Printer Friendly

Rammed earth homebuilding.

There is a certain magic to living in buildings with thick earth walls. It's hard to describe, but easy to notice. Just take a step inside one on some warm summer day and you'll feel it immediately. It's cool, of course--everyone knows adobe houses are "warm in winter and cool in summer"--but there's something else, too, a little harder to put your finger on. It's quiet and feels somehow incredibly solid and sturdy ... very different from other houses.

Most Americans today have grown up with the idea that a house is a lightweight box with walls built of thin sticks covered on both sides with even thinner skins. The floors and roofs are also built of sticks with equally thin skins. in the past two decades, as our awareness of the value of energy conservation has increased, builders have begun to fill the spaces between the sticks with expanded petroleum-based fibers, but that insulation hasn't done much to eliminate the flimsy nature of the building.

After all, not that long ago, houses used to be built to last for generations. People actually lived in a house long enough to think of it as home. People died in the same house they were born in. Times have changed of course, and in our fast-paced world few of us expect to die in the same city we were born in, let alone the same house. That doesn't mean, however, that we can't still appreciate the special qualities of a house built solidly enough to last for several hundred years.

In the mid- 1970s, while searching the Reader's Guide to Periodic Literature for more technical information on adobe construction, I came across a few current references to an alternate earth-building method known as "rammed earth." Further research led to the discovery of a multitude of 30- and 40-year-old references. As it turned out, the rammed earth technique had enjoyed widespread popularity during the first half of the twentieth century. The construction process I read about--moist soil compacted directly into movable formwork yielding immediately load-supporting walls--seemed almost too simple to be true. No sticky mud, no waiting for the bricks to dry, no mortar to mix, and no bricks to lay--it was an industrial engineer's dream. One-fifth the water, one-quarter the mixing time, one-sixtieth the drying time. Could this possibly be? If this technique had all these things going for it, why wasn't it in widespread use?

Twenty years and 500,000 cubic yards of moist soil later, I'm still asking myself the same question: why isn't rammed earth in more widespread use? Without doubt it is a lot of work, as are most things of value in fife, but the beautiful simplicity of converting raw, natural earth into human habitat involves a sort of sweaty alchemy. If you attempt to build your own rammed earth house, and if the process works as well for you as it has for me, you'll never regret the effort.

Planning Your Home

Design criteria for an integrated project must grow out of the site. It goes without saying that architecture should be responsive to the climate of its region--the Cape Cod saltbox and the Texas dog run evolved to suit very different sets of climatic conditions--but working with specific site conditions is equally important to successful design. Where does the sunlight enter the house? When and from where do the winter storms come and the prevailing breezes blow? Does the topography or a great view dictate a preferred spot for the garden, the kitchen, or the living room? How about privacy, road noise, or potential future development? These factors and many others come into play during the development of a site-appropriate design.

You've no doubt asked yourself a few questions already about a home made of sod. "What happens when it rains?"; "How do they stand up over time?"; "How much do they cost?"; and "How good are their insulating properties?" I've wished countless times that I could have had a large sign hovering over me which simply read, "Nothing, well, nothing, not much, and terrific."

Predictably, the answer to each of these questions is far more involved than that simple statement would indicate. The resistance of the walls to rainfall is a factor of the soil type, the rate of stabilization, the degree of compaction, the amount of protection afforded the wall, the drainage at the base, and the climate. Durability (including earthquake resistance) is dependent upon the strength of the wall, the design of the budding, the quality of construction, and the force of the earthquake. The cost of a rammed earth house is affected by the design of the budding, the slope and accessibility of the site, the percentage of owner-supplied labor, and the degree of finish work.

Finally, the R-value question is even more complex. Dense materials such as adobe, concrete, stone, brick, and rammed earth have R-values roughly equivalent to .25 per inch. In other words, an 18-inch-thick earthwall would appear to have a total R-value of only 4.5-far from adequate to meet today's strict performance standards, even in mild climates, where R-11 is the minimum wall insulation. If this is true, how can it be that an adobe house feels "warm in winter and cool in summer," as it is so often reported?

