Off the Hamster Wheel: Morgan’s $5000 Earthbag House

Morgan Caraway had been interested in sustainability for a while when he ran across natural building for the first time at his local library. The Earthship book by Michael Reynolds got him dreaming of a low-cost sustainable home, and by 2007, he was also delving into strawbale, cob and yurt homes, eventually discovering earthbag construction.

In 2009, Morgan took the plunge on land in a community outside Asheville, North Carolina, building his off-grid dream home with his girlfriend for under $5000.

Digging the earthbag house foundation

The rubble trench foundation coming together, with help from a friend.

Earthbag homes are constructed by laying moist earth-filled bags in rows (like bricks). Barbed wire is placed between each row, acting as a binder and helping the wall perform as one structural unit. Once walls are complete, earth plaster is applied to create a smooth stucco-like finish. Earthbags, initially based on sandbag temporary shelters, were developed and refined by architect Nader Khalili of the Cal-Earth Institute, among others.

The versatility of the bags and their high compressive strength makes for a myriad of designs, including arches, vaults and curvilinear walls. Due to their thermally-massive composition, earthbag walls also help regulate interior temperature swings, leading to increased comfort for occupants. On top of all that, the earthbag technique is also easy to adapt for earthquake zones.

Morgan takes a look around as the house begins to take shape

Morgan takes a look around as the house begins to take shape.

“I studied and contemplated many types of natural building before going with the earthbag technique.” Morgan says. Other types considered were the “strawbale yurt” as well as cob, a building method he researched in The Hand-Sculpted House that uses clay, sand and straw. After realizing that his area was perhaps too moist for strawbales, and that cob required a more precise mixing process, he decided on earthbags for the simplicity of construction and the additional structural strength the bags provided. Morgan says that “looking back five years later, I’m glad with the choice!”

Building the earthbag house with friends

Lots of help from friends makes the natural building process more fun.
[Mary Jane and Morgan on right]

When asked why he chose a circular design, he explained “in earth building circles there is a saying: ‘round is sound.’ A round wall is structurally very stable and self-supporting and has less outside surface area so it’s more energy efficient.” He used the compass arm technique detailed in the book Earthbag Building which made the circular walls easy to construct.

The earthbag house takes shape

Almost ready for the roof. If you look closely, you can see Mary Jane flexing, as well as the compass arm used to help make the walls vertical.

“I wasn’t very experienced at all when we started. I had built a yurt which was our temporary residence while we built the earthbag [house] but that was about it.” he said. He recommends the earthbag technique for novices, explaining that he prepared by reading through Earthbag Building several times before starting the project. “If they follow the directions in the book with some care, they are almost guaranteed success.” 

Roof rafters at a slight angle, supported with one central post made out of a beautiful tree trunk.

Except for some moisture problems as the earthbags cured, he explained that everything pretty much went by the book, saying “overall the house has been very sound and our experience living here has been joyous.”

Interior earth plastering begins.

When I inquired how the home had affected his life, he explained: “We built our 450 square foot house for less than $5000 and haven’t paid a cent on rent since then. This means that our overhead is very low. Not paying rent opens up more free time and gets you off of the modern hamster wheel."

Looking towards the front door.

Earthbag house bottle wall sidelights

Front door with recycled glass bottle sidelights.

Morgan continued: "I can’t think of any negatives to this. I know that many people feel stuck these days but we are only as stuck as we believe we are—actually there are many options and ways to live.”

Mary Jane lays tile after leveling the floor

After a precise floor-leveling process, Mary Jane creates a unique tile pattern.

The finished earthbag house

The completed house. It wouldn't be long before a sun room was added onto the front.

Morgan Caraway has been interested in sustainability from a young age. His first brush with natural building was the Earthship book by Michael Reynolds at the local library. Starting in 2007 he studied strawbale, cob, yurt building, earthships and, eventually, earthbag building. In 2009 he and his better half, Mary Jane, built their off-grid earthbag house near Asheville, North Carolina. He is also an author, musician and is currently designing a video game.

Resources from this article:

Earthship: How to Build Your Own, Volume 1 *

The Hand-Sculpted House: A Practical and Philosophical Guide to Building a Cob Cottage *

Earthbag Building: The Tools, Tricks and Techniques *

*Affiliate link

Well thanks for stopping by. I personally think the earthbag technique is a fantastic way to build. It's simple, economical, and super strong. It's approachable enough that a novice builder can put together their own home with help from a few friends, who in turn get to learn the technique for their own projects. If you enjoyed this article, please share it using the buttons below. A lot of people don't know their options when it comes to homes. I'm spreading the word on Alternative Homes Today, but I can't do it without your help.

What did you think of the earthbag technique? Would you build a house like this?

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