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PLASTERS 2 3 3 4 4 4 5 5 6 6 7 7 8 8 9 9 10 11 Earth and Lime Plasters Cement Stucco Choose Plaster for Bag Fill & Climate BUILDING WITH WEAK SOIL Improving Weak Soil BUILDING WITH RICH CLAY Building on Swelling Clay Soil Using Swelling Clay Soil in Bags Improving Rich Clay Soil Reducing Swelling STABILIZING SOILS Stabilizing to Strengthen Stabilizing to Resist Water Absorption Test When to Stabilize Selective Stabilization Notes References

Copyright 2010 Patti Stouter and This work can be used according to the following Creative Commons License:

Attribution Non-commercial 3.0



Earth buildings dont cost much money. But they require thought to build well. Raw earth is strong, but it must be kept up out of the water. It also needs to be able to dry out from occasional dampness. An earth building with a good hat (a roof overhang) and good boots (a solid water-resistant base) can last hundreds of years. Above: Good boots and hat Earthbags without a stabilizer like lime or cement must start above the flooding, rain splash, and inside spills levels. These raw earth walls can soak up water if they sit in a puddle for some hours. Start raw earth bags on top of a stone wall, bags filled with gravel, or stabilized earthbags. Earthbags may be more resistant to water damage than earth block or rammed earth. They may have more natural ventilation and better containment from poly bags that are intact under their plaster layer. The added plaster layers gives their structural units a layer of protection from water infiltration that is lacking in un-plastered earth block or rammed earth walls. But start earth-filled bag walls at least 15 cm (6 inches) above an inside floor and 20- 25 cm (8- 10 inches) or more above the ground outside. If lime or earth plasters are used, stone veneer or tile can protect the lowest meter from rain splashing back. Cool climates may need higher waterproofing where snow often sits against walls. Left: Raise raw earth walls above inside leaks and outside weather A moisture barrier (of plastic or tar) or an air gap (of thin stone) should also be used to separate any cement and raw earth, whether plaster or bag layers.

Above right: A strong earth bag of heavy clay wicked water up 3 cm in 10 minutes Right: Although it was still strong in the middle, one corner collapsed after soaking for 24 hours

Strong earthbag buildings must protect the bags from sunlight. This is especially important in places with high risk of earthquake or tsunami. Choose a plaster that works well with the soil in your bags and your climate. All soils work well with a lime or earth plaster. On some soils in some climates earthbags can have cement stucco. Right: A thick earth plaster applied by hand Middle Right: A thin earth plaster applied by machine

Many different clays can be used for earth plaster, including colorful earths. Earth plaster can very light in color, and sturdy and dust-free. It does wear if frequently wetted. Since all soils are different, using an earth plaster will require some local knowledge or some testing. The available soil may need additives, burnishing, or an added thin clay paint to make an attractive surface. Earth plaster is good for interiors in humid climates, or exterior finishing in very dry climates. With a water-repellant agent sprayed on, an earthen plaster may be suitable for exterior use. Siloxane soaks into earth plaster, allows water vapor to pass through, but keeps liquid water out.

Lime plaster resists wear and water better than earth plaster. It hardens more slowly and is less brittle than cement. Lime plaster breathes to let water vapor through, but forms a barrier to liquid water. This allows earth walls to dry out. Lime has been the standard finish for earth buildings in the Mediterranean and other regions for centuries. Right: Very fine cracking in lime plaster seals when lime wash unites with it Lime plaster expands and contracts in a similar way to raw earth. Cracks are usually small and can be easily repaired with lime wash painted on or added plaster. Lime plasters are often applied on top of an earth infill layer used to fill the cracks between bags. This reduces the amount of lime needed. Lime plaster is made of hydrated or type S lime mixed with water and then mixed with 3 times (or up to 6 or 10 times for inside plaster) as much sand. This type of plaster dries slowly, allowing reworking for up to an hour depending on temperature. It is much easier for ordinary people to work with than quick-drying gypsum plaster or cement stucco.

