Emergency Earthbag Shelter Now Under Construction

Emergency earthbag (sand bag) shelters are extremely low cost, safe, durable, require few tools and can be constructed by recipients with minimal training.
Emergency earthbag (sand bag) shelters are extremely low cost, safe, durable, require few tools and can be constructed by recipients with minimal training.

The earthbag emergency shelter Patti Stouter and I published in our UN Emergency Shelter Proposal is now under construction. This is something I’ve wanted to do for years. Drawings, articles and blog posts are all great, but there’s nothing like first-hand experience to work out the kinks and get detailed documentation. A European journal plans to publish this shelter design next month along with Kelly Hart’s Riceland Dome. The journal article will likely bring much more international attention to earthbag building, and this lit a fire under me to build an actual prototype.

Earthbag emergency shelters with tarp roofs are only be slightly more expensive than tarps by themselves, but provide superior protection against wind, rain, heat, cold, snow, bullets, fire, flooding, hurricanes and noise.
Earthbag emergency shelters with tarp roofs are only be slightly more expensive than tarps by themselves, but provide superior protection against wind, rain, heat, cold, snow, bullets, fire, flooding, hurricanes and noise.

Constructing a prototype will enable me to pull together a free builder’s manual with detailed drawings, photos and text, which will make it much more likely these emergency shelters will be utilized on a large scale. As described in the PDF linked above, earthbag emergency shelters have a long list of benefits in terms of economics, emergency response, health, social and environmental benefits. Quite frankly, nothing else I’m aware of can compare. Stay tuned for more updates.
Earthbag emergency shelter materials are easy to transport and erect, less expensive than tents and use standard materials that are globally available.
Earthbag emergency shelter materials are easy to transport and erect, less expensive than tents and use standard materials that are globally available.

21 thoughts on “Emergency Earthbag Shelter Now Under Construction”

  1. These are incredible. ..I have been mesmerized by your projects …esp the current women’s shelter project ! Where are u located? Do u think they could be practical storm shelters for the ‘standard’ American?? US is so often so costly, even for basics. I would like to start filling bags tomorrow !
    Go Green!! Blessings,

    • I’m in Thailand now. I lived in the US all my life until recently. Building codes in many areas of the US make it difficult to build affordably. Codes can skyrocket costs 10x, and so many people get discouraged and end up building with conventional materials. But yes, earthbag shelters provide excellent protection against hurricanes, tornadoes, explosions, bullets, etc. as documented throughout our websites. We report on all earthbag tests on our Testing page: http://www.earthbagbuilding.com/testing.htm

      When building in the US, choose rural counties with few or no codes. See https://naturalbuildingblog.siterubix.com/counties-with-few-or-no-building-codes/

      This earthbag dome is one low cost shelter example: http://www.instructables.com/id/How-to-Build-an-Earthbag-Dome/ Build it separate from any dwellings (“unattached” in code language) and you may not even need a permit since it typically falls below the minimum square foot requirement. Call it a storage shed when talking to code officials.

      You don’t have to wait to try your hand at filling some earthbags. Build a demonstration corner by following this free Instructable: http://www.instructables.com/id/Step-by-Step-Earthbag-Building/ My YouTube videos show each step if you learn better by watching than reading.

      • Owen,

        Pam asked about building a “storm shelter.”

        Most areas of the Unites States allow small sheds and such to be built without a building permit.

        I suggest that a “shed” built from earthbags could be an excellent storm shelter, and Pam may not have very much difficulty from the government.

        I would encourage her to check with her local building department about what sizes of sheds can be built without a permit in her area.

        120sqft to 200sqft shed without a permit are very common, but your local codes may vary.

        I think Pam’s idea is very doable.

  2. Great work on many levels, congrats!

    What will be your plaster systems? If cement and latex paint, do you see any breathability problems?

    Your hardwork to help the greater good is admirable.


