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Biophile Magazine -- » The Sandbag House: an eco-friendly house takes root in the Eastern Cape

"We are constantly taking ideas from the spiritual world and forming them into our own conception of the things we desire. Sometimes the finished product does not satisfy or please us. That is because we have taken the idea away from its true parents, wisdom and love." Daily Guru

The Sandbag House: an eco-friendly house takes root in the Eastern Cape

by Dolar Vasani

FILED IN: Green Building · Issue 18


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Back in March 2002, while on a short vacation, we played golf at a par 3 course in George. After our game we embarked on a search for that perfect spot by the ocean to enjoy a quiet drink. Combing the coastline, we drove into a side road off the N2 to Kleinkrantz, on the outskirts of Wilderness.

Kleinkrantz hasn’t changed much since those days, a few more houses have gone up but it remains a small and quiet township hugging the Indian Ocean coastline boasting some stunning beaches. Many of the home owners reside in Johannesburg or Cape Town. That perfect spot to have our romantic drink remained elusive – instead we found numerous sale board signs for plots of land. After casually scribbling some telephone numbers, we ended up back in Wilderness at the estate agents. Later that evening, we shared our excitement by SMS with my sister in London and the following day we made an offer to purchase. The timing was somewhat strange as I had already resigned from my job with VSO in southern Africa and had made plans to move to the Netherlands where Marjan, my partner was residing.

While in Holland, we watched endless TV programmes depicting property makeovers, million pound challenges, finding a place in the country, abroad….. My new job with Oxfam brought me back to the region on a regular basis but it was only at the end of 2003 that we returned to South Africa for a holiday; part of which included playing golf in George and visiting our plot. It was as beautiful as ever and other than fynbos getting thicker and thicker, not much had changed. Late in 2004, I had the opportunity of returning to South Africa and after much thought, we accepted and ended up back in Pretoria. Perhaps now was the time to get started.

The visit of my sister and brother-in-law helped to kick start the process of the design parameters. For Shakeel, as he had studied architecture in India but never had the chance to fully practice, this was the ultimate challenge and dream. He started sharing his creative fruits with us and often the three women (all keen cooks) would end up giving him endless ideas for the kitchen, not forgetting the outdoor jacuzzi. This process continued and had its ebbs and flows. The mushroom design was very cool but it was eliminated for being too ambitious.

Green living was slowly becoming an inherent part of our daily lives and opting to apply these principles in construction was the natural step forward.

It was during a cob building course that we first came across the idea of sandbags instead of bricks and started making some serious in-roads. For our location, this seemed to make perfect sense.
In mid 2006, we started getting a project team together in earnest. We arranged several meetings with an engineer, a builder, a draftsman, and suppliers along the garden route to map out a process of getting the drawings ready for submitting to the municipality. Being a totally unconventional design, many eyebrows and questions were raised about what and how; however everyone was extremely open and very curious to see the project unfold. Using sandbags for construction is an old technology used mainly for flood rehabilitation and bunkers.

An architect called Nader Khahili of Cal-Earth (The California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture) has taken it to another level and created some fabulous eco-domed houses. In South Africa, this technology has been developed by Ecobeams in Cape Town using slightly different parameters. The bag and beam method has been used to construct a wide range of houses, especially in the Western Cape.
Managing the highs and lows of projects is something one acquires with experience, but a building project that is unconventional in design, method and form brings its own set of unique challenges. Like golf, the purpose may be clear but each hole or phase brings its unique set of hurdles, strategies, risks and rewards. For us, finalising the structural design and integrity has been a long and drawn out process; one of the hindering factors was the communication blocks and professional expectations between London and the folks in Cape Town which often felt like we were moving one step forward and two steps back!

In December 2006, Marjan and I re-located to the southern cape and since then, the building project has become a full-time vocation for my sabbatical year. Having no prior experience in this sector, we have appointed a Project Manager to oversee and guide the process to its completion. We have also visited a number of sites in Cape Town, Montagu, Greyton and Macgregor to see and hear about the experiences of building with this medium. Completing the plans for submission has been the first priority and we have used guys based in Calcutta to get the drawings done on AutoCAD, finding this service to be fast and financially very competitive, something that cannot be matched by any South African or British draftsmen. The engineering has proved to be more complicated and after several attempts, we found a local engineer based in George that is interested, willing and available to work on this project. At the end of February, we finally submitted our plans to the municipality.

The months of March to June were not terribly exciting as we waited patiently for a reaction from the council; the review process would take 8-10 weeks. As it turned out, the process was much longer as the council struggled to recruit and retain skilled and competent staff at public sector salaries. The interaction with the council was both positive and negative. Department personnel are very open and arranging a meeting with the chief planning officer or director was possible without difficulties - this open door policy was a breath of fresh air. However, their capacity to enforce positive changes and get more environmentally sustainable guidelines has not been considered in any form or shape.

Individuals that want to follow an eco route are not given any incentives to do so – something that will hopefully change in time. For now, the overall cost of the application remains exorbitantly high with unclear returns.

The process thus far has been long and at times very frustrating. Tempers have frayed and communication between the family members involved hasn’t always been the best. We have all wrestled to find a comfortable spot that meets our varying needs and expectations. Hopefully we have turned a corner now, especially as the green light finally came through in early June. So, 5 years, 2 months and 16 days after purchasing the plot, we can now go ahead with digging, bagging, stacking, building, filling and finishing the house.

For regular up-dates and photographs of the building process, visit sandbaghouse.blogspot.com

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