06/03/2007 - 22:00

Low-tech system's eco-friendly outcome

06/03/2007 - 22:00


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The combination of sand, barbed wire and special plastic bags may not sound like a high-tech alternative to bricks and mortar, but ‘earthbags’ could offer an affordable housing solution to homeowners in Western Australia.

Low-tech system's eco-friendly outcome

The combination of sand, barbed wire and special plastic bags may not sound like a high-tech alternative to bricks and mortar, but ‘earthbags’ could offer an affordable housing solution to homeowners in Western Australia. 

Perth architect Susan Swain has just returned from Ongerup, 370 kilometres south-east of Perth, where she has helped to complete a $1.3 million interpretation centre for the local Malleefowl Preservation Group.

The project incorporates retaining walls made of earthbags, durable woven polypropylene bags filled by hand with pre-moistened earth and stacked using four-pronged barbed wire to hold them in place.

It is the first time these US-made earthbags have been used commercially in Australia, and Ms Swain said she was excited about the future applications of the product as an inexpensive and eco-friendly alternative to bricks and mortar.

Designed by architect Nadir Kahlili, the bags have been brought to Australia under licence by lawyer and department of justice director of Aboriginal policy and services, Kate George.

Ms George learned of the bags almost 10 years ago, and flew with two friends to Los Angeles to see them in use at the California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture, emerging with ideas to provide alternative housing in the remote Jigalong Aboriginal community.

Upon her return to Australia, Ms George approached Ms Swain, who is director of the Architectural Design Studio in Mount Pleasant, to design an earthbag home for Jigalong.

But the plan did not find favour with the state government at the time, and so both women have been seeking opportunities ever since.

Enter the Malleefowl Preservation Group, which two years ago asked Ms Swain to design an 850 square metre eco-tourism centre comprising offices, research laboratory, aviary, theatre, meeting room, restaurant and retail shop-front.

In keeping with its ethos, the group was pleased to incorporate the bags into the project and last month Ms Swain gathered a team of volunteers to create the earthbag wall.

Ms Swain told WA Business News she had previously found it difficult to find a client that was willing to use the bagging, as many assumed it would not work.

“Some people think it’s just too simple as it cuts out all technology, but windows, doors, plumbing and electrics can still be installed to create a habitable building,” she said.

“The bags are organic in form and can be placed in a straight line or in an undulating form.”

Ms Swain said the building method required a lot of manpower, or machinery, depending on a client’s budget.

“If you have money and want it done quickly, the building can be done with a contractor, using a concrete mixer and a pump,” she said.

For a professional finish, the bags, once dry, can be plastered over to create a natural or smooth finish.

Ms George said she had worked co-operatively with Ms Swain for some time and both shared an interest in finding housing and infrastructure solutions for tourism and remote communities.

“It’s pretty basic,” Ms George told WA Business News.

“The bag is like a sausage skin and once the soil is tested and found suitable, it can be filled by hand or made into a slurry and pumped in.”

In recent years, Ms George has even travelled to East Timor and Portugal to investigate the method and found a number of earthbag homes that had withstood extreme conditions.

The earthbags are at their strongest when made into an arch and dome form, Ms George said.

For large projects, Ms Swain has developed a method of combining the bag construction with Colorbond steel roofing, which she has dubbed the “HyperSpace Humpy”.

She said interest has already been expressed from clients in Esperance planning to build a new church and community care centre in the town.

Plans also are under way to build a demonstration home in Perth.

Despite gaining approval under the US building code, earthbag construction is not yet approved under Australian standards and further testing by the CSIRO is required before accreditation.


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