Lime plaster is used for exteriors in humid climates under a roof overhang or fully exposed in dry climates. It works well in high use areas that receive accidental kicks or blows, as well as kitchens and baths where humidity is higher. It can also receive a coating of water-repellant like Siloxane.

Portland cement is a stiffer material than earth or lime plasters. Because it does not expand and contract as much as raw earth materials do, it is more likely to crack. It attracts water, and doesnt dry out well. If it cracks, an entire thick layer must be added because thin mixes or thin layers of cement do not bind to each other well. Portland cement can cause problems in earth buildings because it attracts water and traps water vapor. Adobe buildings in areas with frost have decayed badly when covered with cement stucco. In some areas and over some types of bag fill cement stucco may work well on earthbags. The choice must be carefully made. Above: This cement stucco used a weak mix, and cannot be easily repaired


Region: Soil with maximum clay Fill for Firm bags Warm Humid Areas Lime or earth plaster only Warm Dry Areas Areas with Frost Wall must breathe- lime or earth plaster only Lime or earth plaster with cement stucco one side

Earth plaster (or optional: lime plaster or cement stucco)

Soil with medium clay Soil with minimum clay Cement stucco, lime or earth plaster Can make buildings moldy

Stabilized earthbags Gravel or rubble bags near ground level Angular light gravel (pumice or scoria) Loose Sand or Weak Soil Rice hulls, etc.

Cement stucco, lime or earth plaster

Semisolid fill

Cement stucco to Strong lime plaster Cement stucco to protect from protect from rain/ (optional: cement snow/ rain splashback stucco) Reinforced cement stucco or lime plaster with a strong structural mesh and cement anchors to fasten barbed wire

Loose fill

Reinforced cement Too moldy

stucco structural skin with cement anchors to fasten barbed wire Infill only- not structural

Gravel bag footings have rebar spiked through them to hold them in place. Pumice or scoria requires extra vertical rebar unless it is angular enough to settle well and not roll and is used in a non-seismic risk region. 2 Bags filled with these are not really earthbags and must be reinforced differently. 3 Barbed wire, important for tensile strength, is not held well by loose fill. Anchors are a small block of cement located occasionally between bags to keep wire from pulling out. 3


An earthbag wall more than 90 cm (3 feet) high built with weak soil or normal sand needs temporary braces as well as barbed wire and vertical reinforcement. It must be tamped, even though it wont harden up. Extra steel rebar attached on each side will strengthen earthbag walls made with loose fill. The building must be plastered inside and out with a strong layer of reinforced cement stucco.


A weak soil can become strong if you add clay to it. Try 9: 1 or 9: 2 sand: strong clay. Test different combinations with a Drop Test (see Part 1 pages 3- 4) to discover a combination that is strong enough. But a weak soil that does not contain sand is a very silty soil. It must have both clay and sand added, at least 7:1:2 (silty soil: clay: sand or gravel). Always do several tests with different mixes to find out the simplest or cheapest way to make the bags strong. Add just enough clay to make a bag hold together well. Never add the clay in lumps. It is best to dry and crush lumps of sticky clay finely to mix in. Or soak the clay until it is almost liquid and stir it in very well. Right: A bag of sandy soil with 2 cm clay lumps is still flexible after repeated tamping. The sandy fill inside never mixed with the interior clay lumps. If clay is not available, a weak soil can be stabilized. See pages 7- 8 below.


