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

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..

10 Comments

  1. Interesting reminder of home building.

    • Did some work once on a straw bale home retrofitting the plumbing. I don’t know how good of a long term option this really is. After all the little pigs. Vermin and water would be a constant challenge.

      I have an Uncle in Colorado who built a rammed earth house into a hill using tires. In a semi circle south facing glass walls. It is about 1200 square feet and heated with a tiny wood stove. He tells me the temp year round stays about 60-70 degrees without using the stove or ac. It is really nice on the inside as well. He calls it his earth ship.

      I personally like the idea of earth bags with the added bonus of being bullet proof. We have a little spot on the back of our land we have septic water and power. hopefully one day on a long enough time line we get to build this kind of cabin.

  2. Interesting article, even if not for me.
    I wish more people would consider buying these old abandoned rock farmhouses. They are prevalent in my part of Texas, and worth preserving. After all, rock is practically eternal, even if the mortar is not.

    We have restored our old farmhouse rock buildings. The first order of business is to find an honest stone mason, the older the better. Experience and a good work ethic are on your side. It’s taken us years, doing a slow, pay as you go method.

    Ours was in destitute shape, basically only the 4 walls standing. Now, it’s amazing. And, BTW, I love country people. Never a contract, all done on trust and a handshake.

    I’ve read, have a project in your retirement, it will keep you young. Amen! Aside from raising a family, this is hands down the most satisfying thing we’ve ever done. A legacy for the grands.

  3. If you’re concerned about the strength of rammed heart walls, consider this. The wall of many homes in Yorktown, VA were made of of rammed earth. The houses are still standing and you can see the cannon ball the British shot at them still suck in the walls.

  4. Antique Collector

    Morning
    There is option number 4 a earth shelter, it is a combination of earth rammed home but made with old tires, bottles, and aluminum cans. the designer was Michael Reynolds. He wrote three terrific books on this style of housing, where the tire held the dirt materials which were pounded into the tire. The part of the tire that was not covered in earth had a stucco material on the outside for easy repair an upkeep.

    This design also allowed to you have a garden inside your home for raising a vegetable garden, and the tiles along on the entrance collected the solar heat to be released during the evening hours. Designed to be a constant temperature of 68 degrees year round. There is a community of these homes in Taos NM. Most famous house is/was Dennis Weavers which was specially designed and constructed by Mr. Reynolds.

    • Antique Collector ,

      There is option number 4 a earth shelter, it is a combination of earth rammed home but made with old tires, bottles, and aluminum cans. the designer was Michael Reynolds. He wrote three terrific books on this style of housing, where the tire held the dirt materials which were pounded into the tire. The part of the tire that was not covered in earth had a stucco material on the outside for easy repair an upkeep.

      I think I have at least one of those books, since I looked at rammed earth houses 40 years ago before I was married. One thing I haven’t yet seen mentioned for rammed earth or bagged earth is to add some Portland cement to the mixture for strength. When the walls draw moisture, and they will, the cement incorporates that water into the mix and as it cures, the wall only get stronger. Portland cement is a type of hydraulic lime and is manufactured from limestone that is fired in a kiln, so it’s just another natural resource that can make these walls stronger and longer lasting.

  5. MD,
    I am still getting the message: Error: Your comment is too long. Please try to be more concise.
    Adam,
    I see you hail from Oil City, PA, back in my old stomping grounds. I’m originally from Johnstown (Cambria County) and had relatives in the oil city area. I do kind of miss the mountains from back home; but, Ohio has been my home for nearly 50 years and we’re quite happy here.

    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.

    Actually, if you are really lucky, you’ve been living on that land for a while; but, I actually don’t think luck has much to do with it, unless of course you funded it by hitting the lottery. What it takes is planning, hard work and what some would call sacrifice. In our case any small sacrifices like long drives to groceries and medical providers and for work before I retired were well worth the effort to live a lifestyle the DW & I enjoy as did all of the children.
    To be continued

    • Continued again

      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.

      I don’t understand why these materials do not mesh with a homesteader mindset. While I really appreciate my 100 year old post & beam, mortise, tenon and wooden pin constructed barns, the lifestyle is about being free to do as I please within reason. I can go out back an shoot a gun or hunt, and we can keep livestock like our chickens, horse, and goat, and can pretty much add anything or animal we want to manage. If homesteading is about your construction materials & techniques, then once you are done building, you’ll need to find a new purpose for life.
      To be Continued again

      • Continued again

        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.

        Continued destruction of our planet? What planet are you talking about. We have local quarries that have been in operation for decades and gravel and other product are often collected and reused. Most wood lots are now managed and not clear cut, meaning a continuous supply of wood for building and burning ad infinitum.

        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.

        The only problems I’ve seen with straw bale construction are the vermin (mice & bugs) and the fact that being low density organic material, it does degrade over time. On the insulation front it is great, which is the reason we use it for bedding our animals that snuggle up in it on cold nights. I once crawled into a pile of bales in the barn with only a blanket on a 25° night and was toasty; but, that is not unlike a debris hut and was pretty much what I expected.
        To be again

        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.

        When I helped build some small straw bale structures for livestock, it really didn’t take much skilled carpentry. What it did take was time to measure and cut things accurately, since correct lengths and angles always work better. One thing that we might want to add to straw bale construction would be some modern air barrier materials like DuPont Tyvek House Wrap. A 3’ X 100’ roll runs about $35.00 the last time I checked and it will help create a much tighter structure than typical waddle and daub style construction.
        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.
        Most of the house I live in now is nearly 100 years old, as are both barns, and when things are finally done, I can’t think of much in this house, except perhaps some of the plastic insulation on the wiring, that won’t biodegrade, and even the plastic will biodegrade over time, since it is intrinsically organic in nature as is nearly anything.

  6. I recently watched a mini-documentary on homes in England. The one the concentrated on was a rammed earth home. It was still functional, lived in by an older couple. The home was over one- hundred years ole.

    I have read on the subject, using modern machinery to construct. Forms were plywood, braced to withstand vibrators and compacting. Vibrators were used to get possible air pockets out and settle the soil. The mixture was a ration of sand, clay and regular soil Soil was cleaned, removing anything that might decay later and leave a pocket. The advice, compact until the dirt rang like a bell – i.e., hard as steel.