Earthbag building is more than a passing hobby for Owen Ingley; it’s is his passion. Through his educational nonprofit, Plenitud Initiativas, he teaches people how to build their own earthbag home out of dirt, plastic, barbed wire, and plaster. These simple, inexpensive products are the main materials used in earthbag construction, one of the fastest-growing natural building techniques in the world.
Owen’s story begins after graduating from the University of Florida at Gainesville, where he studied anthropology and history with a focus on Latin American Studies. While traveling extensively throughout Central America and the Caribbean, he worked with many different agriculture-based nonprofits and indigenous communities. Soon he began to realize the need for sustainable low-tech homes that families could build for themselves, and that led him to EcoNest. This natural building workshop is run by Robert La Porte, a bioconstruction pioneer, teacher, and author. During Owen’s participation in an intensive 17-day seminar at EcoNest, he was allowed to shadow the director.
As he searched for even more information about natural earthbag building, Owen participated in a workshop at Cal-Earth. Founded by architect Nader Kahlili, the California Institute of Earth Arts and Architecture leads workshops where people learn how to construct their own earthbag house. This nonprofit has three core beliefs: (1) everyone is entitled to shelter, (2) everyone should be able to build their own home, and (3) the most logical way to accomplish this is by constructing with earth.
Fueled with passion, Owen and his wife Paula Paoli moved to her home country of Puerto Rico and started Plenitud Initiativas, an educational nonprofit set up help their local community. The word Plenitud, Owen explains, means wholeness or complete, and the word Inititiativas means initiatives. The name can be easily understood in the context of their dedication and holistic approach to the community. Through their workshops, Owen teaches people how to build their own earthbag home, teaches them about organic farming, educates them about permaculture and helps them with personal their growth.
Although the simplest, most straightforward approach is to use dirt directly from the site, that would take a lot of time and result in higher labor costs, so Owen uses inexpensive road base subsoil that is hauled in by truck. Before filling an earthbag, the dirt is mixed with other materials such as clay and sand, although the mixture can vary depending on availability of materials, location, and climate. Fiber or straw is often added to provide more tensile strength, and the addition of gravel makes a stronger mix. Some earthbag house builders have even developed their own techniques and processes. Kelly Hart, for instance, uses a type of volcanic rock called scoria when he builds homes in cold climates, as the crevices and holes provide more insulation.
Earthbags are made of polypropylene, the same material used for sacks containing rice, corn, and grain. The simplest and most earth-friendly construction process would be to re-use these feed and grain bags, but it is seldom practical because it would take too long to find and collect the bags. For his workshops, Owen uses rolls of polypropylene tubing cut into 10′ or 20′ lengths, or as needed.
Tips of EarthBag Building
When building an earthbag home, the easiest shape to construct is a dome because the walls are strong and load bearing. Vaults and arches work well for this process, too, because all these forms have natural compression. That also means arched window and door openings can be built into the walls without lintels.
The earthbag construction process is simple. To begin, each bag is filled with dirt, and then placed directly on the ground to form a circle, with the ends of the bag tucked underneath. Barbed wire is placed on top of each layer of bags as they are stacked up to form a dome. Barbs hook into the plastic bags above and below, securing and stabilizing the structure by locking the bags together.
In the next step, spaces between the bags are “chinked”, or filled with earth plaster, and the earthbag home is then left to dry naturally. In the past, Owen’s next step was to cover the dome with layers of hand-troweled earth plaster. Recently, however, he discovered a faster and easier way for this step using a small mortar sprayer instead of hand-troweling. For chinking, he uses one jet on the mortar sprayer, and then switches to the 3-hole jets and sprays layers of plaster over the entire structure.
For a flexible plaster mix, Owen adds 1 1/2” fibers, and found that the fiber-filled plaster sprayed easily and smoothly through the 1-hole jet. A second surprise came when he sprayed plaster containing 1/4″ aggregate through the 2-hole jet, and it worked just as well. Owen said there are two main cost-saving advantages of this sprayer over plastering by hand. The first consideration is time; since the small mortar sprayer is much faster than many layers of hand-troweling, labor costs are considerably lower. A second advantage is the ability to use a small compressor, which is cheaper and easier to move around.
The last step in the process is waterproofing, and people are trying out all kinds of different materials and processes to solve this issue. Owen, for instance, has been working with elastomeric roof coating, but says it is still in the experimental stage. Owen Geiger has also just completed an earthbag building book that does the best job we’ve seen in explaining the basics of earth bag construction. For more information please read Owen Geiger’s new Earthbag Building Guide.
The general concept of earthbag construction has been in existence for more than thirty years, and continues to evolve even today as improvements are discovered. This organic, sustainable, environmentally friendly process is now being explored around the world because shelters that hold up to the elements can be put together quickly. In fact, some people taking the Plenitud Initiativas earthbag building workshops are heading to places hit by natural disasters, such as Haiti, where they will help people build their own earthbag home. To learn more about earthbag building and other sustainable practices please visit the Plenitud PR site.