Responding to Catastrophe

The internet has been vibrating along with the earth since the great quake in Haiti, and I have received quite  a few emails responding to this catastrophe, often with suggestions about ways to assist the Haitians. I’ll quote from one particularly thoughtful response:

“I would like for you and your colleagues together to present our president (probably through USAID) with a proposal for rebuilding Haiti with earthbag and other environmentally sustainable technologies. Such a project would serve the dual purpose of providing affordable, earthquake/hurricane resistant housing for Haitians as well as to advance the global shift toward a more sustainable green paradigm by example. Due to this humanitarian catastrophe, both the monies and the political will for such a project are at their peak. No better opportunity exists for the Haitian people to receive durable, affordable housing in the wake of this disaster and no better opportunity may be seen in our life times to demonstrate the utility and affordability of earthbag construction to the world and our posterity.”

In response, I wrote the following:
The plight of Haitians in the wake of the earthquake is heart-wrenching in the extreme. These long-suffering people must now endure even greater hardship. It doesn’t seem fair, but life rarely does. How can those of us who are more fortunate in other parts of the world assist them?

I have been following the blog of Father Marc Boisvert ( who runs an orphanage outside of Port-au-Prince, where their facility was undamaged, but they must deal with lack of fuel, electricity, adequate food, and the suffering of friends and family members. They are expecting over a hundred new orphans to arrive from the city. Of course they can use all the money that might be sent to them (and I encourage you to visit their website and make a donation). Marc often ends his blog posts with “Keep us in your prayers.”

I first found out about this orphanage because they had built an earthbag house and were promoting this ecological way of building. You can see a description of this at There are many reasons to recommend earthbag building in this impoverished country, and resistance to seismic events is among them. Just how resistant earthbag housing might be to earthquakes is not known for sure. Very little testing has been done to prove this one way or another. The initial seismic tests done at CalEarth and other places are encouraging, but not conclusive (see Some members of Engineers Without Borders are currently gearing up to do some more testing, so we will hopefully know more in awhile. This technology is still in its infancy, so there is much more to learn about its potential.

Earthbag housing can be used for emergency shelter, and we have posted a number of possible options at, including one proposal that Dr. Owen Geiger and Patti Stouter assembled to present to the UN. This sort of emergency housing has the advantage over tents and other immediate structures in that it can often be used and improved over time to become more permanent.

Another kind of housing that can withstand practically any sort of catastrophy are shipping containers that are converted to dwelling places. These steel shells have become surplus items at many ports around the world because of trade imbalances. There have been some very innovative designs for incorporating these modular units into quite livable spaces (see an article I wrote at I participated in assembling a proposal to the UN for arranging this concept to be employed in Haiti. Here is another proposal in the same direction: . Such structures do need to be insulated to make them livable in most climates, but this is possible and can be done with earthbags filled with a variety of materials.

I agree with you that in some ways the devastation in Haiti does present an opportunity to rebuild with green sustainable principles, and I hope that this can be manifested. We each can do our part.

17 thoughts on “Responding to Catastrophe”

  1. Hi,

    I’ve been following a lot of the post and had 100’s of hours of internet research time about earthbag construction. We are in the process of plastering a 15′ dome and a 15′ vertical cylindrical building, side by side. After constructing both, I found out that the dome requires only slightly extra effort but delivers more economy for space and strength. However, you are right, it is more difficult to waterproof, esp. in the tropics like Belize. Can you say if it is better to stabalize the material with cement?

    By the way, these buildings are towards accomodating a group home facility for older orphans at the property. Can I send you some pics of the building? There are two more domes planed, one for a kitchen and another for rooms. I here a lot going on about the earthbag building style but nothing about it’s performance overtime with home owners.

    • Nader Khalili tended to use cement to stabilize the soil in his dome projects, especially toward the end of his career. I am not convinced it is necessary, but it adds a degree of security if a dome did develop a significant leak and saturated the material in the bags.

      I would love to see some pictures of what you are up to and maybe we can publish a report about it at

      The earthbag/papercrete complex dome home that I built over a decade ago in Colorado is still going strong, and I expect it will for many decades more. See for more about this.

  2. Thanks. That’s the first I’d heard about domes being difficult to seal against the rain. Where do they tend to leak?
    What about rainwater harvesting on a dome structure, I would think that would be more difficult than a traditional structure…

    • It seems that the best hope for sealing them is with a cement-based stucco or plaster, but even these may require a coat of roof sealing paint, since tiny cracks tend to evolve over time. Yes, rainwater harvesting is much easier with a conventional roof.

