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How Archaic Local Regulations Are Killing the Future and Homes Built Like Bunkers

It’s simple.

In order to future proof our prosperity, we’re going to need to become productive locally.  Specifically, we need produce more food, energy, water, and products in our communities.  Of course, it’s your option, but if you don’t….

Unfortunately, making this production real is much more difficult to do that it should be.

Why?  Antiquated regulations and building codes that prevent the innovation required to make that possible.  How bad is it?

Take a look at this graphic (click to expand it).  It depicts all of the permits, inspections, and surveys required for building systems that capture, use, and dispose of water.


NOTE:  This excellent diagram is from ReCode Oregon, a project labor of love to help the Oregon building code to evolve into something better.  They have a donation button, but it didn’t work for me.

Now, I’m all in favor of local rules that keep people safe like many of the regulations do, but these regulations don’t just do that.  Instead, they simply prevent you from doing anything different (which ranges from brilliant to stupid).

Why does it work this way?  We live in a litigious society where people will sue the community’s building inspector if they a) buy a house with non-standard construction and then b) suffer injury due to that construction technique.

However, that can be overcome.  Rob Harris shows how in a blog post about Jeff Whitney, the building inspector in Grand County, Utah.  It details three elements for successful local innovation:

  1. A state building code that can be amended locally.   ”Section 104.11 in the Utah state building code is titled ‘Alternate Materials and Methods.’ It gives county building inspectors the latitude to approve a construction method not spelled out in the code if they have been shown data that convinces them that it is safe and reliable.”
  2. A building inspector that will listen, learn, and write-up new regulations.   ”Mr. Whitney says he is willing to listen to any proposal as long as it comes with hard data.”  He demonstrates this with initial approval of straw bale construction and his modifications of the approval based on scientific data presented by the builders.
  3. A town willing to pay the lawyers fees to defend that building inspector and an inspector willing to stand by his/her decisions.I’ve been here 24 years and never been successfully sued,’ Mr. Whitney said. “Been to court a lot, though‘ he added with a grin.

While this may seem insurmountable, it’s not.

With each successful effort at the local level, provides a set of standards that you can use as template (here’s Grand County’s rules for straw bale construction) for doing something similar in your community.   And with each repetition, it gets faster still.

 

Building with Earthbags

As long as we are on the topic of innovative buildings, let’s take a look at Earthbag construction.

A Problem:  You don’t have much money and few tools.  You have some land.   You have lots of time and a body that’s strong enough to do some manual labor.  You want a home that is built like a bunker.

A Resilient Answer:  build a Earthbag home.  It’s structurally robust and financially resilient.

The most common defensive structure in the world, since the middle ages, has been a bunker made out of sand/earth bags.

There’s a reason armies across history have used bags of dirt to build bunkers, walls, etc.  They can be built quickly and they can take lots of damage before they collapse.  Of course, there is a downside to walls made out of bags of earth:  if you don’t build them correctly, they can collapse.  Which is a potential catastrophe due to their extreme weight.

Here’s an infographic on what an Earthbag home looks like (click to enlarge).

NOTE:  You can find details on this example and much more from one of the best sites on the topic:  Earthbagbuilding.com.   I should probably do an interview with those folks.

Here’s some excellent comments from some smart, experienced, and gracious folks in our rapidly growing online community.  They are well worth reading.

Ronnie: As an Infantry Sergeant in the United States Army serving in the Berlin Brigade (prior to the wall coming down) I learned the best methods of building sand bag bunkers, which is exactly what this is minus the stucco. To get a much more sturdy structure the sandbags should always over lap each other especially at the corners (it looks like they got that right on the corners) even if some of the sandbags are only half filled to make them fit.

You would be surprised how sturdy a structure like this can be. The bunkers we built were actually inside of buildings and designed to withstand the building being struck by mortars, artillery and bombs and most of all a collapsing building. In our case the test was to try to push the walls down and I can attest that one that was built correctly was one we could not collapse.

Nick:  The barbed wire (used as a layer between the bags, acts as) rebar. If you use conventional rebar in this type of structure it will not get enough hold (the deformations are not large enough). Two strands spaced a foot apart horizontally prevent the bags from bowing laterally. As for vertical reinforcement, I’d not be comfortable with a wall over 8 feet high unless it had some vertical block or concrete columns at the corners and mid-wall with rebar. But up to 8 feet (or no more than 6x the walls thickness) should be OK.

Steve:  My friend Matthew is finishing his place; he filled long runs of Earthbags as opposed to doing them like sandbags (more economical, for one thing). This also allowed him to use curves in his walls, which are inherently stronger than straight lines.

Richard: (We are) using the same techniques to build very low-cost rainwater catchment cisterns. The walls are MASSIVE, feel incredibly stable, and I’ve seen a rather impressive video of someone driving their car into an Earthbag house: House-1, Car-0.

And like cob structures, well designed finished buildings can last many lifetimes, encourage personal touches and can easily be done without mortgages or other wage slavery. Earthbags do hold an advantage over cob in that they offer additional protection while the walls are being constructed due to the plastic bagging of each brick. And the Double stranded barbed wire “mortar” that Nick mentioned is very effective at preventing the bags from slipping/sliding on each other thereby increasing the tensile strength of the wall, which can also be increased by using more curves and round shapes.

