Reasons to Build Your Tiny House with Earth

earthbag tiny house with fall colors
Our earthbag tiny house surrounded by fall colors

Reasons to Build Your Tiny House with Earth

In 2019, we set up a workshop to build an earthbag tiny house on our community property. It was an eight-day workshop–the longest we had done to date, and it filled up quickly. As most readers probably already know, tiny houses have been one of the biggest trends in alternative building. I think many of us are tired of the clutter and complexity in our lives and yearn for something simpler. That’s where I was mentally when I got the desire to build a tiny house with earthbags. There are several reasons it makes sense and a few cases where it doesn’t. Of course if you want your tiny house to be mobile–earthbag building or any earth building likely isn’t the way to go. Let’s talk about some of the benefits.

1. Economics

So far, we have spent somewhere around $1800 on our earthbag tiny house. Very few of the building materials were bought new. The windows cost us $75 each at a nearby builder’s surplus store. The set of French doors cost $50 from a Habitat for Humanity Re-store. The bags (less than 1000) cost under $200. Fill dirt can either come from on site or you can likely get it delivered fairly inexpensively. The least pricy, conventional, self-built tiny house I had heard of before that was around $4000. When you have someone else design and build, of course the price goes way up.
earthbag tiny house workshop
Our September of 2019 earthbag tiny house workshop

2. Strength

The traditional uses of sandbags, flood control and military fortification, demonstrate the inherent strength of the medium. A foot-thick wall of tamped earth or well-cured cob is simply stronger than a 2×4 framed wall covered with vinyl or thin sheathing. I’m confident that underground earthbag homes and shelters could withstand even category five cyclonic winds–there aren’t many stick-framed structures that we could say the same of. This strength makes earthbag building suitable for many applications where most other methods simply wouldn’t work. 

3. Non-Toxicity

Most modern building materials off-gas VOCs; this can quickly add up to bad indoor air-quality. You don’t have this same issue when building with earth. Earth is inert and non-toxic. It is wise, in any structure on the ground, to check for radon. You can have some amount of radon in your air in conventional or earthen structures. This can be tested for and generally dealt with by making sure a dwelling has proper ventilation. 

Earth doesn’t mold. In moist environments, mold is a constant, and usually invisible, companion. There are a plethora of health issues connected with it. Wood and any organic matter such as straw, can harbor mold, especially in environments without climate control. Neither earthbags nor the fill dirt in them have this issue. 

my first design of the earthbag tiny house
My first design of the earthbag tiny house

4. Environmental Friendliness

Using dirt from on site uses much less embodied energy than than that involved in producing and shipping modern building supplies. The most environmentally-friendly buildings will almost exclusively use materials from on site or nearby. Indigenous structures used only local materials, and this can certainly still be done in the form of wood, cob, cordwood, and straw bale. Earthbags take energy to ship and produce but only make up a small percentage of the wall’s actual material. By weight, probably only somewhere around .01%. Earthbags allow you to use less than ideal fill material in your bags. In areas with little clay, this is very helpful.

A lot of synthetic building materials will have a much longer life span as waste than they did embodied in a house. This waste will be kept in a landfill or be strewn about the environment. When earth is your main building material, it will simply be reunited with the ground upon the structure’s collapse. 

Earth buildings can last longer than wood. This means they can serve their purposes longer than their wooden counterparts. This means more of a return from the investment of energy and materials that went into them. I think that a properly maintained and protected earthbag wall could last just about indefinitely. The biggest danger to an EB wall is to let the plaster come off, exposing the bags to UV radiation. As long as this doesn’t happen, they should last approximately forever.

5. Empowerment

The first thing I built was a composting toilet, after reading The Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins (an excellent book that I recommend to all human beings living on the planet Earth). Until then, I hadn’t considered myself a builder of anything, at all. The next thing we built was our easy yurt in 2008 and then we started on our first earthbag house in 2009. Realizing that I could make all of these things myself was very empowering and changed my outlook on life. 

I think that most of us just get in a rut in life and tend to stay there–you could call it “inertia.” Sometimes it takes making a major change to shake things up a bit. We aren’t as stuck in specific ways of living as we usually believe. I’m glad I was inspired to take that leap of faith. Until then, I didn’t really have a clear calling in life. Now I feel that almost any possibility is open to me and to anyone who takes the initiative.

Thanks for reading! Morgan.

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