Gainesville Earthbag House Update

“Hi Owen. We certainly learned a lot from this building process. The most important lesson was this: someone on site must be familiar with construction techniques and be good at providing quality control and project and crew management. Our experience was that if you are not using volunteers who are independently enthusiastic about earthbag building, the crew will not be able to provide self-checks on making the mix correctly or laying walls that are plumb, level, and square.

Due to budgetary pressures, we were forced to hire manual laborers to build this structure. The salaries we offered (~$10/hr) were not sufficient to get skilled help that could be self-starters. My dad wasn’t able to be outside on the site every step of the way and thus there are a few sections of wall that didn’t receive the exact earth/lime mix required to make solid bags. We’re watching these areas for any movement or shifting, but so far so good nearly 2 years in. I arrived on site after the walls were about 3 feet tall and noticed that nothing was square, level, or plumb. With a lot of measurement and squaring, we got the walls back in shape in enough time to produce a solid house, but it could have been bad if they were any taller by the time we found the problems. We took the unusual step of building this structure with load-bearing earthbag walls. If I did it again, I’d integrate corner posts and some sill beams to ensure structural integrity. Nonetheless, things seem to be ok.

The roof is a traditional vaulted ceiling rafter/beam structure, tied into the top of the walls and the top two courses of bags via 14 inches of top plate and metal strapping. We were lucky to find an out-of-work carpenter to assist with the roof construction, so we’re fairly sure that it was done well.

Also, we should have made the buttresses a bit higher and designed the roof to overhang them more, for water runoff. We’re currently retro-fitting some mini-roofs on the buttresses to keep them from melting!

Furthermore, we found that it was very difficult to find a good exterior adobe mix formula. Folks that have done this kind of thing tend to keep these recipes secret, for some reason. Wanting to avoid using much cement in our adobe, we’ve had to do some experimenting, with mixed results (pun fully intended!). We may end up recoating the exterior with a better mix.

The sole cooling source for the house is a window-mounted AC unit. It keeps the house well below 80 degrees even when it is 100+ outside. The heating system was designed as a glycol-baseboard heating system, but we haven’t fully plumbed it in yet. Again, this is due to the lack of skilled help. My father has been reluctant to hire a standard plumbing contractor for this work, and the ex-plumbers that he did find did a terrible job. We have corrected many mistakes thus far and are sure to find more. Consequently, the house has been heated thus far with electric space heaters, which seem to work very well. Even though the walls do not have much insulative value, the thermal mass does keep things very moderate inside throughout the year. We are also fitting a wood-fired furnace in the common area to heat both homes in the event of a power outage.

We have found that visitors are skeptical that such a lovely little house was actually built with the earth from the site. We’ve kept a piece of interior paneling loose in order to show them the bags from the inside.

We would certainly do this again, but with more professional help and a stronger QA/QC process. All in all, this house has cost around $50k, roughly 1/3 or less of the cost of a similarly sized stick home.”

Previous blog post with photos: Earthbag in Gainesville, Texas

150 photos by Justin Martin on Flickr

15 thoughts on “Gainesville Earthbag House Update”

  1. Hi, and thank you for sharing your experiences with earthbag building experience. My husband and I are planning to buy a land and building a solar energy earth bag home. It would be a large home, at least free bedroom with the possibility to add in the near future more rooms. We live in the nyc area, and were thinking of buying maybe in orange county, NY( nothing is decided yet, and we are open to other areas). I can’t find any example online of earth bags houses in this area. We don’t have a earth bag building experience, and I would love to participate in a workshop , but can’t find anything in the area. I have several children including a 2 years old so it is not easy for me to take a workshop in another part of the country that would give me the basic skills to be able to hire contractors who may not know about earth bags building, and still participate to the construction.
    We already brought your book “Earthbag building guide” that is so full of advices, but couldn’t find any answer to these questions. Is there a book that you can point us too?
    At what point of the project should we hire a consultant?
    I am so sorry to ask so much questions, but I feel like I don’t know where to start. Thanks in advance!

    • I don’t know of any earthbag houses in NY. I think some college students built an experimental structure up there. Highly populated areas usually don’t have houses made of alternative materials because the codes are so strict. You’ll definitely need to hire an engineer and be prepared for higher construction costs.

      You don’t necessarily need a workshop. My 3+ hour DVD and book explain everything in detail. Build a small storage shed and start practicing the steps and you’ll soon figure out what to do. The ‘learn by doing’ part often holds back many people. You have to get out and start using what you learn so everything falls in place. You can hire me as a consultant after you’ve figured out the basics on a storage shed or demonstration wall and are serious about building. My email is listed above on the About Us page.

      • Thank you Robin for the helpful infos!! I don’t know much about earthship in term of construction etc, but will surely give it a look as it looks more easy to have a permit for it here. I like the eathbag principle though…in terms of construction, flexibility and cost…I have plans in the future to make earth bags constructions in west Africa.
        I will also pay a visit to sister Marsha’s project, and ask for tips on how to obtain a permit in the area….It looks like she got hers because it is for training purposes, but we never know.
        Thanks again!

      • Thanks Owen, this is very helpful! I had already started looking for other areas, but I admit I love the mountains around here, and it is so convenient for us for many reasons.

        We had a look at the earthship architecture, but we prefer the earth bags for several reasons.

        1)Earthbag is more cost effective.
        2) Earthbag is easy to build
        3) We prefer to construct our home using natural products.
        4) We really love the earthen look of earth bags houses
        5) This house will not only be our house, it will be an art project for me, and I want to be able to participate to the construction as much as I can.
        6) For my future project in Africa, I think earth bag will be more adapted as it resembles more to the local construction material and architecture of African homes, and it is low cost and easy to build.

        My main concern now will be to ensure that the earth bag home we build, will have optimal energy efficiency, given the winters in the north east. We also want to use solar energy as a main energy source.

        I hope we can consult with you once we are ready to proceed on best options for materials and equipment.

        Thanks again for everything!

      • Mariam&Owen: Im not trying to advocate earthship as instead of earthbag. I was just suggesting going to a earthship workshop to learn things.

        The two methods are different in one way(I know it is different in more than one but lets face it, lots of things is the same). One uses tires and sledge hammers and the other bags and coffee cans. This part about filling/aligning tires/bag should not take too long to learn. IT IS ALL THE REST that could be interesting to learn.
        Plaster,Mixing plaster,Making a roof,earthen floors,ventilation,calculating solar gain etc.

        Hope you two didn’t see me as infiltrator to convert “earthbagers” to “earthshippers”.

        Dont look at eartship for the sake of permit. They have maybe a even bigger issue getting it then eartbag. Look at them to learn what you can apply on earthbag instead. Look beyond the tires.

      • Hi Robin,
        Really, I didn’t took it this way. In fact it helped so much me as it gave me more facts to make researches about green buildings. The fact is that I will probably take an earthship workshop in ny as I want to have all the tools and knowledges to have the better finishes in my house ( plaster and floors), plus it will also give me the opportunity to meet people in the area interested in green buildings. Network is so important in this matter! So I can’t thank you enough for your infos!

  2. Thank you for taking the time to provide such detailed photo-documentation, and your descriptions about lessons learned. Great Stuff. Good luck on your continued construction.



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