There are a few reasons for the exceptional performance of thermal-mass buildings despite the low per-inch R-value of the wall components. First (and most easily documented) is the heat capacity of the mass itself, known as the K-value. Rather than resisting the flow of energy from outside to inside, as an insulated wall does, a mass wall stores heat energy for return to the living spaces as it is needed.

The second is due to the effect that heat transfer through radiation has on our bodies. When we stand, sit, or walk near a mass wall, the energy in the wall will cause direct sensations of warmth or coolness, regardless of the temperature of the air in the room. Direct radiant energy provides a soothing, subtle, and effective alternative to forced-air heat and mechanical air conditioning.

In very cold regions, an exposed, uninsulated wall will become cold even with a supply of warm air on the interior surface. The cold walls will "wick" heat out of the living spaces, adding to the fuel bills as energy is expended in an attempt to offset the heat loss. Despite warm air temperatures, the walls will also create the sensation of cold through a constant radiant heat loss between the occupants and the wall mass. In these situations, insulation, either embedded within the wall or applied to the outside surface of the walls and protected with stucco or paneling, is economically justifiable.

In mild climate zones, but where some winter protection is helpful, it might make sense to explore alternatives to insulation, especially if an uninsulated wall can work to your advantage in maintaining cool temperatures during a long, hot summer. Some of these alternatives might involve altering your design to provide greater solar access if winter heat is redominant requirement, or adding a wide porch if summer cooling is the higher priority. If your winters are cold but short and sunny, perhaps the most feasible alternative would be the addition of solar panels to heat water for circulation through the floor slab, thereby offsetting the heat loss through the walls with inexpensive heat gain. If the summers are hot and dry, consider installing a nighttime evaporative cooler to force-ventilate the house and chill down the walls. If you five on rural property, try stacking bales of hay or straw against the north side of the house during the cold winter months, then using the straw for summer mulch on the garden.

Whether you rely on an attached greenhouse or an annual straw-bale blanket, there are a wide variety of alternatives worth evaluating before buying into synthetic insulation and stucco protection. Even in the coldest of climates, you might decide to build your house without exterior insulation and test how well it performs for a year or two. You can always add the insulation and stucco later if the heating bills are too high.

Water, Water...

Moisture is the lifeblood of the soil, but it can wreak havoc if the building and the site aren't prepared for a deluge. Low-lying building sites are, of course, subject to flooding. Driveways and pathways above a house may channel water into a doorway. Wind-driven rain can beat against window frames with enough force to creep around the sash. Saturated earth walls tend to lose their thermal efficiency and may become subject to accelerated surface weathering.

Depending on the amount of annual rainfall in the region, water-related issues may play a very big part in the site-selection and design processes. Where winter rains are extremely heavy, great care must be taken to assure rapid runoff away from the building. If positive control systems are not installed, water may back up against foundations and floor slabs, eventually migrating underneath the structure and generating unhealthy conditions in the house, or possible settling of the foundation walls.

The first and most important line of defense against groundwater damage is careful siting of the house. Study the land for signs of water flows. Avoid sites that are dearly water drainages. Picturesque riverbeds, today a peaceful habitat for rabbits and quail, was originally gouged out of the land by water. The water will come again.

The second line of defense against water-related problems is the finish grading around the building. Ground should always slope away from the house on all sides so that water will run away quickly from the building and never toward it. If water is allowed to back up against the walls, it will eventually work its way into the house. In some cases water can build up enough pressure to actually dislodge a building from its foundation. Drain lines can be buried at the base of the walls as additional diversionary measures, but surface drainage is always critical. Lastly, take special precautions to ensure that neither driveways nor walkways create natural watercourses leading toward the doors. Even a little footpath can become a streambed after a downpour.