    • Thanks. We’ll do cement plaster after the bags dry out after the rainy season. They got soaked during an overnight rain and now the rainy season is starting. They won’t totally dry out for maybe 7 months.

      No breathability problems if the bags are dry. Also, the inside won’t be plastered since it’s just a pump house. We’ll use iron oxide pigment in the finish coat of plaster. It’s cheaper, eliminates painting and won’t flake off.

      • 7 months for the bags to dry?

        How will you be protecting the bags from UV during that time?

        Also, I can’t recall you ever discussing any method of TESTING moisture levels inside the bags, especially once they are part of a wall. Perhaps you have covered it somewhere, and I don’t recall it?

        Since wall moisture levels can affect plastering, it seems appropriate to discuss various methods of testing moisture levels.

        I see a potential conflict between allowing bags to dry sufficiently to minimize problems with plastering, and trying to rapidly cover the bags to avoid UV exposure. The engineer inside me wonders what the technically optimal level of equilibrium might be between the two potentially competing goals.

        The pragmatist inside me wonders how big of a deal it really is. Are there simple rules of thumb that will get someone “close enough” to the ideal moisture levels to get the job done quickly with minimal problems, so construction can move along at a steady pace.

        • Our situation is unusual. The bags got soaked right at the beginning of the rainy season. All we can do is wait. We’ll drape shade cloth from the roof to block the UV. Today I leaned recycled MCR roofing tiles against the base to block blowing rain and splash.

          Moisture content is not an exact science with earthbags. We typically advise adding just enough moisture to the fill material so it compacts correctly, so the bags are not usually high in moisture content. Visually inspect the bags and use common sense. I don’t think you need moisture probes or any special equipment. If in doubt, give it some extra time to dry and/or plaster the exterior first and allow any moisture in the walls to pass through to the interior.

          • Ideally, anyone building with earthbags should be able to determine with a degree of confidence whether or not their walls are dry enough to proceed with plastering.

            I don’t think that getting rained on is exactly unusual. In fact, I would suggest that it is probably normal for most any construction project to experience a precipitation event or two. Clearly those that live in wetter climates will encounter more precipitation. Arid climates, not so much, obviously.

            I find myself wondering about extremely simple tests that would not require sophisticated equipment.

            For example, what about a condensation test?
            Completely seal a plastic bag to the side of the wall with tape. Leave it there for a while… maybe a couple of days? Remove the bag one morning and see how much condensation has formed on the surface of the plastic that was next to the wall.

            Something like that may be very informative.
            Then again, perhaps it may not be informative enough.
            Perhaps the time the bag is on the wall needs to be longer or shorter?

            Another thought would be to just use a drill and bore a hole into the center of a bag in a few places. Collect the earth that comes out of the hole and check it’s moisture content by feel, or perhaps by weight. A small hole of this type should be easily patched and not impact the walls performance.

            An experienced builder may know by feeling or thumping the wall whether it’s okay to proceed to plastering, but a first time DIY builder won’t have that experienced feel for the material. My point is that it would be nice to be able to instruct first time builders how to perform a simple test of some kind (perhaps something completely different than what I’ve mentioned) so that they can proceed with confidence that their plastering efforts stand the best chances for success.

            I have noticed that one of the most common high maintenance tasks that are most frequently needing repair on earthbag homes is the plastering. It has been mentioned frequently on this blog. I find myself wondering if many of those plastering issues might be solved, or at least reduced, by testing the wall’s moisture content?

            I don’t claim to have the answers. I’m just asking questions in hopes of stimulating thought.

            Just a few days ago you made an excellent post about building structures to last.
            Seems to me that implies maximizing the durability of whatever building material someone chooses. Keeping an earthbag structure properly protected is an obvious important step in building it to last a very long time.

      • Dear Owen,

        Some of the books that I learned from share that cement plastering can trap water vapor causing interior wall problems and/or the plaster to delaminate. However, in the tropics, where there is no frost problem, I wonder if this is not a concern.

        What are your thoughts on using latex paint over cement plastered earthbags here in the tropics?