  3. Just curious as to why it is that the earth bag domes aren’t used as an emergency shelter prototype since they seem to be more stable and require less wood? How much longer would a dome take to build than this emergency shelter model?

    • You are right that domes tend to be more stable in quaking earth and hurricanes and they don’t require wood for roofs. We are including domes, along with more conventional rectangular shelters, as an option for people in the proposals we have put forward. Domes do require somewhat more training and knowledge to build right, and they are difficult to seal tightly against the rain. Then there is the cultural factor, in that people are accustomed to certain shapes and may not appreciate the benefits of domes. Also, in terms of dense clustering of rooms, rectangular structures are more efficient. So there are pros and cons.

  4. I’m very pleased to be able to work on some sketches and graphics to help Haiti.
    I’m also glad to hear of people with connections ready to spread earthbag technology (and any simple self-help construction techniques) to those needing homes. Making it easier for locals to rebuild can allow the social fabric to be renewed as well as enabling the local economy.

    Gary McDonough’s specific description of needs is great. I have a couple more questions for him, or others familiar with Haitian homes in the impacted areas-

    1. Is the house basically divided into sleeping space and some storage for food? I assume the true daytime living space would be a verandah and the yard.

    2. Do extended families live in these small homes? Is there a standard room arrangement that works well for the various family members?

    3. I assume outhouses and cookshacks are two separate units somewhat distant from the house. Are benches or shelves for cooking or working often adjacent to the door?

    Yes, emergency housing can be a minimal core to be added onto later, but room must be left and the space should work for this addition. Shacks with appropriate layouts enable the important relationship structure of a culture. Strong new replacement housing that ignores how families live is either unused or cripples family life. I’d rather have sketches that work with real life in this area.

  5. We are working with a gentleman in Panama who uses a similar but slightly different technique. They use one continuous, long bag like a snake and just keep coiling it around and around and up and over framed cutouts (for windows and doors). It seems that this may be slightly stronger that stacking individual bags. Barbed wire running longitudinally (buried between) along each layer make it very stable and shake proof.

    • The long tubular bag material has been used quite a bit around the world, having been introduced by the CalEarth Institute. It might produce slightly stronger structures, but it is also noticeably more expensive, and somewhat more difficult to work with, as well as being hard to find in many locations. With the individual bags you can often find them used or recycled.

  6. [Note: this comment has between reposted here where it is more relevant.]

    From Gary McDonough:
    Sorry I have taken so long to respond. I work as a volunteer chaplain in a local hospital and have been extremely busy trying to coordinate my ministry with chaplaincy plus trying to raise funds for earthquake victims and coordinate a mission trip to Haiti in the near future. OK enough of the apologizing.

    In the rural mountainous area of Mizak where we need to replace 300 – 500 homes.
    Most Haitians live in structures around 400 – 500 square feet.
    They get extremely impatient with Americans who try to do construction because the Americans are so particular and take their time. They want to build the fastest way possible.
    They spend a lot of the time outside. Most of them have a cook shack or a place outside for their charcoal burners.
    The prevailing winds are Eastern.
    When it rains it usually comes down in buckets.
    The rich people build cisterns because of water shortages in the dry season. A lot of children cannot attend school because they have to carry water 2 hours or more several times a day to meet the daily household needs.
    The soil is thin and extremely rocky. (volcanic rock)
    Last year when I took the book earthbag building to Haiti to the leaders of the Artisan Coop and the church no one seemed interested – now they are extremely interested and want nothing to do with their old construction ways.

    I’ve been thinking about all of this and have the following questions;
    Could you come up with a house design of around 500 sq feet perhaps a semi circle with the front side a veranda?
    Could you design a sloping roof with a built in rain gutter?
    In the past the roofs have been built out of tin that is extremely light weight. You can roll up 3 sheets and carry them up the mountain.
    Because of the shortage of wood and high cost the shorter the rafter span the better.
    Concrete is extremely expensive for the average Haitian before the earthquake it was $7.00 – $8.00 a bag.
    Perhaps a square structure with veranda on the front and a roof sloping one direction? Front wall higher than back wall?

