COCHISE COUNTY — Years ago, Cochise County established a special amendment which allowed people who owned four acres or more to build their own homes at a reduced cost of a building permit and with fewer inspections.
“It is intended to encourage the use of ingenuity and personal preferences of the owner-builder in allowing and facilitating the use of alternative building materials and methods,” states the county website.
Now, with a surge in do-it-yourself ventures, some hardy people have been attracted to fulfill a dream of building with natural materials and living off the grid. Through the process of trial and error, homes of dirt and straw bales are becoming more commonplace. Both require a lot of labor, but the end result provides a home at far less cost than a traditional structure.
There are a number of options for self-built homes, but the majority of new homes here use the hyper adobe earth-bag style. The method is basically stuffing a mix of moist sand, gravel and clay, provided onsite by digging a deep hole in the ground, into a bag that can be cut to any length. The earth must have good moisture content, not too wet or too dry, and making the perfect mix comes with practice. In some instances, sand and gravel does have to be trucked in when the earth onsite does not provide the correct mix.
The hole provides the dirt and can become a basement to evade the heat of the hot months or a root cellar or an additional living space.
Out near Cochise, Sammy Klein, who works in construction, and Caila Block, who teaches in Bowie, have been working on their hyper adobe homestead for the past two years. He has built two earth-bag homes, so he had a bit of experience with the method.
At first he thought he could do it on his own, like a true pioneer. “I make mistakes because I had to learn how to do this,” he explained. “Even after watching YouTube videos, I still made mistakes. But, what I found was a super supportive community. There have been weekends when there’s been three people out here or 12 out here to help with the big heavy lifting.”
All totaled, he used 2.5 miles of bags and wire in the home.
They live in an RV while they build on their five acres and their new home has a beautiful view of the Dragoon Mountains through their strategically placed windows as the sunshine coming in can also heat up the floors in the cold months. The kitchen will be small when they finish, but it will be a cozy little nook for meals. There is a small living area topped by a geodesic dome with a loft.
A solar system supplies their current power needs, though it took two weeks and some help to install the DIY solar kit.
From the outside, it resembles a hobbit house now that the outdoor adobe plaster is in place, accenting the curves, and a set of floating stairs leads to the rooftop for elevated views and a perfect place for nighttime star gazing.
While stucco was used on the exterior of the home, he has to use a permeable material that allows the earth bags to breathe and eliminate excess water that can accumulate over time.
Rainwater harvesting will be installed so they do not have to drill a well or haul in water as they do now. The home is solar powered, and that too was a DIY learning experience. Again, thanks to a community of like-minded individuals, the problems were conquered as they figured out how much electricity they would need to power the conveniences they want.
He said, “I’ve heard Cochise County is the land of broken dreams. And there are a lot of these homes that didn’t work, that didn’t get finished, that failed. Success comes from the community network I became a part of.”
The group of folks who have built and are building alternative homes like theirs come together to help each other and offer tips and a lot of hands to help move the projects forward.
South of Tombstone, Richard Ward lives in a tiny home he built in 2015 while his hyper adobe home gets underway. The Texas transplant moved here three years ago after falling in love with Bisbee, just a hop over the Mule Mountains.
His 24 acres of abandoned pasture land lies on the west side of the Mules. The land is beautiful, even has a few protected saguaro cactus, but it took some work just to make a primitive road to get to it.
An earth-bag root cellar took 1,400 individually filled, precut, 40- to 50-pound earth bags. The bag work alone on the root cellar took nine months. The dirt has to be a mixture of clay, gravel and sand and he did have to have some material delivered when what he had on hand was not sufficient.
“I won’t do that again,” he said with a smile. “It’s easier to work with the bags cut to the length needed.”
After that experience of the work involved, he decided to move to hyper adobe building. In just three months, far more was accomplished in his test house.
He cleared space for a circle of chairs around a self-built pizza oven so people can get to know one another. His homestead has become a center for learning for others who want to know how to build an affordable, sustainable home.
Since he wants to share knowledge with other like-minded folks, he started the nonprofit Terraform Together. The program includes alternative building and use of discarded materials. The door on the hyper adobe solar house was beautifully crafted from pallets and old wood. Pallets are also used to make furniture. Empty bottles placed in the walls provide natural light in a myriad of colors.
Then there is the plan to recover land damaged by overgrazing. He maintains the fence to keep cattle off his land and it took 18 months to fence them all out. But the bovines will push the fence down to get at vegetation, creating more fence work.
He made some alterations to the land to create space for native plants to grow again. The first monsoon season produced some volunteer tomato and watermelon plants in a low spot, which amazed him.
At any given time, a number of people will participate in his eco-residency program. They work with him for a few weeks or even several months to expose them to a lifestyle many have never had an opportunity to experience and all while providing new life skills. There are more women than men who participate in the program.
“We are open to people of all backgrounds joining the program, but pride ourselves in being a safe place for women, the LGBTQ+ community and minority groups who would normally not have an opportunity to be exposed to construction and building education,” he said.
“The mission is to provide environmental sustainability education to our community and to a network of travelers. We believe major environmental change starts at a local level, individual by individual. We work to inspire, teach, and groom the next generation of environmental advocates by teaching ways to live more sustainably and live outside the prescribed unsustainable system.
“With the core principles to live simply, sustainably and within your means, we create an environment to educate and explore healthy ways of living that work with the earth instead of against it.”