Earth Houses

I went on a field trip today to see houses made of dirt and to get an idea of how they were made. It’s not so much that I was interested in the houses, but a friend invited me, and I make a point of not turning down invitations — I never know where such an invitation could lead. And today the invitation led to a place where they teach people to make sustainable houses out of local materials, mostly dirt.

The guides claimed the houses were cheap to make, and they were, but of course, you have to buy the rolls of sandbag material to stuff the dirt into (the only purveyor of the stuff is this particular company — surprise, surprise), and if you want more than a temporary shelter, you have to add concrete to the mixture, which adds to the cost. One such house, a three-bedroom, three-bath house with an adobe look and feel, cost $138,000. That did not include land or labor costs, which would have upped the cost to more than $500,000. Unless you particularly wanted to live in a dirt house, you’d be better off buying a ready-made traditional home.

The tour was fun — I saw many interesting shapes of houses — but the lecture not so much. I get bored easily with droners and repeaters, and the speakers both droned and repeated so I kept wandering off to look at various houses and structures. Each time I returned to the lecture arena, I heard the same thing, “You can build these houses anywhere in the world.” And so I would wander off again, shaking my head. No, you can’t build these houses anywhere in the world. Maybe the low-technology is available anywhere there is dirt, but most places in the United States and in other “advanced” countries, you have to deal with zoning laws, health codes, building permits, and various other matters that make it impossible to build such a house. And of course, you can’t build an earth house in the middle of the ocean. Since 71% of the world’s surface is water, that leaves a rather small percentage of the world available for building the houses. But I’m being too picky and literal, especially since living in a non-traditional house might suit me.

My favorite structure was a dome built of straw bales with a stucco-ish finish. Mostly what interested me was the dome shape. I could live in such an airy space, as high as it is wide. I don’t have furniture, and don’t particularly like the stuff. I once had a wonderfully comfortable couch that was simply a mattress on the floor covered with a dark sheet and dozens and dozens of pillows stuffed into matching and contrasting pillowcases. Oh, the luxury! Added benefits of that couch was the ability to change the décor at whim, it could be used as a bed. That kind of non-traditional furniture would be perfect for a single-room doomed house. I don’t like hanging things on wall, so curving walls wouldn’t present a problem, either. I’d just need to make sure I had the amenities like a working kitchen and bathroom, and wi-fi capabilities.

But would I really want to live in a room that calls attention to itself? I don’t know. Though I live in clutter (a symptom of too many simultaneous projects), I prefer an austere living space where my mind can roam free, unsnagged by my surroundings. I also don’t know if I would ever want the permanence that owning such a house would suggest. Still, a domed earth house is an interesting concept, and so is being able to build one’s own house from whatever is at hand. Something to add to the stew pot I call my mind.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

2 Responses to “Earth Houses”

  1. mickeyhoffman Says:

    Your cynicism is amusing and probably justified. Those straw bale houses are said to keep out heat in summer and hold it in during winter. For some reason they don’t catch fire easily. Weird.

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