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Rammed earth

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The ruins of a Han dynasty (202 BCE – 220 CE) Chinese watchtower made of rammed earth in Dunhuang, Province of Gansu, China, at the eastern end of the Silk Road.

Rammed earth is a technique for constructing foundations, floors, and walls using compacted natural raw materials such as earth, chalk, lime, or gravel.[1] It is an ancient method that has been revived recently as a sustainable building method.

Under its French name of pisé it is also a material for sculptures, usually small and made in molds. It has been especially used in Central Asia and Tibetan art, and sometimes in China.[2]

Edifices formed of rammed earth are found on every continent except Antarctica, in a range of environments including temperate, wet,[3] semiarid desert, montane, and tropical regions. The availability of suitable soil and a building design appropriate for local climatic conditions are two factors that make its use favourable.

The French term "pisé de terre" or "terre pisé" was sometimes used in English for architectural uses, especially in the 19th century.

Building process

Traditional model of construction of a wall of rammed earth on a foundation

Making rammed earth involves compacting a damp mixture of subsoil that has suitable proportions of sand, gravel, clay, silt, and stabilizer, if any, into a formwork (an externally supported frame or mold).

Historically, additives such as lime or animal blood were used to stabilize it.

Soil mix is poured into the formwork to a depth of 10 to 25 cm (4 to 10 in) and then compacted to approximately 50% of its original volume. The soil is compacted iteratively, in batches or courses, so as to gradually erect the wall up to the top of the formwork. Tamping was historically manual with a long ramming pole by hand, but modern construction systems can employ pneumatically powered tampers.

A typical Hmong house-building technique in the subtropical climate of Vietnam.
Old rammed-earth wall with deterioration, in France

After a wall is complete, it is sufficiently strong to immediately remove the formwork. This is necessary if a surface texture is to be applied, e.g., by wire brushing, carving, or mold impression, because the walls become too hard to work after approximately one hour. The compressive strength of rammed earth increases as it cures. Cement-stabilised rammed earth is cured for a minimum period of 28 days.

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

Contemporary slip formwork in use

The construction of an entire wall begins with a temporary frame, the "formwork", which is usually made of wood or plywood, as a mold for the desired shape and dimensions of each section of wall. The form must be durable and well braced, and the two opposing faces must be clamped together to prevent bulging or deformation caused by the large compressing forces. Formwork plays an important role in building rammed earth walls. Historically, wooden planks tied using rope were used to build walls. Modern builders use plywood and/or steel to build formwork.


Detail of the surface of an eroded rammed-earth wall: apart from the patches of damage, the surface shows regular horizontal lines caused by the wooden formwork and subtler horizontal strata from successive courses.
Surface of a newly built rammed earth wall just after the removal of formwork

The compressive strength of rammed earth is dictated by factors such as soil type, particle size distribution, amount of compaction, moisture content of the mix and type/amount of stabiliser used. Well-produced cement-stabilised rammed earth walls can be anywhere between 5 and 20 MPa (700 and 3,000 psi). Higher compressive strength might require more cement. But addition of more cement can affect the permeability of the walls. Indeed, properly constructed rammed earth endures for thousands of years, as many ancient structures that are still standing around the world demonstrate. Rammed earth walls are reinforced with rebars in areas of high seismic activity.

Adding cement to soil mixtures low in clay can also increase the load-bearing capacity of rammed-earth edifices.[citation needed] The United States Department of Agriculture observed in 1925 that rammed-earth structures endure indefinitely and can be constructed for less than two-thirds of the cost of standard frame houses.[4]

Rammed earth works require at least one skilled person for quality control. All other workers can be unskilled or semi-skilled.

