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Mud-building 1990s-style: the rammed earth idea.

Mud-building 1990s-style: the rammed earth idea

Plastered walls and tree-size beams give this three-story hillside house in northern California's wine country a timeless look. Its basic construction relies on earth building, a centuries-old technology that has taken an evolutionary step forward with the addition of cement, pneumatic tools, and knock-down plywood forms. The densely compacted walls are termite-, fire-, and rotproof, and far outlast those of conventionally built houses. Practiced by the Romans as well as by the ancient Chinese, earth building found its way into this country in the late 1800s. Traditionally, the method mixes soil from the building site with water and compacts it between wooden forms to make thick walls--like those in an adobe, but without individual bricks. In modern earth building, also called rammed earth construction, cement is added to clean mineral soil (free of humus) and a small amount of sand. Pneumatic tampers compact the mixture in knock-down forms to create 18-inch-thick wall panels. In a system developed by David Easton of Rammed Earth Works, the panels are then incorporated into a concrete post-and-beam frame. Each panel is built independently of the others. At their bases, the panels rest on and tie into a concrete perimeter footing; along their sides, they have vertical slots (or "keys") left after the forms have been removed. The 8- to 10-inch-wide spaces left between adjacent panels are infilled with steel-reinforced concrete; these become the posts of the post-and-beam system. It's this system that does all the real structural work. When the concrete is poured, it fills the keys and locks all the panels together. Next, poured-in-place concrete "beams" are formed to cap the panels and posts and span openings for windows and doors.

A dramatic house in harmony with its surroundings

By using soil from the site and relatively little wood for framing, this house conserves natural resources and is free of pollutants. This method is labor-intensive, so the house cost about 20 percent more than a traditional structure to build. But it offers great potential for energy savings. The house's mass and orientation to the sun make it solar efficient. Its thick walls and slab floor absorb heat and cool the rooms on hot summer days; at night, they release the stored heat into the air. On winter days, the house's thermal mass receives heat from sunlight entering the south-facing windows (and from fires in the several fireplaces) and radiates it back into the air at night. A radiant heating system was installed in the first floor's slab when the soil-and-cement mixture was poured. (While still damp, this slab was cut into squares to form what appear to be tiles.) Guests enter at the house's 24- by 68-foot middle level, which is one large space with a fireplace at each end. This main room divides into kitchen, dining, and living areas. A balcony wraps around three sides above the living room area, leaving this central space open to the roof framing. Plaster on the interior walls makes a light-colored backdrop for the dramatic ceilings; ponderosa pine logs support tongue-and-groove pine decking. Built by Easton, the house was designed by Elly Drosihn for owners Marissa Carlisle and Lawrence Mills.

PHOTO : Pneumatic tamper compacts soil-cement mix in clamped-together wood forms that are built up

PHOTO : in levels

PHOTO : Tallest wall panels rise more than two stories from concrete perimeter footings (visible

PHOTO : at lower left). Panel at right still has its plywood ramming form

PHOTO : Massive logs spanning width of room rest on concrete beams and posts that were poured

PHOTO : between wall panels. The walls remain to be plastered

PHOTO : Wood framing on top floor and in middle-level bay reduces load on foundation. Most window

PHOTO : openings face south, admitting solar heat to be stored in concrete and rammed earth mass

PHOTO : Bronze-colored steel roof and ocher-toned stucco walls contribute fire protection as well

PHOTO : as warm, earthy color

PHOTO : Kitchen end of main floor has its own plaster-wrapped fireplace. Wood-faced island

PHOTO : contains cooktop. Pine floors run throughout upper stories

PHOTO : In seamless transition, plaster wall becomes backsplash for corner sink

PHOTO : Master bedroom on bottom floor has rounded stucco fireplace. Floor "tiles" were scored on

PHOTO : soil-cement mix colored only by the earth

PHOTO : Timber-framed bridge crosses part of living room near entry. Views rise to exposed-beam

PHOTO : roof and upper-level sitting area
COPYRIGHT 1990 Sunset Publishing Corp.
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Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Apr 1, 1990
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