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Easiest method for bermed house?

 
Sarah Yao
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I cross-posted this to get different opinions.

I plan on building a bermed house, mostly by myself (female) with some help from my young child. I'd like opinions as to what would be easiest to handle by myself. I can handle 50 lb bags of feed, but would currently be hard-pressed to go much beyond that or to handle that much for very long. I'm working on fixing that.

I own a pretty flat property in rural VA. I am open to looking at areas nearby, such as eastern WV. I read that rural WV does not have code requirements. Obviously I want to build safely (who wants to get buried alive?), but I'd like to keep permitting expenses down.

All suggestions appreciated!
 
Burra Maluca
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Sarah Yao wrote:I cross-posted this to get different opinions.



Please don't cross-post. If a post needs to show up in more than one forum, hit the report button and ask us to add it to another forum. That way all the replies will be in the same place and the recent topics page doesn't look so much like it's been taken over by spam.
 
Sarah Yao
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Where should I put this then? I put it originally in natural building, but then thought I might get better feedback in either the earthships or earth bag forums due to people having experience, people who might not go to the natural building forum. I don't want to spam, I just didn't know where would be my best chances!
 
Miles Flansburg
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Hello Sarah, the stewards have put it in the earthship and earth bag forums for you.
 
Burra Maluca
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And I also added it to natural building and earth-berm. That should cover most of them!
 
Jack Edmondson
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edit: Since this ended up in the earthship section the below is not really applicable. Rice Hulls would not be suitable for a bermed structure, I believe.

Sarah,

Have you explored the idea of rice hulls as a fill material for your bags rather than soil/gravel? A full bag of hulls will be a small fraction of the weight of anything else. Once you get to the upper courses, whether you fill and lift or fill in place, you will appreciate the difference, especially working primarily by one's self.

If you don't go with a lighter fill, please spend the money to invest in some sturdy scaffolding (<$1000) to give yourself a solid safe work platform to work on the upper courses. One does not want to be buried alive or have one's child have to be a first responder to a broken back or neck. Falling off a wall can be bad juju. The money is worth it.
 
Sarah Yao
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Jack Edmondson wrote:edit: Since this ended up in the earthship section the below is not really applicable. Rice Hulls would not be suitable for a bermed structure, I believe.

Sarah,

Have you explored the idea of rice hulls as a fill material for your bags rather than soil/gravel? A full bag of hulls will be a small fraction of the weight of anything else. Once you get to the upper courses, whether you fill and lift or fill in place, you will appreciate the difference, especially working primarily by one's self.

If you don't go with a lighter fill, please spend the money to invest in some sturdy scaffolding (<$1000) to give yourself a solid safe work platform to work on the upper courses. One does not want to be buried alive or have one's child have to be a first responder to a broken back or neck. Falling off a wall can be bad juju. The money is worth it.


Would I be able to berm the rice hulls? I can't imagine that they'd be able to support much earth on them. Would they have to be reinforced somehow?

At what height would you start rice hulls? Just rice hulls or mixed with something? Where would you get rice hulls?
 
Jack Edmondson
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If you are below grade or have berm-ed earth against the bags, it would not be safe. There is not enough mass to counter the weight of berm-ed earth. Hulls work well in above grade applications where there is need for insulation. But they are low mass so do not stand well against lateral loads.

Rice Hulls in woven poly bags can be built (above grade) from ground level up to any height earthbags would be done. They are not mixed with anything. Just packed tight and tamped/squared. There are rice dryers in states east of the Mississippi. The material is inexpensive. You will likely pay more to truck it than to purchase the material. Search for rice dryers/processors close to your area. Cargill has operations in Memphis. There are several in western AR.





Hulls do not need to be amended with anything. They can be embedded in clay to make adobe blocks. However, bag fill is the most practical application.
 
Terry Ruth
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Sarah, where are you planning to build in Vermont or West Virginia USA? The first thing you need to figure out is what building codes and/or zoning requirements if any apply. Why Earth Berm?
 
