MILO, Maine — An unusual home is being raised in a Milo neighborhood populated with average suburban homes. Teacher and mother of one Kara Taheny is using polypropylene earthbags to create a bio-benign, passive home that’s made with bags filled with dirt from her land.
“I love the idea of finding systems that work for us and the environment, because we are the environment,” the 23-year-old, who recently received her bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Maine, said. “It’s our food source, so what really can we do without it? If we continue to make homes that need inputs and need inputs and need inputs and our population continues to grow, it’s unsustainable. If we can find systems that are sustainable and affordable, why wouldn’t we [use them]?”
The walls of Taheny’s house are made with 800 polypropylene bags filled with a sand-clay mixture from the ground on which the house sits. The bags historically have been used for flood control and building bomb shelters, but they also lend themselves to building because of the material’s ability to withstand environmental conditions.
Taheny chose this design because she wanted to live in an environmentally friendly and affordable home. The design evolved from blueprints she has been working on since she was a child.
Using the teachings of ecological design and permaculture, Taheny stacked the bags on top of a cement foundation, connected with barbed wire, lined with insulation, then covered them with plaster to create a stucco-like external appearance.
The house will be heated three ways: a wood stove, radiant floor heating and passive solar warmth from large windows on one wall. The glass of the windows will capture the sun and heat the home’s interior much like a greenhouse. In the summer, open windows will cool the house.
Builder Dick Campbell, owner of Orrington-based Dick Campbell LLC, said his company has moved away from building styles like this, which he characterized as “those things we used back in the ’70s.”
Instead, he uses fewer materials and makes sure they are locally sourced. But he still sees value in alternatively designed homes.
“We’ve now found those concepts [earthbag homes] to be much about homeowners — the do-it-yourselfers concept,” Campbell said.
Taheny likes the DIY aspect of the process, and she especially likes the durability of her home. She said her home will be flood-proof, fire-proof and hurricane-proof and will last 100 years. Experts say, with proper upkeep, she could be correct.
Earthbag homes can withstand more hazardous environmental factors than conventional homes, according to Kelly Hart, an earthbag expert and builder. Hart also publishes media on green building, including the DVD “Building with bags: How We Made Our Experimental Earthbag/Papercrete House.”
“An earthbag house can last a very long time, since the earthen material in the bags will not deteriorate,” Hart said. “So they can easily last for centuries if properly maintained.”
Equipped with electricity and running water, the 25-by-35-foot structure will have a kitchen, bathroom, living room — with no TV — and a loft where Taheny will sleep.
Taheny’s estimated cost for the project is $10,000, which she hopes to pay off over the next year. Her calculations leave room for unexpected building costs and so far she’s operating under budget.
When finished, she plans to call the building the Albert Street Earthship.
Setting down roots
For Taheny, building a home of her own is a dream come true. As a child, Taheny was transient, moving a dozen times in eight years, and says she didn’t feel like she had a permanent place to call home. At age 14, she found herself living at the Shaw House, a youth homeless shelter in Bangor.
“That really impressed upon me that I needed something of my own that you couldn’t lose if you missed your rent,” Taheny said. “It just couldn’t be taken out from right underneath you the way that any sort of temporary housing was.”
She escaped by drawing blueprints, hoping someday they would lay the groundwork for the permanent home she desired.
“I always wanted that stability,” she said.
To help pay for the home, Taheny works as an alternative teacher at MSAD 41 in LaGrange. As an alternative teacher she uses accommodating curriculum, which allows students a more personalized learning environment — giving them more freedom to learn in the ways they feel comfortable, such as listening to music while studying.
Taheny hopes she can primarily live on her property by her mid-30s, working as much as needed but as little as possible.
“I’d like to have this be my life,” Taheny said. “Who knew that was an option? But it’s not an option for most people and I’d like it to be, because I think the morale of society would be much better.”
Taheny hopes her earthbag house can inspire others to build homes with longevity on smaller budgets.