The third level of protection, which like grading relates more to construction than to the selection process, is the team of roof overhangs, gutters, downspouts, and underground drain fines. In high rainfall or snowfall areas, overhangs and gutters are absolutely essential. Where the soil is heavy or drainage poor, use underground lines to carry the water from the roof away from the building.


The simplest and least expensive of foundation systems involves nothing more than locking the base of the wall into the earth, essentially beginning the construction of the wall a certain distance below grade. This approach works only in cases where either the climate is very dry or the wall material is not subject to deterioration from contact with moisture or soil organisms. Also, the ground under the wall must be firm enough to resist differential settling.

A more traditional and permanent system involves the excavation of a trench somewhat wider than the wall and deep enough to extend below the depth of winter freezing. The trench is then filled with a matrix of large and small stones, to achieve good weight distribution, and the wall built on top. in masonry construction, whether block or mortared stone, the irregular surface on top of the stone foundation results in a strong mechanical bond with the wall, an important consideration in seismic areas.

A variation on the rock foundation, which has been used effectively in many applications, is the "rubble-filled" trench with a poured-in-place concrete grade beam on top. The "rubble," normally gravel, road base, or crushed stone, uniformly distributes the weight of the walls over the full width of the trench. The concrete grade beam ties the wall system together at its base and makes the required strong connection between the walls and the footing. Where groundwater is significant or winter freezes severe, drain fines should be installed at the bottom of the trench and the water diverted either to daylight or to dry wells. The concrete beam should be poured high enough to lift the base of the walls above the surrounding ground to protect them against saturation.

In areas where the ground freezes during the winter, the rock-filled trench type of foundation can yield major savings in both labor and materials. When wet soil freezes, it expands with enough force to lift even a heavy building. if moisture is allowed to accumulate underneath a foundation, and that saturated soil then freezes, serious structural damage can result. The greater the frost depth, the deeper the foundation must extend into the ground to be certain no freezing occurs underneath it. In some parts of the world, the frost depth is eight feet or more. Compare the cost of filling a nine-foot trench with cracked rock to the expense of pouring concrete footings nine feet into the ground and then constructing an eight-foot-high water-impervious wall merely to bring the building to the point of starting the actual house walls!

The most common foundations today are built of reinforced, poured-in-place concrete. A concrete foundation typically is comprised of two parts: the spread footing and the stem wall. The footing distributes the weight of the building onto the earth below grade. The stem connects the walls of the building to the footing. The width of the footing is a factor of the load-bearing capacity of the soil on which the building is anchored. In very strong soils, the footing may be no wider than the wall itself, while in very weak soils, the footing may be twice or even three times as wide as the wall. Standard engineering guidelines assume soil strengths in the weak range, from 1,000 to 1,500 pounds per square foot (psf) bearing capacity. On the other hand, site investigations and testing by certified geologists may discover soil strengths on the order of 2,500 psf or greater. A significantly stronger soil, one that could justify narrower footing widths, allows you to pour narrower footings, thus saving money on concrete costs. Soils reports can be expensive, however, so before contracting with a geologist, try to determine the potential savings in concrete you could expect. Obviously, the larger the project, the greater the savings.

The footing can either be poured separately or in conjunction with the stem wall. Where frost depths require a deep footing, it is simpler to excavate the trench to the precise width designated by the engineering design, install the required reinforcing steel, and then pour concrete to the specified thickness directly into the trench. Form boards or form panels can then be set on top of the spread footing to the dimensions specified in the engineering. Where footings are more shallow, it may be possible to complete the whole foundation system in only one concrete pour. In this case, forms for the stem wall are suspended above the footing trench on stakes which are pulled before the concrete in the footing has fully set.