Sarah Yao
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That's either Virginia, where I currently own property, or West Virginia. The entire state of Virginia requires permits for anything over 200 sq ft. From what I read, the rural areas of West Virginia do not require permits (though I would still want to build up to code). My concerns with using my current property in VA are both that it might get prohibitively expensive to get permits and that my land is almost all flat. The only hill is a steep up-slope at the southern edge of the property. I am limited as to where I can put a house by power lines (not the big steel dudes) and a pond. I'm also worried about not having anything to live in if I have to get rid of my current double-wide in order to build where the double-wide sits.

I want to do bermed, not only for the energy savings, but also for protection against disasters--tornados, straight-line winds, zombies. p-)' You know, the usual.
 
Sarah Yao
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Jack Edmondson wrote:If you are below grade or have berm-ed earth against the bags, it would not be safe. There is not enough mass to counter the weight of berm-ed earth. Hulls work well in above grade applications where there is need for insulation. But they are low mass so do not stand well against lateral loads.

Rice Hulls in woven poly bags can be built (above grade) from ground level up to any height earthbags would be done. They are not mixed with anything. Just packed tight and tamped/squared. There are rice dryers in states east of the Mississippi. The material is inexpensive. You will likely pay more to truck it than to purchase the material. Search for rice dryers/processors close to your area. Cargill has operations in Memphis. There are several in western AR.





Hulls do not need to be amended with anything. They can be embedded in clay to make adobe blocks. However, bag fill is the most practical application.


Thanks for that info! I had not thought about rice hulls. I wonder how strong/stable they would be in strong winds?
 
Jack Edmondson
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Sarah,

The cumulative weight of the bags and roof make a stable wall. I don't know of any wind load testing that has been done, though. If you are concerned about storm events, one can 'stake' the bags with Rebar embedded in the foundation through the bags for added lateral stability.
 
Terry Ruth
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https://law.resource.org/pub/us/code/safety.html

Looks like VA/WV are in 2009 IRC which they could be adopting new codes this time of year, like we are 2012 starting June. VA is also enforcing an energy code IECC 2009 making it more difficult, WV is not. You are not going to find earth construction codes in 2009 IRC or what is called a "prescriptive path" that leaves you having to satisfy the permit by hiring a Professional Structures Engineer (analytical path) that will give your local inspectors drawings to inspect to, not code. You also want to make sure your land is zoned for single or muti-family use, not agricultural or commercial or something else with your zoning department, set backs, easements, roads, etc.

Earth berm takes alot of knowledge to design right and is not the only "energy efficient, high wind resistant, etc, " designing....strawbales only weigh around 35 lbs, along with plaster that is easy.....they are in 2015 IRC appendix R if you can get your building and safety dept to let you use it, or back to the PE. New Mexico has alot of earth construction codes they use that are independent of IRC you might be able to talk them into as a prescriptive path. I know Rammed Earth, CEB, and adobe are in it, not sure about berms.

A PE plus permits can get expensive, so perhaps a method that is less costly and more recognized may be better for you. That way if you do need help you can easily find the trades that understand the laws of the land.

Or get to an area that requires no permits and build what you want, but you may want to still check zoning. FEMA has flood plane maps you may want to check out. I was just helping a guy with earth berms who walls wont stop sweating because he put to many vapor barriers in. All builds have pros and cons you just have to know what they are.

NM code: http://164.64.110.239/nmregister/xii21/14.11.11NMAC.htm
 
Sarah Yao
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Am I understanding you correctly in that straw bales are already approved per current code, if VA will use that code? If so, I had an idea!

I would like to do the house (rectangle) and then build an attached chicken coop and barn in an L shape around the west and north sides so that I don't really have to go outside to tend to the chickens and goats. Maybe I could straw bale or rice hull the house and then only use earth bags (or concrete blocks?) around that L. Berm the west and north sides along the earth bag or concrete block L, and use metal roofing over the entirety to catch rainwater.

