Posts tagged: earth bag design
The finished work of Rob Ormerod’s earth bag house built on the Rhiannon Community property outside Malchingui, Ecuador.
Some people visit and work at Rhiannon expecting to stay for a few weeks, maybe a few months and then stroll on. But then there are exceptional persons like Rob Ormerod, a recent grad from the UK, who found Helen and Nicky’s openness to new projects too enticing. Now, Rob’s on his 7th (or is it 8th? :) ) month of living and working on the farm. His project: The Dungalow*.
When I first arrived on the farm, people asked the usual, “Why are you here?” I responded with my usual, “Permaculture studies and ecological architecture,” which prompted from most everyone, “Oh! Rob is building an underground house! You should talk to him.”
Perfect, I thought, because I had actually read The $50 & Up Underground House Book before coming down here. I finally found Rob amidst the party atmosphere that we had arrived to and relayed my interests. Rob’s a funny guy and at first encounter I thought he didn’t like me, but I later realized that he’s English and therefore can be snarky in that very English manner that produces confusion in people like me.
A few days went by on the farm without my being assigned the task to plaster with Rob. One day, Kenna came up from the Dungalow and said that Rob needed help with a new batch of plaster. Seizing my chance to get my hands dirty, I scampered down (yes, scampered) to the abode-in-progress and asked Rob where I could lend a hand.
Rob pointed me to the pile of mixed sand, clay and donkey poo slurry, handed me a bucket and said I could use gloves or just go nude (hand’s that is) to start filling in the gaps between the earth bags (earth from the excavated cavity packed into poly-weave rice bags purchased from Canada). I shoveled my bucket to the brim, found a bare section of wall inside and started grabbing handfuls of the cool, mellow-odored mix and began packing the gaps to bring the wall closer to level.
There is something therapeutic about working with your hands. A human touch is left with the finished product, the atmosphere isn’t clogged with loud noises from power tools and you feel as though you’re sculpting a home rather than just building it. That being said, after my first day of packing plaster my knuckles were aching from some excessive force and improper technique, not to mention the small bits of sand that wedged themselves under my fingernails.
A few days later, Rob shared his sketchbook with me and we talked about the process of designing his house. I was expecting numerous pages of thoughts and possibilities, but when he was done flipping the 4 or 6 pages, I realized that much of his process was about flow and being on the site and designing in-situ. He did have some calculations for the sod roof beam lengths and some other sketches for positioning the living spaces, but for the most part his construction has evolved while working on site.
The house is nestled into the ground on the south western section of the property. I asked how Rob chose his placement and, like Nicky and Helen, he selected it for the view which looks out over the valley carved by the Guayllabamba River. The only window with the view, though, is Rob’s bedroom which is also the only part of his house that is above ground. It has a small, dwarf door that you must crawl through to access the room. It’s small with space enough for a bed and the trap door that leads down into his dark study. From there you walk into the kitchen which has water from a nearby cistern and built in table tops for food prep. There is a fireplace just to the left as you walk to the seating area, and at your right is the front door. Rob got the old freezer door for free from a local supply shop. Outside the front door is his outdoor shower which will drain to a pond down the hill. He’s carved a semi-circle that will serve as a patio/seating/hammock area with steps leading up to ground level. He hopes to have some native climbing vines cover the walls to provide a little greenery.
Rob’s parents came to visit for about 10 days and I was given the go to continue plastering. The mix we were using was 3 parts sand, 1.5 parts earth (usually you’d use 1 part, but the earth around the property is fairly sandy so we bumped it up a bit) and 1 part donkey poo slurry. We mixed the dry goods first after sifting them through a 1/4” mesh screen, added the slurry and then added additional water slowly until we achieved a workable consistency. The sand acts as fine aggregate which is encased in clay that shrink wraps the sand particles when dry. The donkey poo enzymes help with hardening the mix and the chewed up grass in the poo acts as a bonding matrix to help add tensile strength to the plaster. (You can see a walkthrough of the process here.)
One of the coolest parts about building with natural materials is that you’re creating very little waste, both in regard to input creation and finished product. Also, when years pass, the building has a better chance at degrading gracefully back to earth (minus the poly rice bags and metals). Both Rob and I also delighted at the fact that small plants and mushrooms were growing out of his earthen walls and plaster.
In my time at the commune we managed to finish the base plaster layer and began work on the top coat plaster that covers the earth bags to achieve a semi-level finish. Due to the slick surface of the rice bags we added 1 part concrete to the above plaster mix to increase the hardness of the plaster coating. Getting it on was a bit tough. Some portions of the walls lean out which makes it very tough to get wet, slippery plaster to stick. I found that by adhering plaster to the base plaster sections first, both top and bottom, and then connecting the two over the bags with plaster seemed to hold well without much fall off. It was very satisfying to see the wall become covered in its earthen hue and with an analog appearance that we rarely see in today’s conventional homes.
I’m thankful I got a chance to help just a little bit on Rob’s Dungalow. If he does decide to build another one, I suggest he go with a less rectilinear shape and incorporate a bit more curvilinear lines to increase strength and free ourselves from the boxes that rule most of our lives. Looking forward to all your future endeavors, Rob, and hope your home can be the teenage home for Nicky and Helen’s soon-to-be-born child.
Browse all my Dungalow photos on flickr and enjoy a walkthrough of The Dungalow below:
* Or ‘Mi Caca, Su Caca’, ‘Home Shite Home’ and a couple others I’ve since forgotten that Rob’s amusing and creative father came up with when visiting.