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For example, we intermix the use of the words earth, soil, dirt, and fill. They are all used to describe the magical mix of naturally occurring sand and clay, sometimes with the addition of fiber, and almost always in conjunction with some amount of water. Our intent is to inform, educate, and inspire earthbag construction in playful layman terms using written text and step-by-step, how-to illustrations. The focus of this book is on sharing our repertoire of tools, tricks, and techniques that we have learned through trial and error, from friends, workshop participants, curious onlookers, ancient Indian nature spirits, and smartass apprentices who have all helped us turn a bag of dirt into a precision wallbuilding system that alerts the novice and experienced builder alike to the creative potential within themselves and the very earth beneath their feet.
This is the premise that inspired the imagination of international visionary architect Nader Khalili when he conceived the idea of Sandbag Architecture.
In his quest to seek solutions to social dilemmas like affordable housing and environmental degradation, Nader drew on his skills as a contemporary architect while exercising the ingenuity of his native cultural heritage. Monolithic earthen architecture is common in his native home of Iran and throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Mediterranean.
Thousands of years ago, people discovered and utilized the principles of arch and dome construction. By applying this ancient structural technology, combined with a few modern day materials, Nader has cultivated a dynamic contemporary form of earthen architecture that we simply call Earthbag Building.
Simplicity Earthbag Building utilizes the ancient technique of rammed earth in conjunction with woven bags and tubes as a flexible form. The basic procedure is simple. The bags or tubes are filled on the wall using a suitable pre-moistened earth laid in a mason style running bond.
After a row has been laid, it is thoroughly compacted with hand tampers. Two strands of 4-point barbed wire are laid in between every row, which act as a velcro mortar cinching the bags in place. This provides exceptional tensile strength while allowing the rows to be stepped in to create corbelled domes and other unusual shapes Fig. Walls can be linear, free form, or a perfect circle guided by the use of an architectural compass. Arched windows and doorways are built around temporary arch forms until the keystone bags are tamped in place.
The finished walls then cure to durable cement-like hardness. Simple, low cost foundations consist of a rubble trench system, or beginning the bag-work below ground with a cement-stabilized rammed earth mix for the stem walls.
Many other types of foundation systems can be adapted to the climatic location and function of the structure. Earthbag construction enables the design of monolithic architecture using natural earth as the primary structural element. By monolithic architecture we mean that an entire structure can be built from foundation and walls to roof using the same materials and methods throughout.
Corbelled earthbag domes foster the ultimate experience in sculptural monolithic design, simplicity, beauty, and dirt-cheap thrills. Earthbag domes designed with arch openings can eliminate 95 percent of the lumber currently used to build the average stick frame house Fig. Conventional wood roof systems still eat up a lot of trees. This may make sense to those of us who dwell in forested terrain, but for many people living in arid or temperate climates, designing corbelled earthbag domes offers a unique opportunity for providing substantial shelter using the earth s most abundant natural resource, the earth itself.
Why cut and haul lumber from the Northwest to suburban Southern California, Tucson, or Florida when the most abundant, versatile, energy efficient, cost effective, termite, rot and fire proof construction material is available right beneath our feet?
Even alternative wall systems designed to limit their use of wood can still swallow up as much as 50 percent of that lumber in the roof alone.
Earth is currently and has been the most used building material for thousands of years worldwide, and we have yet to run out. We love earthen construction in all its forms. Nothing compares with the beauty of an adobe structure or the solidity of a rammed earth wall. The sheer joy of mixing and plopping cob into a sculptural masterpiece is unequalled. Let s look at the advantages the earthbag system gives the do-it-yourselfer compared to these other types of earth building.
It is probably one of the best examples of the durability and longevity of earthen construction Fig 1. Adobe buildings are still in use on every continent of this planet. It is particularly evident in the arid and semi-arid areas of the world, but is also found in some of the wettest places as well. In Costa Rica, C. Adobe is made using a clay-rich mixture with enough sand within the mix to provide compressive strength and reduce cracking. The mix is liquid enough to be poured into forms where it is left briefly until firm enough to be removed from the forms to dry in the sun.
The weather must be dry for a long enough time to accomplish this. The adobes also must be turned frequently to aid their drying Fig.
They cannot be used for wall building until they have completely cured. While this is probably the least expensive form of earthen building, it takes much more time and effort until the adobes can be effectively used. Adobe is the choice for dirt-cheap construction. Anyone can do it and the adobes themselves don t necessarily need to be made in a form.
They can be hand-patted into the desired shape and left to dry until ready to be mortared into place. Earthbags, on the other hand, do not require as much time and attention as adobe. Since the bags act as a form, the mix is put directly into them right in place on the wall. Not as much moisture is necessary for earthbags as adobe. This is a distinct advantage where water is precious and scant. Earthbags cure in place on the wall, eliminating the down time spent waiting for the individual units to dry.