I don't know if it would matter, but we are zoned agricultural. Most of my county is.

As an aside, could you use hay instead of straw? The only person I know who raises straw is the guy I get my hay from. He and his brother really only grow enough straw for their personal horses and any extra they had this year (he said maybe 6-8 bales) were at $5/bale. Hay is more plentiful and a little cheaper here--maybe $4-$4.50/bale.
 
Jack Edmondson
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Sarah,

I don't know much about straw bale; but I do know you can not substitute hay. Hay is 'greener' than straw. It has more organic matter and moisture. The hay will break down over time and lose volume and eventually return to soil. Straw is much more stable over a longer period. Also hay is 'wetter' than straw and will cause moisture/mold issues inside your walls. Straw has a very very low moisture content.

If you build with straw you will likely have to truck it in from a grower that specializes in high compression bales; or have someone custom bale the straw. The bales have to be around 900 to 1000 psi to make good building material. I have read the 'normal' baling pressure of straw bales is in the 400 psi range. Again, this is just from reading a few years back.
 
Terry Ruth
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http://www.ecobuildnetwork.org/images/PDFfiles/AppendixS_SBConstruction_2015IRC.pdf

Opps, looks like I forgot to attach a draft of the bale code. Yes it is 2015 IRC Appendix R in the final draft I believe, S has clay-slip. If your AHJ (Authority Having Jurisdiction) is nice often times they are just looking for anything (code, test, history) that assures your safety. Code takes the guessing out of the equation. You won't be able to get creative again unless you convince a PE to wrap bales with earth or CMU,s, etc at your expense.....If you are in an energy code too or IECC you have to comply with r-values, vapor barriers this code does not allow much of, which is good, etc....In code you will also find structural and non-structural design criteria, types of straw allowed, bale density and cement content of renders for structural loading, fire rating's or how to construct a 1-2 hour burn wall the AHJ will tell you this requirement depending on zoning, moisture content (green won't pass), etc....Cereal straw is an example of straw that is not allowed due to lower tensile strength and silica content, only if the AHJ approves it. Hay I'm not sure of that will be up to the AHJ. I agree with Jack you do not want anything green or microphobes will grow.

You may be able to purchase the appendix at ICC or if your AHJ has the book ask for a copy: http://www.iccsafe.org/Pages/default.aspx?usertoken={token}&Site=icc

We pay about $3-5/bale depending on quantity. To pass the 20% moisture requirement you will need a bale meter to show to the AHJ. Otherwise look at New Mexico, AZ, CA, for earth codes. The first thing to do is to open a dialog with the AHJ.

You may want to check with zoning code, there should be a document that describes if single family dwellings are allowed on agriculture. I am sure there are different types of agriculture some that are strictly agriculture regs, no homes allowed on some to preserve farm land. You can get it amended but it may be a long battle.
 
Sarah Yao
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Terry Ruth wrote:https://law.resource.org/pub/us/code/safety.html

Looks like VA/WV are in 2009 IRC which they could be adopting new codes this time of year, like we are 2012 starting June. VA is also enforcing an energy code IECC 2009 making it more difficult, WV is not. You are not going to find earth construction codes in 2009 IRC or what is called a "prescriptive path" that leaves you having to satisfy the permit by hiring a Professional Structures Engineer (analytical path) that will give your local inspectors drawings to inspect to, not code. You also want to make sure your land is zoned for single or muti-family use, not agricultural or commercial or something else with your zoning department, set backs, easements, roads, etc.

Earth berm takes alot of knowledge to design right and is not the only "energy efficient, high wind resistant, etc, " designing....strawbales only weigh around 35 lbs, along with plaster that is easy.....they are in 2015 IRC appendix R if you can get your building and safety dept to let you use it, or back to the PE. New Mexico has alot of earth construction codes they use that are independent of IRC you might be able to talk them into as a prescriptive path. I know Rammed Earth, CEB, and adobe are in it, not sure about berms.