Both the spread footing and the stem wall require horizontal reinforcing steel tied continuously around the perimeter of the building. Typically, three 1/2-inch rebar are spaced evenly across the bottom of the footing trench, and two 1/2-inch rebar are suspended three inches from the top of the stem wall. Intermediate horizontal courses of reinforcing steel are required if the distance between the top and bottom steel exceeds 18 inches. Unless engineering design or special seismic considerations warrant it, vertical reinforcing does not extend above the top of the stem wall.

The strength of the connection between the earth walls and the concrete foundation is a result of both mechanical bonding and the weight of the wall. To improve the mechanical bond between the base of the walls and the top of the stem, the concrete should be left very rough after it is poured. The deformations in the concrete serve as a field of mini-keyways into which the earth is locked as it is compacted.

The Art of Formbuilding

Formwork is a major part of building with rammed earth. In fact, the time spent setting, aligning, and stripping the forms is usually greater than the time spent transporting and compacting the earth within the forms. For this reason, the efficiency of the forming system is key to the quality and affordability of building with rammed earth. Building with rammed earth is a little like making adobe bricks, except the forms are larger, the earth is drier, and the bricks never moved. Sundried adobe bricks are poured into molds set on the ground, left to cure, then laid up into a wall with mortar. Rammed earth is pounded into forms set in place on the foundation. Once the form is full, it is moved to a new position along the wall The blocks of earth are never moved, nor is any mortar required to bind them together. The force of ramming provides the bond between adjacent sections of wall. The traditional approach to building rammed earth has been used on every continent except Antarctica and has remained essentially unchanged for 2,000 years or more. The perimeter walls of the building are defined on the ground, either by constructing some type of foundation or by marking a line in the dirt. The two form panels and two endboards are erected at some chosen starting point along the building line. Layers of moist soil are then placed into, the formwork and compacted until the form is still. Once full, it is disassembled and repositioned along the building line, one end clamped against the section just completed, the other end closed off with an endboard. This process is continued around the perimeter of the building to complete the first level (course) of wall sections. The formwork is then lifted to rest on top of the first course and the process continued around the perimeter a second time, followed by a third, a fourth--as many passes as necessary to obtain the desired wall height. Each successive circumnavigation around the building results in raising the walls approximately two feet. The higher the walls, the more difficult setting the formwork becomes and the greater the inaccuracies in plumb and line.

Advances in forming technology have increased the efficiency and quality with which rammed earth wars can be built. Today, with the help of front-loading tractors, pneumatic tampers, and well-designed formwork, earth walls can be built in a fraction of the time it used to take. Under good conditions it is possible for a crew of four men to complete 300 square feet of wall per day, compared to the 40 or 50 square feet per day for a four-man crew working with hand tampers and baskets.

The form panels we use in our work are typically 4' x 8' or 4' x 10' sheets of HDO (high-density overlay) plywood with no permanently attached supporting frame. Form ties are 3/4-inch pipe clamps spaced between 6 and 10 feet apart in the horizontal direction and 15 to 24 inches apart in the vertical direction. The distance between pipe clamps is spanned by 2" x 10" or 2" x 12" wooden planks (called walers in forming language). The walers used in forming concrete are typically 2" x 4", with ties spaced 2 feet apart. It is the extra width of the walers in our system that allows for the wide spacing of the form ties; and it is the wide spacing of the form ties that reduces the work of compacting the soil with the heavy backfill tampers.

Once erected, the formwork presents a big open box into which workers can compact as much as 8 1/2 cubicyards of prepared soil without stopping.

Comers are more difficult to form than straight sections of wall. The forces from ramming are compounded at the far outside corner of the formwork, and it demands extra precaution to keep a corner straight and the formwork tight. In fact, comers present such significant headaches that frequently rammed earth buildings are designed without earth corners altogether. That is, either door openings or full-height windows are positioned to butt against straight wall sections at the building's corners or else side walls extend beyond the ends of the budding and the cross walls butt. (Viewed in a plan, this configuration is in the shape of a T.

Building the Walls

Constructing a complete wall system using the basic formwork is simply a matter of building one panel after another around the perimeter of the building, discontinued at door openings and partial height at window locations.