Rich clays can be hard to work and should have earth or lime plasters that allow the walls to breathe. Earthbag walls of rich clay may be more flexible until hardened. But when they firm up they are very strong. When very rich clay soils are tamped, they compress more than sandy or silty soils. This means a house of rich clay soil may need more bags and more work to complete than with a leaner soil. Clay-filled earthbags may require more pressure or longer tamping. Earthbag walls of rich clay may also be more flexible until hardened. But when they firm up they are very strong. Left: Unstabilized clay in bags can form strong arches Walls containing clay survive best if they can dry out completely between wettings. A plaster that can breathe allows walls to dry, and is best on a rich clay. In a place with frost, rich clay bag fill must be able to dry well to escape frost damage. Check the chart above on page 3. 4


Very expansive soils can swell 50% or even as much as 200%. Worldwide these soils cause more damage to buildings than any other problem. It is safest to ask an engineer exactly what to do for a specific building on your soil. To build on top of a swelling clay soil, he may tell you to pre-soak the footing area, and to make sure the foundation is entirely on the same clay. Rubble footings and/or gravel bag foundation walls may resist swelling damage better than reinforced concrete because they can flex. Some ways to prevent swelling soil damage to footings include raising the building a little higher than normal. A deeper footing with some non-expansive backfill added above the problem soil may help, since soil 1 m deep doesnt dry or get damper as much through the year. Once a building is finished, dont soak garden beds or plant trees within about 5 m (15 feet) of the house. Tree roots often dry out soil too much. The soil can be sprinkled lightly during extended droughts to prevent shrinking.


We dont know enough yet to say just how much swelling is too much for fill in earthbags. Different types of earth construction recommend using soil that will shrink from 1- 3% maximum. Adobe and CEB rely on mortar bonds that are broken by swelling. Rammed earth cannot allow cracks to disturb the way a wall holds together. But earthbag walls do not rely on bonds with mortar for strength. Earthbags can swell or shrink a little without losing strength. The bonds between barbed wire and bags may serve as built-in expansion joints. Some long-time earthbag builders think that a clay that swells up to 5% may be safe to use with a lime plaster. Expansive clays never swell because of humid air. They must be soaked with liquid water to swell. So if a building can have a good water-repellant finish and avoid plumbing leaks inside the walls, an expansive clay could be used safely. The hardest question is how to plaster it. The lowest parts of exterior walls are not well protected by roof overhangs. They also receive rain splashing from the ground and are more likely to have plaster cracked from impacts. It may be wise to stabilize the lowest meter (3 feet) of an exterior wall if it must be built with a somewhat expansible clay. Cement stucco on an expansive clay wall is probably not a good idea, even in a frost-free area. Because cement is a stiff material, a single stucco leak could trigger spreading swelling that could crack more stucco off. Architect and author Paulina Wojciechowska has built many earthbag buildings in Poland and other parts of the world using very rich clays. She has not had any problems so far. She recommends a lime plaster. First use earth with clay and straw to fill the gaps and even the wall. The second coat is thinner, with less clay and some lime. The finish coat can be standard lime plaster. We know of one builder who filled earthbags with a very expansive clay. After they dried, he attached a corrugated metal wall covering. This utility building has had no problems, and is very strong. A wall of the same clay unprotected from rain and frost also resisted decay very well. Maybe he tamped it so well that it wont swell again. 5

If working with expansive clays, any wood, metal or glass should not be set in place and attached until the building is completely dry. An expansion joint between window and door frames and the bags could help prevent cracking in the event of a temporary leak in the plaster.


A clay soil that is hard to handle or expansive can be improved by thinning the problem soil with sand, by adding aggregate like gravel, rubble, or shells, or by adding fiber to prevent swelling. Machine-powered mixers are very useful for mixing soil, but are not necessary. A tarp can also be used. Right: Two people pull a tarp back and forth to mix soil Sand can provide the coarse grains missing from a very sticky clay and make it easier to handle. Adding a quarter to an equal amount of sand to the soil can reduce the amount that a clay soil expands. Up to 50% of an earthbags fill can consist of a larger aggregate if the soil is a heavy clay that will hold the bag together. Light gravels are available in volcanic regions and can add better insulation value. They also make lighter bags that are much easier to work with.

