Sharing information and promoting earthbag building
Earth-bagging a House
Last week I wrote that bamboo and earth building is good alternative to currently destructive cement-concrete-steel structures. That might have looked totally counter-intuitive to many.
After all, when it comes to making new buildings, most of us are on auto-pilot. We first put together a map and then an engineer consultant will tell us all the details of materials we need: the number of bricks, the amount of cement, the truckloads of sand and the tons of steel. It will be a rarity to see any building in most of our urban areas that is not made of brick, cement, concrete and steel. In addition, the design has become so monotonously uniform, that most of our city houses have begun to look like deformed matchboxes. We have ceased to stop and ponder if there are any other ways of making buildings.
One can only imagine how totally counter-intuitive it will be to say that you can make your house with bags filled dirt underneath your feet together with some barbed wire and plastic sacks. Yes, I am talking about making of an earthbag house! Actually, we have seen this. Bags filled with sands have been ubiquitously used in making embankments for flood control. Sandbags provided the much needed protective barrier for the police and military checkpoints that were ubiquitous during the armed conflict. They have been used for building structures since the First World War.
However, using earthbags for contemporary buildings were started by architects Nader Khalili and Illiona Outram of California Earth Art and Architecture Institute, known in short as CalEarth (www.calearth.org). CalEarth also holds the US patent for this technology, but they have provided it for free for public use. This technology was also the result of Khalili's disenchantment with the modern construction paradigm. He had worked with big construction companies designing their high-rise buildings only to realise over time that the capacity to build big had not contributed to access to decent housing for most. He began to search for alternatives in villages of Iran, his birthplace, where buildings with earth were still common during the seventies. Moreover, he saw around him earth-buildings that were over 1,000 years old. He and his colleagues set up the CalEarth in 1986 to innovate on the ancient practices of constructing structures with earth. The result had been what they termed as ‘superadobe'—commonly referred to as earthbag building.
At the core, this is ridiculously simple. Once you have the sketch of your house in place, it involves filling the bags with pre-moistened earth. The bags are then laid on the ground in a mason style running bond. Hand-tamping of these bags will be followed by laying two parallel rows of barbed wires on each row of earthbags. The barbed wire works as velcro attachments reinforcing the whole structure. These same bags that make the wall structures could also be used to make domes. With good plaster made using natural materials such as clay, straw and thatches, these houses could last almost forever, and stand high-magnitude earthquakes. In early1990s, Nader Khalili tested his earthbag structures. Under static load testing conditions simulating seismic, wind and snow loads, the tests exceeded 1991 Uniform Building Code of California by 200 percent! Let's not forget California is one of the most seismic zones on earth and it has the strictest safety codes for building in the world.
Earth structures that are more than one foot in width also provide the solid thermal mass that can absorb heat and re-radiate heat back into the living space as the mass cools. Called flywheel effect, this process ensures that the interiors of a structure is coolest when the exterior is the hottest and vice versa.
These buildings are very easy to build. Excellent manuals and other written materials are plentifully available online. Perhaps www.earthbagbuilding.com and www.calearth.org are two of the most important sources for this. With clear instructions at hand, this building can be made involving children, adults and old persons. Schools who need to build their structures could go a long way in integrating various sets of learning with the actual building of the building itself. Involving young students in making of the school building could be an excellent moment to discuss the ecological predicaments of modern building practices, the nature of soil underneath their feet, the temperatures, interiors and exteriors, among many other things. When I say this, I am fully aware that most of our schools do not use tactile experiences as one of the most important sources of learning. Parents want their kids to move away from ‘dirt.' There is parental pressure to ensure that the schools are ‘text-heavy.' You have to be extremely inventive to create teaching process that involves integrating the larger world with the words from the textbooks. Moreover, there is general disdain towards manual labour, and much bigger disdain towards work that involves touching the soil—the most primordial stuff on earth!
However, whether we like it or not we are facing perhaps the most ecologically destructive reality all around us. It is definitely about global warming and the havoc it has created all over the world. But let's also stop, breathe gently, and look around us.
On June 2 this year, over 200 people from Chapagaon and surrounding villages descended down to Lalitpur District Administration Office for a dharna. They demanded that the ‘tripper terrorism' be stopped. As Kathmandu began to see building frenzy on a scale never seen before, the stones, soil and sand from around the valley began to be highly lucrative material. Those who could mine the nearby hills became rich overnight—at huge cost to most of the villagers. The heavily laden trucks almost always led to hours of traffic jams. The less than 10-kilometre stretch between Ring road and Chapagaon would take hours to cross. Dust bellowed all around. The honking became unbearable. The erstwhile pristine air in the village began to resemble perennial smog on the Kathmandu valley.
This past week, I was stuck on a three-hour long traffic jam along the Thankot-Naubise stretch of the highway. As we snailed along, I began to count the trucks that carry building materials. The huge 35-ton trucks carrying sand from along the banks of streams and rivers of Dhading districts were the most prominent parts of the total traffic. One can imagine how many other big trucks climbing the steep windy road were carrying steel and cement. My very rough counting showed over 25 percent of the total traffic consisted of sand and concrete carrying trucks. By now we know most of the Tarai is under serious threat due to the extraction of chure stones.
Earthbag buildings could address so many of these problems. Building should not be this destructive. I know this is totally counter-intuitive in a society that has become deeply oblivious of any possibilities other than cement-concrete-steel-sand structures. But soon, most will have to move away from this destructive path. Let's not forget, the earth will always have the last laugh.
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