A PE plus permits can get expensive, so perhaps a method that is less costly and more recognized may be better for you. That way if you do need help you can easily find the trades that understand the laws of the land.

Or get to an area that requires no permits and build what you want, but you may want to still check zoning. FEMA has flood plane maps you may want to check out. I was just helping a guy with earth berms who walls wont stop sweating because he put to many vapor barriers in. All builds have pros and cons you just have to know what they are.

NM code: http://164.64.110.239/nmregister/xii21/14.11.11NMAC.htm


I have left a message for our county Building Official to call me back so that I can find out from him what kind of alternative building materials would be acceptable.

I went to the link you provided, but can't tell from looking at the IRC2009 if it applies in rural areas ("rural" returns no results). I guess I have to call the county that I'm considering to find out if they enforce it or the local permitting laws?

That said, does it sound like it would work to build with lighter material, like rice hulls, for the main house and then build the west & north walls with earthbags so that I can berm up to them and use metal roofing over the house and the space between the house and the retaining wall? I have some other books on order with amazon so I will hopefully know more about the process soon.

I appreciate the opinions given here since I don't have the experience yet.
 
Terry Ruth
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Sarah, ICC stands for "International " Code Council. It applies to all that want to adopt it (state, counties, townships, cities, rural areas, etc) in part or in full. VA/WV at the "state" level are enforcing 2009 IRC, VA IECC (IE(Energy) CC is state adopted. Each counties, townships, cities, rural area, etc can choose to adopt as they wish, meaning leave a chapter out, amend a chapter and/or replace with their own standards, not adopt it at all, etc...Once you get far enough out away from others in rural, they stop caring so much about what you build and public safety and codes/permits are not enforce normally but check. At that point, if you do not know what you are doing, they figure the only public that can get hurt are you/family/visitors then your home owners insurance or umbrella policy kicks in if the roof caves in, etc. So there is no searching the ICC/IECC for "rural" it dosn't work that way, it is just a design guide anyone can choose to use, however, once adopted by a jurisdiction it becomes law.....They can make you tear down structure if you do not comply. I have seen it happen, it can get ugly. So yes check with the local building and safety office having jurisdiction where your land is.

Your first step before getting too far out in left field with all these design ideas is to find out your restrictions or none, design accordingly. Lots of people don't have experience with code and building homes, sometimes, not always, when in a code area a General Contractor is worth the expense, the money they can save on materials a labor, can be worth it for people that don't understand all the red tape and headaches complying to many permits.
 
Sarah Yao
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Thanks, that does clear it up. If I get nowhere fast with my current local jurisdiction then I'll contact the potential jurisdiction.

As an aside, what books/websites/DVDs would you recommend to learn more about building bermed houses? I'm also trying to save money so I can do some hands-on earthbag training in the eastern US. Any good training places in the eastern US you're aware of?
 
Terry Ruth
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Don't know of any good books since I'm not interested in EB since I build mainly in code areas. Natural Building Companion I read for strawbales, excellent! Breathable Walls in the book section, excellent too.

Here is a map if you have to comply to energy code, it is code minimum and you can lower r-value for mass like earth IF you can get the AHJ to agree, mass is highly misunderstood and under defined too: https://energycode.pnl.gov/EnergyCodeReqs/ Just pick on the map your state and county.

Good luck to you. We are doing a metal roof now I recommend you get some help there
 
Sarah Yao
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Terry Ruth wrote:Don't know of any good books since I'm not interested in EB since I build mainly in code areas. Natural Building Companion I read for strawbales, excellent! Breathable Walls in the book section, excellent too.

Here is a map if you have to comply to energy code, it is code minimum and you can lower r-value for mass like earth IF you can get the AHJ to agree, mass is highly misunderstood and under defined too: https://energycode.pnl.gov/EnergyCodeReqs/ Just pick on the map your state and county.

Good luck to you. We are doing a metal roof now I recommend you get some help there



Thanks very much! I'll check out the map. Still haven't heard back from the building official so I think I'll call again later today.

