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Rammed earth

The ruins of a Han Dynasty (202 BCE – 220 CE) Chinese watchtower made of rammed earth at Dunhuang, Gansu province, at the eastern end of the Silk Road
A typical Hmong house-building technique in the subtropical climate of Vietnam

Rammed earth, also known as taipa[1] (Portuguese), tapial (Spanish), and pisé (de terre) (French), is a technique for building walls, foundations, and floors using natural raw materials such as earth, chalk, lime or gravel.[2] It is an ancient building method that has seen a revival in recent years as people seek more sustainable building materials and natural building methods.

Rammed-earth can be simple to construct, noncombustible, thermally massive, strong, and durable. However, structures such as walls can be labour-intensive to construct without machinery (powered tampers), and they are susceptible to water damage if inadequately protected or maintained.

Rammed-earth buildings are found on every continent except Antarctica, in a range of environments that include temperate and wet regions,[3] semiarid deserts, mountain areas and the tropics. The availability of useful soil and a building design appropriate for local climatic conditions are the factors that favour its use.


  • Overview of use 1
  • Characteristics 2
    • Environmental benefits 2.1
    • Environmental aspects and sustainability 2.2
  • History 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • External sources 6

Overview of use

Model showing construction of rammed-earth wall on foundation

Building a rammed-earth wall involves compressing a damp mixture of earth that has suitable proportions of sand, gravel and clay (sometimes with an added stabilizer) into an externally supported frame or mould, creating either a solid wall of earth or individual blocks. Historically, such additives as lime or animal blood were used to stabilize the material, while modern construction uses lime, cement or asphalt emulsions. Some modern builders also add coloured oxides or other items, such as bottles, tires, or pieces of timber, to add variety to the structure.

The construction of an entire wall begins with a temporary frame (formwork), usually made of wood or plywood, to act as a mould for the desired shape and dimensions of each wall section. The form must be sturdy and well braced, and the two opposing wall faces clamped together, to prevent bulging or deformation from the large compression forces involved. Damp material is poured in to a depth of 10 to 25 cm (4 to 10 in) and then compacted to around 50% of its original height. The material is compressed iteratively, in batches, gradually building the wall up to the top of the frame. Tamping was historically done by hand with a long ramming pole, and was very labour-intensive; modern construction can be made less labour-intensive by employing pneumatically powered tampers.

Taipa fortifications at Paderne Castle in the Algarve, Portugal

Once a wall is complete, it is strong enough for the frames to be immediately removed. This is in fact necessary if a surface texture is to be applied (e.g., by wire-brushing, carving, or mould impression), since the walls become too hard to work after about an hour. Construction is best done in warm weather so that the walls can dry and harden. The compression strength of the rammed earth increases as it cures; it takes some time to dry out, as much as two years for complete curing. Exposed walls should be sealed to prevent water damage.

In modern variations of the method, rammed-earth walls are constructed on top of conventional footings or a reinforced concrete slab base.

Where blocks made of rammed earth are used, they are generally stacked like regular blocks but are bonded together with a thin mud slurry instead of cement. Special machines, usually powered by small engines and often portable, are used to compress the earth into blocks.


Surface detail of a rammed-earth wall: apart from the patches of damage, the surface shows regular horizontal lines from the wooden formwork used in constructing the wall and subtler horizontal strata from successive layers of compacted earth.

The compressive strength of rammed earth can be up to 4.3 MPa (620 psi). This is less than that of concrete, but more than strong enough for use in domestic buildings.[4] Indeed, properly built rammed earth can withstand loads for thousands of years, as many still-standing ancient structures around the world attest.[5] Rammed earth using rebar, wood or bamboo reinforcement can prevent failure caused by earthquakes or heavy storms, since unreinforced structures have extremely poor earthquake resistance. See 1960 Agadir earthquake for an example of the total destruction which may be inflicted on such structures by an earthquake. Adding cement to clay-poor soil mixtures can also increase a structure's load-bearing capacity. The USDA has observed that rammed-earth structures last indefinitely and could be built for no more than two-thirds the cost of standard frame houses.[6]

Soil is a widely available, low-cost and sustainable resource, and utilizing it in construction has minimal environmental impact.[7] This makes rammed-earth construction highly affordable and viable for low-income builders. Unskilled labour can do most of the necessary work, and today more than 30 percent of the world's population uses earth as a building material.[4] Rammed earth has been used around the world in a wide range of climatic conditions, from wet northern Europe to dry regions in Africa.

