Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


It is one of the oldest and most seductive materials in the world, with such a rich and vibrant history. We have been building with earth for thousands of years and in some parts of the world it is still one of the most common ways of making a home. Now a fresh generation of free thinking architects is taking a more sophisticated approach to earthern houses, splicing traditional building techniques with 21st century living and contemporary architectural forms. For them, building with the earth – whether its rammed earth or baked earth bricks– is not at all primitive but quite the opposite, offering a chance to work with a material that is full of warmth and texture, but also eco-friendly, long lasting and engaging. Their houses, full of character and delight, are prompting a radical rethink of the whole way that we think about earth buildings.

It is a growing movement that knows no boundaries or borders, with contemporary earthern homes being built in Europe, the States, Australia and other parts of the world. For architect Cade Hayes of Dust, based in Tucson, Arizona, building with the earth has a particular resonance, having grown up in New Mexico exploring adobe Indian pueblos and other earthern architecture. When commissioned to build a new house out in the countryside close to Arizona’s Saguaro National Park, Hayes and his partner, Jesús Robles, naturally thought of building with rammed earth, made up of layer upon layer of compacted soil. 

‘There is something inherent in the material that evokes emotions from people,’ says Hayes. ‘It is a poetic material that can really grab hold of one’s heart. There is also that history and the way that it weathers and I do think that the simplistic forms and building methods of the past do lend themselves so well to modern architecture. The client wanted to use it after seeing it for the first time – he simply fell in love with it and had the budget and so it was an easy decision.’

The low-slung house, with its rammed earth walls, wide verandahs and big expanses of glazing, is both rooted within the landscape and connected to it. Three inter-linked pavilions – one holding the main living spaces, one the bedrooms and the third hosting a music studio – feel right at home here, looking out over the desert and the mountains.

‘First and foremost was a love of the land and the clients wanted something sensitive and harmonious,’ says Hayes. ‘We tried to design them a home that faded into the background and let the landscape be a major aspect of the living experience.’

Morocco also has a long tradition of earth building, using both rammed earth – known here as pisé – and earth bricks, or brique de terre comprimée (BTC). French architects Studio KO designed Villa D here, using BTC, within a walled compound not far from Marrakech, within sight of the Atlas Mountains. Here the client was not so fond of large windows, so the house has a more insular feel with edited views of the landscape and openings scored into the building to introduce shafts of light. The house splices tradition and modernity within a home that is calm, restful and organic. It feels as though it belongs here yet is also perfectly tailored to the needs of the owner and his family, with many bespoke elements, from fireplaces to seating and lighting.

‘They wanted a house that was elementary, meaning something that was very close to nature, using earth and water,’ says Olivier Marty of Studio KO, who are also renovating a farm in Morocco at the moment using both BTC and pisé. ‘The bricks are made with a mix of raw earth and lime, pressed and moulded and then sun dried. Then for weather protection we coat the walls with a pisé plaster, which is a mix of earth, lime and straw. We like its honesty and its texture is beautiful.’

Yet designer and innovator Martin Rauch works in a country that has no particular heritage of earth building. Rauch lives and works in the Austrian village of Schlins, in the Wolgau Valley, surrounded by mountains. His studio, Lehm Ton Erde (‘mud, clay, earth’) is based here and he lives nearby with his wife – ceramicist Marta Rauch-Debevec – in a contemporary rammed earth house of his own making, designed in collaboration with architect Roger Boltshauser.

Pushed into a hillside, with pasture and farmland all around, the rammed earth walls were built over a period of three years, with the work slotted in around other projects. Layers of clay tiles were used to reinforce the walls, which are 60cm thick, while the building is also strengthened by locally sourced timber beams. Around 85% of the house is made with earth from the site itself.

‘You can build with natural materials like earth to a very high quality and with high aesthetics,’ says Rauch, who has collaborated on projects with architects such as Herzog de Meuron and Snøhetta. ‘The floors inside the house are earthern as well, made of compacted earth polished with wax and oil. We are not quite zero carbon, although we do have very low energy use, but that was not as important to us as building with materials that don’t need so much primary energy in production or construction. Also, there is no element of pollution – it is completely environmentally friendly and all the materials can be recycled.’

Rauch highlights the many ecological benefits of rammed earth that make it so desirable to anyone concerned about sustainability. The earth used to build the house was excavated from the site and would otherwise have had to have been trucked away and disposed of. Working with rammed earth may take longer than using other materials and require specialist skills, but this is offset by the fact that the basic building materials are cost free. They are also long lasting and fire resistant; structures as old as the Great Wall of China were built using rammed earth.

Similar thinking led Jonathan Feldman of Feldman Architecture to using rammed earth in two contemporary houses. One of these is the Caterpillar House in Carmel, California, a beautifully crisp and sustainable ranch-style pavilion, with rammed earth walls, large expanses of glass and photovoltaic panels on the roof.

‘We knew that we wanted low massive walls to anchor the building to the site and to stretch out into the landscape,’ says Feldman. ‘So after considering a number of options we chose rammed earth walls, because we loved how they looked and appreciated the sustainability of using excavated soil that would have otherwise been off-hauled. We love the visual weight of the thick walls, the smooth, silky texture and also their thermal and acoustic properties. But I also love how we were able to use the rammed earth to tie the house to the site while still keeping the overall feel of the house extremely light – one doesn’t typically think of rammed earth houses as light.’