Some expansive clays become non-expansive if they are well compacted when somewhat wet. They will still shrink while curing, but will not swell again. This type of partial mechanical stabilization would be worthwhile testing if builders can be careful to tamp all of the walls equally well. A heavy clay soil can make a very strong wall. Right: Tamping with a metal tool Fibers are also helpful to reduce swelling, but must be chosen for the climate. Straw or other natural materials mixed with very damp soil in a humid climate may start to mold before the earth can dry. Chopped straw pre-treated with lime wash and dried may be calcified enough to form a significant part of the bag fill without being vulnerable to termites or mold. Plastics or waste materials may be useful as fibers in humid areas with high levels of termite activity. 4 cm long plastic fibers or 1% by volume can reduce the expansion of a problem soil by 30%. Other fibers used to reduce cracking and expansion in rich clay soils include horse dung, human and animal hair, needles from evergreen trees, or fiber from coconuts, sisal, agave or bamboo. Adding material to rich clays takes energy. Some people loosen and dampen the soil, throw sand or soil on, and have cattle or horses trample it in. Others chop it with a hoe, spread it thinly on a tarp and crush it with their feet when it is dry. Left: Working long straw into an infill plaster layer by hand

2- 5% of a stabilizer will often reduce the amount a soil will swell. But it can also reduce the strength of some kinds of clay. For some soils, 5- 7% of a stabilizer will reduce how quickly the soil is eroded by rainfall. But it still may not be enough stabilizer to prevent earth fill soaking up water and softening over long exposure, like during a flood. Right: This bag of an expansive clay mixed with sand and wood ash (20: 2: 1) was very strong and only swelled 1.7% when wetted, but was not water-resistant.

Some chemicals or biological agents added to soils make them more rock-like. A fully stabilized soil will not absorb or give off water or vapor very well. It becomes stiff. It does not weather much, and can no longer be recycled to other forms when the building is not needed. Brown concrete made of earth with 5- 10% Portland cement or other stabilizers costs much more than soil with clay added. Because earthbag walls are wide, a lot of stabilizer is needed. If the bag fill is compatible with an unbreathable stucco covering, using a rich cement stucco with wire mesh reinforcing may cost less than completely stabilizing earthbag walls.

Some builders assume that adding Portland cement will always make earthbag walls better able to resist earthquake damage. This is probably not true. Too little lime and/ or cement actually weakens some soils. But most importantly, buildings that can flex slightly survive severe quakes with little damage. Raw earth tamped and cured in bags can still flex when vibrated. Flexible buildings dampen the vibrations of an earthquake, while stiff buildings can amplify them. Stabilizing earthbag walls may make them slightly heavier and much stiffer and more brittle. Weak soils that do not hold together must have some type of binder to strengthen them. The mixes must be carefully tested. Different stabilizers work best with different soils. If available soils are too loose, combinations of lime, cement, gypsum (Plaster of Paris), bitumen and ash can be added to them. The cheaper stabilizers like ash or bitumen may be somewhat toxic and should be handled carefully. Ash is a mild cementing agent, so waste from burning sugar cane waste or rice hulls, or fly ash from industrial waste can reduce the amount of lime or cement needed. And because earthbags are covered in plaster, any toxic materials will be encased . If bitumen is used, there may still be some outgassing of asphaltic fumes through the plaster layer into the interior. A compressive strength test can show minimum amounts of stabilizers needed for a soil. Ask local earth builders about strength tests used on earth blocks. Earthbag may not need to be quite as strong if the wall is wider. If builders are not used to doing compressive strength tests, a wood beam can be made into a lever for a simple test. A description of this test is on pages 38- 40 of an old book by Lyle Wolfskill at


A fully stabilized earthbag wall will not absorb much water. It may still be more porous than concrete, but it will not swell or soften when wet. This type of wall can resist flooding and be covered with any kind of stucco or plaster. Stabilized earth is very useful for the base of walls if the available soil is a rich clay, or the site receives snow or is flooded occasionally. Most clay soils should have some lime added before Portland cement. Twice as much lime as cement may be best for some soils. Because stabilizing soil is a chemical process based on the particular soil minerals, different tests should be made to find the cheapest way to stabilize a particular soil. Make several test bags with different amounts of stabilizers and different amounts of other additives like sand. Use the absorption test below to check sample bags made of proposed mixes for swelling.

