Building hope from the dirt: Asheville group seeks to create earthbag homes in Nepal

Cob hands. Taken at The Firefly Gathering by Aiyanna Sezak-Blatt

The massive earthquake that rattled Nepal on April 25 and the powerful aftershocks that followed have left much of the nation in shambles. More than 9,000 people were killed and another 23,000 injured, entire villages were flattened and hundreds of thousands of people were left homeless. Here in Asheville, a team of natural builders believe they can help. The group has a vision: to travel to Ghyampesal in the Gorkha region — the area considered the epicenter of the earthquake — for three months and construct earthen superadobe domes.

The Nepal Resilience Project is being spearheaded by earthen building instructors Luke Trotman and Justin Hall and by PermaculTourism Initiative‘s Brandon Bodhi Denton and Michael Smith. The goal, as outlined on the group’s GoFundMe page, is to employ and teach Nepali locals to build affordable earthbag domes. The crew plans to arrive in Nepal in October and build five 10-foot diameter domes.

Denton was leading a service-learning team in Bandipur, Nepal, about 80 kilometers outside Kathmandu, on April 25, when the earth began to move beneath his feet. After the quake, he stayed to help with immediate relief work — bringing food, tarps and sanitation supplies to villagers in need. Now, he says, “long-term rebuilding is needed.” The upcoming service project, he says, will do exactly that.

“Giving to our project will directly rebuild homes, and empower the local people with an earthquake resilient building technique,” he adds.

For Trotman, this trip to Nepal will also be a return. In 2013, he went on a voyage through Arughat Bazar in Gorkha, where he befriended a man named Birman, who invited him home for a meal. Birman’s family welcomed Trotman, a stranger and a foreigner, without a moment’s hesitation. They called him “son” and refused to accept money for shelter or food. He was invited to participate in a festival called Dashain, which honors the Hindu goddess Shakti, and share in the dal bhat, the signature dish of Nepal.

“We danced the night away drinking rice wine and laughing at our struggle to communicate with words,” Trotman recalls of his experience in Arughat Bazar. “The truth was, we did not need words; there was an undeniable love for life and humanity that overcame all cultural barriers. This is the essence of Nepali people: to love and care for each other.”

While on his journey in Nepal, Trotman says he became acutely aware of the fragility of the structures around him. In one home he stayed in, he leaned against a wall and nearly caused it to collapse. “I realized how unsafe the buildings were,” Trotman says. “Upon arriving back in Kathmandu, I started noticing all the signs saying, ‘In case of an earthquake, duck and cover.’”

Unsafe building practices and the known risk of earthquakes “made for a tragedy waiting to happen,” Trotman says. “Though people in the mountains have been building with natural materials for thousands of years, dry stack stone does not provide much tensile strength,” he adds.

That’s where the superadobe domes come in. According to the Nepal Resilience Project, the structure of the dome is better suited to withstand earthquakes by combining the compressive strength of rammed earth and the tensile strength of repurposed barbed-wire. The materials needed to construct the domes — including clay, straw and sand, are also easily accessible and inexpensive — and the building technique is simple to learn, the group adds.

Luke Trotman at the Firefly Gathering in Barnardsville, N.C. Photo by Aiyanna Sezak-Blatt
Luke Trotman tending a fire at the Firefly Gathering in Barnardsville, NC. Photo by Aiyanna Sezak-Blatt

The team estimates that each adobe dome will cost approximately $5,000, including wages to employ a local workforce. The group is hoping to raise a total of $20,000.

To support the service mission, Trotman and Hall will lead three weekend intensives on earthen building, including the construction of a cob oven, an earthen bench and earthen floor slab. The workshops, held on Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., cost $75 each and will be held at Asheville Community Movement. The series begins on July 25-26 with a workshop on cob ovens, continues with the workshop on earthen benches on Aug. 1-2, and concludes with the earthen floor slab workshop on Aug. 8-9.

In the cob oven workshop, students will assess soil types and stratum while learning basic techniques for building,  Trotman explains. The workshop on earthen benches will showcase the technique the project will be bringing to Nepal and will include bag-mix ratios, laying methods and basic earthbag construction principles. In the final workshop, students will learn how to create a waterproof floor out of natural materials including clay, straw and sand.

Whether it’s here in Asheville or abroad, Trotman says he believes “earthen materials have a significant role in reclaiming the way we build.” On its crowdfunding page, the Nepal Resilience Project adds that, “The earthbag approach to building is, both economically and structurally, the perfect solution for such a vulnerable part of the world.

“By teaching this technique to communities and leaving them with the materials to continue constructing new domes,” the group continues, “this technology can be used to rebuild the lives of those who have lost so much.”

To sign up for a workshop, email To contribute to the Nepal Resilience Project’s GoFundMe page, go to Interested in traveling to Nepal with the Nepal Resilience Project? Click here to learn more.


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About Aiyanna Sezak-Blatt
Aiyanna grew up on the island of Kauai, Hawaii. She was educated at The Cambridge School of Weston, Sarah Lawrence College, and Oxford University. Aiyanna lives in Asheville, North Carolina where she proudly works for Mountain Xpress, the city’s independent local newspaper.

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One thought on “Building hope from the dirt: Asheville group seeks to create earthbag homes in Nepal

  1. Dada Krpasundarananda

    Great project!

    Some advice though. From someone who went to Pakistan to build domes after the earthquake there.

    1) 10 foot domes are very very small, people do not really get a good idea of what to do with it. You spend all the effort and most likely no further domes will be build. Better build one Eco-dome (as on the calearth website) that can actually be used to house a family.

    2) Don’t promote these buildings as cheap. They are not less than mainstream options with hollow blocks. Promote them on their qualities, they are well worth the extra effort over hollow block buildings.

    3) Make really really sure people who do want to build have understood how to work with the compass. A dome well build is near indestructible but if the curvatures are wrong they can collapse.

    4) Always stabilize the mix with cement or lime (I have no experience with lime but it can be done) Ratio is normally somewhere between 1:10 and 1:14 depending on the sand you use. When using cement to stabilize the sand should be free of clay and organic materials.

    There may be more but this popped in my mind having done many of these projects around the world.

    Dada Krpasundarananda

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