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The Ultimate Green Building Material: Dirt?

| Friday January 27th, 2012 | 11 Comments

ban-startup-friday

In a time of increasing weather-induced natural disasters, viable, affordable, durable shelter options are becoming vitally important. Additionally, as entirely new cities spring up, a greener building option is crucial to minimize use of resources and overall lifetime impact.

Dwell Earth has high aspirations for a humble building material: Dirt. Compressed Earth Bricks are an impressively simple modern interpretation of a building material that’s been perfected over the centuries by many indigenous populations. They are the ultimate locally sourced material, more energy efficient to heat and cool than wood or concrete based structures, do not offgas VOCs, and are able to provide a source of employment and pride in developing countries.

While Passive House has a common sense approach and Living Building Challenge boasts LEED besting high standards, both require a substantial investment and assistance from professionals in both the design and construction phases. This precludes them from being a valid option in developing countries, and their upfront expense will often be a deal breaker domestically, where bottom line leads most developer’s considerations.

The genius of Dwell Earth’s CEBs are the simplicity of manufacture, ease of construction, durable, remote location friendly brick building machines, and the ability to accept steel reinforcement in earthquake prone zones.

As much as these bricks lend themselves to being put to use in disaster zones by unskilled laborers, Dwell Earth sees them being put to use in a variety of settings that most green building companies wouldn’t dare suggest: toxic waste storage, mining, and military applications such as barricades. As unorthodox as this may seem, green building techniques are a great addition to these unexpected locales because they can turn out to be a source of inspiration at those sites.

One use you wouldn’t expect, given CEBs are dirt based: walls and linings for canals, dams, drains and erosion protection. Giving people the ability to better maintain water flow around them, using resources immediately available to them, is huge. This is especially so, given the increasing impact of water on people’s lives due to climate change.

The two potential downsides of CEBs as I see it are: the unintended consequence of flooding and other erosion related damage due to excessive use of dirt in area construction. Dwell Earth’s CEBs take 7 days curing to be usable as bricks, and 28 to become completely watertight.

A brief video demonstrating how Dwell Earth CEBs are made and structures built:

CEBs being put into use at a high end construction site:

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Paul Smith is a sustainable business innovator, the founder of GreenSmith Consulting, and has an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. He creates interest in, conversations about, and business for green (and greening) companies, via social media marketing.


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  • Lucas De Jong

    Just to clarify it only takes 7 days for the blocks to become water tight so they are very beneficial in disaster Zones. These structurally sound buildings would save many lives as opposed to the houses people are living in today that simple collapse when a tornado or earthquake hits. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/jen.boynton Jen Boynton

      Thanks for clarifying, we’re updating the article! 

  • http://twitter.com/JadeQueen Mary Saunders

    Do you know about Cal Earth?

    http://calearth.org/

    Bagged dirt can also be used to build quickly.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Lucas-De-Jong/67602009 Lucas De Jong

      I am curious how quickly these structures will collapse in any scale earthquake, hurricane, Tornado? no reinforcing structural components? 

  • Paige Rollison

    This is a very interesting post! I enjoyed reading it. 
    Paige @ Green Global Travel

  • David

    This article, while touching on a number of important topics, is dangerous in its reliance on generalizations, and has a tone of promoting something rather than thinking critically about and addressing any potential negatives – one of which Lucas De Jong mentions above.  It is also vague and misleading on some points.

