Rammed earth has been a part of the alternative materials scene in Northern California since the mid 1970’s, when we first broke through the building permit barrier. Initially our goal was to develop a resource-efficient construction system that would be affordable and widely adopted by the building industry. We began with a strong commitment to construction simplicity and to the use of site materials.
As market confidence and client appreciation increased, we continued to improve the technology to meet the demands for a crisp, complex and highly refined product. Rammed earth’s reputation as an organic, rustic, inexpensive solution for the owner builder morphed into the perfect expression of artistic whimsy for those who could afford any structural system but preferred the visual power of a thick monolithic wall. Thirty years ago “rammed earth” was unknown in California building terminology. Today it’s on the drafting boards of some of the world’s leading architects.
Now that rammed earth has grown into the ultimate demonstration of client commitment to green building, we need to step back and consider what might have been lost along its road to recognition. Maintaining the connection to resource efficiency remains our primary goal, but as projects involve more complex wall systems with tighter specifications, formulations become more dependent on the uniform soil gradations of imported quarry products and stabilization ratios rise in response to engineering demands.
The upside is that today’s rammed earth walls are immaculate, as well as being safe, quiet and comfortable. The downside is too many eighteen-wheelers on the road burning diesel and too much imported cement from China. Our carbon footprint increases in proportion to the demand for art walls rather than simple structure. The fact is, a hand made wall with its human imperfections is much “greener” than the perfectly plumb, sharp edged, stratified art walls that are currently in demand.
The challenge now is to re-focus on our original vision: can we return to site materials, reduce cement content, simplify formwork and still produce a beautiful, affordable, and supremely sustainable wall system? It is imperative that we try – for the sake of future builders.
David Easton is a graduate of Stanford Engineering’s Product Design Department in 1970; founder of Rammed Earth Works, California’s oldest structural earth wall company; author of The Rammed Earth House; and developer of mechanical systems, soil mix designs, quality control procedures, and seismic strategies specific to building with site resources in earthquake regions. His project portfolio ranges from low-cost solutions for construction in developing countries to high-end commercial and residential projects in the United States.