This post was sparked by a comment from Steve, one of my long-time readers. In a nutshell, he suggested that people would be much better off living in handmade homes than living in machine-made prefabs.
Like most people, modern prefab designs grab my attention. I suspect that it’s their product-like polish and our learned weakness for nifty consumer gadgets that incites us to be drawn to shiny prefab designs. So naturally when I see a shiny design concept that looks like it has potential my initial reaction is to share with my readers.
But I must completely agree with Steve on the issue of metal boxes, we deserve better. Prefab homes aren’t really all that sustainable considering that they are made from a bunch of factory-made components. I actually chortle to myself every time I run across a luxurious modern LEED-certified home on display over at Dwell and Inhabitat. I just can’t see how tons of glass, steel, and engineered lumber could possibly add up to an environmentally friendly housing solution.
To be quite honest, I think the whole LEED-certification thing is a joke. I just don’t see how these hermitically sealed high-tech boxes can be considered sustainable architecture after adding-up the impacts created by all the factories and mining operations necessary for producing the prefab parts.
Which leads me to a construction method that, in my humble opinion, blows away any new-fangled LEED-certified concoction… earthen homes.
What you see here are recent photos of a tiny earthbag home created by Owen Geiger (and team) from the Earthbag Building Blog. They also run an Earthbag YouTube Channel if you’d like to see how earthbag homes are built.
Earthbags are just one of the many ways of building a home with dirt. Here is just a sample of the benefits:
- Incredibly low building material cost
- High thermal mass regulates interior temperature
- No advanced skills required
- Easy to maintain and modify
- Incredible durability and longevity
Over the last 200,000 years (ha-ha) many different methods have also been developed for building earthen structures. Here are just a few of the most common methods.
- Earthbag – Bag filled with dirt and tamped into place.
- Adobe – Dry mud blocks stacked into walls.
- Cob – Wet mud blobs stacked into walls.
- Rammed Earth – Walls formed in place by tamping it into a reusable form.
- Compressed Earth Block – A cross between adobe and rammed earth.
- Wattle and daub – Mud filled woven lattice.
It’s estimated that over half the humans on earth live in earthen buildings, some primitive, and some posh. My personal natural home bias is toward earthen homes but if you’re considering confronting your own prefab fetish much like I am now, I think you’d come out on top by looking at the all the primitive building methods before being drawn in by a glossy high-tech prefab.
The main thing about prefab houses is the cost savings over a typical house mainly due to the time saved. None of that really has anything to do with being green. Part of the draw is that the metal and glass designs we see are just really nice, and thats where prefab does outshine ordinary construction methods since most people don’t know how to or don’t have the means to work with glass, metal, or composites / plastics.
I will say that it’s really not about the way the house is built, but with what materials it’s being built. Technology like soy based resins and organic fiber composites really need the support of people and industry to grow, and have great potential like cheap, solid panels and forms, with no real impact on the world.
Few if any people building a house with earthbags would go the route of composites, but a well designed ‘factory’ could produce these materials reliably, quickly, and inexpensively. Keyword: well designed.
I’d add underground homes to that list of earthen homes. Particularly homes built along the line of the PSP method (Mike Oehler’s $50 and Up Underground Home Book) which use the earth itself for temperature control superior even to these other wonderful earthen methods.
Given Oehler’s design methods, these homes overcome the problems so often associated with underground homes. These homes are light, airy, very inexpensive, natural (versus concrete boxes), easy to build, and create an even more natural environment at the home site than any other method with which I am familiar.
I am in the process of building just this sort of home at an estimate cost of under $5 a square foot, with the overwhelming majority of that cost coming in the form of utilities (solar power, water purification). Utilities set aside and the build cost I would guess to be about $1.50 a square foot..
Living in an earthquake zone makes me concerned that only the earth bag method seems to address this issue. I love adobe and rammed earth. Is there a sustainable way to make these work when the ground shakes?