Yeah, the roofing would be by contractor. I had a metal roof put on my double-wide and I think I'd use the same contractor to do the new roof. Incidentally, he had told me he was thinking about doing in-ground shipping containers as bunker-type shelters. I think he'd definitely be open to out-of-the-box and he's licensed as a general contractor.
 
Jennifer Meyer
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Sarah,

It really depends where in VA you are, particularly with respect to your elevation, but a primary concern with straw bale construction is humidity. I'm just south of you in NC, where I wouldn't even consider straw bale because of the high humidity. What the termites don't get, the mold will. You might want to treat your bales with a retardant or consider earth bag construction if you have a humid climate where you are.

Sine the Carolina clay makes excellent bricks, I'm leaning toward hyperadobe with earth bag accents and a berm roof, myself.

Would you mind telling me how you intend to design your roof?
 
Philip Nafziger
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Jack Edmondson wrote:Sarah,

I don't know much about straw bale; but I do know you can not substitute hay. Hay is 'greener' than straw. It has more organic matter and moisture. The hay will break down over time and lose volume and eventually return to soil. Straw is much more stable over a longer period. Also hay is 'wetter' than straw and will cause moisture/mold issues inside your walls. Straw has a very very low moisture content.

If you build with straw you will likely have to truck it in from a grower that specializes in high compression bales; or have someone custom bale the straw. The bales have to be around 900 to 1000 psi to make good building material. I have read the 'normal' baling pressure of straw bales is in the 400 psi range. Again, this is just from reading a few years back.


Hi, Sarah
While it is true that hay cannot be substituted for straw, it is not necessarily true that you will have to go to any great length of effort to provide yourself with building quality bales. The bales themselves should not be supporting any part of the structural integrity. Your framing does that and the bales in-fill everything else. Of course you would want as tight and densely packed bale as you can find but i have never heard of anyone ever having to test for psi on a bale.

It sounds like you are planning a partial berm house?

If you move to Ky, there are not usually any code requirements outside of city limits. It's great

Here to help if I can, but building your own house is not a simple or easy thing. Phil
 
Philip Nafziger
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Jennifer Meyer wrote: a primary concern with straw bale construction is humidity.
This could not be more true! Improperly designed SB structures have serious potential issues, like any improperly designed structure, but a properly designed SB structure can last for 100's of years. here is a thread giving great examples of the durability of SB architecture.

Jennifer Meyer wrote: I'm just south of you in NC, where I wouldn't even consider straw bale because of the high humidity. What the termites don't get, the mold will. You might want to treat your bales with a retardant or consider earth bag construction if you have a humid climate where you are.
There are examples of well built SB homes in humid states like WA. It can be done no problem.

If you haven't considered light clay as a building method you could check that out. A great alternative to SB. Having looked at both methods, I would consider light clay to be easier and just as effective.
 
Jennifer Meyer
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Thanks for the ego boost, Philip.

Straw bales are easy to understand and compare to traditional masonry structures. The bales look like "giant bricks," plus, they are light enough for a moderately strong woman to handle. Personally, I'd love to build with Straw Bale, I just don't know whether it's cost-effective to do it in North Carolina's humidity.

You can't really compare the humidity of the Northwest to the Southeast. The Northwest is wet and cool. The Southeast is wet and HOT. Even in the mountains, the heat is stifling. Now, in late August, we're in our fourth month of 90+ degree days. All of June, we suffered through 100+ degree days.

To add insult to injury, those days are at 80% humidity or greater. In a regular year, it rains heavily for about an hour each afternoon, but this has been an abnormally dry year. So it's just hot and muggy. I'm begging for a hurricane or tropical storm to water us! We haven't had a single one this summer, when we should be enjoying our fourth or fifth by now. I actually have to water my garden every day. </rant off/> Sorry about that.

There may be a way to adapt straw bale to the heat and humidity of the Southeastern climate, I'm just not aware of it.
 
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