Report from Pisco

We have reported on the building of a community center in Pisco, Peru, and now this article from the Media Global organization has an update about how the community has responded to the introduction of earthbag technology:

“The Ring of Fire” is a 25,000-mile hotbed of seismic activity stretching north from New Zealand through East Asia and then returning south down the coasts of the Americas. Host to 90 percent of the world’s seismic activity and over 81 percent of the world’s most devastating earthquakes, this horseshoe-shaped area has shaken the countries that lie along its clashing tectonic plates.

Many of the countries located on the Ring of Fire are also developing countries, where the main modes of construction are still adobe clay or brick, neither of which are resilient against any type of seismic tremor.

In places like Pisco, Peru, a 7.9 magnitude earthquake like the one that struck in 2007, has the power to leave an entire city trapped beneath rubble. But, a new form of building, known as earthbag construction, is proving to be durable, sustainable, and environmentally friendly. So why isn’t it more prevalent in the global south?

Pisco’s recent history highlights the need for new building methods within the countries on The Ring of Fire. The 2007 earthquake destroyed over 80 percent of this coastal city. 500 Peruvians were killed and 15,000 were left homeless. Aid flooded into the city from all corners of the world for about six months, but global attention quickly turned to other matters, and Pisco was left to fend for itself.

Nearly four years later, the city is still in a state of chaos. Shantytowns are a way of life, buckets serve as bathrooms and families live under tarps where, with no walls or doors, they are frequent victims of robbers, targeting what little they do have. Yet, as locals reconstruct their homes, they use the same unreliable building techniques of brick and clay that their ancestors used.

“This [brick and adobe construction] is what locals know, it’s what they’re used to, but another earthquake will hit, it’s inevitable,” Navin Mayani, project manager for a local non-profit organization called Pisco Sin Fronteras (PSF) told MediaGlobal. “If they don’t change the way they build their homes, the outcome will be the same as it was in 2007: more lives lost and more Piscoeans left homeless.”

The method’s  advantages are overwhelming. First is the concept of sustainability, as all materials can be purchased for less than it would cost to build the same structure of brick or adobe earth. A cost analysis report carried out in Pisco found that for roughly $2,500 you could construct an earthbag home from foundation to rooftop, the same price it would cost to construct a home of brick or cement.

Second, learning the craft of earthbag building is simple. Carson Lehman, the current earthbag project leader at PSF, told MediaGlobal, “It’s a very simple construction technique, it doesn’t require a lot of tools and it isn’t a very technical building technique. A family can do this with a bit of guidance and can pretty much learn all there is to know in three or four days.”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, earthbags are earthquake proof. The geo-textile construction which comprises earthbag structures allows them to bend and flex with both seismic activity and hurricane-force winds. Bricks and cement lack this flexibility and therefore crumple when tremors arrive.

So why has this golden child of sustainable construction not taken off? “There are some cultural boundaries,” said Lehman. “Aesthetically, local people aren’t used to the look of an earthbag home. Here in Pisco, our first earthbag project, the community center, has the typical organic rounded shape of an earthbag structure and people are wary of it. They seem hesitant to learn the craft, much less implement it.

“I think eventually it will gain its own momentum, but for the foreseeable future, PSF is going to have to keep blowing the horn of the earthbag building. We’ll need to have Peruvians training, and we can expand from there. As families build their own homes they’re spreading knowledge, it’s a lot of effort, but if it’s a community process it could work.”

Despite the cultural difficulties, earthbag buildings are slowly gaining recognition and sparking curiosity in Pisco. “People may not be lining up to learn the craft yet, but they’re at least asking questions about the method now,” said Lehman. “I think the impact is yet to come; my vision here is not for PSF to build 15 earthbag houses, but to teach enough Peruvians to do it so that 300 will go up. The ultimate goal is to save lives. The devastation is still evident here if you take time to look at the families. That’s what we’re trying to prevent, we want to prevent the loss of life.”

The Ring of Fire’s plate tectonics are an inevitable source of hardship and destruction; it is vital that safer and more sustainable forms of construction be adopted in countries victim to these shifting plates.

6 thoughts on “Report from Pisco”

  1. Thank you for your comments. I appreciate the support we consistently receive from this site.
    This community center was our first Earthbag project in Pisco, and we welcome any suggestions people may have that will help us improve our technique. The plaster that we use to render the walls is very expensive and anything we can do to keep down the cost is beneficial.
    We are currently turning the bags inside out and then securing one end with 2 nails. This is also cost prohibitive. If anyone has any suggestions on how to bring these costs down, please do chime in.

  2. I thought those bags looked a little “rotund” and not very brick-like. Thanks for the tips; it is your willingness to so freely share your knowledge that keeps me coming back here! Thank you.

  3. Notice the large curves on bag ends and the large recesses between. This creates a lot of extra plaster work, including time, labor and materials. Details like this will not win over builders who have to do the work. The builders may very well think “this is not practical and efficient”.

    A better method is to pin the corners just slightly. We use galvanized wire to pin the bottom corners about 1″-2″ back. Tops of bags can be sewn shut with wire to create smaller recesses between bags. Also, I recommend tamping the sides of bags after they have been tamped flat and level. Do this before the soil hardens. Both steps combined will reduce plaster work by around 50%-100%.

  4. Great article with lots of good points. The cultural barrier and resistance to change is obviously a big hurdle to overcome.

    One possible solution: I suggest working with local builders and providing specialized training using information such as this seismic report: and this information on reinforced earthbag: Maybe if you win over the builders with sound construction principles by showing and explaining how it works then maybe they will help persuade the rest of the community.

    Correction: Earthbag building is earthquake resistant if built correctly. No building method is truly “earthquake proof.”


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