One significant benefit of rammed earth is its high thermal mass: like brick or concrete, it absorbs heat during the day and releases heat at night.[citation needed] This action moderates daily temperature variations and reduces the need for air conditioning and heating. In colder climates, rammed-earth walls can be insulated by inserting insulation such as styrofoam or rigid fibreglass panels within internal and external layers of rammed earth. Depending on the type and content of binder, it must also be protected from heavy rain and insulated with vapour barriers.[5]

Rammed earth can effectively regulate humidity if unclad walls containing clay are exposed to an internal space. Humidity is regulated between 40% and 60%.[citation needed] The material mass and clay content of rammed earth allows an edifice to breathe more than concrete edifices. This avoids problems of condensation and prevents significant loss of heat.[6]

Rammed-earth walls have the colour and texture of natural earth. Moisture-impermeable finishes, such as cement render, are not used by some people because they impair the ability of a wall to desorb moisture,[7] which quality is necessary to preserve its strength.[citation needed]

Blemishes can be repaired using the soil mixture as a plaster and sanded smooth.

A wall surface with oxide colour for visual appeal

The thickness varies widely based on region and code. It can be as little as 6 inches (150 mm) for non load-bearing walls and up to 24 inches (600 mm) for load-bearing walls. The thickness and density of rammed-earth walls make them suitable for soundproofing. They are also inherently fireproof, resistant to termite damage, and non-toxic.

Environmental effects and sustainability

Rammed-earth trombe wall constructed by Design Build Bluff

Edifices of rammed earth are more sustainable and environmentally friendly than other building techniques that use more cement and other chemicals. Because rammed-earth edifices use locally available materials, they usually have low embodied energy and generate very little waste.[citation needed] The soils used are typically subsoil which conserve the topsoil for agriculture. When the soil excavated in preparation for a foundation can be used, the cost and energy consumption of transportation are minimal.[8] Rammed earth is probably the least environmentally detrimental construction material and technique that is readily and commercially available today to construct solid edifices. [citation needed] Rammed earth has potentially low manufacturing impact, contingent on the amount of cement and the amount that is locally sourced; it is often quarried aggregates rather than "earth".

Rammed earth can contribute to the overall energy efficiency of edifices: the density, thickness, and thermal conductivity of rammed earth render it an especially suitable material for passive solar heating. Warmth requires almost 12 hours to be conducted through a wall 35 cm (14 in) thick.[6]

Mixing cement with the soil can counteract sustainable benefits such as low embodied energy because manufacture of the cement itself creates 1.25 tonnes of carbon dioxide per tonne of cement produced.[9] Although it has low greenhouse gas emissions in theory, transportation and the production of cement can add significantly[quantify] to the overall emissions of modern rammed earth construction. The most basic kind of traditional rammed earth has very low greenhouse gas emissions but the more engineered and processed variant of rammed earth has the potential for significant emissions.[citation needed]


A hangtu section of the Great Wall of China
Rammed-earth edifice on a farm in France

Evidence of ancient use of rammed earth has been found in Neolithic archaeological sites such as those of the Fertile Crescent, dating to the 9th–7th millennium BC,[10] and of the Yangshao and Longshan cultures in China, dating to 5000 BCE. By 2000 BCE, rammed-earth architectural techniques (夯土 Hāng tǔ) were commonly used for walls and foundations in China.[11]

United States and Canada


In the 1800s, rammed earth was popularized in the United States by the book Rural Economy by S. W. Johnson. The technique was used to construct the Borough House Plantation[12] and the Church of the Holy Cross[13] in Stateburg, South Carolina, both being National Historic Landmarks.

Constructed in 1821, the Borough House Plantation complex contains the oldest and largest collection of 'high style' pise de terre (rammed earth) buildings in the United States. Six of the 27 dependencies and portions of the main house were constructed using this ancient technique which was introduced to this country in 1806 through the book Rural Economy, by S. W. Johnson

An outstanding example of a rammed-earth edifice in Canada is St. Thomas Anglican Church in Shanty Bay, Ontario, erected between 1838 and 1841.

