CalEarth 4 Day Workshop Guide – How to get the most out of your earthbag dome workshop


Posted on June 16, 2024

My authority: I am writing this in the CalEarth kitchen, after the end of the final day of my 4 day dome building workshop. I am going into an insane level of detail here for no reason whatsoever. Please take everything I say with a grain of salt. I am a 26-year-old male.

My verdict: If you’re on the fence about it and you’ve gotten this far, you should probably just do it. I don’t regret it.

My disclaimer: As you’ll see below, there are many “sources of truth” about the CalEarth workshop. This information I am presenting here is accurate to my experience, and will be immediately out of date as soon as I hit publish. When I say “currently” here, I mean literally right now, as I write this, on June 16, 2024. So keep in mind that I am in no way affiliated with CalEarth, and I’m not proactively nursing this page to keep things up to date. Of course, I will update this blog post and timestamp updates if I learn updated information somehow (i.e. if you take a workshop and email me updates).

My second disclaimer: The “optimization” parts of this blog post are really super “try hard”. You can show up knowing nothing and with no plan and that might honestly be better than “trying to learn all of the dome stuff in an optimal way”. So read this post with discretion, and heed what I say with additional discretion. I was super chill the whole time and only missed like 1 thing that I realized I wanted to learn after the fact. Maybe just X out of this tab right now.

CalEarth Earthbag Workshop: What you need to know

  1. Camping on-site is fun, in your tent or in your car.
  2. There is a full kitchen, a bathroom, multiple showers available during the day (1 shower is available at all times), two fridges, salt, pepper, sugar, coffee, etc.
  3. There are many sources of truth, so some things you read (including this, and including things on CalEarth’s own website) may be out of date.
  4. There are a few important aspects to focus on during the dome build in terms of learning, and you can optimize your time to what you want to learn.
  5. Miscellaneous tips.

Background information specific to my workshop

We had 16 people sign up. 3 of us camped in tents (including me). Another 3 or 4 slept in their cars. The rules were fuzzy on if you could sleep in the domes, but I heard through the grapevine that it wasn’t allowed. However, the rules currently on the CalEarth fridge say that you can sleep in certain domes – but these rules seemed out of date to me. Verdict: If you plan to sleep on site, you’ll probably want a tent, or a car that you’re comfortable sleeping in.

The average age of our workshop participants was probably like 45, but the range was from mid 20s to late 70s. Nobody really said or asked anyone’s age (except for the late 70s person, that came up somehow), so this is a total guess.

Sources of truth (i.e. Things I wish I’d known beforehand)

The CalEarth website FAQs were somewhat incomplete. I also received an email the day the workshop started that included information I wish I’d known the day I signed up (a slightly beefier list of “things to bring” than what is currently on the website – see picture below). I also emailed CalEarth questions about taking the Amtrak and didn’t get a response for about a week. I feel like I encountered no less than 5 sources of truth before and throughout the entire workshop. If you want to know information about the workshop that was true at some point, but may be out of date, feel free to shoot me an email (david smith secure at-symbol gmail dot com). Otherwise, what they have on their site is really “good enough”, but I’m still not 100% sure on some of the “actual” rules.

These images are posted without permission. Dear CalEarth: If you find this and don’t like the fact that I’ve posted this, please just put it on your website and tell me to take it down.

Ok, enough with the background info. Let’s get into HOW TO GET THE MOST OUT OF YOUR WORKSHOP from my own biased hand.

The Dome Build: An optimization problem

Disclaimer: Ignore this section. 

The dome build is really why you want to come. The lectures, Q&A, and detailed tours are really nice, but a lot of that info can be found online. The BUILD phase is what you need to optimize. And if I could do it over again, this is what I’d tell myself beforehand:

KEY POINT: The dome is limited in terms of places to contribute. You can run out of dome before you do all of the things you want to learn – I saw it happen to a couple people, including myself (and I’ll explain why it happened below).

Dome Build Schedule: For us, the dome build started during the 2nd half of day 1, then we spent all of day 2 finishing it. We finished before the 7pm mark, but the instructors told us that the last workshop was out there until 8pm on day 2.

In my opinion (which, again, applies to everything written here), you want to:

1. Learn to lay bag. 

This is critically important – but doing a full row early on isn’t necessary. In my opinion, here is the ideal “schedule” for learning the different aspects of bag filling:

Early in the build, you can actually focus on doing buttress bags, rather than the full rows. For the buttress bags, there’s less pressure, because there’s 4 buttresses towards the front, so not all the attention is on you. Also, because there are 4 of them, buttresses are easy to jump in on, so you can get into an active position on the dome there without needing to do a whole row. 

