Thursday, October 27, 2005

Earthbag Dome Building

Kelly Hart of has recently completed a web page with step-by-step instructions on earthbag dome building.

Complete with clear illustrations and detailed text, this site includes almost everything you need to know to build your own earthbag dome. And, if needed, additional information is available at

A key advantage of Kelly Hart’s system over other techniques is the use of scoria as a fill material. Scoria, a lightweight volcanic aggregate, is rot proof, fireproof, flood resistant, and does not attract rodents or insects. Scoria also has an insulation value approximately that of strawbale walls (R-30), making it ideal for extremes of hot and cold climates.

These earthbag domes are ideal for earthquake-prone regions such as Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey. Domes are inherently very stable, plus these particular domes are reinforced with barbed wire and stucco mesh to withstand seismic activity.

In addition, they cost only a fraction of concrete and steel monolithic domes, and also are much more environmentally friendly and more practical for do-it-yourselfers. Unskilled workers can learn the basics in a few hours and build their own shelter with minimal hand tools.

Kelly Hart and Dr. Owen Geiger are available for consulting on earthbag building projects.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Energy-efficiency Upgrades

Houses will not perform as well as expected energy-wise if they are leaky. Heat takes the path of least resistance and will quickly be lost through air leaks. Tighter homes (with sufficient ventilation) also are more comfortable because they are less drafty.

A Habitat for Humanity home in Pueblo, Colorado was given a number of energy-efficiency upgrades to measure their cost and effectiveness.

The main lesson learned is how easy and inexpensive it is to tighten up a home (a strawbale house in this case, but the same principles apply to any home) and still achieve a significant increase in energy savings. These upgrades should pay for themselves within the first year and continue to save money for the life of the home. And, because this was done on a low-cost Habitat home demonstrates that these steps could be done on any home.

The upgrades included caulk, foam insulation, extra ceiling insulation, a hot water heater blanket, insulation for hot water pipes, and compact fluorescents for high-use areas, at a cost of just $186 (in 1999).

The 5-Star Plus rating (the highest possible rating in Colorado) by Energy Rated Homes of Colorado verified the results. An E-Star rating of 80 points is considered energy-efficient. This home scored 91 points, making it one of the most efficient in Colorado. In addition, the upgrades on this home reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 2.9 tons per year.

With skyrocketing heating costs predicted for this coming winter, readers are encouraged to read the full report:

Energy-efficiency Upgrades

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Straw-Bale Construction Basics

Straw-bale construction produces an exceptionally unique home unmatched by other building methods. Strawbale homes are safe, warm, quiet, and environmentally friendly. One of the primary benefits of building with straw bales is the lower utility costs over the life of the building. The U.S. Department of Energy in document #SD-240 states "Straw bale building technology offers the best energy performance of any of the new construction typologies being considered." This amounts to thousands of dollars in energy savings over the life of the building, which is particularly helpful to families struggling to afford a home. And, as world resources become increasingly scarce, we need to make every reasonable effort to protect our environment.

Advantages of strawbale:
• Excellent insulation (saving energy is the main advantage)
• Durable (some strawbale houses have lasted over 100 years)
• Fire resistance (once plastered, strawbale houses are more fire resistant than wood-framed houses)
• Environmentally friendly (use local resources and save our forests!)
• Owner-builder friendly (if you build small and use a relatively simple design)
• Low cost (if you build simply and do most of the work yourself, otherwise expect to pay the typical going rate for homes in your area)
• Insect and rodent resistance (once plastered)

Recommended resources:
Straw-bale Construction, by Bruce King

House of Straw – Straw-bale Construction Comes of Age

The Big Picture: Strawbale Trends and Defining "Eco-Sensible" Design, by Sigi Koko

The Last Straw

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Straw Bale Shelter Video

Thanks to the generosity of Matts Myhrman and Judy Knox, their Straw Bales for Shelter video is now available on the Geiger Research Institute website as a low-cost ($10) download.

This 10-minute how-to video shows the step-by-step process of constructing emergency straw bale shelters. Working unrehearsed with volunteers, Matts Myhrman demonstrates just how fast and easy it is to build emergency shelters out of bales.

The potential of these emergency shelters to house those in need is enormous. For example, they can provide temporary housing after natural disasters or wars, or for poverty stricken areas such as the US/Mexico border. With some additional time and effort, the shelters could be modified to become permanent straw bale homes. And unlike most other temporary shelter, straw bales create living spaces that are warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

All proceeds will be used to purchase building materials for affordable housing projects.

Free, detailed Straw Bale Emergency Shelter Plans also are available on the Geiger Research Institute website.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Forest Gardens

Sustainable communities require a sustainable source of food. A forest garden is a diverse collection of useful plants arranged in multiple layers much like a natural forest: canopy trees, smaller trees, shrubs, herbs, groundcover, root crops and climbers. Forest gardening was popularized in Britain by Robert Hart, although indigenous peoples throughout the tropics have been utilizing similar gardens for centuries.

Replicating a natural ecosystem, a forest garden is perhaps the most ecologically friendly way of gardening because it works with nature rather than against it. Once up and running, it requires almost no digging, cultivating, weeding, and sowing like that of a conventional garden. The main task is simply picking the fresh, organic, nutritious food.

Ideally all plants in the garden have multiple uses, which may include: food, medicinal uses, dyes, fibers, oils, attraction of beneficial insects, fuel, fodder, building and craft materials, creating shade or windbreaks, habitat for wildlife, and producing soil building nutrients or mulch.

With sufficient diversity and careful design, forest gardening is self-sustaining by being self-fertilizing, self-watering in large part, low maintenance, and naturally pest resistant through the use of mutually beneficial plants or guilds. In general, it is the most ecological, efficient, beautiful, and most productive per unit area of any type of agriculture.

Recommended sources:
Forest Gardening in Ohio

The Natural Farmer

Forest Gardening: Cultivating an Edible Landscape

Edible Forest Gardens

How to Make a Forest Garden