    I’ll first offer criticism, then some suggestions for how to improve this, and other posts like this.Briefly, by paragraph number:1. A ‘new _city_’ cannot be built from CEB’s (as load-bearing), as such structures will not be able to achieve the densities needed to move toward sustainable transport/mobility/access.  To build an actual ‘city’, rather than a sprawling suburb, you’d have to do (concrete)frame/ (CEB)infill, at which point you’re better off using lightweight, highly insulative infill to reduce structural loads and their environmental impact (steel and concrete) while achieving high thermal performance.2a.’Locally sourced’ – where? not all soils are suitable; and in much of the world, agricultural soils are being used to make bricks for construction, reducing arable land.  2b. ‘More efficient to heat and cool than wood or concrete based structures’: wild assumptions here.  More efficient in what climate? Than wood/concrete structures without any other cladding or insulation?  R-values of CEB are probably marginally better than concrete, but worse than wood2c. ‘do not off-gas VOC’s': neither do most structural building products; usually VOC’s are in finishes, so largely irrelevant to the discussion of a wall material.2d. Most any job can provide employment and pride; CEB’s have no monopoly on that.3a. You’re comparing CEB’s (a building material, and by assumption a system) to building performance rating systems…apples to oranges.  You could build your ‘Passive House’ with CEB’s if you want to; and maybe have it meet LBC’s standards too.3b. What’s the bottom line on a CEB building?  They’re labor intensive, so good where labor is cheap (or under-valued) – i.e., owner/builder/occupier situations.  So why compare it to the domestic, developer-led housing markets?  again, apples to oranges…4a. ‘genius’: Apple already ruined this word.  Promotion, not objective.  ’remote location friendly’ – thanks for supporting my argument under #1, above. ’accept steel reinforcement’ – by this logic, CMU’s are ‘genius’ too, I guess.  And wood construction too, because you can add Simpson ties and the like?  Or are CEB’s genius only because they can simultaneously do all these?  Maybe it’s just a simple english / grammar ambiguity, but…5. ‘source of inspiration’ at ‘unorthodox’ sites: glad to know we’re reaching across the aisle and gaining converts in the military and toxic-waste storage industries to green building products, and eventually pacifism and eco-friendly living.  But don’t tell them that’s why CEB’s are a great addition to their project…tell them what CEB’s can actually do for them.  Then tell us.6a. Would love to know more about how they can be used in wet applications…tested for compressive strength after 400 hours submersion, not just 4.  Do you mean just lining the banks of ditches and dams?  Not structurally?6b. ‘maintain water flow around them’…to avoid stagnant pools?  But hard lined drains will reduce infiltration and increase flooding downstream, right?  And what do you mean by ‘huge’?  By ‘maintain’, do you mean control, as in sometimes restricting, while sometimes facilitating?6c. ‘given the increasing impact of water…’  pretty vague…7. ‘flooding and other erosion related damage due to excessive use of dirt in area construction’… do you mean landscapes stripped of vegetation to harvest soil for building construction?  But that would have nothing to do with quantity (‘excessive’), but rather the particular runoff management techniques used.  And flooding is not necessarily erosion-related…But as we can see from the bottom, your goal is to create business for green companies, not to put their products under a critical lens.  Perhaps why no other CEB-making machine manufacturers are mentioned?Well, by being ambiguous and leaving a lot out, you’ve succeeded in creating a conversation, I suppose…But I’d suggest being clearer about your assumptions, intentions, and biases, if you also have the goal of creating knowledge, or simply disseminating it.The article could include statements like these:[Disclosure]: “Dwell Earth, a company which I have (X) relationship with…”[Context] “CEB’s may be appropriate for low-density developments in areas lacking access (physically, financially, etc) to other building materials, with abundant suitable soil resources (characterized by (Y) range of sand/clay/silt fractions), low-cost labor, and high diurnal temperature fluctuations and/or consistent occupancies under which mass-biased construction has some advantages over lighter but more well insulated techniques.”Gotta go.  Good luck.David

    • John

      Dude, excellent points. But you need to learn to write concisely.

      • Guest

        WaoOOoO i was thinking the same thing and then i read your comment….. hehe

    • sim

      WaoOOoO…… :P
      hehe i was thinking the same thing and then i read your comment…..

  • http://twitter.com/JadeQueen Mary Saunders

    Hiya Lucas,  It took a while, but here is another link regarding Cal Earth.

    http://inhabitat.com/calearth-sustainable-building-attracts-nasa/

  • http://www.sepco-solarlighting.com/ Liz Karschner

    I’ve always loved the natural earth blocks for building homes and have even considered one day building a home using these materials. The fact that you don’t have to worry about much as far as pests, fire, etc. is great. But also using that already exists on your property is a great way to be eco-friendly and self sufficient.