Architect Brent Kendle, based in Scottsdale, Arizona, has also used rammed earth for a house in Paradise Valley, Arizona, as well a number of other projects. This is a single storey home, relatively modest in scale, with strong connections to the terraces, the infinity pool alongside the house, and the desert landscape beyond. The form and aesthetic is distinctly contemporary with a careful balance between the mass of the rammed earth walls themselves and more open living spaces, with retractable glazing that provides an easy flow between inside and outside.

As well as sustainability, and the way that rammed earth ties the building to the land, Kendle highlights some other practical advantages. The thick rammed earth walls have a high thermal mass, helping to regulate the temperature of the house, while also absorbing any excess humidity, creating a more comfortable living environment.

‘It is a great insulator in our hot climate as the walls are thick enough for the heat to only penetrate roughly half the thickness of the walls before nightfall,’ says Kendle, ‘and then it moves back towards a cool temperature throughout the evening.

‘But it is difficult building with rammed earth as the homes I do have a higher level of precision and detail than most rammed earth homes. I try to elevate the material to a more refined modern look, while maintaining its inherent rustic and tactile qualities. It does take longer to build and you also need an educated and flexible client, one who will accept and appreciate the imperfections natural to it, so it’s not for everyone. But the clients here wanted to simplify their lives and lifestyle with a visually calm house of simple modern elegance.’

English architect Sam Goss of Barefoot Architecture explored each and every practicality of building with rammed earth – or rammed chalk to be more precise – in his very first project: a house built with and for his parents in Dorchester. While earth building in the UK does have a long history, many of the connotations are still bound up with rugged, round and hairy cob buildings. Goss wanted to step away from this with something distinctly contemporary, but also sustainable. He was helped by the fact that his parents, particularly his father, Andrew Goss, were not only willing to commission the project but get very involved in the day to day construction process.

‘It was undertaken entirely as a self-build project and we had to evolve bespoke construction techniques,’ says Sam Goss. ‘It took six men four weeks to ram the earth walls using whacker plates exactly 45cm wide – the same as the thickness of the walls. We used around 2000 wheelbarrows of chalk excavated from the site itself to put in the foundations but the process itself is very simple and satisfying.’

Goss had noted the fact that a number of local historic monuments and buildings in the area – including Maiden Castle – were built with chalk and wanted to explore the technique in a modern house. ‘The chalk shares many of the same characteristics as earth, but of course it’s white which is attractive in itself,’ says Goss. ‘But it is labour intensive and it needs protection and insulation externally to be durable. We gave it a horse-haired lime render to finish it and when it’s well finished the walls have the appearance of white terrazzo or marble and are incredibly beautiful.’

Goss has advised on using rammed chalk in other projects and hopes to use it again in the future. Another devotee is architect Dan Brill, who is using rammed chalk for a striking new extension to an Edwardian house in Winchester, Hampshire. The new addition holds a new living room and study, while its elevated position offers a prominent vista across the landscape. The building has a geometric, modern precision and is linked back to the main house by a glass link.

‘The rammed chalk is visually stunning,’ says Brill. ‘It can be highly textured or smooth and has an appearance similar to that of white concrete. It is labour intensive and not widely understood in the UK, so it requires a degree of courage from the clients. But there are specialist contractors that can do the work and the new entrance courtyard at the house will generate a significant quantity of chalk excavation that can be used for the extension, providing a sustainable and economic solution.’

In Australia, too, rammed earth in contemporary form has been gaining traction. Architectural practice Fitt de Felice recently completed a four bedroomed house – the Delcontra Residence – in Melbourne, with the U-shaped building arranged around a central courtyard and a swimming pool.  There’s a fluid relationship between the interiors and the courtyard, but in other parts of the house the rammed earth walls lend a feeling of substance and monumentality. The rich patina of the walls is exposed both outside and inside.

‘Our brief was for a warm, contemporary yet somewhat raw and earthy family home,’ says architect Elida de Felice, whose clients are a couple with two young children. ‘Our immediate response was to used rammed earth as it has a beautifully raw texture and we saw great potential is using the massive walls to create a very simple architectural composition. The beauty and features of the palette extend from the architecture to the interiors almost seamlessly.’

‘It’s not very common in Australia but its use has been increasing over the last decade, especially in seaside and country properties. We have also designed one other residence in County Victoria that uses rammed earth – we like the stone-like beauty and the striations that result from the construction process, similar to the layering of sand and silt in natural stone.’

Digging in the dirt has been leant a fresh impetus, with rammed earth given a whole new lease of life by such imaginative thinking. For new country houses especially, it offers a more discreet and sensitive way of building, while at the same time introducing a level of character and texture seldom found in houses of concrete and steel. It’s the intrinsic beauty of the material as much as its eco credentials that is spurring on the new earth movement.

‘The qualities and characteristics of rammed earth are so rich,’ says Cade Hayes of Dust. ‘They make sense regionally and environmentally while at the same time hold these poetic qualities. Rammed earth awakens the senses on so many levels.’


Dust –
Studio KO –
Lehn Ton Erde –
Feldman Architecture –
Kendle Design –
Barefoot Architecture –
Dan Bill –
Fitt de Felice –