The first step, regardless of which method is used (freestanding or panel-to-panel), is to construct the corners. This way, the correct alignment of the walls can be maintained. String fines can be used to check alignment as each new form is set.

If concrete columns are specified in the design, each panel is spaced six inches from its neighbor. Where doors are to be installed, a panel is omitted, and where windows are to be installed, a partial-height panel is built. The simplest system calls for the door and window openings to extend to the height of the bond beam, thus eliminating the need for separate lintels. (More on doors and windows later.

In the panel-to-panel system, where no concrete columns are used, wall sections are rammed directly against one another, end to end. When. building this system, we first mark out on the foundation the exact position of each of the wall sections. Door and window rough openings are calculated and marked out directly on the foundation. The mark actually specifies the positioning of the endboard for each setup. With all the sections laid out, first build the corners to provide a point of alignment for the walls, then form and construct every other panel around the perimeter, leaving a full-panel gap between each section. The reason for the gap is that freshly constructed sections of wall are fragile, and when forms are clamped onto green walls there is a risk of cracking and other damage. By first making a complete circuit around the perimeter, building every other section, the walls will have enough time to cure, so that, when the intermediate panels are built, the seam between the two will be clean and straight.

The Essential Soil

Soil is classified by the size of its individual particles, not by its parent rock. Generally speaking, there are five basic soil types: gravel, sand, silt, clay, and organic. The five soil types are rarely found separately in nature. Rather, various combinations of particle sizes blend together over time to create soil mixtures: silty sand, clayish gravel, sandy gravel, etc. which soil to use in constructing a rammed earth wall is a matter of availability, economics, and climate. Some soils, of course, are far more suitable than others.

The logical point to begin our research into which soils are best suited for building new rammed earth walls is to look at old walls. What is the typical composition of the soil that was used to construct walls that have survived for a century or more? It turns out that most of the world's oldest rammed earth Walls were constructed with basically the same soil composition--let let it drop. Begin at one end of the form and work your way along from side to side.

Two or more people in the form--as many as can fit comfortably, in fact--will improve the rate of production. The rhythm of a team effort yields a psychological boost to the work Lift and drop. Lift and drop. As the soil becomes compacted, the sound of the tamping will change from a dull thud to a ringing sound. When the layer rings, it's time for more earth.

Once a soil layer has been completely compacted, shovel in another four to six inches and repeat the tamping ritual. Place layer upon layer until the form is full and the top layer is hard. Because each of the layers benefits from the forces applied to it by the ramming of the layer above, you'll need to take twice as much time compacting the top layer as you did the others.

The above procedure for building a wall section, as you might guess, results in a "layered" look. Once the forms are stripped, the wall will display very visible horizontal lines between each of the courses, like sedimentary rock The more level and consistent each of the loose courses are, the more uniform die layers in the finished wall. This layering is the traditional look of rammed earth. If desired, it can even be accentuated by increasing the thickness of each layer, from six inches of loose material to eight.

Whatever method of ramming you choose to use for your projects--buckets and hand tampers, thick layers and pneumatics, or continuous delivery--the results are structurally the same. If the soil has been selected carefully, moistened properly, and well compacted within the formwork, rammed earth walls become like stone. Believe it or not, like stone, the home becomes stronger with age ... which will be a comforting fact to your great-great-grandchildren as they stoke up the fire in the home you built so long ago.

The above article was adapted from: The Rammed Earth House (Chelsea Green, 1996) by David Easton. Copyright 1996 by David Easton. David's comprehensive guide is available for $30.00 through Mother's Bookshelf (see pages 88 and 89) by calling 1-800-888-9098 and asking for product number MEB234.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Ogden Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:homes built out of moistened earth
Author:Easton, David
Publication:Mother Earth News
Date:Apr 1, 1996
Previous Article:Grow your garden "up" as nature intended.
Next Article:Poetry in motion.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |