So, you’ve finally found the perfect land to homestead. It’s got everything: water, a lovely stand of trees, friendly neighbors, and a gentle slope with southern exposure to the sun. You’ve learned to preserve food, released your flock of laying hens into their new quarters, and established a few raised bed gardens. You and the missus even stood for the obligatory American Gothic tribute photo, pitchfork in hand.
You’ve got everything in the bag, except for one small detail: you’re homeless. You’re also dirt-poor.
You’ve always dreamed of building your own home from hand-carved oak (plan A), but a quick check on the prices of lumber put that notion right out of your head. Plans B and C (find a cheap mobile home or cut a house from sod, respectively) also did not work out. Forlornly, you walk out into the field, admiring the gorgeous desert sunset, and kick at the dirt under your feet.
Then it hits you: you’re not dirt-poor. You’re dirt-rich! You don’t need wood or steel. You don’t even need to raise a herd of yaks, harvest their fiber, and weave a yurt cover (plan Y).
“Missus!” you call excitedly, throwing back the tent door. “Do you still have finely muscled arms?”
“Why do you keep calling me ‘Missus’?” asks the Missus. “My name is Barb. But, yes. My arms look amazing, thanks for noticing.”
“Excellent!” you say, picking her up and swinging her around. “Let’s build an earthbag home!”
What on Earth is an Earthbag Home?
An earthbag home is, simply put, a home made from bags of dirt. Polypropylene bags are filled with a mixture of sand, clay, dirt, and gravel. These long, tubular bags are then stacked to create walls and tamped firmly. Barbed wire is placed in between each layer for stability. To finish the walls, earthen plaster is applied inside and out. Simple, amazingly stable, and dirt-cheap.
Given their (usually) domed shape and sometimes other-worldly appearance, earthbag homes have a bit of an unorthodox reputation. We’ve grown so accustomed to houses made of wood, steel, and glass, that at first glance we may be tempted to dismiss the thought of an earthbag home as inferior.
But this is a mistake. Properly done, earthbag homes can withstand earthquakes, last hundreds of years, regulate their own indoor temperature, and present quite a beautiful appearance.
Ancient structures made of mud can be found all over the world, and environmentally-conscious architects have been working to revive the old arts of mud construction. Especially in hot, impoverished places, homes constructed of earth are a wonderful alternative.
As more homesteaders become interested in living off-grid, alternative shelter options for both people and animals have flooded the internet. Earthbag homes (also called mud homes, earth ships, or superadobe) are rising in popularity. From the YouTube family that has built an entire earthbag home on their homestead for each of their grown children, to the entrepreneurs who host summer-long workshops to offer hands-on experience in the mud, one could spend hours researching earthbag construction methods. Given the versatility of dirt, you’re really only limited by the strength of your back and your imagination. Some earthbag structures are not much more than a simple hut for storing food, while others rival Gaudi for intricacy of design.
Is an Earthbag Home Right for Your Homestead?
Before you go excitedly swinging your missus around, let’s make sure you know a few things about building an earthbag home. The most important thing to consider is your environment. Earthbag homes are NOT suited to damp places with wildly fluctuating temperatures or flooding. The filling in the bags must start out and remain dry. If moisture makes its way into the walls, you’ll be dealing with mold, deterioration, and shifting.
While simple in concept, building an earthbag home is a LOT of physical work. The most strenuous part of the process is filling the bags with dirt and hoisting them in place, layer upon higher layer. If you don’t have finely muscled arms, you probably will by the time you move in. As a desert environment is best suited to this type of home, you will probably find yourself doing this work in some pretty intense heat at times.
Most people will think you’re weird, and being the homesteader you are, you won’t care. But those people who issue building permits might find you so far-out that they refuse to allow your plans. Besides the issues of permitting, the pressure to maintain a mainstream appearance might pose some setbacks. Make sure you check the zoning laws, talk to some neighbors, and be wary of HOA zealots. Entire documentaries have been made about the bureaucratic challenges some folks have faced as they seek to create homes from sustainable resources (check out Michael Reynolds‘ work in New Mexico). Nevertheless, earthbag homes are becoming more common in the southwest United States, and they are officially allowed in Hawaii, California, Utah, Arizona, and Kentucky.
As the walls cannot be cut once they’re built, plumbing and electricity must be very carefully planned and executed. For this reason, many earthbag homeowners choose to skip the amenities altogether. This type of structure lends itself beautifully to thermal mass heating designs, fortunately, and can remain comfortable in both hot and cold weather.
Perhaps you’re still a little unsure about living in an earthbag home. Why not experiment with an outbuilding on your property? Many folks have built muscle and honed their skills with small animal shelters, storage rooms, or work studios. No pig is going to complain about the aesthetic of your awkwardly placed glass-bottle window. And if you absolutely hate the final result, well, you’re only out the cost of some bags and barbed wire.
I have a feeling you will love the final result of your earthbag structure, though. Be sure to pose for that American Gothic photo for me, and display those finely muscled arms.