At Mortarsprayer.com we are often blessed by meeting interesting customers that are doing exceptional things with our tools, building an earthbag home to be used in a three year long retreat is one of the examples. Ben Christian is one of those wonderful people. He recently traveled to the United States from Australia to help build strawbale and earthbag homes and prepare for a three year long Retreat for Peace. Here is a story of his passion and commitment:
The story of how one earthbag home got started:
It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to seek enlightenment at a yoga and meditation retreat center… a chance to study with an American teacher who learned everything he knew from rare Tibetan manuscripts. He was the only teacher with this kind of knowledge, and it was the only time… and the only place… this would ever happen. Ben could not pass it up. With a short timeline nipping at his heels, he sold everything he owned so he could attend.
Ben is from the old school, though, and believes when a teacher gives him a job to do, he does what the teacher asks. He hit the floor running, in search of others who had built straw bale cabins. They helped draw up plans and gave him advice, but much of what he learned was on-the-job training. Conditions were very difficult: it was the middle of summer, very hot, and it was difficult to get materials to the site. The terrain was mountainous, there were no roads, no electricity, and the cabin had to be constructed in an environmentally friendly manner.
Another straw bale cabin on the retreat had been in progress for 5 years, and was still not done. (Shown on the left) In fact, when Ben found out that the plasterwork by itself was a 3-month job, he went online to find something faster. He found expensive systems requiring heavy machinery and plaster pumps, . He continued searching until he came across Mortarsprayer.com, where he discovered the stucco sprayer an inexpensive tool that could be used with his 5 1/2 horse power gas compressor. After discussing the sprayer with owner Nolan Scheid, Ben bought one on the spot. Actually, he bought two on the spot: one for completing the cabin, and one to take home to Australia. As a testament to the sprayer’s minimal size and weight, it was carried home in a guitar case.
Building the homes had challenges. Ben was used to metric measurements, and of course there were local permit requirements and government agencies. Luckily, some of the staff members were accustomed to working on those issues. They took the burden off his back, submitted the plans, and dealt with local government agencies.
Ben stayed in the US as long as possible to work on the cabin. There were no helpers, no money, his U.S. visa was expiring, and he had a prior commitment in Australia. In the end, he was not able to finish the project before he left, so it was handed over to a local contractor for completion.
During Ben’s five years at the retreat, he became committed to building an Australian retreat center on his own property, but family illness has postponed the completion of that project. At the moment, his goal is to finish the earth bag cabin that was started earlier, which is a series of round cylinders joined by hallways, as seen in these photos. Since meditation requires touching the ground, the meditation room floor is made of rammed earth, but the living area has a wood floor.
This cabin will have a circular kitchen on one wall in the living area and a heater, and it will be used for longer retreats. However, it is the last one to be built for now. There is also a large earth bag building for the caretakers, with one central room with two rooms off to the side. The inside is plastered, but the outside is not yet finished.
Sometimes the bags are filled by people in their spare time, then sewn shut and transported to the site. It is far easier to transport these modules than to transport trucks filled with dirt, especially since there are no roads in some areas. For this cabin, however, the bags were filled directly at the site with excavated dirt. Another reason for sewing the ends shut, which is not usually done with polypropylene bags, is because when the bags are lifted up onto the wall, the ends will release dirt if left open.
Earth bag construction has been used in various forms worldwide, often with polypropylene bags and barbed wire to hold the slippery layers together. However, a few limitations in this case excluded the use of synthetic bags. For one thing, they are not available in Australia, but they also do not fit in with Ben’s goal of environmentally friendly materials. These cabins are built with biodegradable jute bags from Bangladesh, which are about 1’ x 3’ x 4” thick and can be easily filled by one person. The rough surfaces are held together by the weight of the bags, with no barbed wire needed between the layers.
It has taken 5 month to get to the stage shown in the photos, with crews that have ranged from one person to 5 or more. There is no road, so everything must be done with a shovel and wheelbarrow, walking up to the site. This is a very isolated location, but when Ben needs help, he contacts students who fly in from all over the world.
There are also a few yurts on the property, which have been used for short retreats. One is connected to a small earth bag dome, but it is not really suitable for long retreats. For one thing, the goal is silence, but there is a wind noise factor with the fabric. The second issue is lack of insulation, meaning they are hot in summer and cold in winter.
For potential earth bag builders, Ben has a helpful hint for spraying mortar. First, make sure the bags are laid with the seam facing out, because it is more difficult to smooth the seams on the inside. Next, cover the whole outside with wire mesh, such as a fine chicken wire or similar material that has about a 3/4” mesh. It may seem like a lot of trouble, and it is not quicker, but it is cheaper because it reduces the amount of plaster used, and eliminates carrying sand and other materials up the hillside.
Ben has only one change he would make to future earth bag cabins. These structures are very difficult to heat; he tried a very expensive heater, but it did not even take the chill off. Next time, he will place hot water heating coils in the floor and walls. That is basically the only change he would make in constructing an earth bag cabin, because they are incredibly peaceful inside. In fact, he says, it is so quiet one cannot even hear the rain or wind.
Sometime in the future 3-year retreats will be hosted in the earthbag home, but it will be quite a while. None are planned at this time. For now, Ben’s time is balanced between completing his earth bag cabins already under construction on his property, spending time with family, and illustrating Buddhist text.
To learn more about the retreat for peace please visit their website, retreat4peice.org