Factor e Live Distillations – Part 5 – The CEB Story

Today’s video is full of footage on all our building adventures – from earthbag, to cordwood, to compressed earth bricks – where you can see the progress of starting from bare land to making human habitat. This is cluster development – of course – which leaves minimum impact on the land.

This is a good video to pass around to your friends.

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Here is the transcript.Here’s a little story of our building adventures at Factor e Farm – which leads up to the present work with the CEB press.

We started with raw land, built an earthbag structure 2 years ago. We built the cordwood addition a year after that. Earthbag building and cordwood building is difficult work. All along, I’ve been thinking that compressed earth bricks are the best. They’re strong, they’re fast to build with, and they are 100% natural. What more could I ask for?

So I built a CEB press. It took some metal from the custom fab shop, a bunch of drilled holes, and a tad of welding. I plugged this into the tractor, fired it up, and pressed the first brick. (link to CEB fabrication pictures)

So we moved on to test the CEB press in the field. We build ourselves an open source tractor first – because we weren’t satisfied with industrial tractors that just kept braking. So with our new tractor, which we call the life-giving, life-time design LifeTrac – we began to build.

We started to build an addition right behind the stick-frame greenhouse – so the greenhouse would not be blown over by winds that huff and puff quite strongly around here.

We started to clear off the area, but the front end loader was not much good on hard, clayey soil. We tried some disking, but the disking did not go too deep.

We then sampled the soil, which we tilled with out rototiller – to test if it would work for bricks. It has to have sufficient clay to stick together, but not too much to make it crack. The soil was go.

The tiller was not our best friend either, so we needed something that would really sink its teeth into the ground. So we built the world’s first open source tooth bar. Design rationale included.

This worked well. We were able to mound up pile after pile of good soil – our gold – for CEB brick pressing. We covered the pile diligently with plastic sheeting when the weather was foul.

In the meantime, we built some trusses for the addition. 2x4s were put together into 32 foot long trusses, 2 feet high, with oriented strand board – OSB – connecting plates. A truss like this cost us $50 a pop in materials.

We also got the gravel truck in, for the addition foundation.

We then did a test run – to see how many bricks we could press in a sample run. Last minute adjustments, and we were good to go. We moved the machine into position. We tilled, we mixed in a little sand, we raked it fine. And then We pressed 4 per minute, 52 in 13 minutes – with manual loading with 5 gallon buckets. Hmm. If we could do that the whole day, we would press about 2000 bricks.

In all reality, it takes 15 people to load the machine as fast as the machine could produce bricks. The backbreaking work is shoveling dirt into buckets and lifting them to feed the machine.

We continued for 14 days of this, mostly with 2 or 3 people. Hard labor required separates Big People from sucklings. We learned that such hard labor puts parties involved at severe risk of destroying friendships or even families.

In all honesty – the version of the machine with a manually-loaded hopper is not so useful, because it’s impossible to gather 15 people, so you’re running the machine way under its capacity. With 2 people, we made 500 bricks per day on average. One can load enough soil for 250 bricks on a sustainable basis. That is the bottleneck.

According to Soil Block Presses, a publication from 1988 – the production rates of manual presses claim similar performance figures to what we did in practice with the Liberator, our machine.

In our particular case for the number of people we had, we could almost do what we did with a manual press! That’s hard to admit, but it’s the reality. See a YouTube example of what looks like an effective manual press here:

The point is: our machine displays its rated performance – where we think it could get 8 bricks per minute – only when we have a large hopper that we can load with a front end loader. That’s interesting. This makes me think that any mechanized press on the market, with a small hopper like ours, is really being oversold. Any of you CEB builders out there – what do you think?

So we will be building the big hopper, and testing the performance then. That’s how we will sell the basic machine – with a big hopper

So anyway, we pumped out almost 6000 bricks, and started to build our addition.

We started by digging a shallow insultated foundation, insulated with 2”, R10 pink foam. We used the backhoe, which was very effective. It moved from side to side by articulation of the tractor.

We put in the battery bank and stove into place, before the walls were built.

We leveled the foundation, tarred the bottom course of bricks, and started laying.

The walls went up rather quickly – except when frost made it hard to get the bricks off our piles, as they stuck to each other.

Our soil mortar froze, and a section of wall fell down when the mortar defrosted and shifted.

