Observations about the Marketability of Earthbag Building

Jorge Dominguez has been helping his friend Mark Hanson build the first permitted earthbag dome house in Hawaii. After several months working on this project, Jorge offered these impressions of building with earthbags and the potential market for this in the U.S. The accompanying photo was taken by Jorge during construction of the Hawaiian house.

There is zero government support for this type of construction.

For big and medium contractors it’s not profitable in the USA. With labor so expensive, workers comp and so on, numbers don’t add up to monetize it.

It is an ideal method in hot regions of the USA for small builders who already own land in rural areas. I have asked several builders here in the Big Island why, if they have 20 years more experience than I do in conventional building, they cannot build their own homes on the land. The answer from them: the materials are too expensive, and they don’t qualify for financing. Even if it can be very cheap for materials, you still need some capital for materials.

So yeah, good for environment, durable and not disposable, but money, money, money.

Regarding the labor, it would be awesome if rural neighbors came together in something like cooperatives, and everyone helped each other to build their homes. But I don’t see people having community spirit in the USA as in poorer countries. Here in the East Side of the Big Island there is some degree of community feeling, much better than in the Bay Area. But you still see attitudes like don’t park in my sidewalk; shut up your f*** kid; I’m trying to sleep, read my book, do my yoga. In 25 years in the USA I have never seen a homeowner asking his neighbor to borrow some beans.

Still I see hundreds of young people who like to travel who want to build these kinds of buildings. Someone has to figure it out, maybe on the Internet, to create a network of volunteer opportunities.  Volunteers can help for a couple of days. Most young people need to make a living and they cannot commit to earthbag building for months if they don’t get paid. But I think people can commit to volunteer for months if they perceive it to be in their self interest. Like getting their own earthbag dome in exchange for doing so many volunteer hours for other builders. Example: if a volunteer commits 200 hours of help to some homebuilder, the network has to guarantee to him to provide him with volunteers when it comes the time to build his own. By doing work for trade and bartering, you don’t have to release cash, no taxes to report, and no stress in trying to get too much work during a work day. Even though airfares are very expensive nowadays, I see lots of young people willing to pay their own airfare for the opportunity to travel. But the homeowner has to give something in exchange; he cannot just get slave labor just like that. If the homeowner is willing to provide free rent, plus food for the volunteer, it makes it very enticing. No matter how idealistic a young person maybe, I don’t see them paying for expensive hotels, restaurants and rental cars for his free labor for someone else.

To see more pictures and read more about the Hawaiian project, visit this page.

8 thoughts on “Observations about the Marketability of Earthbag Building”

  1. “getting their own earthbag dome in exchange for doing so many volunteer hours for other builders”

    THIS. I would do this now, and for the rest of my life. I would never stop helping people build even after I got my own. I would work for free when I could, and gas money/food when I just plain had to demand payment to stay alive. No beer, thanks anyway tho. ;-)

    So many of us are dead poor. But just as many are filled with hatred and marketing. There is no community, everybody hates everybody else, and no one will lift a finger or get their hands dirty. Too busy telling their neighbors how not to live…

    We’re spread out over the Internet. If 20 or so people of this like mind got themselves together and bought a little land in a semi-civilized State/County that would let us practice math, science, and common-sense… Oh, wait, nevermind. I’m dreaming up fairy tale places again.

    If I thought there was any hope of The State getting the hell out of the way and letting decent people live, I’d head this up in a heartbeat. But I know it isn’t possible. Government is the source of all that is wrong in the world.

  2. Hello, I am a fulltime homemaker with 3 children ages 6, 3 , and 6 months. My husband and I are interested in purchasing a lot in lower market rate neighborhood in the bay area and hopefully build an earthbag home that meet code/zoning requirements. Is this possible or wishful thinking? I am aware that the city of Hesperia Ca, allows for this type of housing.
    Anyone, in the San Francisco Bay Area particularly in the metropolitan areas of the East Bay, Peninsula, North Bay and just a bit past Pacifica who are interested in this type of home and has information could you please post how this can be done.
    I have noted that not many U.S. “people of color” Asians, African-Americans, Hispanics etc. are unaware of low cost alternative methods of building, or deliberately planned communities that fit their specific lifestyle such as extended family compounds etc.
    I am also interested in a type of non-consumerist back to basics alternative community within the Bay Area, is this possible?

    • I am not aware of any earthbag houses that have been permitted and built in the S.F. Bay Area. While it is true that the City of Hesperia has permitted some earthbag buildings, this was primarily because Nader Khalili and his CalEarth Institute are located there and the city wanted them to design a municipal building. The city building department worked with CalEarth in running some seismic engineering tests to convince the city that it was safe. This is a great precedent for other possible projects elsewhere, but it does not guarantee that the building jurisdictions in the Bay Area will follow suit.

      I think that eventually cities will be allowing earthbag building, as well as other more ecological techniques, because the need for green, sustainable architecture is becoming abundantly apparent. It might just take some time for this to happen. My best advice would be for you to approach the building authorities where you want to live and talk to them about your ideas, showing them examples of other successful code-approved earthbag buildings. You can become part of the process of legitimizing this truly ecological way of building.

  3. I think a volunteer network would be terrific. The snag would be government permits. Without government, this could work without a hitch, because volunteer groups could swing from one project to the next without lags. But government interference would (as usual) gum everything up, unless there was a sudden blanket adoption of freedom in the U.S. which doesn’t look likely anytime soon.

    • What you say is true, in many cases. Fortunately, there are many places with few or no building codes. I ‘vote’ with my wallet and my feet to encourage sustainable solutions. For example, the last two communities I’ve lived in had 1. very few building codes, 2. no building codes.


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