“If I can finish and then put appliances in it and [put a roof on it] and get the garden going for $15,000 or $20,000, I can afford to do that, and that’s what I’m going for. Just a model for people to say, ‘Wow, I can really do that and live and not go completely broke,’ because it’s easy to do in this state. With no economy, you have to live on very little.” Taheny said.
Hart said the price of earthbag houses can vary. However, their characteristically inexpensive design is attributed to sourcing the wall materials locally and for free, according to Hart, also cites a builder’s ability to do the project by himself or herself as an indicator of price.
“This type of building can provide the opportunity for a homeowner to save significant cost if they’re doing it themselves and if they are using a locally available resource. There’s always a lot to be said for that,” Tobin Peacock said. Peacock is the owner of a sustainable, locally sourced building company — Peacock Builders Inc. — based in Town Hill, Maine.
Taheny isn’t building alone. Her 6-year-old daughter helps with small tasks, such as picking rocks out of the sand for the bags, and volunteers have provided assistance as well.
Since the start of the project, Taheny gleaned six volunteers through two websites. WorkAway and HelpX, which are volunteer posting sites geared toward people looking to travel and immerse themselves in the culture of the place they help in exchange for a place to stay. Those volunteers included two who came from Russia, and two new helpers are currently hard at work aside Taheny.
“Without the community you can’t build a house like this,” Taheny said. “Everybody that we’ve had come to help has always been a wonderful person. We’ve been very lucky in that way.”
Michael Barnett, 24, discovered the project through HelpX and came from Kentucky.
“More people should do it. It’s definitely a learning experience. The whole project is done by volunteers,” Barnett said.
And for her daughter, Taheny says this is a learning experience she’s happy to give her. Taheny said her daughter is proud she can help build the house. With time, Taheny thinks that pride only will grow.
“I think that when she’s 10 or 15 (years old), she’ll really understand the gravity of being a participant in building the house that she grew up in,” Taheny said.
Once the outer structure is finished, Taheny will erect traditional studded walls in the home and install appliances.
Taheny plans to finish the house in the fall, after two years of work, paying back her neighbors with a living roof on the structure. Peat moss and flowers grown in a mesh wire substrate will be bracketed to the traditional rolled roofing, creating a colorful attraction.
“I think people will really start to appreciate this place, because it is an eyesore now. I’m not a big fan of just raw [sand] bags,” Taheny said.
“I know, right now, my neighbors aren’t [big fans] either, but I’m going to make it up to them. They don’t know it yet though.”
Taheny’s neighbors feel the house is out of place and are concerned it’s unable to withstand Maine’s weather.
In the small town, Taheny has received many slow drive-bys and questions about the longevity of the house and its building techniques.
“We’re big news in Milo,” Barnett said.
Connie Gaudette has lived in the neighborhood for five years.
“To tell the truth, it really does not belong here,” Gaudette said. “I don’t think it’s going to hold up in the wintertime, but that’s just me, personally. It’s something that’d be built in Mexico, somewhere warmer than Maine, especially not in Milo.”
But experts disagree. According to Campbell, Taheny’s plan for insulation should hold up.
Brenda Martin also lives nearby with her parents, who she said have been living in the neighborhood for 65 years.
“To be frank, I’ll be glad when it’s done and to see the finished product. It’s definitely interesting,” Martin said. “I can’t imagine what it’ll be like living in a house made of bags filled with dirt.”
When Donna Jones of Dewitt-Jones Realty sold the land to Taheny, she wasn’t sure what Taheny would build. She just knew it wouldn’t be a “normal, conventional house.”
“Everyone has their own ideas of what they want to live in. It’s a free world,” Jones said.
As Taheny finishes the house, she hopes neighbors will begin to appreciate the structure while also learning about sustainable design — which is the reason she’s building this type of home in the first place.
“We [humans] are intelligent enough that we can look at systems in a critical thinking sort of light and we can say what’s not only going to last 10 years or 20 years but 50 years. What will work, not only for us, but for the seventh generation from us,” Taheny said.
And in a few generations the Albert Street Earthship may prove to be a good example.
“I’d like to think this is going to be one of the oldest houses in the area,” Taheny said.
Volunteers interested in helping can email Taheny at firstname.lastname@example.org.