Less time is spent handling the individual units, which allows more time for building. Even in the rain, work on an earthbag wall can continue without adversely affecting the outcome. Depending on the size, adobe can weigh as much as pounds kg apiece. Between turning, moving, and lifting into place on the wall, each adobe is handled at least three or four times before it is ever in place.
Adobe is usually a specific ratio of clay to sand. Steel whalers keep forms true and plumb and resist ramming pressure. Earthbag doesn t require the specific ratios of clay to sand, and the addition of amendment materials is unnecessary as the bag itself compensates for a low quality earthen fill.
Rammed earth is another form of earth building that has been around for centuries and is used worldwide. Many kilometers of the Great Wall of China were made using rammed earth. Multi-storied office and apartment buildings in several European countries have been built using rammed earth, many of them in existence since the early s.
Rammed earth is currently enjoying a comeback in some of the industrialized nations such as Australia. Rammed earth involves the construction of temporary forms that the earth is compacted into. These forms must be built strong enough to resist the pressure exerted on them from ramming compacting the earth into them. Traditionally, these forms are constructed of sections of lashed poles moved along the wall after it is compacted. Contemporary forms are complex and often require heavy equipment or extra labor to install, disassemble, and move Fig.
The soil is also of a specific ratio of clay to sand with about ten percent moisture by weight added to the mix. In most modern rammed earth construction, a percentage of cement or asphalt emulsion is added to the earthen mix to help stabilize it, increase cohesion and compressive strength, and decrease the chance of erosion once the rammed earth wall is exposed.
While the optimum soil mix for both rammed earth and earthbag is similar, and both types of construction utilize compaction as the means of obtaining strength and durability, that is about where the similarity ends. Since the forms are generally constructed of wood and steel, they tend to be rectilinear in nature, not allowing for the sweeping curves and bends that earthbag construction can readily yield, giving many more options to an earth builder Fig.
While the soil mix for 20 rammed earth is thought of as an optimum, earthbags permit a wider range of soil types. And just try making a dome using the rammed earth technique, something that earthbags excel at achieving.
Cob is a traditional English term for a style of earth building comprised of clay, sand, and copious amounts of long straw. Everybody loves cob. It is particularly useful in wetter climates where the drying of adobes is difficult. England and Wales have some of the best examples of cob structures that have been in use for nearly five centuries Fig. Cob is also enjoying a resurgence in popularity in alternative architecture circles.
They have produced some very fine written material on the subject and offer many workshops nationwide on this type of construction. Consult the resource guide at the back of this book to find sources for more information on cob.
Simply stated, cob uses a combination of clay, sand, straw, and water to create stiff, bread loaf shaped cobs that are plopped in place on the wall and knitted into each other to create a consolidated mass. Like earthbag, cob can be formed into curvilinear shapes due to its malleability. Unlike earthbag, cob requires the use of straw, lots of straw. The straw works for cob the same way that steel reinforcing does for concrete. It gives the wall increased tensile strength, especially when the cobs are worked into one another with the use of the cobber s thumb or one s own hands and fingers Fig.
While building with earthbags can continue up the height of a wall unimpeded row after row, cob requires a certain amount of time to set-up before it can be continued higher.
As a cob wall grows in height, the weight of the overlying cobs can begin to deform the lower courses of cob if they are still wet. The amount of cob that can be built up in one session without deforming is known as a lift. Each lift must be allowed time to dry a little before the next lift is added to avoid this bulging deformation.
The amount of time necessary is dependent on the moisture content C. Earthbag building doesn't require any of this extra attention due to the nature of the bags themselves.
So the main advantages of earthbag over cob are: no straw needed, no waiting for a lift to set up, wider moisture parameters, and a less specific soil mix necessary. Pressed block is a relatively recent type of earthen construction, especially when compared to the above forms of earth building. It is essentially the marriage of adobe and rammed earth. Using an optimum rammed earth mix of clay and sand, the moistened soil is compressed into a brick shape by a machine that can be either manual or automated.
A common one used in many disadvantaged locales and encouraged by Habitat for Humanity is a manual pressed-block machine. Many Third World communities have been lifted out of oppressive poverty and homelessness through the introduction of this innovative device Fig 1.
The main advantage of earthbag over pressed block is the same as that over all the above-mentioned earth-building forms, the fact that earthbags do not require a specific soil mixture to work properly.
Adobe, rammed earth, cob, and pressed block rely on a prescribed ratio of clay and sand, or clay, sand, and straw whose availability limits their use. The earthbag system can extend earthen architecture beyond these limitations by using a wider range of soils and, when absolutely necessary, even dry sand as could be the case for temporary disaster relief shelter.