While the cost of material is low, rammed-earth construction without mechanical tools can be very time-consuming; however, with a mechanical tamper and prefabricated formwork, it can take as little as two to three days to construct the walls for a 200 to 220 m2 (2,200 to 2,400 sq ft) house.[4]

Environmental benefits

Rammed earth is probably the single lowest environmental impact building system that is readily and commercially available today for solid masonry buildings. Rammed earth has potentially low manufacturing impacts, depending on cement content and degree of local material sourcing; often quarried aggregates, rather than the ‘earth’.

One of the significant benefits of rammed earth is its high thermal mass; like brick or concrete construction, it can absorb heat during the day and release it at night. This moderates daily temperature variations and reduces the need for air conditioning and heating. For colder climates, rammed earth walls can also be insulated with a Styrofoam or similar insert. It must also be protected from heavy rain and insulated with vapour barriers.[5][8]

Rammed earth can effectively control humidity where unclad walls containing clay are exposed to an internal space. Humidity is held between 40% and 60%, the ideal range for asthma sufferers and for the storage of such susceptible items as books. The material mass and clay content of rammed earth allows the building to "breathe" more than concrete structures do, avoiding condensation issues without significant heat loss.[4]

Untouched, rammed-earth walls have the colour and texture of natural earth. Moisture-impermeable finishes, such as cement render, are avoided because they impair the wall's ability to desorb moisture, necessary to preserve its strength. Well-cured walls accept nails and screws easily, and can be effectively patched with the same material used to build them. Blemishes can be repaired using the soil mixture as a plaster and sanded smooth.

The thickness, typically 30 to 35 centimetres (12 to 14 in), and density of rammed-earth walls make them suitable for soundproofing. They are also termite-resistant, non-toxic, inherently fireproof and ultimately biodegradable.

Environmental aspects and sustainability

Rammed-earth trombe wall built by the Design Build Bluff Organization

Rammed-earth structures are thought to be more sustainable and environmentally friendly than popular building techniques. Because rammed-earth structures use locally available materials, they usually have low embodied energy and generate very little waste. The soils used are typically subsoils low in clay (between 5% and 15%), allowing the topsoil being retained for agricultural use. When the soil excavated in preparing the building's foundation can be used, the cost and energy consumption for transportation are minimal.[7]

The formwork is removable and can be repeatedly reused, reducing the need for lumber.[9] Mixing cement with the earth can counteract sustainable benefits such as low embodied energy and humidity control since manufacture of the cement itself adds to the global carbon dioxide burden at a rate of 1.25 tonnes per tonne of cement produced.[10] Partial substitution of cement with alternatives such as ground granulated blast furnace slag has not been shown to be effective, and raises further sustainability questions.[11]

Rammed earth can contribute to the overall energy-efficiency of buildings. The density, thickness and thermal conductivity of rammed earth make it a particularly suitable material for passive solar heating. Warmth takes almost 12 hours to work its way through a wall 35 cm (14 in) thick.[4]

Rammed-earth housing has been shown to resolve problems with homelessness caused by otherwise high building costs and also to help address the ecological impacts of deforestation and the toxicity of building materials associated with conventional construction methods.

There are now contemporary materials which incorporate the process and design of traditional rammed earth but have found new alternatives to the old dependency upon the binding properties of clay soils. Nowadays, companies such as AggreBind use cross-linking styrene acrylic polymer materials replacing soil cement (with its low tensile strength), asphalt, tree resin, ionic stabilizers. AggreBind can also be used with contaminated mining materials, and non-organic waste materials to incorporate the process of rammed earth but with longer lasting and better results.[12]

Although it is a low greenhouse emission product in principle, transport and cement manufacture can add significantly to the overall emissions associated with typical modern rammed earth construction. The most basic kind of traditional rammed earth has very low greenhouse gas emissions but the more highly engineered and processed variant of rammed earth has the potential for significant emissions.


A Taipa section of the Great Wall of China

Evidence of the early use of rammed earth has been seen in Neolithic archaeological sites of the Yangshao and Longshan cultures along the Yellow River in China, dating back to 5000 BCE. By 2000 BCE, rammed-earth architectural techniques (夯土 Hāng tǔ) were commonly used for walls and foundations in China.[13]

In the 1800s, rammed earth was popularized in the United States through the book Rural Economy by S.W. Johnson. The method was used to construct the Borough House Plantation[14] and the Church of the Holy Cross[15] in South Carolina, both US National Historic Landmarks.

An outstanding example of rammed-earth construction in Canada is St. Thomas Anglican Church (Shanty Bay, Ontario), built between 1838 and 1841.