The most accurate test for resistance to water is to place a cured block (at least 1 week old) removed from its bag on a rack in a pan. Measure the weight of the dry block of earth first. Fill the pan until the block is 6 mm (1/8 inch) deep in water. A hole at this level (or bending the lip down on one side) will keep the water level the same with water dripping slowly in. If the weather is hot and dry, cover the top of the block loosely with a piece of plastic or waxed paper to keep the top from air drying. Check the block at 5 minutes, 1 hour, 2 hours, 4 hours, 8 hours, and 24 hours. Measure how high the water level creeps up the block, and how much it weighs. If a block begins to visibly erode,it is not fully stabilized. Left: The smooth-surfaced block shown on page 7 Below left: After 15 minutes the bottom of the block is soft and eroded

To test an unstabilized soil for swelling, tap 2 small nails into the upper surface of the dry block at a certain distance apart. If the water in the pan begins to get cloudy, it is probably eroding the block. Do not disturb it. After 24 hours have passed, carefully measure the distance between the two nails to see if this modified soil swells less than it swelled without any additives.

Adding enough Portland cement and/ or lime will make a building that needs less protection from flooding or leaks. But it can also create a building that is less flexible, hotter, or more sweaty. And it will certainly create a less sustainable building. Because stabilized earth is denser than raw earth, stabilized earth buildings can hold heat longer. This makes dew condense on them in humid climates, and results in more mold growth. Raw or unstabilized earth walls and plaster discourage mold growth by preventing walls sweating. They also have been proven to even out the interior humidity highs and lows, which is very important for comfort in humid tropical regions. Earth buildings require approximately 1% of the energy input required for brick or concrete buildings. Stabilizers do not always improve earth buildings. They must be carefully chosen for the soil and building needs. Left: Proper bag fill is as important as building plumb and level A small one room building could require as much as 60 bags of Portland cement to stabilize it if the soil needs a 10% mix. About 70% of a 42 kg (94 lb) bag of pure Portland cement will be needed to reach a 5% mix for each 30 cm (one foot) length of standard wall (2.4 m / 8 high wall 38 cm/ 15 inches thick). So a single 3 x 3.6m (10 x 12 foot) room would require about 30 bags of pure Portland cement for the walls. To an NGO the cost of this much cement may not seem prohibitive. But one of the goals of appropriate development is to introduce technologies that are useful to nationals. In the developed world, a single bag of Portland cement may cost a laborer an hours work. In the developing world, a bag of cement often costs two or more days work. When income is limited, it cannot be so lightly spent. Introducing fully cement-stabilized earth buildings will limit this technology to the most prosperous people, who could afford to spend the time building (or pay laborers) and also take 4 months more to earn the money for this much cement.

At present, most engineers prefer using the traditional formulas developed for cement or masonry buildings when designing earthbag structures. Until more testing of raw earthbag buildings has been completed, composite structures may be simpler to get engineered for institutional buildings. Right: Stabilized buttresses reinforce a small school building for Leogane, Haiti An engineer can specify the stresses in a stabilized buttress with a reinforced concrete footing. If these are tied well to standard raw earthbag walls they can allow the more flexible walls between buttresses to vibrate softly between the buttresses. 9

A raw earthbag building with only selected structural elements stabilized may experience much less overall stress during a quake than a fully stabilized building. It will also result in less expense for stabilizers like Portland cement. And buildings will be less subject to mold if the majority of walls can breathe and improve interior humidity levels.