The only drawback is the limited lifetime of the bags when exposed to sunlight, hence the reason to get & keep them covered with plaster/slip/paint as soon as possible. I would highly recommend anyone interested in building their house to fully explore this method as the materials are very inexpensive (a roll of brand new bags for a moderate sized house costs less than $500), the method is simple and straightforward, and the results are phenomenal. We even up-cycle empty feed bags from friends and neighbors (the woven polypro kind like most horse and animal grain comes in 50 lb sizes) so that our expense is even less. Plus the earth is right there, pretty much anywhere you want to build…

 

Keep moving forward friends.  Don’t let the people who have their heads in the sand slow you down.

Resiliently Yours,

 

JOHN ROBB

 

PS:    Of course, we can’t expect any help from the national government on creating templates for resilient building techniques.  Why?  This is despite the fact that they spend hundreds of billions on traditional construction programs every year, but don’t spend a dime on innovative methods.  The future we want to live in doesn’t have a lobbyist (let alone a politician that even knows what we are talking about) in Washington, Berlin, Canberra, or Ottawa.

PPS:  Unfortunately, due to family needs (medical, etc.), I’m not going to be able to go to Fiji with the Capex team.  Very sorry about the reversal here and thanks so much to the Capex team for trying to work with me on the trip.  It just wasn’t possible.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • c.

    FYI. You can build strawbale, loadbearing, in any jurisdiction in the US. The issues are getting a mortgage, and getting homeowner’s insurance, not getting a building permit.

    Any type of alternative construction is allowed. What is different is that all jurisdictions will require stamped plans. Architect and, often, structural engineer, stamps on the plans. It means an additional step in the process, one that is slowly being changed as fire testing on bale walls is being finances and proposals to change the UBC are put forth. Then once the UBC/IBC is changed it is up to your state or local jurisdiction to adopt the new codes, something that happens once in a blue moon. There are people, engineers, average joes that have been working on this for 20 years and have put forth personal money to get fire and earthquake tests done on alternative building materials.

    If you talk to the people at strawbale r us listserv or cob cottage’s work or the last straw they can point you to resources of which insurance companies have been good to alternative building owners as well as how someone managed to finance a mortgage (often credit unions are the best place for this) to make such a project go.

  • Plug Nickel Outfit

    Regarding the earthbags: to incorporate rebar – particularly at the corners – just wrap/coil the barbed wire around the rebar. One complete wrap over a running foot wouldn’t be too tedious and would add a lot to the structure.

  • Marcus Wynne

    Excellent resource on earthbag houses. Some very innovative work coming out of Haiti.

    On community codes: “Better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission.”

    YMMV.

    cheers, m The Resilient Nomad

  • Jay Baub

    The answer is not to rely on dictatorial inspectors, however “local” or wise or open-minded we hope they might be, to give construction methods a thumbs up or down. The answer is to respect our property rights to build our houses as we see fit. Building codes could still exist, but instead of being enforced violently by government, they would be voluntary arrangements between homeowners, builders, banks, insurers, developers, whoever. All these people who have incentives to build safe homes could choose among various competing codes. Or if you want to build your house without those people, no code.

    No top-down, one-size-fits-all “international” codes designed to make easier the lives of manufacturers, insurers, and tax assessors are needed. Get government out of the equation and let freedom and innovation reign.

  • andy

    “What is different is that all jurisdictions will require stamped plans”…….

    No, not really.

    There are a LOT of places that don’t even do construction inspections, much less require plans with a stamp. The entire State of Tennessee was that way (outside city areas ) until just recently. Now they do require inspections, but you still can draw up your own plans and use whatever method of building you want. In the past, all we had was an electrical inspection before they would connect power, and a health dept drawing/inspection for a septic system, if installed.

  • I first came across earthbag construction at Calearth (www.calearth.org) in Hesperia CA, which is using domes and arches to make their home. The last I heard, their structures actually exceed the approved earthquake tolererances of the state of California.

  • Besides being sturdy, earthbag homes have lots of mass. Add passive solar design into the mix and… a few winters ago it got to -20F. Our earthbag home (which is partially underground on the north and west side) never got below 50F, without any additional heating source. Also, curved walls are not only much stronger than straight walls, they’re much more fun to live in.

  • Karen Cook

    My husband and I tore down our less-than-900-square-feet house which had carpenter ant damage, dryrot, mold and a rodent problem of long standing and replaced it with manufactured housing.

    In the state of Washington, this amounts to dealing with the equivalent of four different agencies: the local health agency (we have a septic system), Labor and Industries (which covers both manufactured housing and the electrical work we needed to do) and the local county building department.

    Given our experience, I would say that your proposal isn’t feasible. Why? Because inspectors are already empowered to interpret the rules and regs, and the ones we have dealt with are angels and have been of great help.

    The problem lies in the bureaucracy, and not levels and layers and lines, but in things like information not posted on a website that is needed by the homeowner, or a confusing website where manufactured housing is lumped together with taco carts and not even listed in the site map or topic list, or an office moves and leaves no indication of where it went on the sign on the former location’s door.

    I have three letters in draft stages to write to the agencies we dealt with to delineate what I see as problems in their processes; one inspector told me straight out that no one in the office cared (there are six inspectors for all of King County, WA, and it’s the most populous county in the state, so everybody’s running ragged) but I’m going to try anyway. The rules themselves are there for a reason, and staff has been more than willing to help us, but the lack of attention to detail and the blatant ignorance of common sense in some of the process on the part of those who provide information has been draining and stressful. Simply re-writing the building code won’t solve the problem.

    • John Robb

      Great feedback Karen. Good luck!

      JR

  • c.
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