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Resurrection: Rammed Earth Construction

Michael Padavic


Professor Mark Mulligan
GSD 6204
Building Technology
January 11, 2002







Padavic 1
Construction materials are at a peculiar stage in history. Decades ago, traditional
building methods were dropped in favor of the economic, disregarding the embodied energy of
these newer materials. Technology and environmental awareness have advanced enough,
however, to allow purely economic building methods to be questioned. One of the most
interesting materials affected by this heightened awareness is rammed earth a process by
which a soil mixture is lifted into formwork and compacted to make a strong, monolithic wall
(figure 1).
Building with earth is well known to
be an ancient practice, occurring more
frequently once the human race began
evolving from a nomadic lifestyle to an
agricultural one. Thousands of years later,
technology is allowing the reexamination of
earth construction. Developments prove
that earth construction is still a viable economic and environmentally conscious technique.
Further, the subcategory of rammed earth construction is worthy of financial support and
advancement. To see this, first it is important to have a deeper look at the history of earth
construction. Then it is informative to see recent examples of building with rammed earth. Next,
it is necessary to have a detailed explanation of the rammed earth construction method, thus
outlining its benefits and weaknesses. Putting these all together, including innovations that target
weaknesses, it will be evident that rammed earth is a viable construction technique, safer for the
environment, yet comparable in price. Rammed earth is a logical building material that has a
common place in todays economy and environment.
There is a good amount of information known about the early building techniques of the
human race. The nomadic lifestyle of the hunter didnt allow for a fixed dwelling. However,
knowledge and development of agriculture rendered the need for permanent shelter. Globally, a
chronology is difficult to understand, because civilizations developed independently and at
different speeds. In all places, though, dependant upon locale was the use of wood, stone, or
Figure 1
Padavic 2
neither, but in all cases was the use of earth in the form of mud
1
. An early advancement was
brick building to solve the need for an effective, rapid technique. Adobe was used most often, but
soil blocks were developed where adobe wouldnt work
2
. In the arid Middle East, buildings of
brick with no internal structure at all were developed
3
. During the expansion of the western
United States, bricks and lumber would be provided locally, with settlers completing construction
in the local tradition or style. It is difficult to specifically date rammed earth in particular, but it is
known to have been in use on the east coast through mid-19
th
century. A treatise was published
in 1839 extolling the virtues of rammed earth construction. It is a viable medium in virtually any
climate
4
. A gradual decline of building with earth came with the advent of railroads providing
an abundance of materials that could emulate the styles of the east. The big change, however,
came when the switch was made to economical, modern materials after WWII.
5

Today, rammed earth is reasserting itself in a few ways. Two of these ways are
environmentally and pragmatically. Environmentally, the Autonomous Environmental Centre
(Ateic), designed by Pat Borer with David Lea in Wales, showcases a number of alternative
building materials and has raised some discussion in the U.K.
6
In addition to non-reinforced
rammed earth walls there is locally sourced timber, woodwool sheathing, and lime-crete as
opposed to cement due to its high production of
carbon dioxide
7
. Whereas the Ateic building
expresses the environmental nature, Rick Joys
architecture expresses its pragmatic desirability.
In 1998, Joy designed the 2800-square-foot
Palmer/Rose residence outside Tucson, Arizona
(figure 2). It could almost go unsaid how
beautifully the residence blends in with the

1
McHenry, Paul Graham. Adobe and Rammed Earth Buildings: Design and Construction. New York: John Wiley & Sons,
1984. Page 2.
2
McHenry, 4.
3
McHenry, 6.
4
McHenry, 7.
5
McHenry, 8.
6
Hannay, Patrick. Ground Force. RIBA Journal 107 (Nov 2000): 34-40. Page 34.
7
Hannay, 36.
Figure 2
Padavic 3
Sonoran and the Santa Catalina Mountains
(Figure 3). Described as a modernist who
designs with an elemental palette of light, space,
and soil, Joy uses rammed earth because of its
low level of skill involved. As his own contractor,
skilled labor can be concentrated on other parts
of the design, creating a greater contrast with
the shell.
8