    If we could get the homes up and plaster the exterior immediately we could worry about pouring concrete floors and plastering later.
    Because of the rocky soil it would be better to do as little digging as possible – perhaps none.

    I could need not only a design but also an estimate of all the materials needed for a finished home, i.e. number of bags, barb wire, concrete for plaster.
    If we could come up with a ferro-concrete roof that would take the minimum amount of wire using a temporary reusable framework that we could use on other homes.???

    With the estimates I could go to the military to see about donation or transportation of materials.

    Thanking you in advance.
    Pastor Gary McDonough

    Tuesday a doctor and three nurses will be arriving in Mizak (where we want to build the houses) with money and medicine. We have another group scheduled for February 5th and July and I’m sure many more in between for construction.

    From Owen:
    Gary, I’ll be glad to help with the design and materials list. We’re talking about small, simple structures, so the process will be easy. The key is to provide exactly what locals want to keep everyone happy. For instance, find out a few more details if you can: length, width, number of windows, best location and sizes for doors and windows, etc.

    Corrugated metal roofing will likely be the simplest and most practical roofing material. This will create a lightweight roof that won’t crush people in case of future seismic events. I recommend using suspended bags of insulation as ceiling insulation (more details later).

    Please send future correspondence to me at strawhouses [at]

    • HI,
      I’m a friend and dirt bag builder with Kaki Hunter and Doni Kiffmeyer, authors of “Earthbag Building: the Tools, Tricks and Techniques.” I’m currently in the Bahamas and would go in a minute to assist in some earthbag projects. Am trying to see if I can set something up from here and there is a possibility to even do a training here and send out teams after that. Can get design and technical assistance from Kaki and Doni. I think about the crisis in Haiti everyday and would love to actually do something. Have spent oodles of time doing sustainability related stuff, currently have family working on aquaponics designs for tropics. Spent bunches of time in Kalimantan working with local people there, trying to figure out answers to socio-cultural, environmental issues. If anyone gets anything going I’d love to help or will let you know if I get something going.

  7. In these times like this, only men can help men. What happened in Haiti is really devastating and an event that brings nothing but only sad moments. With the house designs and ideas you shown above which can withstand catastrophe such as earthquake, it is really good to know which should be and should not be put on as the structure of a basic house.

  8. We’ve just received news of a Haiti relief building project taking off in Gainesville, Florida. The owner of IndigoGreen, a green building supply company, is organizing an effort to send a container of earthbag building materials to Haiti. This is great news and we wish them the best of luck. We’ll post news of this and other related projects as they unfold.

  9. I got shivers when reading this post just now. I am in Costa Rica and have been doing some earthbag building including a dome. I am a serious supporter of this technology for many, many reasons. I have seen the difficulty in disasters to get the right stuff to the right people, in the right time. I was in south India for the Tsunami and aftermath.

    If there is a group that goes to Haiti to do a hands on demonstration I will be there! If that does not seem to be happening in the next couple of months, i think a few of us with our own budgets should go and bust out a demonstration house or two, and then invite the NGOs and Aid groups come check it out to funnel their money into that! They could also make some tests on the demo structures.


    • As part of “The Container Cavalry”, a group of private citizens who are repurposing 20′ ISBU shipping containers into Lightweight Medical Crisis Clinics, (to be staffed immediately by Doctors and Nurses in volunteer rotations)I applaud what you guys and gals are doing here.

      On my blog we’re talking about resolving immediate need issues without being sucked into the black hole that has become the corporate fight for Aid dollars, as they seek to “assist Haiti.”

      As a group that was contacted by reps of the Clinton-Bush Initiative, I can only tell you that the endless hours of phone-conferencing and meetings were eye opening.

      If we as individuals fail to respond, thousands will die before the “organizers” get through divvying up the loot and start filling the bellies of ships.

      My group just got sick of the squabbling, greed, and nepotism, and decided to act… alone if need be.

      Understand that anything shipped to Haiti is going to end up “in quarantine or under guard” until someone in power decides that it can be lucrative enough to deploy or sell. People are starving while food sits in containers, stockpiled by bureaucrats.

      Think out of the box to get things in and out of country and avoid shipping ports, if at all possible.

      You can read more about this here:

      Fabric is only strong because it’s made out of woven fibers. As you and I act, we re-weave the fabric of society, by helping each other. You should be proud of yourselves. Few people actually realize that at all.

      Kudos to you all, and G-d Bless!


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