Building a House out of Dirt? Sounds Fun!

Notice: This is not an advertisement nor is it an endorsement; I’m simply sharing something my sister I did for the sake of doing so.

I’m sure this is a familiar story. You know the old, “I saw a post on social media about a workshop for building a house of earthbags or something, which reminded me about that time my sister said she wanted to build a sod house, so I suggested she do the workshop with our aunt, but she asked me to do the workshop with her instead, so I did”, thing which happens all the time, right? Well just in case you’re not familiar with this type of adventure, here are some details about how my sister and I spent a weekend hauling logs and swatting flies…

Earlier in the spring I saw an advertisement for a workshop at the Gamiing Nature Centre and, as I said, I passed it along to my sister who had at one time shown an interest in this sort of rustic housing concept. I figured it would be something fun she could peel herself away from her copyrighting for a weekend and hang out with our cool aunt or something. Little did I know she would instead invite me for a “brother sister bonding weekend”! Now, I’m not your stereotypical nerd who baulks at the idea of manual labour. On the contrary, I’ve always be an outdoorsy fellow who has no qualms getting dirty and punishing his body with real hard work. In fact, I prefer it to sitting on my arse at the computer, provided the weather is cool, the shade is plentiful, and I have something to DO (I swear, one day I’ll actually get a kayak and go kayaking!). So, we made arrangements to make the weekend happen. Real life being what it is, it wasn’t easy, but we managed to make it happen and it was a good time.

We attended the first of the two weekends (Jul 14/15 & Jul 28/29) in which the Gamiing Nature Centre was building a small structure to use as their “Forest School” house. It’s only a 10 foot by 10 foot building, but it’s situated in the heart of their property near Pigeon Lake (in Ontario, Canada), with a large outdoor seating area that surrounds a large fire pit. Mean biting flying insects aside, it’s a serene location that appears to be an ideal place to learn about Ontario’s mixed deciduous forests and other nature related topics.

It’s kind of funny that we paid to do someone else’s manual labour for a weekend, but the hosts didn’t make it feel like that and it turned out to be a nice learning and social experience. I got to use my muscles and junk! Oh, and I finally had a chance to share my expertise at digging out roots. How’s that for something, eh? 🙂

Anyhow… The event was hosted by a nice older Irish-born Canadian, Hugh, who was an interesting person to say the least. Hugh I would describe as an easy going gentleman who enjoys travelling the world by bicycle and really taking in the cultures and events he encounters along the way. In his time he has built three large structures using horse feed bags filled with dirt/soil/clay, two locally in Ontario and another in Australia. Self proclaimed avid reader, it was obvious to me that Hugh has a lot of experience working with others and being resourceful and I think that made him perfect to host this event. He pleasantly answered everyone’s questions and even took the time on Sunday afternoon to take to see both of the “hobbit house” structures he’s had a part in creating.

Along with Hugh, our construction gang included Alan and his son James, Andrea and I, Cynthia, Jennifer, Nizcoleta, and Shelley. Together we used the materials that the nature centre had available to build roughly half of the structure. Hugh advised us that the construction method using cord wood isn’t ideal, but in this case it made a lot sense given the materials we had on hand, which consisted of a large pile of softwood logs, some compost, some wood chips, some horse feed bags, and a couple of bags of concrete. The general idea here is….

  1. Clear a spot of land that is on a minor slop towards where you will put the door. Doors are best placed facing East.
  2. Measure out your 10×10 foot spot and dig out the dirt down to about a foot or two, depending on if you have 6 to 8 inches of gravel to back fill for drainage. Ideally, you’d hire a someone with a backhoe to do this step, as it’s much easier for the machine to dig through tree roots!
  3. Fill the horse feed bags with the dirt you’ve dug up and lay them around the floor to make the foundation of the walls. Ideally, you’d want to add some clay powder to help the bags retain their shape as they settle. Each bag needs to be smucked and compressed remove as many internal air pockets as possible.
  4. Continue piling the earthbags for 3 to 4 layers.
  5. Now start on the cord wood walls by cutting your logs into 16 inch sections and piling them on the earthbag walls as though you’re piling wood. Place concrete mixed with wood chips between each layer of logs. We also added some compost into the centre of the walls for insulation.
  6. And a bunch more steps that are best read about elsewhere.

Again, we were there to build a stable structure using the materials on hand, not to build the world’s most amazing earthbag home. In the end, the foundation of the building will be covered with mortar (held in place using chicken wire stapled to the earth bags) and the mortar will also be smoothed between each the logs on the inside and the outside. The roof will slope backwards towards the west and there will be three windows for light and ventilation.

Here are some pictures I took on the weekend, along with descriptions that will give you a better idea of what we were up to. The full library of images is available here and includes pictures of Hugh’s “off the grid” log cabin and the “hobbit houses” he has worked on.

Sorry that this post wasn’t as interesting or as inspired as it could have been. I’ve been putting off writing it, because I haven’t felt like writing anything, but I didn’t want to leave it too much longer, what with my ageing mind and all. There are many more interesting details and perhaps I will share them another time.

I met some nice people and we had a lot fun. Thanks for the awesome weekend everyone and best wishes to the Gamiing Nature Centre.