The specific construction of rammed earth consists of lifts or layers of earth poured into
formwork at a depth of eight inches and then compacted to five inches.
9
This creates a striated
earthen wall like a geological cut through time
10
. Similar to concrete, it is stronger than other
forms of earth construction because it is compacted in place and contains no mortar joints
11
.
Rammed earth construction begins with site selection and the acquisition of very specific
materials: soil mix, water, and an optional stabilizer. Since topsoil is organic and biodegrades, a
mix of subsoil is used
12
. The approximate proportion of subsoil is thirty percent clay/silt to
seventy percent sand/gravel
13
. Water has a direct impact on the strength of finished walls, and
depending on the soil mix, is eight to sixteen percent of the mix
14
. An optional stabilizer may be
added four to twelve percent depending on conditions such as bonding strength of the clay,
seismic activity, desired construction process, or desired wall proportions
15
. Stabilizers include
cement, lime, or pozzolan added to the mix
16
. There are numerous field and laboratory tests to
be run at all stages of the material gathering process, each to determine the specific mix peculiar
to the site. These include density, compressive strength, bond strength, and erosion and wear
resistance tests
17
.

8
Giovanni, Joseph. Earthwork: The Palmer/Rose Residence, Tucson, Arizona. Architecture 87 (Dec 1998: 90-97.
Page 91.
9
Keable, Julian. Rammed Earth Structures: A Code of Practice. London: Intermediate Publications, LTD, 1996.
10
Giovanni, 91.
11
King, Bruce. Buildings of Earth and Straw. Sausalito, California: Ecological Design Press, 1996. Page 55.
12
King, 53.
13
Keable, 18.
14
Keable, 24.
15
King, 64.
16
Keable, 34.
17
King, 59.
Figure 3
Padavic 4
If a good sand/clay mix is not attainable at the site, the lacking part may be brought to the
site and blended in. A variety in particle size is necessary so that the soil bonds to itself and
other materials (such as a concrete foundation or slab). Particle sizes range from gravel (one
inch 3/16 inch) to sand (3/16 inch a few thousands of an inch) to fines (less that three
thousands of an inch). Fines are a combination of clay and silt, with concentration on clay levels
too little wont bond the soil while too much will cause excess water absorption and cracking.
18

The soil must be mixed, usually manually by shovel, to allow the variety of particles to be spread
throughout
19
. At this time, a stabilizer is blended if desired. Reasons for adding a stabilizer far
outweigh not, as it speeds the construction process, improves durability, allows thinner walls, and
requires less of a surface treatment. However, with a stabilizer, the process is a bit more
complicated and expensive
20
. Finally, water is added to the mix, sprinkled on as to not saturate
any part of the mix. If a stabilizer has been added (especially cement), lifting the wall must begin
immediately thereafter.
Formwork (figure 4) is similar to that
for concrete, and should be in place before
water is added to the soil mix. However,
different from concrete, the formwork cannot
have ties running through it. This is
because all areas of the form must be
accessible to tamping
21
. This fact also
renders the minimum thickness of a wall to
about sixteen to eighteen inches, so that a
laborer can move within the form. Typical
thickness for walls is sixteen, eighteen, and
twenty-four inches with a height to weight

18
King, 53.
19
Keable, 28.
20
Keable, 20.
21
Keable, 44.
Figure 4
Padavic 5
ratio of approximately ten
22
. Concentration for formwork is on strength and stiffness, lightness,
and ease of alignment. Possible materials include plywood, wood planks and framing, mild steel,
or a combination for a desired finished appearance. Like concrete, sheet materials give good off-
form finished surfaces. Dependant on the quality of soil and presence of stabilizer is the height of
the formwork. Unstabilized soil is concentrated horizontally, and alignment is from layer to layer
of wall. Stabilized soil is concentrated vertically, and alignment is between forms. Openings for
doors and windows within the wall are created with blockouts. Corners are made stronger if
created as one piece as opposed to solely having a joint between two walls
23
.
Once formwork for a wall section
is complete, the soil is mixed, blended
and hydrated. Soon after, as mentioned
before, earth is laid in and compacted (or
tamped see figure 5). Both manual
and pneumatic tampers can be used.
Care is taken so that larger stones are
moved away from the form. The edges
are rammed first, and then the center
until no further impressions result from
blows from the tamper
24
. After the wall
completely goes up and is cured (twenty-
eight to fifty-six day period) any fixtures
may be added
25
. The roof is tied into the wall, and window and doorframes are added. Fixings
are buried deep within the wall to retain structural integrity
26
. In addition, utilities and systems,

