Think back to when you were a kid on summer vacation, building sand castles on the beach. You filled your bucket with sand, tamping it down tightly with your plastic shovel, turned it over and carefully lifted the bucket, revealing a sandy tower in its shape. In essence, you built a rammed earth structure.
This technique, compacting successive layers of soil into temporary formworks, has been used in the construction of houses for millennia, and for good reason. Rammed earth walls, built with materials excavated on site, are durable, affordable and, most importantly, all natural. Today, as homeowners have become increasingly concerned with the impact of their houses on the environment, rammed earth has been making a welcome return. In this age of mind-bending parametric models and 3D printed structures, these simply built homes help bring architecture back down to earth.
The Earth House is a masterful juxtaposition of contemporary design and traditional Mexican construction. At the heart of the white-stuccoed exterior, like ancient ruins in the center of a modern city, lies a living space with rammed earth walls and a vaulted brick ceiling. The warm tones and natural textures of this space contrast with the minimalist décor of the adjacent rooms. These disparate interiors are unified by a tile floor, featuring a traditional floral motif, which runs throughout the house.
Natural variations in the soil give the exterior of this rammed earth summer home a gradient of colors, ranging from soft pinks to muted beiges. These earthen walls insulate the home from cold northern winds while, to the south, large expanses of glazing open them up to a view of the lake. Overhead, the eaves of concrete butterfly roofs shade patios and glazing from the harsh southern sun.
Casa Candelaria is a guest house modeled after traditional Mexican haciendas, with four rammed earth volumes organized around a central patio. The use of rammed earth, a naturally abundant and thermally superior material, resulted in significant savings, both in construction costs and energy bills. The entire structure, from the façade’s parota wood shutters to the exposed ironwork between volumes, is an ode to simple and honest construction methods.
Built in the Arizona desert, among mountains and granite boulders, Desert Courtyard House appears like a massive, fissured stone in the landscape. The exterior, constructed with desert soil and partially-clad in weathered steel, belies the glass-walled courtyard at the home’s core. This balance between architecture and landscape continues on the interior, where glass floors seem to float above the desert terrain.
Tasked with building two houses on one asymmetric site, the architects of Neil Architecture devised a brilliant solution: two interlocking volumes, uniformly clad in timber, divided by a rammed earth party wall. The earthen wall, tall and thick, provides residents on both sides with visual and auditory privacy, while clearly defining the boundary of each home. Its natural surface complements both the bushland site and the indigenous, Yellow Stringybark cladding.
Cumbres House differs from the other homes in this collection in that it was built with a material known as compressed earth blocks, or CEBs. Similar to rammed earth construction but requiring much less formwork, CEBs are individually-formed blocks of compacted soil, stacked to form the exterior walls. These block walls were then rendered in stucco, mixed with the remaining soil, giving the home a consistent, earthy finish.
Tucson Mountain Retreat, situated in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, proves that architecture can be immersed in nature without devastating the environment. Built with desert soil, the rammed earth volumes emerge from the hillside like an outcropping of rocks. The thermal mass of the walls, openings oriented to maximize natural ventilation, and a 30,000-gallon rainwater harvesting system combine to create a habitable and sustainable desert dwelling. The promenade to the home, along a 400-foot dirt trail and up a set of staggered concrete stairs, emphasizes the mountainous landscape.
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