Rammed Earth Walls – Oh, How I Love Thee!
I’ve written before (briefly) about my love for rammed earth walls and the beauty they bring to renovations and designs. I even suggested that they would become the next big thing.
For the uninitiated, rammed earth walls are a method of building walls in situ with a selected mixture of aggregates (gravel, earth sand, silt and clay) and a small amount of cement being “rammed” between 2 panels, moulds or formwork, gradually building one layer on top of another until the desired height is reached. When the formwork is removed it reveals a naturally textured surface that’s as beautiful to touch as they are to admire.
The renewed interest in rammed earth walls is not an accident, as they tick all the boxes for today’s socially and environmentally conscious designer; they have great thermal mass, they are strong and durable, they are sustainable, and they are great to look at as they have a natural warmth and beauty that speaks to the land and complements the natural environment.
These wondrous walls also offer the benefits of temperature and noise reduction, low maintenance, load bearing confidence, and they are fire-proof and pest resistant. Plus, there is the absolute pleasure of building with natural and environmentally sound materials.
Fire Protection – The earth doesn’t burn, so these are perfect for areas of high fire danger, such as bush settings and leafy neighbourhoods.
Noise Reduction – They keep the noise out (or in) and so are perfect in high-traffic suburbs, between close dwellings, or rooms with different needs.
Durability and Strength – Immune to fire, termites and the weather, with modern technology and different mixes, they require little maintenance. Normally coated with an air-permeable sealer to increase longevity, they may require reseal every 10, 15, to 20 years, depending on components.
Thermal Mass – Today’s builds and renovations are all about building science, and rammed earth walls are aligned with that. The walls provide excellent protection from climate extremes with internal temperatures remaining stable; cooler in summer and warmer in winter. The wineries of Western Australia are famous for their rammed earth buildings.
Pest-Proof – While the Building Code of Australia hasn’t deemed it officially a termite barrier, there are no cavities to harbour pests, and nothing in the make-up of rammed earth supports them. Termite proofing can be strengthened by building on a cement slab.
Versatility – Rammed earth is suitable for commercial and domestic building, and can be integrated into many styles. Colours, textures and finishes are only governed by the aggregates used. Elements like reliefs, patterns and artworks can be incorporated, as well as arches and circular windows.
The Ancient History
Adding to the attraction of this wondrous building technique is its history; rammed earth construction has been around for thousands of years.
Perhaps one of the most famous builds in which rammed earth features in long stretches is the Great Wall of China. Originally built some 2,500 years ago, rammed earth and wood made up most of the wall. Throughout its history, emperor after emperor has updated and extended the wall, and today the wall is updated with brick, granite and even marble, with one surviving section of the ancient fort in Shandong province.
The ancient and magical Kasbahs of Morocco are another standout example of the durability and beauty of rammed earth architecture, and some of the buildings and city walls date back as far as 1062 BC.
In Spain, built on a plateau rising above the city of Granada, the impressive Alhambra palace (or fortress) was constructed between 1238 and 1358 BC.
Ancient Techniques for the Modern World
It’s poetic that the building, construction and design industry is looking to the ancient techniques of our global ancestors to adapt them for our sustainable living in the 21st century.
Earth construction, including rammed earth, is becoming a viable and, in some places, necessary way to solve housing and building cost issues. Some amazing examples being the colourful rammed earth walls of Ghana, the IHA Residence in Kerala, India, and Auroville Visitors Centre in Tamil Nadu, India.
In Australia, at this point, rammed earth building is costly, and it’s mostly prominent in Western Australia, including architect Paul O’Reilly’s Bush House in Margaret River. In Melbourne, a 1930s bungalow has been transformed into a stunning family home by a curved, rammed earth extension, by Stefan & Welsh architects.
I’m excited to see the advances in this area as environmentally-sound, yet beautiful reflections of nature add to the sustainability for home and building designs of the future.