22
King, 64.
23
Keable, 42-44.
24
Keable, 52.
25
King, 57.
26
Keable, 92.
Figure 5
Padavic 6
determined before construction, may pass within the wall to a certain degree
27
. The final part of
the construction process is to apply a wall finish, if desired or required
28
.
Through the construction process, it is possible to outline the strengths and weaknesses
of rammed earth construction. It is environmentally conscious, especially since the main material
is abundant and usually taken from the site itself
29
. Also, although a poor insulator, rammed earth
has good thermal mass properties, storing heat from the sun and releasing it during the cooler
night
30
. Finally, its a low cost, rapid construction technique of high compressive strength (300-
900 psi) and desirable aesthetics
31
. On the other hand, the main known weakness includes its
low-tensile strength (susceptibility to seismic activity)
32
, while perceived weaknesses are its
absorption of and erosion by water
33
. Additionally, there is one standpoint that is generally
unclear about rammed earth construction. Some claim that it is possible to achieve with unskilled
labor. Yet, one would assume that it takes a high degree of skilled labor to construct. The
conclusion that can be made from the given information, listed here and in other readings, would
suggest that a contractor skilled in rammed earth would have to be available for acquisition of
materials, testing, and designing formwork. However, after that, the process of mixing, hydrating,
lifting, and tamping is possible by unskilled labor
34
.
Since earth construction had been seldom used in the past sixty years, expertise on the
matter had all but disappeared. However, continuous research and experimentation in recent
years has improved knowledge about rammed earth. With knowledge of concrete construction,
many of the tensile problems of rammed earth are solved in the same way. Seismic activity, or
any overbearing force, causes cracking within the wall that in turn reduces its overall strength.
Exact calculations are not yet known, but problem areas can be targeted. Steel rebar can be
placed into the form and bound to the earth during the ramming process. This can occur at

27
Keable, 102.
28
Keable, 94.
29
Keable, 2.
30
www.greenbuilder.com, section 8.1.
31
King, 63.
32
Keable, 106.
33
www.greenbuilder.com, section 5.4.
34
Keable, 2.
Padavic 7
corners and over wall openings to provide stability
and tensile strength
35
. Instead of rebar, lintels of
various materials or even arches can also be used
over openings
36
(figure 6). Much of the general
concern with rammed earth, though, is its
susceptibility to water. If the wall absorbs water,
the bonds between particles lessen and crushing
strength is reduced. Driving rain loosens smaller
particles, which create larger holes and cracks
within the wall. Water can be combated easily
though. Common design techniques, such as
deep over hangs (usually one-third the height of
the wall), can begin to protect the wall. The addition of a stabilizer will help with the water
absorption (another advantage to adding a stabilizer)
37
. But as far as water damage goes,
surface treatment can provide the best protection for a rammed earth wall. Breathable finishes
should be used to allow for water evaporation. Traditionally, stucco or plaster has been used and
then painted over. Also, a lime wash (whitewash), bitumen emulsion with paint, emulsion paint,
or oil-based paint can protect the surface. Still, with the desire to express the earthen quality of
rammed earth, polymer emulsion (PVA) has more recently been used to seal the wall and protect
it from wind and rain, left transparent for aesthetics
38
.
Rammed earth is a logical building material in its economy, environmental awareness,
and construction technique. It has been accepted as a safe construction material that has an
aesthetic advantage. Once accepted on a larger scale for more frequent use and is supported
financially, further experimentation may be done to further this building material, and allow the
resurrection of earth construction.

35
Keable, 106.
36
Keable, 86.
37
Keable, 76-78.
38
Keable, 94.
Figure 6
Padavic 8
Bibliography
1. Giovanni, Joseph. Earthwork: The Palmer/Rose House, Tucson, Arizona. Architecture 87
(Dec 1998): 90-97.

2. Hannay, Patrick. Ground Force. RIBA Journal 107 (Nov 2000): 34-40.

3. Keable, Julian. Rammed Earth Construction: A Code of Practice. London: Intermediate
Publications, LTD, 1996.

4. King, Bruce. Buildings of Earth and Straw. Sausalito, California: Ecological Design Press,
1996.

5. McHenry, Paul Graham. Adobe and Rammed Earth Buildings: Design and Construction. New
York: John Wiley & Sons, 1984.

6. www.greenbuilder.com

7. www.nahbrc.org



Illustration Sources

cover: Giovanni, 94.

figure 1: www.nahbrc.org

figure 2: Giovanni, 94.

figure 3: Giovanni, 94.

figure 4: King, 50.

figure 5: King, 56.

figure 6: King, 70.