Earthships and Earthbags Offer Sustainable Housing


SEATTLE, Washington — The U.N. has classified about 1.1 billion people, most of whom reside in developing countries, as homeless due to inadequate housing or lack of shelter. Many elements factor into the need for durable, sustainable housing in communities globally. Causes include displacement from local armed conflicts, national disasters and current inadequate housing. Other barriers like expensive materials, lack of building knowledge, overcrowded conditions and improper sanitation and security also contribute. As the need for affordable housing continues to rise, the current climate crisis demands that companies adopt sustainable, eco-friendly building technologies. Earthships and Earthbags are two innovative, ecological building strategies that have spread worldwide and garnered an increasing amount of attention.

Spotlight on Earthships

Earthships have become a unique, niche sector of the architectural community since founder Michael Reynolds first designed them in the 1970s. Reynolds recognized the growing need for eco-friendly structures making use out of trash. He created the idea of an Earthship to meet the “six human needs for a harmonious life,” which he specified as food, energy, shelter, garbage management, clean water and sewage treatment. Reynolds grounded every design aspect of the structures, or vessels as he refers to them, as congruent with the natural world as possible. Along the way, he stumbled upon affordable, self-sufficient homes.

This building technology created great controversy in the architectural world at first. It combines repurposed and natural materials like cans, bottles, adobe bricks and tires packed with dirt for insulation to form a beautiful home. These vessels operate as passive, self-sufficient beings, retaining heat from the sun to warm the house and power electricity. The roof harvests rainwater for everyday use and for watering an internal front garden, which can produce food year-round due to a greenhouse structure.

Reynolds offers different models of his Earthship depending on the level of self-sufficiency desired. To keep the Earthship movement spreading, he operates a training school. The Earthship Biotecture Academy invites interested people to learn how to build their own Earthship by helping build someone else’s. This communal work format has exploded internationally with about 3,000 already built though most of these structures are in the United States.

Earthship In Developing Countries

The durability of these structures against flooding, fires and hurricanes in addition to its affordability, autonomous living and ease of building make them especially appealing for communities that lack adequate shelters. Reynolds has taken his project to various communities in developing countries where he trains local people to build their own structures for future sustainable development. In addition to making great homes, they can function as schools, offices, public centers or virtually anything the community requires.

Reynolds has made it a priority to bring Earthships where they are most needed including post-Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico, Uruguay, Philippines, Easter Island, Malawi, Haiti, Sierra Leone, India, Honduras, Japan and Argentina. Reynolds’ building team tailors each structure to the community, altering angles and positions depending on where the sun sets. For example, Earthships in the United States usually face south to retain as much heat as possible.

Spotlight on Earthbags

Similarly to Earthships, Earthbags make use of sustainable materials to create an energy-efficient structure. People can construct it themselves easily and affordably. Earthbag homes are modeled after the century-old method of using stacked sandbags or earth for walls. After much experimentation with the material of the bag itself and what is used to fill it, Iranian architect Nader Khalili found that polypropylene bags “filled with moistened adobe soil,” stacked together and secured with barbed wire would provide the most stable structure. Khalili is usually credited with the Earthbag structure commonly used today though many variations still occur depending on what the homeowner wants. Insulation and thermal mass can vary depending on what the bags are filled with.

Earthships and Earthbags are finished off with an adobe, clay or stucco coating to give the structure a smooth and protected exterior and interior. Testing the durability of the Earthbag, the California Institute of Earth, Art and Architecture found that Earthbags could hold up against high-magnitude earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, fires and even bullets. Due to the ease of obtaining and transporting materials and the quickness of building, Earthbags have become common structures to erect as relief shelters after a disaster.

After transporting the bags, local people can use the dirt in their area to fill them up. Used in Sri Lanka, Haiti and Nepal after devastating natural disasters, Earthbag homes have saved people from immediate homelessness while also providing shelters that survive for years. In Nepal especially, Earthbags have become a popular form of building due to the country’s high pollution rates, susceptibility to flooding, heavy deforestation and recovery from damaging earthquakes.

The Future of Building

Earthships and Earthbags offer struggling families a way to improve their conditions themselves without waiting for governmental aid or policy approval. The affordability, ease and durability of these structures make them ideal for mild to demanding environments and provide security in communities that might be increasingly unstable. Amazingly, the sustainable materials involved make them compatible with the environment both in terms of building and, a long way down the line, in composting.

After committing the work and resources needed, an Earthship can address the shelter, food, water, heating and sanitation needs. Moreover, an Earthbag can be erected very quickly for emergency shelter and will endure for many years, allowing a family to make it into a  real home. A safe, stable shelter can relieve some hardship for families facing other misfortunes like poverty, sickness or local violence. Earthships and Earthbags are sustainable innovations in construction that have much to offer beyond standard brick and mortar homes.

Maria Marabito
Photo: Flickr


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