Learning Earthbag Basics

So, I asked Owen Geiger the best way to start learning how to build an earthbag structure, since I’ve been obsessing over them for the past year and a half or so.  He told me to build a test wall, watch his videos, and basically just start small.  Well, I took his advice, and that’s what this post is about.

If you don’t know what an earthbag structure is, it’s a wall coming from the same idea as flood banks (Bags filled with heavy earthen material, in most cases sand, with barbed wire in between).  But you plaster over them with an earthen plaster (clay, sand, fibers) to create a breathable, more stable (structurally and temperature wise), cheaper, easy to learn, just plain awesome building.  You could make nearly anything, storage shed, house, commercial building, etc etc.  Google it, or just go to Owen’s blog at earthbagbuilding.wordpress.com and let your mind be blown.  Earthen building is an old technology, just lost to conventionalism in America.  I won’t even get into that right now, b/c I just want to show what I’ve been doing lately.

I’ve learned lots in trying to build this.  Here are some pictures to help explain:

The first few bags down.

Bags up close, tamped.

So a few things I’ve learned: You see a plastic bag foundation (it’s filled with river rocks).  It was not ideal at first.  I tried to build a wall with plastic bags at first, hoping that tying them tight and tamping them would be alright if I didn’t rip them, but it didn’t hold at all.  But it ended up working great for a foundation to hold the rocks in place while I dug around them.  I was using my own soil to fill the bags, but my yard is basically what you see (we live in a townhouse).
I learned that drainage is pretty key.  I definitely didn’t take this into account before I built this little structure.  So the rock in unbreathable plastic bags doesn’t really make a ton of sense.  Also, because I dug around it, the water accumulated in this spot, which made it hard to continue production on days I wanted to work on it.  However it did work to my benefit, b/c mixing up the soil when it was wet helped me separate the clay so I could make more clay-rich plaster.
You can see I used red mesh fruit bags (11″x17″).  They worked awesome.  This way I avoided barbed wire.  NC is nowhere near a seismic zone, so I’m not worried about an earthquake anytime soon.  The mesh bags help the clay link to the other bags when tamped.

Jude working hard.

This is my super ghetto/humble temporary tamper.  It’s a plunger handle, and a tiki-torch top.  It actually worked really well at first, then it started to bend.  I used my hands to tamp after that, after which Jude would smack it with his own hands.  Very cute.

Some plaster is still wet.  You can see some straw, and some pine needles in there.  I was testing out different stuff.  I’m afraid the pine needles will rot though.

Angle from above

In this picture, you can see how the far right corner is lower than the rest of the wall so that the door can still swing open, and keep pets from crawling under the fence.  It kind of looks like the plaster is cracking, but it’s really just layers that I didn’t mesh well together, just plopped on top of each other, I wetted them and they look better now.

Another thing I learned is that I really need a screen.  I should’ve screen all this dirt before hand, b/c I get little rocks that stick in there.  Doesn’t make a lot of sense for plaster.  I’ll either purchase clay and sand next for a good plaster, or do it the hard way and screen it well.  After that, I’ve got to lay a ‘roof’ on it to keep it from being completely exposed to the elements. I was thinking maybe clay tiles, or something.  I do want to use some iron oxide in the final plaster to give it a good color.

My goal with this wall, is to make it look really good for a little quaint vegetable garden.  Although, I’ll have to keep the earth close to the foundation once I fill it in.  Originally I thought it’d be fine to have a raised earthbag garden, but that doesn’t make any sense for when it rains.  It’d just get super wet.

I have had some humble beginnings with this whole process, and even though the stuff I’m learning is in the book “Earthbag Building” by Doni Kiffmeyer and Kaki Hunter, it is a totally different process of learning with your head, and learning with your hands.

I want to do so much more with this, but hey, one step at a time, right?

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