Steve Areen’s Earthen Dome Home
What if you could build a beautiful home that worked with nature, was built using nature, became one with it’s surroundings while still containing all of the basic amenities of any other home that you’ve ever lived in? In the country of Thailand, Steve Areen built just that in a mere 6 weeks, with the low budget of only $9,000.
“The cost for the basic structure was under $6000. It took a few more weeks to add the details, such as doors, screens, pond, upstairs structure, stonework and landscaping. All this, including furnishings, was under $3000. ..Bringing my total cost to about $9,000. Please keep in mind this is in cost-friendly Thailand.” -Steve Areen
Check out more pictures of this home at Steve Areen’s website.
So How Do I Build One?
If you are as excited to live in a beautiful sustainable home as we are, then you may want to take the time out to check out the resources below. There are people all over the world building homes just like these, and they are even kind enough to post their results and methods on the internet. In this article show you which materials are used for what and how to build the actual structure of an earthen home. The tricks in regard to how to supply electricity, water, sewage, insulating, cool air and heating will be covered in upcoming articles.
Step 1: Foundation
Building a home starts from the ground and continues upward: knowing the basic steps for building a foundation is critical to ensuring the safety and longevity of your home.
Foundations are the support structure for the entire building and must be made out of certain materials and include a simple system of drainage so they don’t fall apart; if the foundation falls apart you can say goodbye to the entire structure. The material used to build the foundation is heavily dependant on the weight of the building, pun intended, and this determines whether gravel, concrete or any other type of material should be used.
Though there aren’t many instructions for foundation building that look specific to earthen homes, there are many in-depth guides all over the web that can teach you how to build a foundation for your needs. One of the best ways to do this for a natural home is to use earthbags for foundation building, which may also be used to build up the actual walls of the building.
Step 2: Walls
Walls are built directly on top of the foundation and must somehow be ‘tied’ right into it, so they don’t slide right off of the foundation and collapse. When working to build an earthen dome home, there are many different types of building materials to choose from when building the walls. Some may opt for “normal” building materials such as concrete blocks, bricks and mortar, lumber and huge rocks bond together, but we’re also going to discuss some unique techniques that are not commonly spoken about in the modern era.
Though to some they may seem strange, the following wall types are, on average, much more fireproof, insulative and structurally sound than conventional building methods. There are many more than what is shown below, but these are some of our favorites.
Strawbale walls are typically made up of thick bales of dense straw framed within lumber supports. These bales are normally acquired from farmers at very cheap rates and once framed within a wall stand to the test of time. Straw buildings are so insulative that they may save the homeowner 75% in heat expenses when compared with conventional buildings. Strawbale.com has a lot of amazing photos and instructions to help people build their own straw bale homes. Of course, this method also brings an increased risk of fire.
Compressed Earth Blocks are bricks composed of a blend of soil types that have been put through a powerful machine press, some reaching pressures of 1000 pounds per square inch. There are many in-depth guides which cover the details of creation, soil blend, expense, engineering and much more. CEBs don’t require as much mortar to bond them together as conventional bricks, and are quite simple to bond even for the beginner: many designed, as in the picture, are even interlocking! Though there are many presses that may be bought, there are also many which are open source and widely promoted in the DIY community.
Earthbag building surpasses most building methods in terms of structural integrity, low cost and use of sustainable in resources. Similar to other earthen building methods, they are merely large bags that are filled with different types of soils and sometimes cement, lime or other bonding agents to harden the bag once filled. Earthbag buildings exceed code expectations for fire, earthquake and flood resistance, making them top notch for being protected from natural disasters. Guides for using Earthbags are prominent on the internet and there are a few websites which detail hundreds of plans.
Step 3: Mortars and Waterproofing
So you’ve decided which material type(s) you’d like to build with and realize that you’re going to need some sort of mortar to bond the layers together. Mortars are a mixture of moist elements used as an adhesive and enclosing layer in-between building materials, which hardens over time. Earthen mortars have been used for thousands of years, one of the two methods we’ll mention goes back further than the Roman empire.
You may have thought that we’ve forgotten about the ancient method of using cob. Although you may build an entire wall out of nothing but cob it is more common, and better, to use cob as a means of holding things together rather than built up as the entire wall itself. The greatest benefit of building with cob is the ability to gather raw materials from the local area to create a mortar of good consistency. The internet has many free guides available, all accessible with a simple web search.
The use of lime mortar is at least as old as the ancient Mayan civilization, which used it to cover all of their stonework in a brilliant white color. There are different types of lime mortar and each comes with their own methods of application and specific uses.
Many people question the structural integrity of earthen homes in fear that they may erode due to water and rain, but when using the following techniques this becomes a non-issue. One of the most common uses for lime in earthen home building is as a plaster for a waterproofing layer. This may also be performed in conjunction with a cob plastering.
