Our journey to building our own house began just like any other, with selling our house, which was no longer serving our needs, and moving on. We had bought a plot of land two years previously, and had already approached a builder and an architect to draw up plans for us.
In our relationship , I am the “greenie”, and I had previously voiced an opinion regarding a sandbag house, only to be answered with a resounding “No!” from my husband. A few of his reasons were: “What if you drilled a hole in the wall? Sand would come out” and “It would look like an ‘eco house!’”
So our original plans were for a conventional house and were duly approved by the council. His mindset was changed upon reading an article about a house that had been built using the sandbag concept. It looked just like any other house. It also mentioned that building with the sandbag method was much cheaper and more ecologically friendly than the conventional one.
As the area that we were going to build in consisted mainly of sand, it seemed logical to use the natural resources available. Our bond had already been approved for the conventional building method, so it was necessary to do another bond application. I approached several institutions with our new proposal, only to be rejected. We blindly took a leap of faith, not having a budget at all, and took out a bond on the plot, roughly half the value of what we originally requested. I began doing research into sandbag building and found two local companies in Cape Town that could supply us with the bags and the structure. Both styles were very different, with one was using a wooden fram structure and the other using a steel one, and both had different types of bags.
The decision was made for us by the steel-frame people who pulled out, as they felt they didn’t have enough experience at that stage to do what we wanted. At this point our builder also pulled out. I had resigned from my job a few months earlier and so decided to take on the project myself. Ignorance is indeed bliss!
With the decision to change to a sandbag style of building and after speaking to the inspector, we then handed in a manual of rational design for sandbag building to the council, which they were happy with, but they also requested engineering plans, which we were still waiting for.
The foundations, for time saving purposes, we did the conventional way and sub-contracted them. We fetched our house “kit” from the manufacturer and hired a sub-contractor for a day to show us the ropes. This proved to be the best decision we ever made. His help was invaluable and his phone was always on, something we shall be eternally grateful for.
Building commenced tentatively, having had no prior building experience whatsoever, we were trying to find our feet. We put up the structure on the weekends (weather permitting), while I filled the bags with sand during the week with the help of casual laborers.
The whole process was very much trial and error, some things working, others not, not to mention hundreds of nails and loads of sore thumbs and hands. We originally got the sand to fill the bags from what was left over from laying the foundations. After that, I made friends with several of the builders in the area, who let me know if they wanted sand cleared from their site. We only ever bought one truckload of sand. Some of the sand we used even came from our driveway, with us filling the hole with any rubble we had.
Building can be a lonely experience if you do it yourself,and being the only woman on site all day, it was extremely touching to see the number of people who either hooted as they drove past, or popped in with advice, or even to just say hello. but the amount of people stopping to have a look was incredible, and at times it was as busy as the local supermarket!
We started building in June 2008. It was the wettest winter ever, with 38 days of rain, which of course, meant that no work could be done on those days. But this helped tremendously with mixing the cement to plaster as we just drained the pools of water to mix it. This did, however, mean that we didn’t get finished in the time that we had hoped. We also had to move out of our house earlier than expected, so ended up living in a caravan on site for two months, with two kids aged nine and five, and four dogs.
Looking back, we would have done things differently had we known the effect the rain was going to have: we would have built the garage with its upstairs area first, and lived in that section while continuing with the rest of the house.
We also didn’t realize just how labour intensive sandbag building is. It is hard, physical labour, and definitely not for the faint-hearted. Also, you have to be there all the time, as work tends to come to a standstill as soon as you leave the site or the job just doesn’t get done correctly.
The biggest disappointment for me, was the amount of cement we used, which was huge, as you use both a slurry mixture, to preserve the bags, and your final plaster layer. Our plasterer just could not understand that we wanted a rough finish, and that the walls didn’t have to be exactly straight. So he used a lot of cement to try and straighten them out, which was unnecessary, time consuming and costly. About 24 000 bags of sand later, the house is now more or less completed and I can truthfully report that no sand comes out when you drill a hole in the wall!
There are still plenty of things to do and an upstairs inside area to complete, but this is now something we are taking our time with. It is a lot cheaper to build this way and more sustainable, especially if you have the resources (sand) available like we did. The house is big, with the walls 2.8m high, but truly, the extra 40cm was a lot of extra work.
It is also worthwhile phoning around for quotes before you buy anything major, like steel for the foundations or even glass for your windows. Negotiate even with the big hardware suppliers in your area and ask for a trade discount or discount card as every saving helps.
Introduce yourself to the manager so they know who you are and ask if they can give you a better price or source you stock they don’t have. In keeping with being an eco-house, we want to have solar paneling and have had a grey water system installed. Although we are not able to afford them at the moment, it was important to have done the necessary research so that we were able to lay the pipes in the way they should be to accommodate these systems.
Until then, the fruit trees get the bath water and the geyser will only need a slight adjustment when the solar panels eventually arrive.
This experience wasn’t about the ego being able to say “I built my own house”. It was about doing the right thing, thinking outside the box and experiencing the soul growth that goes with it. The house has a different energy that everyone who visits picks up and comments on.
Most importantly it is a place called home that our kids can also say they helped to build.