Sustainable Structures – Australia’s first domed earth bag house

When Kate and Scott Ryan-Taylor told their family and friends that they were going to build a house, created entirely out of bags of earth, they never even questioned it!  Determined, energetic and resourceful the couple had been considering how to afford their dream homestead, with a budget that allowed them increased quality of life.

Using sustainable materials has seen a recent surge in popularity, with the construction of hay bale, mud brick and earth bag houses cropping up all over Australia.  However, this property will be the very first dome shaped earth bag house in the whole country.

Until recently Scott and Kate were both working in excess of 70 hours per week.  They made the decision to change their lifestyle and lower their living costs, so they could reduce their hours.  Scott now works part time as a bee-keeper and Kate working full time at a local transport business.

When they got married in 2011, they began to look around for the perfect plot to build on.  Within a year they had settled in Mount Barker and in 2015 they found a picturesque spot of land with mountain views in Kendenup near Mount Barker.

The prospect of constructing a house for the first time is a little daunting so, after months of painstaking research and practice, Scott and Kate decided to try a test build on their plot of land.  Using the knowledge they had gained they built a bathroom out of earth bags and, when this proved successful, this gave them the confidence to move on to the next stage, designing and then submitting their plans for a full house.  However it took a further two years to meet all of the requirements needed to satisfy the Australian Building Code.

Kate explains that they chose the Domed Earth Bag design because in addition to being environmentally friendly, they are a fraction of the cost of a regular build and are also fire-proof, earthquake proof and have excellent insulation properties.

Once built, the interior of the house will be a constant 21-24 degrees and, in winter, a single log in the fireplace will have the capacity to heat the entire house, thanks to the insulation and a clever venting system situated above the doorframes.

For anyone who is environmentally conscious and on a tight budget you can start to see the attraction.  Especially when you realise that the rooms will be so large and airy, the main living area will extend to 6.3 metres high with a 4.2 metre high walk-in pantry in the bespoke kitchen.   Plenty of room for all of the preserves which Kate and Scott plan to make in the future.

As it is dome shaped the property will not have a roof as such, but rather the walls will extend to shape the roof, again saving money whilst maintaining the strength and integrity of the building.  Once the earth bags are laid, and the plumbing and electricity points are in place, two layers of render will make it waterproof and complete the structure.

Building a house is labour intensive, however, the Ryan-Taylor’s have created a clever initiative to gain some assistance and share the knowledge.  They offer weekly workshops on social media offering a simple trade – their knowledge and expertise in return for others time and effort.  Similar workshops are offered throughout the country by other enthusiasts, however they are often very expensive to attend, ranging from between $500 – $800 per person.  Kate and Scott passionately believe in sharing their knowledge for free, allowing people, some for the very first time, to make a house of their own a reality.

Kate tells me of the variety of people who have attended the workshops.  From young couples with small children to couples in their 60’s and 70’s, and not just locals, some travel for miles to attend.  One couple has even flown over from Geelong for the weekend to learn first hand the processes involved in building this unusual, unique property.  Kate has devised her own way of filling and setting the bags which minimises lifting and carrying, thus enabling people of all abilities to take part.  The sessions run smoothly with plenty of hands on training alongside the invaluable information on submitting plans, which specialists to consider and navigating the legalities and regulations of building an alternative structure.

Several people have contacted Scott and Kate to request copies of their building plans, which, again, they are happy to share freely.  Kate says that one of the most rewarding things has been enabling people who do not have the funds to build traditionally to develop the skills to build their own properties.  These workshops have undoubtably motivated and inspired further sustainable builds in WA.

This build is currently progressing well, they are already over 1/3 of the way through and Kate estimates that it should be completed and ready to occupy in another 8 months.  They deliberately timed the start of construction to coincide with the winter months as the increased moisture makes the earth bags easier to mould and handle.

Developing a good working relationship with their local shire council has been instrumental in moving the project forward, although there have been delays in getting the work signed off sometimes due to the specialist nature of the work.

“Once we began building it’s been amazing to see how quickly it’s going up,” Kate said, “The Shire Council have been extremely supportive. We have built an excellent relationship with them and worked well together to ensure the property will meet all rules and regulations.  They are quite excited about the build!”

The house will, of course, be solar-powered. They have their own rain water collection and they have planted three food forests which support a huge variety of herbs, vegetables, fruits and nuts to enable future sustainability.  They also have their own bee-hives.  The build is estimated to be costing around $40,000, although Kate says that they are currently coming in under budget!

With an enviable, realistic goal of being debt free houseowners in just 10 years the appeal of what they are setting out to achieve is apparent.  Their goal of being semi-retired by the time they are in their late forties/early fifties is on course.

With results like this, they may indeed be the first to build a residential property of this kind in Australia, but I very much doubt that they will be the last.

The dates for upcoming workshops are advertised on Facebook pages “Earthbag Australia” www.facebook.com/earthbagaustralia or “Hippy Farm Girl” www.facebook.com/hippfarmgirl and Kate and Scott are happy to be contacted for further information.

 

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