Your first “deadline” for doing a full course comes before you reach the top of the door form. You want to do a course here so you can learn how to “wrangle” the bag against the form (or against a buttress bag). I missed out on wrangling a bag against the form, and I didn’t realize I missed it until we covered the form – then, it was too late. After that…

Your second “deadline” for doing a full course comes after the door form has been covered – and ideally, a good while after the door form has been covered. Towards the top of the dome, laying bag is different – you’re really high up, and it’s more technically difficult to lay the bag in a tight circle. You’ll want practice doing this, but by the time you get to the top, people might be figuring out that they also want a turn to practice it (as the remaining rows start to “run thin”, so to speak). Thus, you might need to get clever in terms of positioning yourself to ensure you get a turn at one of the top rows (see “gaming the dome cadence” below). I saw one person who said they wanted to do a top row, but by that point, people were already standing on the dome preparing to do that top row. Soon after that, we capped the dome – no more laying bag.

SIDE NOTE: At this point, I want to emphasize that you shouldn’t be an asshole and demand that you get a turn doing something you want to learn, or just prioritize your own learning over that of everyone else. Pretty much everyone who comes to these is super chill, and you can definitely “share” rows with people if you tell them that you want to learn how to do it. I’m just writing this so that you can be sure to position yourself to get the learning you pay for during your time at CalEarth, because, as I said above, you can run out of dome before you get to try out what you wanted to.

2. Learn barbed wire.

Barbed wire is another thing to focus on early in the process (if I were really try-hard-optimizing my learning). Barbed wire is only a 1 or 2 person job, so it can be a “hard nut to crack into” (see case study below) – but when you do it, you get two main benefits:

  1. Learning how to do the barbed wire part of the process in and of itself.
  2. Getting to have “hands on the dome” during the “in between” phase between courses, which can give you an ideal opportunity to transfer into bag-laying for the next course.

So, for instance, if I’d jumped into barbed wire before we got to the top of the door form (remember, laying bag at that stage was the only thing I missed in terms of learning experience), I may have had a chance to lay that bag if I’d just stuck around the dome and volunteered to lay bag for the next course right after I finished barbed wire. I call this “gaming the dome cadence”.

SIDE NOTE: You can pretty much do whatever you want if you just immediately volunteer when someone asks “who’s doing [activity] next?”. Typically there’s like a 1 or 2 second lull before people raise their hands or say “I’m doing this next”, so if you can just do that first, then you’ll be golden. The only exception to this is if multiple people start volunteering quickly because they read this blog post. But nobody reads my blog except bots, so you don’t have to worry about that.

Case Study: Cracking into the Barbed Wire Nut (aka Gaming the DOME CADENCE)

Some people get really focused on and good at one thing. For instance, there was one guy on our team who did the majority of the barbed wire job for probably the first 4 or 5 courses, and for a lot more of the courses thereafter. He got into the rhythm – which is good (because you NEED people to be thinking about tasks in advance in order for the operation to go smoothly) – however, I realized it was hard for anyone else (i.e. myself) to learn barbed wire because he was always a step ahead in the barbed wire process.

If you identify someone who’s doing this (intentionally or inadvertently – doesn’t matter, don’t care), SHADOW them. Just follow them around for 20 minutes, get a feel for what they’re doing at what times, maybe help them out a little bit. Then, when they get distracted, or do a part of the specific task that takes them away from the main area that that task is centered in, you can take over (then, after you’ve learned it, maybe even pass it off to someone else).

This case study doesn’t really apply to very many tasks other than barbed wire and bag cutting – but both of those activities are critically important to learn, critically important to the dome build, and critically important to gaming the dome cadence. When you cut barbed wire, and when you cut bag, you can carry that barbed wire or that bag to the dome, and at that point, you can usually just jump in and lay bag.

I think the most straightforward (but not necessarily the easiest) way to insert yourself into the barbed wire or bag cutting parts of the process is to “walk the bags”. If you want to walk the bags, and you see someone else is already walking the bags, just jump up after them and walk after them for the hell of it. If people say “they’re already walking the bags”, say “I just want to practice” – then do it first next time.

3. Learn Compass

The instructors prioritized having everyone do compass at least once, so you don’t have to worry about doing this too early. Probably around row 4 or 7 is the sweet spot – here, it’s not so early that nobody knows what they’re doing (which makes compass very difficult), but it’s not so late that the chain compass has become obsolete.

A note for me, a note for you: Compass is a high-pressure, high-impact, you’re-the-center-of-attention job. I did compass on row 2, and I kept fucking stuff up because I had no clue what I was doing. I learned a lot, of course, but I feel like it would’ve been beneficial for me to “watch and learn” the person doing compass for a course before jumping in myself.

A note for me, a note for you: On compass, don’t kid yourself. Even if you’ve adjusted a section of the bag 4 times, it can still be wrong, and you want to correct it as soon as possible (even if it means lifting the bag up and re-packing it) – because that’s better than backtracking the process 10 minutes later to fix your mess-up.

