Sustainable Architecture – Metal Boxes vs Earthen

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.

Thanks Steve!


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