"CONSTRUCTING EARTHBAG HOUSES
IN veracruz, MEXICO"
- AT SOLAR HAVEN 2 -
We are Jim and Mindy Phypers, creators of Solar Haven in Arizona where we built our own straw bale house and lived off the grid with solar and wind power. We live now in a small village of 600 people in the mountains of Veracruz, Mexico and working on SolarHaven2. Everywhere we go, we see unfinished houses, usually just the foundation and walls standing. Sometimes there is a roof, but the windows and doors and the plumbing and electrical work remain to be done.
The folks here build their houses in many stages as they have funds available to do it. We have never heard of anybody taking out a construction loan and building a house all at once in a relatively short period. While labor is usually plentiful, extra pesos to buy the concrete blocks are not. We have asked ourselves over and over why natural materials available almost everywhere for the taking are not used to build with. Stone is plentiful in many areas. Clay-rich soil is common as is sand and pumice gravel (called scoria) which are perfect for making an "earthbag" house.
Earthbag construction is becoming very popular in many parts of the world now.
Earthbag construction is ideally suited to the resources available in Mexico -- abundant natural materials and abundant labor. Armed with a roll of polyethylene bags from the Cal-Earth Institute in California (or common storage bags for fruit and grains) and a roll of barbed-wire,
soil is dug up, moistened, and shoveled into the bags which are stacked in layers just as bricks would be. Then the bags are tamped and a double-strand of barbed wired put on top to keep the next course stay firmly in place. Pumice gravel, if available, works well too to fill the bags. Each course of bags is tamped, and two strands of barbed- wired are laid on top. This keeps the bag layers from shifting on each other and adds tremendous stability.
Once plastered with a cement stucco, the walls become as strong and long-lasting as any kind of wall being build today. Adobe or lime plaster works just as well and is much cheaper,
The polyethylene bags are convenient but pricey and have to be imported. Less expensive "knit raschel" bags used for storing fruit work well, too. With so little cash invested in materials, a Mexican family can do most of the work themselves and have money left over to finish the house. It's a labor intensive way to build, but man-power is what Mexico has in abundance! Mexicans are hard workers and very strong. The camaraderie of a family working together with much kidding and chatting and singing is a joy to watch.
Money that a Mexican family might have used to buy concrete blocks can then be used to purchase materials for a roof and windows and doors. An earth-bag house can be round or multi-sided like a hogan. The bags can also be shaped up to form a dome roof -- again with a vast saving in not having to buy manufactured materials. The number of different shaped houses and designs possible with earth-bags is limited only by your imagination...
An earthbag dome lends itself perfectly to berming-up the sides with earth or making a "living roof". The result is a most wonderful "Hobbit-hole" like home. Bilbo would approve we are sure.
The inside of an earthbag home has a special warmth and intimacy to it...
Part of the reason is that earthbag construction lends itself so well to making arched door-ways and arched and round windows. A used car tire or rim or a barrel can be used around which to form the bags and then removed. Pioneer earthbag builder, Kelly Hart, formed his windows around bicycle rims and old wagon wheels which were left in place -- very distinctive. Glass can then be plastered in on the outside of the wall to cover the opening.
Building a dome-style earthbag house eliminates the need to buy separate and expensive roofing materials and creates a nice space for a loft for a small bed room or office. A new room is added to the house with little additional cost. With a teepee-like framework on top of the walls, it is easier to stack and support the bags to make a higher dome. The frame is very attractive half-buried/half exposed in the final plastering.
Earth-bag houses are a natural for Mexico, in fact a no-brainer, but where are they?!! Why aren't they being built? The only answer we can come up with is that Mexico is a very tradition-bound culture. Change comes slowly, if at all. The folks here only know one way to build and that is that -- buy some concrete blocks, rebar, sand, gravel, and bags of cement and lime and get going. Talking up earth-bag construction is likely to fall on deaf ears -- people in Mexico need to see an idea, not just hear about it. The only way is for us to build an earth-bag house ourselves. Being highly curious folk, our neighbors will be hanging around to see what we are up to. Hopefully, it will become obvious that a house really can be built without spending a fortune at the local building-materals place. When they go inside the house with it's two-foot thick walls and experience how much better it is insulated from either hot of cold conditions than their houses, the house will begin to sell itself. Knowing our friends, some will want to try stuffing those silly bags and stacking up a wall themselves! We hope so! We are certain that this new demonstration house will be the talk of the village. Everyone will have seen it and gone in it long before it was finished. It will be become obvious that we spent far fewer pesos building this little house and were able to finish it all at once!
Earthbag construction has caught-on in many communities around the world. It is so well suited to building large community structures such as schools, medical clinics, orphanages, or community centers. They are both less expensive to build and lend themselves to many people in the community being able to help who are not skilled construction workers. Earthbag buildings are also more sturdy than conventional buildings and provide better protection again extreme weather events and earthquakes.