Buildings of the Borough House Plantation, Stateburg, South Carolina, built in the 1820s.
Church of the Holy Cross (Episcopal) Stateburg (or Holy Cross Episcopal Church) in Stateburg, South Carolina, built of rammed earth in 1850–1852

The period from the 1920s through the 1940s was active for studies of rammed-earth construction in the US. South Dakota State College carried out extensive research and built almost a hundred weathering walls of rammed earth. Over a period of thirty years the college investigated the use of paints and plasters in relation to colloids in soil. In 1945 Clemson Agricultural College of South Carolina published the results of their rammed-earth research in a pamphlet called "Rammed Earth Building Construction". In 1936, on a homestead near Gardendale, Alabama, the United States Department of Agriculture constructed an experimental community of rammed-earth buildings with architect Thomas Hibben. The houses were built inexpensively, and were sold to the public along with sufficient land for a garden and small livestock plots. The project was a success and provided valuable homes to low-income families.[4]

The U.S. Agency for International Development is working with undeveloped countries to improve the engineering of rammed-earth houses. They also financed the writing of the Handbook of Rammed Earth by Texas A&M University and the Texas Transportation Institute. The handbook was unavailable for purchase by the public until the Rammed Earth Institute International gained permission to reprint it.[4]

Interest in rammed earth fell after World War II when the costs of modern building materials dropped. Rammed earth was considered substandard, and still meets opposition from many contractors, engineers, and tradesmen who are unfamiliar with earth construction techniques.[4] The prevailing perception that such materials and construction do not fare well in earthquake-prone regions has prevented its use in much of the world. In Chile, for example, rammed earth structures normally cannot receive conventional insurance or even government approval in most cases.

A notable example of 21st Century use is the rammed earth façade at the Nk'Mip Desert Cultural Centre in southern British Columbia, Canada. As of 2014 it is the largest rammed earth wall in North America.

Nk'Mip Desert Cultural Centre in Osoyoos, British Columbia, Canada, completed in 2006.

See also

Rammed earth (pisé) houses in Tabant, Morocco. The technique is called Tabut there.
Rammed-earth walls form part of the entrance building for the Eden Project in Cornwall, England.


  1. ^  
  2. ^ Pisé terminology
  3. ^ Keable, Rowland. "Rammed Earth Lecture Theatre, CAT". Rammed Earth. Construction, Consultancy and Research. London,UK. Retrieved February 4, 2012. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Cassell, Robert O. (December 17, 2001). "A Traditional Research Paper: Rammed Earth Construction". Ashland Community and Technical College. Retrieved February 4, 2012. 
  5. ^ a b "BENEFITS OF BUILDING IN RAMMED EARTH". Rammed Earth Constructions. Maleny, Australia: Rammed Earth Constructions P/L. Retrieved February 4, 2012. 
  6. ^ Betts, Morris Cotgrave; Miller, Thomas Arrington Huntington (May 1937) [1925]. "Farmers' Bulletin No. 1500: Rammed Earth Walls for Buildings - Rammed Earth Books - The Boden Hauser". The Boden Hauser. p. 20.  
  7. ^ a b "Soils for Rammed Earth, Caliche Block, and Soil Material Construction". Earth Materials Sustainable Sources. Austin, TX, USA: Sustainable Sources. Retrieved February 4, 2012. 
  8. ^ "Rammed Earth Construction". Rammed Earth Construction Experts, Earth Structures. Victoria, Australia. Retrieved February 4, 2012. 
  9. ^ Nelson, Wayne (May 21, 2003). "Natural Building Colloquium: Compressed Earth Blocks". NetWorks Productions. Retrieved February 4, 2012. 
  10. ^ Keable, Rowland. "Rammed Earth – Pollution and Cement". Rammed Earth. Construction, Consultancy and Research. London,UK. Retrieved February 4, 2012. 
  11. ^ "Ground Granulated Blast-Furnace slag". Federal Highway Administration. Washington, DC:  
  12. ^ AggreBind Soil Stabilization. Retrieved November 2013. 
  13. ^ Xujie, Liu; et al. (2002). Steinhardt, Nancy Shatzman, ed. Chinese Architecture. New Haven, CT, USA:Yale University Press ; Beijing, China: New World Press. pp. 12–14, 21–22.  
  14. ^ "National Register Properties in South Carolina: Borough House Plantation, Sumter County (SC Hwy 261, Stateburg vicinity)". National Register Sites in South Carolina. Columbia, SC, USA: South Carolina Department of Archives and History. April 20, 2009. Retrieved February 4, 2012. 
  15. ^ "National Register Properties in South Carolina: Church of the Holy Cross, Sumter County (SC Hwy 261, Stateburg vicinity)". National Register Sites in South Carolina. Columbia, SC, USA: South Carolina Department of Archives and History. April 20, 2009. Retrieved February 4, 2012. 

External sources

  • "Earth to Saltspring". Western Living (Vancouver, BC, Canada: Western Living) 23 (10). October 2003.  
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