Information on how to test soils for earthbag buildings is contained in Soils for Earthbag Part 1: Testing Soil These ebooklets are part of an information series developed by the team at Check the website for the latest updates, including new test results and the best strategies to prepare earthbag buildings for seismic areas or building code requirements. We may have recent information that is not yet posted. We welcome information, comments, and help to translate how-to manuals. All my ebooks are available at Short videos demonstrating construction by Owen Geiger are also available online at This document relies heavily on the expert advice of Owen Geiger of and Kelly Hart of Many thanks as well to Nadir Khalili for beginning this technology, and numerous other earthbag builders who have shared their wisdom. Owen and I like to give free plan review or project advice to aid workers when we can. Contact Owen at or me at We may be able to point out a detail that a designer or builder new to earthbag or to reinforced straight-wall earthbag buildings would not yet know. We have several free plans available on the internet, and can help with custom plans. Aid workers can also ask for access to our private earthbag blog about building in the developing world. We may be able to refer local builders, architects, or engineers experienced with earthbag. As a building designer and landscape architect concentrating on the developing world, I try to suit buildings to the local culture and climate. I travel and work remotely from my southern NY home. I may also be able to assist with preliminary soil testing, site plans, or earthbag construction training. Above: Extra time to test and discuss soils is well spent Photos of training sessions or structures shown: Cover, middle of page 6, top page 9, and this page- Test structure by Liam Ream and the University of Cincinnati Haiti relief team built at Veterans Park in Cynthiana, Kentucky. Rotary volunteers and college interns used buckets filled by a backhoe to fill bags, which were stacked on pallets and transported as needed by tractor. Top and bottom page 6- training session with Jessa and Nate Turner at Homegrown Hideaways near Berea, Kentucky. Photos and graphics by the author except the following used by permission: Top and middle page 2 and top page 3 from Cover, middle of page 6, top page 9, and this page- from the University of Cincinnati Orange Tree Atelye.


Plasters: Cedar Rose Guelberth and Dan Chiras, The Natural Plaster Book, (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society, 2009) Lime and earth plaster formulation, testing and application, and clay paints. John Straube, Moisture Properties of Plaser and Stucco for Strawbale Buildings, undated paper available at Information about siloxane is also available at Swelling Clays: George Reeves, Sims, I., Cripps, J.C. (eds.), Clay Materials Used in Construction, (Bath, UK: Geological Society of London, 2006) 101 and 114 Compacting to stabilize Minke 24 Swelling clays dont swell with humidity Tropical Clays: Reeves 113- 118

Rich Clays: personal email to the author from Paulina Wojciechowska Plaster recommendations for rich clays Minke 40 Fibers as additives in soil Stabilizing to Strengthen: Bilge Isik, Gypsum Adobe Construction Technology, Architecture Institute of California, accessed at Gypsum and lime mixtures When to Stabilize: Minke, mentioned in Reeves 398 Low embodied energy of earth buildings Absorption Test: Lyle Wolfskill, Handbook for Building Homes of Earth (Washington, DC: Department of Housing and Urban Development and Peace Corps, 1981) 38- 39 and compressive strength test on pages 39- 40 Earth Building Standards g: ASTM E2392/E2392M 10 Standard Guide for Design of Earthen Wall Building Systems, W. Conshohocken, PA: 2010 available online at Engineers or architects may be interested in this new international earth building code. NZS 4299/1998: Earth Buildings Not Requiring Specific Design The ASTM document recommends this and its companion volumes 4297 and 4298 which deal with standards for engineering earth buildings and materials specifications. These are all available for purchase online at The New Zealand standards contain many construction details, as well as helpful charts to size and locate bracing walls appropriately for single story earth structures topped with light or heavy roofs, or with a second level of wood construction. They also contain recommendations for durability of earth or lime finish layers and extent of roof overhangs for walls exposed to different intensities of rain and wind. 11