Tag Archives: Graeme Labe

Building with Sandbags

Sandbags have been in the news recently, we have seen them piled high as a desperate measure to help contain the devastating floods that have been plaguing Ireland in the past few weeks

Coincidentally, in the midst of all of this, my brother Graeme Labe who designs and develops Eco Tourist safari camps around the world, sent me some images of a project in the Serengeti Wildlife Park that he designed using sandbags as a construction material.

Specially formulated geo-fabric bags, filled with sand and stacked between eco steel beam framework

Specially formulated geo-fabric bags, filled with sand and stacked between a steel beam framework

Cladding of the beams with wire mesh and either plaster, timber or plasterboard.

Cladding of the beams with wire mesh and either plaster, timber or plasterboard.

sandbags on floor level

sandbags on floor level

The finished building, clad  with corrugated iron

The finished building, clad with corrugated iron

SandBag Building

The idea of using sandbags as a construction material for ordinary housing is fairly new. It was developed as a complete building system over the past fifteen years in South Africa as a cost-effective way to assist South Africa in its endeavour to house millions of homeless people. (Construction costs can be reduced by up to 40%). It has since gained currency amongst people looking for an environmentally friendly alternative to conventional building practice.

I have recently been in touch with Rodney Wall, a South African Eco Home specialist, He is passionate about the benefits of this building system, he has used it on many builds and community projects and is working on creating a totally carbon neutral system. Both he and Graeme believe the this method of building is suitable for all climates including Ireland.

Could it work for The 5k Extension?

Well, I could haul in all of you who have offered to help  to do most of the tough work by filling sandbags!

Graeme has a concern about the lack of sand freely available on the site and the ensuing costs of having to buy sand, but I reassured him, by pointing to the fact that so many builders and landscapers discard so much sand to landfill in Ireland. We would just need to put the word out that we would happily take their leftover sand rather than them having to pay to dump it.

The biggest negative in using this method for my project is the width of the walls which are thicker than brick. Because the space in my back yard is so tight, I am looking for the thinnest possible building material.

Rodney Wall of Eco-Steps outlined the benefits of sandbag building to me.

Benefits of the Eco-Beam Sandbag Building System

Build Quality

  • Excellent thermal stability. Due to its high thermal mass, the structures are cool in summer and warm in winter. Millions of small air spaces between the grains of sand are responsible for good thermal insulation.
  • Superior sound-absorbing properties which help to provide a measure of privacy in close-quarter living or within the house between rooms.
  • Breathable, vapour permeable, “natural” walls for comfort and healthy living
  • Wind and water proof. The security and fire protection properties of the walls are also excellent.

Reduced Construction Costs

  • The weight of the construction materials makes transporting easier and cheaper while allowing for construction in areas without adequate road infrastructure. (e.g. 1,500 eco bags can fit in the boot of a car; this is the equivalent of 4,500 bricks).
  • Unskilled labour can be used to fill and stack the sandbags, further reducing labour costs.
  • Reduced construction time
  •  The only “wet” trade is plastering and no mechanical tools, equipment, skills or electricity is needed on site.
  • Most specialized trades like electrical and plumbing can be completed concurrently with the initial build, further reducing construction time.
  • Minimal building waste or losses on site

Reduced environmental impact

The system has a low carbon footprint, as very little energy is consumed in the process of designing, manufacturing or building a kit.

  • The carbon dioxide emission of one square meter of sandbag wall is more than 95% less than that of a conventional brick wall.
  • On site construction requires no mechanical or electrically operated equipment.
  • Sand can be found locally nearly everywhere around the world, in some regions even directly on the construction site.
  • The energy required for making the polypropylene bags can virtually be negated as the bags are very thin and contain a small amount of raw material.
  • The same is true for the steel used in the manufacture of ecoBEAMS.
  • If natural material like hemp is used for the bags instead of a geo-textile it can be reduced even more
  • There is no energy consumption as in producing bricks or producing cement
  • If natural material like hemp is used for the bags instead of a geo-textile the carbon footprint can be reduced even more.

graeme labe ,sandbag construction, ecobeam, rollform steel

Completed Sandbag Building

Completed Staff Quarters and Utility buildings at the Kuria Tented Camp, built using Sandbags


Tented Canvas Structures

Our experiment the €5000 extension is up against many obstacles – not least coming in on a miniscule budget or having to deal with planning and bureaucratic issues , but compared with the issues my brother Graeme Labe faces in some of his  projects, We can count our blessings.

I have listened in awe to some of  Graemes’ descriptions about having to survey land which is so remote it is almost unmapped; His having to drive, camp and hike, with the company of a Maasai warrior for days in order to assess the viability of a site; Being vulnerable to wild animals and vehicle damage… And that is before the project work begins!


In this article we are looking at an interesting project that Graeme and his company FTK Design and Development  were commissioned to design. It is an Eco  Camp situated in the Wogakurya Hills in the north of the Serengeti National Park, in Tanzania.

The brief given to Graeme was to develop a tented Camp, environmentally friendly both in design and the use of materials. The accommodation units were to incorporate large glass frontage. The interiors of the tents were to have separate divisions for the bedroom and bathrooms

To get to this camp is no mean feat. It is located a 12 to 14 hour truck drive from the closest town Arusha , so logistics and construction materials had to be meticulously considered.                             tented camp  eco tourism  canvas roll form steel, Graeme Labe

Roll Form Steel and Canvas Construction

A Contemporary take on a Tented Safari Camp

Tented camps are traditionally built on wooden base structures with either mild steel or wooden upright poles.  The canvas fly sheet is placed on the frame-work and canvas body is hung from this frame sitting on the wooden deck.

