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House of earth...

During the dust bowl years of the 1930s, many poor people in Texas and the surrounding states lived in houses with walls made out of planks. Gaps in the wood allowed wind and dust to enter the house, and termites would slowly but surely devour the planks. It was cold in the winter, hot in the summer, and all around a miserable way to house yourself.


When singer/songwriter Woody Guthrie traveled through the Southwest, he came across houses made out of adobe block. He quickly realized that the clay-soil material for the blocks was free.  All you needed was time and a few simple tools, and you could raise some walls that would be far superior to the plank houses.


Inspired by this way of building, in 1937 he decided to write a novel about it. It tells the story of a couple living in the Texas panhandle, suffering through the dust storms. They found hope in a pamphlet they purchased for five cents from the U.S. Department of Agriculture called Adobe or sun dried brick for farm buildings (USDA Farm Bulletin #1720). 

To them an earthen house seemed too good to be true. Here is Tike, the main character in the book, explaining why a house of earth would be so great:


"Because the earth is so strong that it will stand for two hundred years. Because it has walls eighteen inches thick. Because it is warm in the winter, cool in the summer. Because it is easy to build and does not require any great skill to build it. Because it does not eat nickels and drink dollars, and because it needs no paint, because you don't have to work your heart and soul away and carry every penny into town to lay on the top of Mister Woodridge's desk. Because of this. Because of all these things. Because your house could be six rooms instead of these eighteen feet of disease. Because you could pay out the earth house in a year or two and it would belong to you. Because it would not belong to them. After all these years they are still bleeding people for rent, payments, this kind, that kind, on these rusted out, rotted down, firetrap wood skeletons."


In the book we never find out if the main characters end up with a "house of earth." Even though they had access to information through the bulletin, they still needed access to land, no small obstacle. The novel was finished in 1947 but was not published until 2013, edited by Douglas Brinkley and Johnny Depp.


Although the circumstances during the dust bowl were particularly rough, it is fair to say that to this day, billions of people have difficulty housing themselves with dignity. By this I mean a house that:

is comfortable and spacious (not palatial)
is aesthetically pleasing
is devoid of carcinogenic toxins
treads lightly on the world’s ecosystems
is easy and affordable to maintain
can be paid for within a few years


Although this may seem like an idealistic list of criteria, earthen construction can effectively address most of these issues. It is with this in mind that I share my experiences from 15 years of building with earth.

Building with earth can be considered the mother of all construction techniques. It is one of the most ancient ways of building. In Eastern Europe, earthen buildings have been excavated that date back 8,000 years. The Great Wall of China, constructed 2,000 years ago, contains 400 million cubic yards of earth in the form of adobe block. Some of the great pyramids in Egypt were built in part with earth. Until the mid-20th century, when the draw of the cities and the use of concrete and steel made it less popular, it was the dominant form of construction worldwide.
Of course, this should not be surprising. Clay-soil, the main ingredient, can be found almost anywhere, and is very easy to work with. It is also interesting to note that worldwide and over the course of history, the techniques used for building with clay-soil have remained very similar. Sure, local innovations evolve, hybrid methods are developed, and new tools and hardware become available. Still, seeing someone build with earth in Yemen, which has a 1,500 year tradition of earthen building, has an overwhelming resemblance to people in Oregon building with cob.


This handbook describes the most common ways of building with earth. I have tried to focus on describing techniques that are the easiest and most straightforward, have stood the test of time, and are applicable to all but the coldest climates. These are the techniques that I have taught in my workshops with House Alive for the past 15 years. One of my hopes is that people start considering earthen construction for more than just building new houses. It is equally applicable for remodels, renovations, outdoor structures, garden walls, fireplaces, and pizza ovens.


How to use this book? It is best to read Part One in its entirety. It gives an overview of the different techniques and explains how to find and prepare materials. Part Two contains practical, step-by-step instructions for the different techniques: cob, straw-clay plaster, block building, earthbag construction, light straw-clay, earthen plasters, earthen floors, and earthen paints.


Through building with earth and contact with the clay-soil, we are doing something that humans have done for millennia.  I cannot help but imagine that the joy my students find in this universal and timeless way of building is in part due to this connection with people all over the world today and throughout history.

So get muddy!


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