When it comes to contemporary sustainable design, no maxim is more apt than “what’s old is new again.” We’ve reached a period of reassessment, asking fundamental questions about the cities we live in, the buildings we inhabit, the materials we use, and the construction methods we employ.
As we’re forced to consider climate and environmental context more than ever, we find ourselves looking toward ancient practices and synthesizing them with contemporary technologies. In past installments of this column, we’ve seen wooden skyscrapers and mansions fashioned from bamboo. However, some enterprising designers are looking even further back, reviving one of our oldest known processes to build breathtaking structures from the very ground we walk on.
Dating back to at least 5000 BC, rammed earth architecture has been employed throughout the world, from the Great Wall of China to the ancient city of Carthage. The process involves compressing dampened earth into building blocks or panels through the use of temporary frames. Historically, the practice was material-cheap but labor-intensive, relying on workers to manually tamp the soil (a mixture of sand, gravel, and clay) into building shape—a time-consuming and exhausting process. The formed blocks were remarkably resilient, and some of these earthen structures have stood for centuries.
Today, pneumatic rams have significantly reduced build-times and labor costs, ushering in a small renaissance of rammed earth construction among those seeking a unique and sustainable building method. Modern manufacturers have supplemented the construction process with various modes of stabilization, including rebar, waterproofing agents, and the addition of a small percentage of cement to the soil mixture. Nevertheless, the fundamental principles of rammed earth remain the same: fill a mold with soil, tamp it down, and repeat.
Sustainable And More
Without an energy-intensive production stage—as with bricks or cement—rammed earth is one of the most sustainable construction processes available. When completed, the thick walls boast both excellent soundproofing properties and thermal mass, absorbing and releasing ambient heat to provide a comfortable interior temperature.
Perhaps the most compelling reason designers are choosing rammed earth is a simple one: it can be beautiful. Taking on the hues and textures of the surrounding soil, rammed earth walls are rich with natural nuance, and builders can introduce color stratification by varying the soil content, allowing for a host of aesthetic possibilities.
One of the most striking examples of contemporary rammed earth construction sits in the middle of the Australian outback. Zigzagging through the desert in an arresting shade of red is the Great Wall of WA [West Australia], a 230-meter bulwark against the punishing heat and winds of the region. (See accompanying pictures.)
Carved into the side of a large sand dune, the Musterer’s Quarters is a compound of 12 dwellings erected to house cattle farmers during mustering or gathering season. Partially subterranean, the units require no air conditioning thanks to their superior insulation. The iron and clay-rich soil from the surrounding area makes up the massive wall, which is also dramatically exposed to the interior of the units.
Above the dwellings looms a turret-like, steel-capped pavilion, which serves as a meeting area and chapel. A project of Sydney-based firm Luigi Rosselli Architects, the Musterer’s Quarters makes a compelling argument for the process. And while the project’s architects claim that its commanding outer wall is the largest rammed earth wall in the Southern Hemisphere, the Quarters are gaining more contemporary company by the year.
North America has already seen a handful of rammed earth projects. The Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre in British Columbia, Canada boasts an 80 meter rammed earth façade, earning the project numerous design awards
after its completion in 2006. In 2012, the Southeast Wyoming Welcome Center opened in Cheyenne, incorporating a beautifully striated rammed earth exterior.
As rammed earth draws so much from its immediate environment, it’s not a universal building solution. Without suitable soil close at hand, the process becomes significantly less sustainable. Nevertheless, the technique could prove revolutionary to quality of life in developing areas. While boutique design firms have made bold forays into the field of rammed earth, modern codes and standards still lag behind one of the world’s oldest construction methods. Ironically, some ideas are so old that we simply haven’t caught up with them yet.
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