We reinforced the wall with posts. We put on the top plate, stuck rebar down 3 feet into the wall through it, and started to install the trusses.

We then laid the side walls, put OSB panels on the roof, and basically had the structure closed off. On the inside, we cut out windows on the back of the greehouse, and istalled windows. That’s where we are now. What needs to be done still? Finishing details; more straw on the roof. We are using polyethylene and carpet to line the roof, then straw. This should last 50 years.

We will then put up another wall on the inside, for a kitchen and utility space with stove, lined with bricks on the outside. Then, we’ll part the tractor inside, and start on the second prototype for the CEB, with torch table fabrication included. We’ll actually dig inside the building – both to test the new CEB press – Liberator II, and to dig ourselves a deeper workspace that may perhaps be converted to a basement. Not the usual way to do it – but it will probably work.

Well, this is our field report on our CEB building so far. Open source equipment – some local resources – makes for a healthy start. Now we almost have a good workshop space finished – so some real action can begin. If we’re going to house 30 people soon, we’ve got to move. Crash course on OS product development and engineering will be included.


  1. Pamela McLean

    This is very interesting Marcin.

    Reference our Skype discussion last year about Open Farm, Nigeria, John Dada’a work, Dadamac, Attachab Eco-village,etc.

    John has experience of using compressed earth blocks for building – three buildings so far. First (at the fish farm compound)- a modest circular domestic dwelling (nick-named “The Palace”).
    Second (at the main site)- as I recall there are three rooms and a covered entrance, the rooms are the Knowledge Resource Centre, the server room, and an admin room for the techies.
    Third (at Attachab Eco-Village) a two room building, for stores and the security guard.

    Pamela McLean
    [email protected]
    Independent ICT for Education and Development Practitioner
    Co-founder (with John Dada) of Dadamac – Knowledge Brokers

  2. […] « Factor e Live Distillations – Part 5 – The CEB Story […]

  3. Jamison

    Your wiki page is amazing. It really makes me feel stupid, but the overall idea is something I have dreamed of doing for years. And the surprising thing is that when I ‘jokingly’ refer to a “commune” life, I find more and more like-minded people have considered the same thing. Thanks for making a fun idea a scientific experiment.

  4. Justen Robertson

    Rather than a large hopper and a front end loader, what about a small hopper with a conveyor feed? An Archimedes’ Screw may make for an effective lift (maybe adapt a grain auger), you could probably feed it just by placing the intake a few feet below ground level and constantly pushing your earth mixture into the depression, either using manual power or your lifetrac. This would take substantially fewer people than your current setup and would be more compact and easier to operate than lifting the earth into a hopper. Once you complete your fab lab, you could actually design and manufacturer and entirely mechanized process for this, using some semi-autonomous machines to load the screw.

  5. […] is promising, as we are finally optimizing our earth construction ability. We learned last year (CEB Story) that effective earth construction can happen when we can utilize tractor assist in all the earth […]

  6. CEB Automation | Open Source Ecology

    […] year we’ve shown proof of principle of very ineffective CEB production and building. The 12×12 shed is to be proof of principle of very effective CEB production and […]

  7. […] earth brick (CEB) pressing ability. Initial testing achieved 5 ton per hour soil throughput, while The Liberator CEB press requires about 2 tons of soil per […]

  8. […] Factor e Live Distillations – Part 5 – The CEB Story | Open Source Ecology. April 7, 2010 | No Comments […]

  9. […] any case, now we are doing better than our initial experience with our first, manually-loaded machine, which produced 1/2 brick per minute per person – because we did not know at that time about […]

  10. […] I of The Liberator lay gathering dust for over a year after it served its initial purpose. We have converted it into a 20 ton shop press, and used it for testing the compressive strength of […]

  11. […] Liberator has come a long way since its initial, manual prototype, to our not-so-effective building adventures, to Prototype II, to the soil pulverizer, to the first prototype of the automatic CEB controls, to […]

  12. […] earth brick (CEB) pressing ability. Initial testing achieved 5 ton per hour soil throughput, while The Liberator CEB press requires about 1.5 tons of soil per […]

  13. […] closer to effective CEB construction with improved equipment which is leagues beyond our initial CEB building adventures. Share […]

  14. […] earth brick (CEB) pressing ability. Initial testing achieved 5 ton per hour soil throughput, while The Liberator CEB press requires about 2 tons of soil per […]

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