Other Observations Concerning Earthbags Tensile strength. Another advantage of earthbags is the tensile strength inherent in the woven poly tubing combined with the use of 4-point barbed wire. It s sort of a double-whammy of tensile vigor not evident in most other forms of earth construction.
Rammed earth and even concrete need the addition of reinforcing rods to give them the strength necessary to keep from pulling apart when placed under opposing stresses. The combination of textile casing and barbed wire builds tensile strength into every row of an earthbag structure.
Flood Control. Earthbag architecture is not meant to be a substitute for other forms of earth building; it merely expands our options.
One historic use of earthbags is in the control of devastating floods. Not only do sandbags hold back unruly floodwaters, they actually increase in strength after submersion in water.
We had this lesson driven home to us when a flash flood raged through our hometown. Backyards became awash in silt-laden floodwater that poured unceremoniously through the door of our Honey House dome, 1. By the next morning, the water had percolated through our porous, unfinished earthen floor leaving a nice layer of thick, red mud as the only evidence of its presence. Other than dissolving some of the earth plaster from the walls at floor level, no damage was done. In fact, the bags that had been submerged eventually dried harder than they had been before.
And the mud left behind looked great smeared on the walls! Built-in Stabilizer. The textile form bag! Really, the bag can be considered a mechanical stabilizer rather than a chemical stabilizer. In order to stabilize the soil in some forms of earth construction, a percentage of cement, or lime, or asphalt emulsion is added that chemically alters the composition of the earth making it resistant to water absorption.
Earthbags, on the other hand, can utilize raw earth for the majority of the walls, even below ground, thanks to this mechanical stabilization. This translates to a wider range of soil options that extends earth construction into nontraditional earth building regions like the Bahamas, South Pacific, and a good portion of North America. While forests are dependent on specific climatic conditions to grow trees, some form of raw earth exists almost everywhere. The Proof is in the Pudding Nader Khalili has demonstrated the structural integrity of his non-stabilized natural raw earth earthbag domes.
Under static load testing conditions simulating seismic, wind, and snow loads, the tests exceeded Uniform Building Code requirements by percent.
No surface deflections were observed, and the simulated live load testing, done at a later date, continued beyond the agreed limits until the testing apparatus began to fail. The buildings could apparently withstand more abuse than the equipment designed to test it! The earthbag system has been proven to withstand the ravages of fire, flooding, hurricanes, termites, and two natural earthquakes measuring over six and seven on the Richter scale.
The earthbag system in conjunction with the design of monolithic shapes is the key to its structural integrity. Thermal Performance Every material in a building has an insulation value that can be described as an R-value.
Most builders think of R-value as a description of the ability of a structure or material to resist heat loss. This is a steady state value that doesn't change regardless of the outside temperature variations that occur naturally on a daily and annual basis. So why does an earthbag structure or any massive earthen building for that matter with an R-value less than 0. From this simple formula we can see that material with a high R-value will yield a low U-value.
U-value units of thermal radiation measures a material's ability to store and transfer heat, rather than resist its loss. Earthen walls function as an absorbent mass that is able to store warmth and re-radiate it back into the living space as the mass cools. This temperature fluctuation is known as the thermal flywheel effect.
The effect of the flywheel is a hour delay in energy transfer from exterior to interior. This means that at the hottest time of the day the inside of an earthbag structure is at its coolest, while at the coolest time of the day the interior is at its warmest.
Of course this thermal performance is regulated by many factors including the placement and condition of windows and doors, climatic zone, wall color, wall orientation, and particularly wall thickness. This twelve-hour delay is only possible in walls greater than 12 inches 30 cm thick. An earthen structure offers a level of comfort expressed by a long history of worldwide experience. Properly designed earthbag architecture encourages buried architecture, as it is sturdy, rot resistant, and resource convenient.
Bermed and buried structures provide assisted protection from the elements. Berming this structure in a dry Arizona desert will keep it cool in the summer, while nestling it into a south-facing hillside with additional insulation will help keep it warm in a Vermont winter. The earth itself is nature's most reliable temperature regulator. Cost Effectiveness Materials for earthbag construction are in most cases inexpensive, abundant, and accessible. Grain bags and barbed wire are available throughout most of the world or can be imported for a fraction of the cost of cement, steel, and lumber.
Dirt can be harvested on site or often hauled in for the cost of trucking. Developed countries have the advantage of mechanized gravel yards that produce vast quantities of reject fines from the by-product of road building materials. Gravel yards, bag manufactures, and agricultural supply co-ops become an earthbag builder s equivalent of the local hardware store.
When we switched to earthen dome construction, we kissed our lumberyard bills goodbye. What one saves on materials supports people rather than corporations. Properly designed corbelled earthbag domes excel in structural resilience in the face of the most challenging of natural disasters.
