Straw Bale, Rammed Earth, and Earthbag: Three Unique Building Methods for Your Homestead
by Adam Leviness
If you’re reading this site it’s probably because you either are or dream of becoming, a homesteader. Living off your own piece of land, becoming more self-sufficient, and living a more simple lifestyle.
Maybe you have even started looking at pieces of land in the country that will be able to provide everything you and your family need. If you’re really lucky you already own that piece of land and are just waiting for the right time to move there and start your new life as a homesteader.
If that’s where you’re at then you are probably chomping at the bit to break ground on your plot of land and build your very own house. Maybe you’ve seen other homesteaders who have rolled up their sleeves and built beautiful homes from the ground up or hitched a tiny home they made to a trailer.
The problem with these homes is they are all basically made using the same materials and building techniques that almost every home in the country is made with. In the Western World, we have been making our homes from wood, screws, and maybe some bricks for hundreds of years. And, while that’s all well and good for the average person, these materials don’t really mesh well our homesteader mindset.
Unless you have a large timber field on your property or your own personal quarry in your backyard, you will have to ship in the necessary materials from somewhere else. And, the process of making these materials plays a part in the continued destruction of our planet. Forests are cleared for the wood and strip mining gets us our stones to make traditional homes.
This doesn’t exactly line up with how homesteaders tend to appreciate the land and everything it provides for us. Luckily there are ways to build a home that fall more in line with the homesteader lifestyle.
If we look around the world other cultures have been using building materials and techniques to make their homes without being as wasteful, with little carpentry know-how, and for much cheaper than what the average home in the West cost to build.
Homesteaders are starting to find that things like earthbag, rammed earth, or straw bale houses not only make it easy for anyone to design and build their own home but to build them using mainly what their piece of land provides.
These types of homes are great for homesteaders and people looking to go off-grid alike. If your property is far out in the country, away from towns or possibly even paved roads, then shipping in the materials to build a traditional style home will not only be difficult but it could be rather expensive as well.
That’s why I suggest you consider building your house using one of these techniques instead. They can be built with all the modern amenities you would find in any other home, so while you’re living off-grid, you don’t have to live in the stone age.
Each one has its own benefits as well as downsides, so it will be up to you which one serves your needs best. Whichever one you decide to build with, however, you can be happy with the fact that no matter your skill you can get your hands a little dirty and feel the pride that comes with building a house with your bare hands that your family will enjoy for years to come.
So, let’s get right to it so you can figure out which one is best for you.
Straw Bale House
I’m starting with the straw bale house because of the three it is closest to the traditional home design we are all so familiar with. If you don’t want to stray too far off the beaten path then this is probably the best option for you.
Straw bale houses look a lot like a traditional home, but as the name implies the walls are made of bales of hay or straw and then generally covered with plaster. The frame, roof, and foundation are all made using traditional techniques.
Now, I know what you’re probably thinking; wouldn’t a straw bale home be a huge fire risk? As it turns out these types of homes are actually less vulnerable to fire than a house made out of wood. Because the bales are so compact a flame has a hard time catching and is more likely to fizzle out resulting in nothing more than a few embers.
In fact, what you need to worry about with a straw bale house is moisture. Water damage to a straw bales house can do more harm than it would to a normal wooden house. But, if you are planning on building a house in a dry, arid region then it could be the perfect option for your new home.
And, while the water damage is a potential problem there are far more benefits to using straw to build your house. For one straw is amazing at insulating a home, which means your heating and cooling bills will be much cheaper. If you are going off-grid and planning on getting energy from solar panels or wind turbines than straw bale walls can go a long way in cutting down your energy use.
They are also pretty simple to build. A basic knowledge of building techniques and a little help from a skilled carpenter to guide you through the harder parts of the job is all it takes to build your very own straw bale house. But, in all fairness, they do take more skill than the other homes listed here.
With proper upkeep and maintenance, a straw bale house can stand for over a hundred years. But, if and when you are done using your home the materials are biodegradable and will be taken right back by the earth it came from.
Rammed Earth Homes
Rammed earth construction has been used for building for thousands of years. It is one of the oldest building techniques known to man, and it was in fact used to build part of the Great Wall of China.
Planks, which can just be a couple pieces of plywood, are set up to serve as a guide of sorts for your wall. Then a small layer of a dirt, clay, and gravel mixture is then poured in between the planks, and using simple tools or machinery the mixture is pressed and compressed as tight as you can get it. You simply repeat this process until you have finished your wall.
While it can be a laborious task without modern machinery, with time and patience anyone can make their own house using this method with almost no carpentry skill whatsoever.
Rammed earth houses also have the benefit of looking a lot like a traditional home. While the walls are made of dirt and sand you still have the type of square rooms we’re so familiar with but with a more aesthetically pleasing look of wavy sand layers.
The list of benefits doesn’t end there, however. Rammed earth homes have noise reducing properties, they are fireproof, pest proof, durable, keep your house at a tolerable temperature year round, and are environmentally friendly.
The one big downside to rammed earth is that it is somewhat susceptible to water damage. This doesn’t mean that after one rainfall your new home will turn into a sloppy, muddy mess. But, it does mean they are best used in drier climates. However, with a little upkeep, they can be built in any place that doesn’t get an unusual amount of rainfall each year. In fact, for being made of basically dirt it holds up well enough to rain that buildings have been made using rammed earth in places like Australia, France, and even South Carolina. Taking some simple waterproofing measures with your walls can ease your concerns about water damage.
Earthbag homes are very similar to rammed earth and have many of the same benefits. And, they might be even easier to make for a first time home builder.
While the dirt in a rammed earth home is exposed, in an earthbag home that dirt is kept inside of sandbags before being used to build the walls of your home.
The first step to building an earthbag home is to level and ram down a large, circular layer of land that will be used as your foundation, no concrete needed. The filled sandbags are then laid in a circle end to end overlapping at the openings. Once you have your first layer of sandbags laid in a circle you then place a length of barbed wire on top of them that will be used to help hold all of your bags in place. Then continue the process until you have a dome-shaped room to your desired size. Finally, plaster is used to coat the entire structure inside and out.
This method of building is easy enough that one person could build their entire home even without any knowledge of carpentry.
While it is possible to make just about any shape house using earthbag, most people that design them have found that a domed shaped earthbag house is the best way to go. That’s because a dome shape will make your house earthquake proof on top of all the other benefits.
Those benefits include being soundproof, fireproof, bulletproof, and flood proof, and environmentally friendly. But, the best advantage to having an earthbag home is that they can cost as little as $5 per square foot to build.
As homesteaders and people willing to live off-grid we do things a little differently than everybody else, so why would you want to live in a house that’s the same as everybody else?
These unconventional building techniques let anybody build their own dream homes mostly using materials the land provides, in an extremely affordable manner.
Your home is where you build your life from, using these methods for building yours you can make it as comfortable and as personal as you like. And, since all three are extremely energy-efficient they will get you one step closer to living the type of self-sustaining life every homesteader dreams of..