MILO, Maine — When Milo resident Kara Taheny walks around her home-to-be, she doesn’t see what other people see. Instead of sandbags wrapped in thick black plastic, she sees walls sturdy enough to withstand several Maine winters, hurricanes, floods and droughts. She sees potential, sustainability and a dream come true.
But she also sees all the work that still needs to be done.
This summer marks the third year Taheny, 24, has been working on her “earthbag” house — an ecological structure using 800 polypropylene bags filled with a sand, clay and lime mixture. The four-walled structure eventually will be home for her and her 7-year-old daughter, Morghana.
Taheny originally wanted to finish the home in its entirety by fall 2014; however, several setbacks pushed that deadline. These days, she’s unwilling to set a firm date, instead focusing on each step she must take to finish.
The unknowns have some in Milo, including the town and surrounding residents, wondering what will become of the property, which also includes a tire garden, two trailers and a shed.
A long time coming
In late May, the sandbags were still “winterized” — wrapped in plastic and held down by dozens of water-filled, repurposed liquid laundry detergent containers. A few sandbags below a window at the back of the home had ripped open, exposing the packed sand inside — scars of several months of hot sun beating down on the roofless structure.
Earthbag homes can withstand more hazardous environmental factors than conventional homes, according to Kelly Hart, an earthbag expert and builder, so sun shouldn’t be a problem once a roof is on the building.
“An earthbag house can last a very long time, since the earthen material in the bags will not deteriorate,” Hart told the Bangor Daily News last year. “So they can easily last for centuries if properly maintained.”
These days, Taheny finds herself renting a home across town and driving to the site daily to work.
“Everytime I give a time or deadline, I’m off by a couple of months,” she said. “I want to focus on always making sure I’m moving forward.”
That means milling the final eight logs needed to create 2-by-6 and 2-by-10 planks that will be used to make a roof. Taheny hopes the roof eventually will “come alive” with plants and flowers. Rebar posts will hold up the “shed style” roof at a slant so rainwater call fall into a catch basin.
Still, neighbors are curious and perhaps a bit worried about her uncertain timeline.
Taheny said she has fielded several questions and even some amount of criticism about the home since starting construction. She tries to take it in stride, knowing her home is unconventional, which can be uncomfortable for some.
“We try to reuse everything, which I think adds to the mystery of what we’re going to do,” she said.
For example, last year a large pile of tires was delivered by a local junkyard. Taheny eventually used them to create a large raised bed garden, but they sat on her property for several days, during which neighbors stopped and asked why they were there.
However, several neighbors are waiting to pass judgment until they see the finished project.
“I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt,” neighbor Robert O’Brien Jr., who walked past the home on a recent weekday, said. “I wouldn’t call it an eyesore. It could be bad, but it could be great.”
Lack of laws
The town of Milo does not presently have a land use ordinance in place. However, the town is working toward creating one this summer. In the meantime, Milo officials have little to say about what type of home Taheny puts on her property.
All she had to do was draw up a basic blueprint, and they gave the OK. She just needs to keep up the property so she doesn’t get dinged under the town’s “junkyard” ordinance. Other than that, she’s free to build.
It’s one aspect that drew her to Milo in the first place.
“It’s nice to not have the town’s eyes watching every move we make. … It’s out of that we’re going to have diversity,” Taheny said. “It’s my in-town homestead.”
Nonetheless, she pays close attention to what happens up the road at Town Hall, especially knowing she has a few silent critics. For example, she originally planned on keeping chickens at the home. However, after learning Milo doesn’t allow residents to keep fowl within town limits, she backed off and doesn’t plan to fight the ordinance.
“We wanted everybody to be curious, but there’s also a social barrier that comes into play,” Taheny said.
According to Damien Pickel, acting town manager, the land use ordinance has nothing to do with Taheny or the sand bags.
“It is not to address the sandbag house. Nobody wants to stop any progress,” Pickel said.
Instead, he said, the town is looking at the ordinance as a chance to create zoning where there isn’t any.
“They’re trying to bring the town up to snuff and trying to get with the times,” Pickel said. “You don’t want to build an automobile junkyard in the middle of a residential area.”
It’s indicative of an effort being done throughout the town to “modernize” the area and give the community more pride. In recent months, the town has been trying to clean up dilapidated properties and enforcing its “junkyard” statute.
In the meantime, Taheny is eager to start working again this summer. Once she finishes the roof, she will be able to add a wire mesh to the sand bags and add fill to create stucco-like walls. She’ll add appliances, a wood stove, a loft to sleep in and windows.
When done, the 25-by-35 foot structure will have a kitchen, bathroom and living room. She plans on calling it the “Albert Street Earthship” and said it will be a dream long realized.
“People who live in homemade structures … they lead gratifying lives,” Taheny said.