Does it really make sense to replace a tornado-ravaged tract house in Kansas with another tract house? An earthbag dome provides more security than most homeowner insurance policies could offer by building a house that is resistant to fire, rot, termites, earthquakes, hurricanes, and flood conditions.
In the rainy climate of Wales, the thick earthen cobwalled cottages protected under their thatched reed roofs boast some to hundred years of continual use. If we can build one ecologically friendly house in our lifetime that is habitable for years, we will have contributed towards a sustainable society.
Sustainability Earthen architecture endures. That which endures sustains. We strive for an optimal, rammed earth-soil ratio of approximately 30 percent clay to 70 percent sand. According to David Easton, in The Rammed Earth House see Resource Guide , most of the world's oldest surviving rammed earth walls were constructed of this soil mix ratio. We like to use as close a ratio mix to this as possible for our own projects.
This assigns the use of the bags as a temporary form until the rammed earth cures, rather than having to rely on the integrity of the bag itself to hold the earth in place over the lifetime of the wall. However, the earthbag system offers a wide range of successful exceptions to the ideal soil ratio, as we shall discover as we go on. First, let s acquaint ourselves with the components of an optimal earth building soil.
The Basic Components of Earth Building Soil Clay plays the leading role in the performance of any traditional earthen wall building mix.
Clay according to Webster s dictionary is a word derived from the Indo-European base glei-, to stick together. It is defined as, a firm, fine-grained earth, plastic when wet, composed chiefly of hydrous aluminum silicate minerals.
It is produced by the chemical decomposition of rock 2. Clay is the glue that holds all the other particles of sand and gravel together, forming them into a solid conglomerate matrix. Clay is to a natural earthen wall what Portland cement is to concrete.
Clay has an active, dynamic quality. This approach to earthbag construction clearly produces extremely solid, durable, natural, sustainable and lovely structures, but it limits earthbag technology to a subset of "earthen architecture," that includes adobe, cob and rammed earth it becomes just another way to build with earth. From my experience, I know that earthbag building can be much more than this! For instance, I built my earthbag home by filling the bags with crushed volcanic rock scoria , which has the huge advantage of being an insulating material.
I know of others who have filled the bags with rice hulls, another natural insulating material. Doni and Kaki state that, "Filling the bags with pumice alone produces a lumpy bag full of loose material that refuses to compact while lacking the weight that we rely on for gravity to hold it in place.
We prefer to maintain the structural integrity of the wall system first, and then figure out ways to address insulating options.
Weight can be both an advantage and a disadvantage in a building system, since heavier objects produce more disruptive forces whenever there is any imbalance; even though gravity tends to hold things down to earth, it can also bring things down to earth. The real question is, does the wall system tend to hold together under all conditions that it will likely encounter? From my experience with earthbags filled with light scoria and plastered with wire mesh reinforced papercrete, the answer to this question is a resounding YES.
In fact I once did an experiment of undermining a 12 foot section of such a wall by digging out the earth from beneath it to such an extent that the entire wall was resting on a tiny 6 inch pedestal in the middle, while most of the wall was totally suspended in mid air, and it held together without any deformation at all! Could any earthen wall systems withstand this test?
Pictures and a description of this experiment can be found at www.
As far as I am concerned, one of the true merits of earthbag building that is not duplicated by any other wall system is the fact that the bags can be filled with a wide range of materials, according the their availability and function within the design of the structure. While loose material does not compact and solidify in the same way that adobe soil does, it will compact sufficiently to remain static in the wall, at least until both sides of the bags are plastered, at which point the wall ideally becomes monolithic.
The only exception to this that I have experienced is with filling the bags with very fine, slippery sand, which does tend to shape-shift in the bag. The same principle that makes structural insulated panels SIPs so amazingly strong is at work here: a soft core of insulation is clad with tough skins of tensile material, and you can build whole houses with them with hardly any other framing.
Earthbag Building provides a good foundation for the basic concepts of building this way, starting with the foundation itself, and proceeding on to examine appropriate design features for walls. The merit of curved walls is clearly stated, as is the need for buttressing straight wall sections. The placement of barbed wire between the courses and how to keep it from being too unruly is covered.
How to build corners, columns, door and window openings are all clearly shown. Even ideas for incorporating post and beam framing into an earthbag wall is discussed. I am particularly impressed with their use of "Velcro plates" of spiked wood inserted between the bags as a way to anchor door frames or other wall attachments. Also their use of wire mesh "cradles" where the bag ends are exposed, as under arches, makes a lot of sense for giving the eventual plaster something to hang on to.
There are chapters on exterior and interior plasters, which they have much experience with and have many useful tips and recipes to reveal.