter how much water is gushing by. My house has sat through major flash flooding with no damage whatsoever.
9. Inexpensive to build. The only expense with earthbag building is the sacks and the barbed wire. My home cost me about $5000, but most of that money was spent on labour, the floorboards and the roof.
10. Beauty. When people first saw my home without its mud plaster finish, they thought it looked like a bomb shelter. I’m happy to say, that is no longer the prevailing opinion.
Atulya K. Bingham is an author and sustainable building addict. She lives semi off-grid in Turkey in her beloved earthbag house. Her days are spent growing her own food, experimenting with natural building techniques, and writing. She is author of The Mud Website which offers plenty of earthbag building information, a window into Atulya’s off-grid life, sustainable living tips, and much more. Pick up your free copy of The Mud Earthbag Building PDF. Read about Mud Ball, Atulya’s popular memoir of building her earthbag home.
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