By Jesse Loving with Manolo Romero
My wife and I both have Masters Degrees in Psychology and have spent most of our professional lives working in the non-profit sector in California – she in homelessness services and me in mental health. We have a great passion for travel and, after birthing a daughter in 2004, decided that we would like to experience a life living abroad, hoping to better expose ourselves and our daughter to different cultures, languages, and worldviews. We traveled to Belize in 2004 and decided that we might be able to fulfill our dream of living abroad there. Belize’s proximity to the United States, the relative affordability of land (as compared to California), its linguistic and financial parallels to America, and its location in the Caribbean with its stunning biological diversity and fascinating history made Belize a very attractive and compelling place to want to relocate. Plus, the Belizeans we met and befriended were so warm, welcoming, and generous in their hospitality that we were quickly able to establish a community of friends and loved ones in which we felt very comfortable. We purchased a small plot of land in 2006 and moved there in 2009. We began the construction of our house in 2010.
In the 5 years between deciding to move to Belize and actually moving there, we had a lot of time to think about why we were actually doing it and what we were hoping to achieve. Having graduated college with degrees in Philosophy and Environmental Science, it quickly became apparent to me that moving to a rural and developing area in Belize would allow me the opportunity to practice many of the environmental values I hold but am compromised in my ability to practice in America. I decided that I wanted to create a lifestyle in Belize that was as carbon neutral as possible. We care deeply about the environment and believe that it is our responsibility to curb the tide of global warming and climate change (among other impending apocalyptic scenarios) by being conscientious producers and consumers in the world. We then focused our attention on maximizing our self-sustainability in Belize, and devised a plan to grow our own food, produce our own energy, compost all of our waste, and generate as little trash as possible. To achieve these goals, we needed to build an alternative, all-natural, low-impact, and inexpensive home that would, by its very design, help us achieve our goals of sustainability and carbon neutrality.
After a great deal of research into alternative, natural, and low impact building techniques including straw bale, earthships, and adobe, I decided that earthbag construction was the technique best suited for Belize’s climate. More on this later.
My market research suggests that earthbag construction is extremely cost effective. The average costs of building a new home in America runs anywhere from $80 to $240 US per square foot. The average costs of building a new home in Belize out of concrete block runs anywhere from $60 to $80 US per square foot. Earthbag construction will cost between $20 and $50 per square foot in Belize. An owner-builder can build a basic earthbag structure for as little as $12 US per square foot.
Obviously, any increases in size or complexity will result in increases in cost. But since earthbags are filled with dirt, construction costs can oftentimes be “dirt cheap.”
And home owners should not only think about initial costs, but should also keep in mind costs associated with a building’s maintenance over the life of the building. Earthbag buildings have very small lifetime costs. Earthbag structures are insect proof, rodent proof, rot proof, and fire proof. Dirt is inedible, does not rot, and does not burn. When mixed and stacked properly, earthbag structures become monolithic and are extremely resistant to lateral forces such as hurricane winds and subterranean forces such as earthquakes. In fact, earthbag structures far surpass California’s strict seismic building requirements and codes. Earthen buildings are also extremely durable. The oldest surviving buildings in the world are all made of earth. The life span of an earthbag building should far surpass the lifespan of a concrete or wooden building. Earth is remarkably strong.
Additionally, earthbag walls are almost 20 inches thick. The temperature inside an earthbag structure will average about 10 to 15 degrees cooler than inside those of other building methods. The passive cooling capacity of an earthbag structure cuts down on energy costs and provides a great respite from the steamy heat of Belize. I have lived in both concrete and wooden homes in Belize and the combination of such walls with a zinc roof seem to me to actually make indoor temperatures even hotter than outdoor temperatures. Earthbag structures reduce temperatures, they don’t magnify them.
In some ways, yes, more traditional building methods would have been more practical – if only because their usage is more widely practiced and their materials are more widely available. However, the environmental costs associated with concrete and lumber far far outweigh the environmental costs of building with dirt.
Concrete is a fantastic building material and has allowed us to build some incredible structures the world over. You can pour concrete into any shape and it is relatively strong. However, the embodied energy in concrete combined with our inability to reuse or recycle old and used concrete makes concrete one of the most environmentally toxic and harmful building materials in the world. The amount of resources required to produce cement, the amount of pollution and toxicity dumped into the atmosphere during the production of cement, and the sheer volume of concrete debris dumped into landfills after a concrete building is dismantled, all amounts to a massive and irrevocable environmental
catastrophe. I avoid using concrete at almost all costs.
I don’t need to pontificate on the environmental costs of building with lumber. We all know how deforestation has affected global ecosystems. In short, I use wood, but I use it sparingly.
The structure is 2300 square feet. I hope to finish the building at about $26 US per square foot. It’s just me and three local youths with the occasional subcontractor doing work that I am otherwise unqualified to do, such as electrical wiring, some carpentry, and some metal work. If somebody were to ask me to build them the exact same building, the cost per square foot would be higher, as I would need to be paid for my services, etc. Obviously, it is always cheaper to build something yourself than to hire somebody to build it for you.
I never considered making my own adobe bricks. I am familiar with the process and I know adobe works well for some people under certain circumstances. I never really considered it because I became enamoured with the simplicity of the earthbag approach and I really wanted to build round. Earthbags are flexible and so the technique lends itself to non-linear or curvi-linear designs, whereas bricks of any kind tend to be rectilinear and best suited for rectilinear buildings. That being said, earthbags can be arranged in any shape. An earthbag building does not have to be round, it can be rectilinear, triangular, or oval – the shape is limited only by the imagination. I just chose to build round because the circle is stronger than the square, there is more square footage in a circle than a square of similar volume, and I just think round spaces are more natural and beautiful.
As I mentioned earlier, earthbag structures far surpass California’s strict seismic building codes. When built on a rubble trench foundation, the monolithic walls of an earthbag structure will actually move and undulate with any seismic activity. If built properly, I am confident that an earthbag structure has a far greater capacity to withstand earth tremors than more traditional building methods because of a flexible foundation and the elasticity of the walls.