A note for me, a note for you: On compass, you can be very active in terms of making corrections to the bags. Feel free to get your hands on the bags and shove them around when you’re on compass, even if people are actively laying bags at that moment.

Late in the dome, when you’re nearing the top, the chain compass becomes obsolete. At this point, you just go by eye / feel. I recommend doing compass once earlier in the build (so you can practice with the chain), but also later, after the chain isn’t helpful any more. When I did the later compass, a lot of people were tapping out because it was so hot (mid afternoon on day 2, which was almost 100 degrees), so it was easy to get a chance to try it & practice.

Activities during the dome build that weren’t as important to me in terms of learning, and I personally wouldn’t want to spend too much time doing

There are many noble activities related to the dome build that you should contribute to. Don’t be the asshole who never shovels dirt, who never hands buckets up, who never does the “grunt work”. After all, you do need to learn how to perfect the mix ratios… and you don’t want to be someone who doesn’t do the grunt work every once in a while (assuming you’re physically able, not dying of heat exhaustion, etc).

However, there were a few people in my workshop who seemed to be always shoveling dirt into the wheelbarrows. First of all, it was super hot, so I don’t really get why they were always over there, because that’s probably the most consistently physically intense activity. Additionally, these few people only laid like one course of bags each, because they were over shoveling dirt for what seemed like all day, and then they only came over to get involved in the actual build intermittently during the 2nd day. I’m not criticizing them for this – I am grateful for the fact they enabled other people (including myself) to focus on the more technical aspects of the dome build – but I paid $1,400 to be here, I want to learn how to do the dome stuff.

Miscellaneous Tips

  • If you’re not experienced with the desert, obtain and/or bring long pants and a long sleeved shirt (a few of each ideally). Wearing long clothes might be hotter, but wearing jeans during the build process made me feel impervious.
  • I got a pair of work boots for this, but many people were just wearing sneakers.
  • Don’t wear anything you don’t want to get dirty on any day (even if they say you’ll just be in the classroom). You can get dirty on any day (except maybe the last day – but it’s still possible).
  • The sun will bounce off of the bags and give you a sunburn on your face even if you cover everything but your face. So wear sunscreen on your face & upper chest even if you have a dope sun hat.
  • You WANT to make mistakes, so don’t be afraid to have an action bias. Mistakes can always be corrected (as they say, earthbags are a forgiving material to build with), and you then learn from experts how to correct them. For example, one time we cut a bag too short, and then the instructor showed us how to fix that problem. Another time, we made a concrete mix too wet, so we learned how to make it usable again.
  • There are spiders all over all the domes and the kitchen area and bathroom. I only say this because I know people who are arachnophobic. If you’re scared of spiders, you can make it work, but if you’re literally arachnophobic, then maybe come for an open house first just to check it out.
  • A bunch of small cockroaches come out at night. They don’t hurt or anything, but they are prolific. They’re probably the main reason I didn’t try sleeping in a dome at night. 
  • You can meal-share with people. A lot of people got into small-ish groups and made food as a group, because some people like to cook or whatever. It’s best to plan this early, on day 1 or day 2, so you have time to get ingredients and eat leftovers (people left a LOT of decent food in the fridge at the end).
  • You can get to the workshop the night before – just email them and let them know. I recommend it – only me and one other guy got here the night before the workshop, and it was cool to walk around just us two, with the whole place to ourselves.
  • You can also get here the morning of. Most people did this, including our third camper, and all of the car campers.
  • I took the Amtrak from Flagstaff to Victorville, then took the Victor Valley bus from Victorville to Hesperia. There’s a bus stop very close to CalEarth. VV buses are nice, service times are lackluster (but on par for this kind of sprawl hell). The Amtrak is cool, but it got randomly cancelled the day I was supposed to leave (Sunday night, tonight, literally right now it was supposed to leave). So now I’m scheduled for the train for tomorrow. And now I’m all alone here, writing this blog post. It’s eerie and quiet. The sun just set.
  • There’s half a bottle of Axe body wash under the sink in the bathroom if you forgot your soap like I did.

Idea for you to implement that we didn’t try

You’re probably going to be using 14.5″ bags on the workshop dome, but you might be tempted to use bigger bags on your own build for bigger domes. At the dome-building portion of the workshop (maybe during the 2nd day of dome building when you’re really getting into a rhythm), consider asking the instructors if you can try filling a bit of an 18 or 20 inch bag as a test. Just like a few feet of it, to get a feel for it. We didn’t try this (my workshop friend / new lifelong friend Kruger suggested the idea), but you could.


As I said, don’t listen to me. I’m just some dude who slung bags at CalEarth for a long weekend. Hit me up if you have a fun build that you need help with.

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