In this project, however, there was a major concern with regard to the maintenance of the wooden substructure due to the high occurrence of termites. Graeme resolved this issue by making a steel substructure to lay the floor on.

floor canvas wall, roll form steel structureecotourism building materials sustainability floor canvas wall roll form steel structureecotourism building materials sustainabilityfloor, canvas wall roll form steel structureecotourism building materials sustainabilityfloor canvas wall roll form steel structureecotourism, building materials sustainability

Graeme decided to use the same steel structure for both the superstructure and the roof structure of the tent. The steel frames were then clad in canvas and where hard walls were required the frames were clad in plywood. The choice of using steel was  motivated by many reasons:

  • Lightweight and easily transportable
  • Environmentally sound: Eco-Steel is made from Recycled Galvanized Steel
  • It can be used with a combination of multiple finishing materials.
  • More design possibilities than traditional tent building techniques

roll form steeltented ecocamp canvas

Using the roll form steel he was able to design and build large multi leveled tented units which otherwise would not have been possible using traditional tent building techniques.

batterysolar panels tented camp canvas, roll form steelsolar panels, tented camp canvas roll form steel

The lighting and electrical design also had to fulfill the eco ethos of the Camp with all the Camp’s electricity being supplied through Solar power and central solar water boilers

To carry the theme through FTK Design and Development were also contracted to do the interiors of the Lodge.

 Using the roll form steel we were able to design and build large multi leveled tented units which otherwise would not have been possible using traditional tent building techniques.

IndustryBuildingStructural systemTensile architecture,canvas-wall-roll-form-steel-structureecotourism-building-materials-sustainability

For a more in-depth look at the development of this project click here

A Canvas Tent for The 5k Extension?

Graeme, the Eco Design Warrior, assures me that a tented structure could work in my damp, back garden in Dublin city. He does not recommend Rollform Steel for my project as that would be outside of our budget. He suggests looking in scrap yards for disused steel H beams,or timber to create the skeleton structure.

He advises that once we know the R-Value requirements, we can insulate between two sheets of canvas, with the most economical and effective insulation possible. (I have seen so many half used rolls of insulation on skips, it shouldn’t take long to amass enough) and then join them together. Or we could insulate between the canvas and economical plaster board to have a rigid interior wall.

The external Canvas would need to be water and fungal resistant, with ,a fire-retardant. Graeme suggested a teflon treated canvas called Ferrari. I made some enquiries from a company in the UK called Canvasman. They recommended  a product VIP-PVC_FR, which is available in many colours and comes in a width of 2.5 meters available at £15.12/linear meter so for 20 meters it could cost £302.00.

I wonder if we may be glamping in the back garden yet?

Have a look as well at my friend Francis Fullens’ company C I Structures , whose large high tensile framed membrane structures are dotted around Ireland. i have offered him my garden to build one..He has not responded..

Anyway, have a browse through the images below, and try not be too envious of Graeme Labe , who gets to hang out and work in locations like this one.

Kuria Hills Tented Camp

My Brother the Eco Design Warrior

For those of you with an interest in environmentally sensitive architecture and building methods, combined with a love of nature and wildlife, you will be green with envy when you hear about the work my brother Graeme Labe does

Eco building, serengeti, sustainability, vernacular architecture

Graeme works in the most remote unspoilt locations in the world, designing and developing eco-friendly safari and guest lodges.

He has to deal with the most enormous logistical problems that are almost unimaginable from my computer desk in Dublin. – including having to consider how to keep the swimming pools that he designs inaccessible to elephants

Roll form steel, canvas constuction, tented, eco building,Because of this, Graeme has to be highly creative with his construction methods. He builds with very innovative materials including sandbags, roll form steel and canvas to name a few.                                   Most of the developments he works on are totally off – grid so the primary power needs to be self-sufficient, economical and environmentally friendly,

Because so many of the locations are so remote he has to design solutions for the treatment of sewerage and solid waste as well as domestic water in areas where no infrastructure exists

He has worked on many projects all over Africa and travels to exciting places over the world to consult and provide feasibility studies, and yes, I am thrilled to say he is sending me lots of advice for the 5k extension.

Over the next few weeks I will be bringing you examples of some of his projects that are really fascinating. On this post we will show you a project he worked on 10 years ago  in the Okavango Delta – a lovely example of vernacular architecture rethought –

Building with recycled aluminium drink cans

mud and tin can wallIn this development, Baines Camp, the wall panels of the lodges were made from 140,000 aluminium cans collected by school children in Maun in Botswana, as a local community project. This project raised money for local schools and helped clear the streets of Maun.

It also drew on the local knowledge of mud-and-wattle construction – turning it into ‘mud and can’ construction.

In order to lighten its carbon footprint, Baines’ camp  is a semi-permanent structure. There are no permanent foundations and all the decks are raised to allow for flooding. Please take some time to look through the development of this project, just tap on the following image…

Makes me wonder if we could collect 140 000 empty Guinness cans to build our 5000€ extension in my back yard in Dublin? I know a few lads on my street will do their bit on a weekend binge to assist.

FTK Logo, Eco Design,Graeme worked on this project before he set up his own business called Full TurnKey Development and Design. His website is currently under construction, but you can access his details by clicking here

My favourite picture of Graeme, taken years ago, fishing with elephants

One of my favourite pictures of Graeme, taken many years ago, fishing with elephants in the Okavango Delta

An interesting article in Architectural Digest from 2001 featuring Graeme and a similar project he worked on in the Okavango Delta