In this blog, we will look at the earth bag house and consider the pros and cons versus other methods of creating high mass walls.

It seems that the newest “thing” in the world of green architecture is the Earth Bag house. Indeed, Google indicates that “Earth Bag house” is way up there on “hits” for those looking to build a sustainable high mass home that is AFFORDABLE.  But the newest thing may not prove the best choice.

Let’s look at the issue in more detail.

Clearly earth bag houses can be considered part of the “green” revolution because the process results in the creation of high mass walls.  High mass walls, however, only work if the home is properly oriented toward the south to capture the necessary heat from the sun.  Assuming proper orientation, an earth bag house certainly can become a good source of passive heating and cooling.  But, like other methods of creating high mass earthen walls (e.g., rammed earth and adobe), the problem with the earth bag house lies with the enormous amount of strenuous labor required to build one.  And, as we all know, the more labor required to build a home, the more the cost.

Granted, if you plan to build an earth bag house (or rammed earth or adobe) on your own as an owner-builder the cost will certainly be less.  But the labor is back-breaking and generally not something that most of us are willing to undertake.  So, barring you have lots of willing strong friends,  that leaves a general contractor as the only alternative. However, this is where the cost saving disappears. The earth bag house, like so many other familiar methods of creating high mass walls, now becomes much more expensive due to the excessive amount of strenuous labor necessary to build it.

THE PUZZLE:  How to provide a Sustainable AND Affordable Earthen Wall Building System?

Living Systems Sustainable Architecture knew years ago there had to be a better way to provide affordable high mass walls.  To accomplish this, they had to solve the puzzle of HOW to REDUCE the excessive amount of strenuous labor.  Until then, the earth bag house – as well as other similar methods – would remain too expensive.

THE FIRST STEP: The Invention of Poured Earth

About 20 years ago,  Architect and Builder Michael Frerking of Living Systems Sustainable Architecture, took the first step toward solving this puzzle of excessive labor costs when it entered “POURED EARTH” (PE) into the lexicon of sustainable earthen technologies.  This was because Poured Earth (PE) – a more earth-friendly soil cement material – could now be poured like concrete, thereby taking full advantage of the existing infrastructure of the concrete industry and its readily available forming systems. No longer did the earth need to be built into blocks (adobe) prior to stacking.  Nor did it require ramming earth in 8” lifts (rammed earth) and it did not require the labor of putting tons of earth into sacks before being stacked as is the case with the earth bag house.

THE SECOND STEP: The Final Piece of the Puzzle

In 2015, LIVING SYSTEMS SUSTAINABLE ARCHITECTURE introduced THE FORM FREE WALL BUILDING SYSTEM.

earth bag house alternative soil cement

Form Free walls of a 20 x 20 guest house.  Construction will be finished on this micro-dwelling in the spring of 2016.

This system, like the original method of Poured Earth described above, continues to make use of the concrete industry.  The Poured Earth material can still be quickly poured like concrete using machinery. What is revolutionary about the FORM FREE BUILDING SYSTEM is that Poured Earth is now possible WITHOUT the use of heavy, labor-intensive – hence, costly – traditional forming systems.

How does the FORM FREE BUILDING SYSTEM achieve this?

The FORM FREE BUILDING SYSTEM makes use of a (patent-pending) easy to construct and install, light-weight INTERNAL forming system.  This system is made of many “cells” or “space frames” constructed out of steel mesh.  Easily linked together, these “space frames” are then joined together to create an internal “forming system.”   When the Poured Earth (poured soil cement) is pumped into these forms, the material extrudes approximately 1” through the mesh.  The walls can then be easily troweled and finished in no time at all.

To give you an example of how quickly these walls can be constructed, a 12′ tall wall that is 8′ high (and 14” wide) can be poured and finished in less than 1 hour!!!!  The weight of the “internal space frame?”  Just 100 pounds.  Yet it can can easily “hold” 8 tons of Poured Earth (poured soil cement)!

There is one important similarity between the earth bag house and the Form Free Building Method of Poured Earth and that is the ability to include insulation thereby making it a good choice for any climate.  However, while insulation can be easily inserted into the center of the Form Free space frames prior to the pouring of the earthen material, it is more difficult to place the insulation into each of the earth bags prior to stacking.  Unfortunately, this only adds to the labor intensity of building an earth bag house.

In a nutshell…..

With the FORM FREE BUILDING SYSTEM, we can now create high mass walls that:

  • Require little to no maintenance,
  • Are energy efficient,
  • Highly Sustainable,
  • Easy to construct,
  • Easy to install….

and, thus, very AFFORDABLE!

In conclusion, the problem with the earth bag house – like that of other methods of creating high mass earthen walls like adobe and rammed earth –  is that it suffers from the excessive amount of strenuous labor required to actually build one.  And, because excessive labor means more cost, finding a way to reduce labor clearly becomes the key to solving the question of affordability. The FORM FREE BUILDING SYSTEM, however, does provide that KEY to AFFORDABILITY.

For more detailed information on the FORM FREE BUILDING SYSTEM, visit our poured earth page.

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Living Systems is led by architect Michael Frerking who specializes in a revolutionary building technique called Form Free Poured Earth. We offer sustainable architecture services including Design/Build and consulting, and provide Poured Earth Training and Certification. Please feel free to contact us if you would like to learn more or start a conversation about your next project.

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