Both cob and lime have multiple recipes for different uses, meaning that though a home may be made with all of one or a combination of material types, that the mixtures are not made with the exact same ratios of materials. More advanced methods of modern waterproofing include using multiple layers such as a sealant and a membrane layer which may then be covered in yet another earthen layer to double as an insulating layer.
Step 4: Roofing
Roofing an earthen home doesn’t have to be difficult, and doing so is similar to using modern conventional roofing except involves using local earthen materials. However, each structure must have a roof which is more specific to its building type, which is where things can become a little tricky for people. If the building structure is very strong and load bearing, such as an earthbag home, then you may apply a very heavy roof, yet if the structure is weaker, such as a strawbale home, then a lightweight roof is needed.
The method specific to building an earthen dome, however, is to slowly arch the walls toward the center of the dome until they lean upon themselves, adjoining to one another for support. The key building methods used to create earthen domes, and other earthen homes with hemispherical rooftops, are vaults and arches. This roofing method is most appealing in areas where timber is scarce, using it in conjunction with earthen building doesn’t require any timber.
It’s very important to take geometry and engineering into account when doing this, and there are calculators which may assist. In West Africa, using vaults and arches in roofing is known as woodless construction and is as simple as using the above information on walls and mortars to build the roof.
Thatching is another very old skill, and is much more difficult to apply perfectly than the other methods we have mentioned, and those we will still mention. In being as old, and as commonly used as it has been and still is, there’s a lot of information on thatching on the internet, including the many types of grasses which may be used. Harvesting the right plants may sometimes prove to be difficult, however it would not be difficult to simply grow the right plants since they are very common grasses. Thus it is best to thatch in places where these grasses grow native to the area. The benefits of a thatched roof are its effectiveness as a waterproof and insulating layer, its lightweight construction makes it great for buildings that aren’t load bearing, and it is easy to maintain and repair.
Imagine what a rooftop would look like if it was entirely covered with thriving green plants and flowers: this is what is known as a Living Roof, and they are absolutely gorgeous! Living rooftops are nothing new, ancient societies and cultures across the world have used simple dirt rooftops in the design of their homes. These ancient rooftops eventually become naturally seeded, but modern society has found multiple manners of improving on the concept and applying it to modern conventional building.
Green rooftops are normally very heavy, and most suited for strong load bearing structures, although they may be built lightweight as well. Layering is very important in the construction of a living roof on top of an earthen home, and roots, insects and water may find their way through the walls of the building and ruin the structure. Due to these problems many innovations have been thought up and there are a lot of guides on the subject. Green rooftops are much more common than people may know, and cities across the world are applying them to skyscrapers. There are even rooftop farming operations!
Vigas, or bunker fill roofs, are the most similar to modern conventional roofing: they use logs which lay upon and perpendicular to two of the walls in which a roofing layer is placed on top of them. This type of roof has been used in earthen homes for thousands years, specifically with adobe style homes in the Americas. Vigas are versatile and they can layered with just about any type of roof whether modern conventional; earthen traditional, thatching, living roofs, or even a sod roofing which will grow into a living roof. This rooftop will last for a very long time and is easy to maintain, which is why it is still very common even in the modern world.
Step 5: Floors and Interior Finishes
Now that we’ve covered everything about building an earthen home that will stand, it’s time to talk a little about the inside of your new sustainable home. As seen in Steve Areen’s pictures at the very beginning of this article, the inside of an earthen home can be very beautiful and unique! Of course, it would be simple to pour a concrete floor, perhaps layering tile on top of it, but this article is all about how to build an earthen shelter and not a concrete one. Earthen floors and earthen interior walls are rich with color and stand very well to the test of time. The information concerning cob and lime are very useful for the interior walls as well.
Earthen floors are highly versatile and can be made from a combination of many materials. Imagine using flat polished stones as tiling with cob mortar to hold it in place, as most are very smooth and highly resistant to wear and tear. As with all other elements of your earthen home, the floor may also need layering beneath it, such as a polyethylene sheet, to protect it from the moisture of the earth it. Earthen interior finishing is just as versatile as earthen flooring, but this is where a truly artistic vision can flourish and help your home stand out from others. Most earthen plaster recipes are very similar to what we’ve already mentioned throughout the article, but there are many unique alternatives. While you’re building an earthen home from the ground up, already gathering materials and mixing your own earthen products, why not make your own natural paint?
Earthen Home Design Plans
Those are the basics behind building an Earthen Dome Home from start to finish. We hope that you use this article in the pursuit of becoming more sustainable, more eco-friendly, and to share with those people who would also love to live in an earthen home. Below is a list of websites to visit which contain open source designs for earthen homes!