Earthbag: Everybody’s Doing It!

by Sarah A.

It was the 68th consecutive day of 105 degree temperatures in Central Texas, but shovels flew at Green Gate Farms as dozens of volunteers worked together to build a 175-square-foot Earthbag shed for The New Farm Institute, a nonprofit that aims to educate and inspire a new generation of sustainable farmers.

Even the world’s greatest advertising agency would have been challenged to make the volunteer job description for the build sound attractive. Taking the approach of total frankness, the ads might have read something like: “Wanted: Many people who are willing to work in the direct sunlight of the piercing Texas heat all day for free. You can choose to either wake up at 7 a.m. on a Saturday or come at Noon when it will be seriously hot outside. Duties to include shoveling dirt into polyurethane bags until they weigh about 65 pounds and then lifting said bags into place on the wall. Also, there will be barbed wire. Bring gloves.”

But thankfully the calls for help were focused on the myriad positive aspects the shed build would accomplish, and people got it right away. Thanks to the generous help of dozens of volunteers, we were able to get all of the walls up in two days, an amazing feat given that it was one of the hottest weekends on record!

The goals of the project were two-fold: to provide The New Farm Institute, an organization that has been hard-hit by the continuing Texas drought, with a much-needed shed and to provide training for local architects and designers on how to implement Earthbag construction.

Coordinated and sponsored by the Austin chapter of Architecture for Humanity and guided by Aaron Chevalley, a LEED-certified designer who has worked on earthbag projects in Peru and Central America, one such architect participating was Travis Hughbanks, who will be the Lead Designer on three school building projects that Edge of Seven, in partnership with Architecture for Humanity chapters, will be undertaking this fall in Nepal.

Earthbag construction is being examined for use in these schools in Nepal, because it offers several benefits to building in impoverished and hard-to-reach areas like the Himalayas. Here are just some of the benefits of Earthbag buildings:

  • Cost – the main supplies used are cheap, such as dirt and polyurethane bags;
  • Supply Availability – dirt, bags and wire are readily available in most places and easy to transport to remote project sites;
  • Durability and Seismic Resistance – Earthbag buildings fare extremely well in seismic zones like the Himalayas;
  • Speed of Construction – Earthbag building utilizes large building blocks and does not require mortar between courses;
  • Less Skilled Labor required – a boon when working in remote regions with a small labor force;
  • Thermal Mass or Insulation – depending on which one you are going for, both can be achieved by altering the materials you put inside the bags.

Enough time has passed since the project start and I am now to the point where I no longer require the aid of Ben Gay and can once again bend down to pet my dog. There is no doubt that this method of construction is hard work, but after having both worked on a brick school building with Edge of Seven in Nepal last summer and helping with this shed build, I can say I am firmly in the Earthbag corner and can see how this method could have far-reaching effects in providing infrastructure to areas of the world where funding, supplies, and labor are in short order.

Since this first day on the project site, volunteers have continued with the next phase of the building. For more information and updates, check out the shed’s project page on The Open Architecture Network.

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