This collage shows just a few of the many community earthbag projects world-wide. Others include a community center in Haiti, an orphanage in Honduras, a community center in Peru, a health clinic in the Chiapas, Mexico, a refugee center in Japan, and a hostel and school for 80 homeless children and 10 staff in Nepal. For more information and pictures, please visit http://earthbagbuilding.com/projects/projects.htm
We are hoping to be able to raise enough funds to build an earthbag demonstration house. When it is finished, it will become the new home of one of the poorest folks in our village named Diario. He lives in shack made of sticks with blankets hung over the window and door openings and is raising one son by himself.
Diario is mildly intellectually handicapped but he spends all day helping others. He travels far and wide soliciting donations door-to-door for various charities in towns throughout the region. He walks countless miles every week. Rarely can he afford to take the bus to other towns and must either walk or hitchhike. He is pictured above all dressed up to go soliciting.
Diario's shack is delightfully breezy in summer with the all the gaps between the sticks. In Winter, however, the cracks just let in the wind and cold air as do the draped windows and door openings. Diario has colds and/or bronchitis most of the Winter. We give him paracetamol and cough syrup, but they are hardly a substitute for a more substantial and warm place to live.
Diario is a simple soul with a heart of gold and a smile so big and so genuine that it warms you from head to toe. He is a very friendly fellow and just loves to chat. He keeps a watchful eye on our place and alerts us immediately if anything is out of the ordinary. A dearer or more loyal friend we could not have.
We should mention that Hurricane Karl two years ago took down concrete block houses that were poorly constructed and, in fact, removed all or part of every tin roof in our village including Diario's of course.
An earthbag dome would still have been standing and its residents dry!
There is no reason to continue building houses with expensive concrete blocks which require so much energy to produce and are so destructive to the environment -- not when there is still earth and gravel and sand to be used instead and many hands available to do the work. An earthbag house just makes sense for the needs of the people of Mexico, for the environmental needs of our planet, and of course for our dear neighbor Diario.
PLEASE NOTE: Our first fundraising campaign on indiegogo.com failed to raise the $6500 needed for this project. The $1030 we did raise, however, is being used for another very needed project in our community. We are in the process of building as many "Rocket Stoves" as possible for the townspeople to use instead of cooking their food in open fire-pits. Rocket Stoves are vastly more efficient, both in using less firewood and in producing less smoke and ashes. Deforestation is becoming a problem here! See mexico.solarhaven.org for a detailed description of this project
"THE SOLARHAVEN2 TEAM"
JIM AND MINDY PHYPERS
Long before Jim and Mindy married 31 years ago, they both loved animals and wild places, exploring and hiking. Through out their marriage they dreamed of living simply and self-sufficiently and as close to the natural world as possible. Out on four remote acres in the desert of Arizona and then in the mountains of Veracruz, Mexico they got their chance and have dedicated themselves to living sustainably and trying to guide others to do the same. At their first SolarHaven project in Arizona, they built their own straw bale house and lived off the grid with solar and wind power. Their house was heated with solar hot water circulating in the floors, and they collected rain water from the roofs of their house and big greenhouse. They ran weekend workshops in natural building techniques and renewable energy systems, had a two year live-in internship program, and were featured for four years on the "National Solar Home Tour". While health considerations dictated a move to the more temperate climate of Southern Mexico, SolarHaven 2 is underway with the same goals as before.
Amit currently lives in Mumbai, India. He will be joining us soon as our first SolarHaven2 intern. This is an un-paid, six-month volunteer position, but we provide all meals and lodging. He is very eager to get started with building the earthbag demonstration house and help us install the first components of our solar electric system. He says he has always wanted to visit Mexico and over the years has gradually taught himself to speak Spanish. He has now created a sizable web site devoted to tips on how to learn Spanish (www.alwaysspanish.com). He will be taking primary responsibility for supervising the local workers as they respond so much better to taking directions from a male, and his superior Spanish will come in mighty handy. He is hoping to take what he will learn about earthbag building back to India and become involved in a similar project there.
Rodrigo presently lives in Portland, Oregon but until recently lived in Veracruz, Mexico for 19 years and ran a free medical clinic in another small mountain town in our area. While he needs to remain in the U.S. now for medical reasons, his heart is still in Mexico. He is like a brother to Jim and is 1000% behind the goals for SolarHaven2. He is an absolutely invaluable resource for everything about the Latino culture and to help us determine the best ways to approach our neighbors with our admittedly radical ideas. Once the earthbag project is underway, he plans to visit for awhile and "start barking orders" as he put it. These will be most welcome, however, as Rodrigo has a life-time of building experience.
© 2013 by Jim and Mindy Phypers - SolarHaven2, Veracruz, Mexico