        Also, do you see a problem in painting over an earthen plaster with latex paint in the tropics?

        Your generosity in sharing you knowledge is admirable and appreciated, thank you!

        • Most earthbag houses are plastered with cement and so far we have not heard of any problems other than leaking domes.

          Tropical climates: Use wide roof overhangs of 4′ or more and then you can use most any type of plaster you want. Add a privacy wall or plants on the side facing incoming storms to block blowing rain. You might have problems with insects in earthen plaster unless you add borax, etc. Latex paint won’t cause problems on cement plaster. I prefer to use iron oxide pigment in the plaster so repainting isn’t necessary, plus it’s less expensive and saves an extra step. I’ve never heard of anyone putting latex paint on earthen plaster. Try out a sample and see what happens. I’d be inclined to use something better on earthen plaster such as the sealers used on earthen floors (boiled linseed oil, siloxane, BioShield, etc.). We’ve had excellent success with a sealer on our outdoor kitchen CEB wall. It’s a multi-purpose sealer by Behr I believe. The same thing is on our outdoor kitchen countertop. No sign of deterioration after 4 years or so even though it has some direct sunlight in the afternoon and gets rained on regularly.

          • A rainscreen should also be extremely effective in tropical climates.

            It should work very well on domes in the tropics as well. Just be sure that the rainscreen airgap is ventilated. Perhaps a cupola on top that vents the rainscreen airgap?

  3. Several random comments:
    – We intentionally lowered our bag work standards a notch or two to more accurately reflect the type of work one could expect from less experienced builders. We didn’t want to show poor workmanship obviously, but at the same time we didn’t want to create perfect bags. I cut back on almost every step. The general guideline was “It’s okay, that’s good enough”.
    – In hindsight I wish the shade cloth had extended more to the east and west. It’s rating is 70%, meaning it blocks 70% of the sunlight. It was much hotter whenever we had to work in direct sunlight.
    – The sagging shade cloth was often in the way while tamping. We eventually raised it up out of the way. We should have raised it sooner.
    – The shelter got caught in a heavy rainstorm when about 3/4 built. I saw no sign of rain approaching (although I was obviously tired and busy working) and so we didn’t tarp the walls that night. Most bags were okay except for 3 that turned to mud in the center where the shade cloth came together and drained extra water. We easily replaced those bags.

  4. I was thinking to offer come help out and thus learn the how’s – so as to apply the knowledge in my own situation. But ‘monsoon season’ ? Where are you building ? Will look forward to the plans/pdf/videos. Thank you!

  5. Before everyone scrolls down and starts reading my smart*ss comments poking some friendly fun at Owen…

    I do look forward to watching this project develop.

    Here’s a few questions.

    1. Did you buy the bags new, or are they used/reused?
    2. Are you using fill from the site, road base, or something else?
    3. What are the names of your helpers? It only seems right that they get fair recognition for their work. (possibly include names in the photo captions?)
    4. Are these helpers new to earthbag building, trainees/apprentices, people you have known for a long period of time and trust them, a mix of some or all of the above?
    5. What data are you recording about the construction process? (e.g. man hours, expenses, tools used, fuels/energy consumption of the construction process, … etc?) Data such as this might be useful for planning emergency responses.

    Am I getting ahead of things? Is this type of data something you want to include in the manual, or a future blog post? If so, feel free to tell me to just be patient.

    • Most of these are important questions that I plan to cover in the builder’s manual. Right now we’re very busy planting trees, etc. The manual will have to be done later when the monsoon rains fully kick in and I have more time to write.

