Three years of hard work and suffering to get our off-grid finca moderately liveable and we can finally start doing some of those crazy projects we dreamed of being able to do. We could have dug a small nature pond or planted a few fruit trees, but no, instead we decided to build another house!!!
Ever since I first watched this video I’ve been obsessed by the idea of earthbag building. Almost everyone who has visited or volunteered at the Freedom Farm in the last three years has watched the video and felt the wrath of my enthusiasm. There are many reasons why I like earthbag building:
- The structures are beautiful, I love the round shapes and soft curves.
- The structures are cheap. I’ve got plenty of time but very little money so I like that I can turn something like dirt into value with time.
- They are totally indestructible against earthquakes, floods, storms, bullets, and even radiation.
- It’s easy, comparatively. This is open source architecture that supposedly can be done by anyone.
- Unlike modern house building that requires tons and tons of mostly imported materials fueled by vast quantities of gasoline, earthbag building uses mostly earth and bags so it’s much kinder to the environment.
So I waited for the right moment, in-between the usual farm disasters in a moment of relative calm and said “Why don’t we try an earthbag building?” and to my surprise my partner said “alright”.
With a little help from our friends…
Clearly this was not a project we’d be able to tackle with just the two of us so whilst Nicholás started working on the plans and drawings, I started the recruiting process.
To my joy and surprise lots of people responded to my call-out and very quickly the project started to take shape.
To make sure we didn’t build an earthbag heap or an earthbag death-trap we were lucky enough to enlist the help of world renowned earthbag architect Paulina Wojciechowska, author of ‘Building with Earth: A Guide to Flexible-form Earthbag Construction’.
Special mention to Radhouene Gafsi, a self-taught master earthbag builder from Tunisia who had many zoom sessions with us all crammed onto the couch and asking him lots of questions.
Despite using significantly less materials than a regular house build we still needed to acquire a bunch of stuff, and thanks to Nicholás’ attention to detail we were able to source almost everything we needed from the small local shops and businesses. Only one thing was bought online and that was these fancy ergonomic tampers from Germany.
Aside from the gravel and sand that was delivered by truck, we were able to transport everything ourselves in our car and store it all on one regular wooden pallet.
The Freedom Farm is deep into the campo and although we have done it in the past, getting an excavator up the narrow winding paths is difficult and expensive. However, much digging is required in preparing the site for a semi-sunken earthbag house and you need a lot of dirt to fill the bags, approximately 25 cubic metres. So, with picks and shovels the crew got stuck in and after four long days we were left with a very exact and impressive hole in the ground.
I don’t think anyone really enjoyed the digging but it really bonded us as a group and I was genuinely humbled by the way everyone joined in to really finish the digging together. It was a matter of ‘mind over mud’ and we won!
Now onto the fun part!
After almost a week of digging and sweating in the sun it was time for everyone to stand around scratching their heads and figuring out how to actually build.
The strong positive relationships that were formed over shovelling started to pay off as the group quickly figured out a routine and a rhythm for forming the walls layer by layer, affectionately referred to as “fat sausages” we saw the house begin to take shape in a matter of hours. We filled the sausage with mostly clay soil from our own property and a small amount of sand mixed in. The gravel was used only for the foundation trench as a way to prevent water from getting into the walls from below.
The woody bits…
We are very lucky to have a strong community of neighbors, about ten of us live up here on this side of the mountain and regularly work together to help each other out. This was no exception and our neighbor “Other Nick”, who is a master carpenter with decades of experience, volunteered to do all the woody bits for us. He knocked up all the frames for the windows and door and handled the plans and construction of the wooden mezzanine. Other Nick also made several beer deliveries to keep the team refreshed after long days out in the sun!
Adding more layers.
The advantage to building the house into the side of a terrace is that as the structure gets higher you can remain standing on the ground as you fill the bags. That doesn’t last forever though and we all took turns at standing atop the growing structure to fill the sausage or to tamp it down.
Once the walls got to a certain height the mezzanine was fitted and so we had another safe place to stand and work. The structure is incredibly hard, you would imagine bags filled with dirt would not be very strong but the process of tamping or “ramming” the earthbags quickly turns them into solid walls and the dome shape itself is naturally very strong.
As is usually the case when you get a mixed bunch of friends/neighbors/strangers together and have them work together all day, eat all their meals together and even share accommodation, you can expect friction and personality clashes to happen. This group, however, was characterized by really good vibes, and even in those difficult moments there was always someone there to offer kindness and support. We were having a really really good time! In the morning I would wake up, do all the farm chores, cook breakfast for ten people, and genuinely look forward to seeing their sleepy faces arrive, searching for coffee and eggs. At night we would eat dinner together and despite being utterly exhausted we would sit out late looking for shooting stars and cracking bad jokes about sausages. I’ve never experienced such an instant sense of trust and community, and “grateful” is not a strong enough word to describe how I feel about the positive experience we created together.
After two weeks it was time for everyone to move on, some back to the office, some to the olive harvest that is starting to happen all over Spain.
But the earthbag house is not finished!!
Whilst most of the work has been done we still have a few layers to go to complete the dome, and after that we must cob the outside.