      1. The bags are left over from the earthbag pantry we built two years ago. I bought them at a discount from someone who decided not to build with earthbags. We have no other earthbag projects planned at this time and so it made a lot of sense to use up what we had sitting around. The roof can be a simple tarp or a permanent roof similar to what we built. We used free recycled wood and recycled MCR roofing tiles. So the total cost of materials for us was something like $85 for the whole shelter. The soil was $12/truckload x 2 loads. The door was about $40. Rebar pins, galvanized wire = $20. The gravel was left over from another project.
      2. Fill material: This is the most important question I think. Previous projects of ours used road base. Road base is an ideal mix, but probably wouldn’t be available to most people building emergency shelters in disaster areas. That’s why I decided to use ordinary ‘fill dirt’ or subsoil to simulate what most people around the world would have available. Ours was trucked in. Some people may have to excavate it from the site. In our case, the mix we got had large, hard dirt clods and was too dry to work with. It took twice the effort in comparison to using road base, maybe more, to pre-soak, break the clods and mix it to the desired moisture content. Our road base in contrast was “shovel ready”. It could be shoveled into buckets and dumped into earthbags with little or no misting of water or mixing.
      3. We’re hiring local farmers in the area. Most help about 1-2 days to make a little cash and then go back to work on their farms.
      4. I’ve never met them before. They just come and go as they want to earn some money. None have any experience or knowledge of earthbag building.
      5. The builder’s manual will have a detailed list of tools, materials and quantities needed, estimated number of hours, detailed drawings (more so than the original PDF) and photos.

  6. I’m going to start a conspiracy theory right here on your blog.

    You’ve heard the expression, “If a tree falls in a forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”


    If an earthbag builder builds an earthbag house while wearing a white shirt, and the shirt doesn’t get dirty, did he really build the house?

    I’ll leave it to everyone else on the blog to discuss and decide for themselves.


    • I’ve always thought the answer to that expression was obviously yes. The falling tree will create a sound (shock wave in the air, vibration in the ground). Basic laws of physics. The fact no one is around to hear it is irrelevant.

      Those aren’t white shirts. The first photo looks like my light yellow/tan shirt. The third photo shows my light gray shirt. Most photos of me were taken in the morning before I got too dirty. No photos of me at the end of the day! You have to realize how freakin’ hot it was during this project. One day I felt like some brain cells got fried. (I think that was the first day before the shade cloth.) You have to pace yourself and take frequent breaks. Plus, I had some laborers to do most of the digging and bucket work.

      • What you say may be true about the physics of variations of air pressure being the beginning of sound.

        What you are missing is that the root of the tree falling in the forest thought experiment. That famous line was the beginning of a conversation more about perceptions and metaphysics than of physics. The whole point of that original saying was to explore exactly what it is that makes reality. What is the difference between reality and the perception of reality?

        There are some schools of thought that claim that nothing is actually real. Everything around us is only our perceptions. Therefore, some would claim that if nobody is perceiving a tree falling in the forest, not only does the sound not occur, but the tree itself doesn’t even exist until someone starts thinking about it. The forest doesn’t exist except in our minds.

        I’m not claiming to agree with these metaphysical interpretations of reality, but the thought experiment of the tree falling is attempting to address those types of questions.

        So, back to the metaphysical question/joke of the day, if Owen’s shirt doesn’t get dirty, is he really building an earthbag structure or not?

        If the shirt doesn’t have pit stains, is Owen really sweating in the heat or is the heat only in his mind?

        If we can’t hear Owen grunting and groaning over sore muscles does his tamper really make a sound?

        There are a few concepts to ponder while you perceive yourself filling a few bags and pounding your tamper.

        May the force be with you.

    • It’s on our new homestead. We’re building a recycled wood house, shade house for plants and forest garden to be more self sufficient. All the projects will be topics for upcoming blog posts and videos for a new YouTube channel on low cost homesteading. Stay tuned. Things are real hectic right now as we race to get things planted before the monsoon season hits full stride.

  7. Notice the green shade cloth overhead to beat the intense heat. Some days were almost unbearable and the shade cloth made a big difference.

    Also notice the wood poles buried in the earthbags in the second photo. They support a pallet bed. The shelter is designed so two standard pallets fit perfectly.

    We’re using the shelter as our pump house, and so you can see electric cords in some photos.


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