Edifices of the Borough House Plantation, Stateburg, South Carolina, erected in the 1820s.
Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Stateburg, South Carolina, erected between 1850 and 1852

From the 1920s through the 1940s rammed-earth construction in the US was studied. South Dakota State College extensively researched and constructed almost one hundred weathering walls of rammed earth.[citation needed] For over 30 years the college investigated the use of paints and plasters in relation to colloids in soil. In 1943, Clemson Agricultural College of South Carolina published the results of their research of rammed earth in a pamphlet titled "Rammed Earth Building Construction".[citation needed][14] In 1936, on a homestead near Gardendale, Alabama, the United States Department of Agriculture constructed experimental rammed-earth edifices with architect Thomas Hibben.[citation needed] The houses were inexpensively constructed and were sold to the public along with sufficient land for gardens and small plots for livestock. The project successfully provided homes to low-income families.[6]

The US Agency for International Development is working with developing countries to improve the engineering of rammed-earth houses.[citation needed] It also financed the authorship of the Handbook of Rammed Earth by Texas A&M University and the Texas Transportation Institute.[6][15]

Interest in rammed earth declined after World War II when the cost of modern construction materials decreased.[citation needed] Rammed earth is considered substandard, and is opposed by many contractors, engineers, and tradesmen.[6] The prevailing perception that such materials and techniques perform poorly in regions prone to earthquakes has prevented their use in much of the world.[citation needed] In Chile, for example, rammed earth edifices normally cannot be conventionally insured against damage or even be approved by the government.[citation needed]

A notable example of 21st-century use of rammed earth is the façade of the Nk'Mip Desert Cultural Centre in southern British Columbia, Canada. As of 2014 it is the longest rammed earth wall in North America.[16]

20th century China


Rammed earth construction was both practically and ideologically important during the rapid construction of the Daqing oil field and the related development of Daqing.[17]: 55  The "Daqing Spirit" represented deep personal commitment in pursuing national goals, self-sufficient and frugal living, and urban-rural integrated land use.[18]: 3  Daqing's urban-rural landscape was said to embody the ideal communist society described by Karl Marx because it eliminated (1) the gap between town and country, (2) the gap between workers and peasants, and (3) the gap between manual and mental labor.[18]: 3 

Drawing on the Daqing experience, China encouraged rammed earth construction in the mid-1960s.[17]: 55  Starting in 1964, Mao Zedong advocated for a "mass design revolution movement".[17]: 55  In the context of the Sino-Soviet split, Mao urged that planners should avoid the use of Soviet-style prefabricated materials and instead embrace the proletarian spirit of on-site construction using rammed earth.[17]: 55  The Communist Party promoted the use of rammed earth construction as a low-cost method which was indigenous to China and required little technical skill.[17]: 55 

During the Third Front campaign to develop strategic industries in China's rugged interior to prepare for potential invasion by the United States or Soviet Union, Planning Commission Director Li Fuchun instructed project leaders to make do with what was available, including building rammed earth housing so that more resources could be directed to production.[19]: 207  This policy came to be expressed through the slogan, "First build the factory and afterward housing."[19]: 207 

Nk'Mip Desert Cultural Centre in Osoyoos, British Columbia, Canada, completed in 2006
"Pisé" houses of rammed earth in Tabant, Morocco; the technique is called "tabut" there.
Rammed-earth walls form part of the entrance edifice of the Eden Project in Cornwall, England, UK

See also



  1. ^ "Pisé terminology". Merriam-webster.com. Retrieved 2018-10-03.
  2. ^ 17 objects made from "loam" in the Rijksmuseum
  3. ^ Keable, Rowland. "Rammed earth lecture theatre, Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT)". Rammed Earth Consulting. London. Retrieved 4 February 2012.
  4. ^ 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. OCLC 600507592. Archived from the original on February 25, 2012. Retrieved February 4, 2012. Originally published by the United States Department of Agriculture, Washington, DC, USA. An alternative version is at: Betts, Morris Cotgrave; Miller, Thomas Arrington Huntington (May 1937) [1925]. Rammed Earth Walls for Buildings. Denton, TX, USA: UNT Digital Library, University of North Texas. OCLC 600507592. Retrieved 4 February 2012.
  5. ^ "Rammed Earth Construction". Earth Structures. Victoria, Australia. Archived from the original on 24 January 2018. Retrieved 4 February 2012.
  6. ^ a b c d e Cassell, Robert O. (17 December 2001). "A Traditional Research Paper: Rammed Earth Construction". Ashland Community and Technical College. Archived from the original on 22 March 2017. Retrieved 4 February 2012.
  7. ^ Allinson, David; Hall, Matthew (2013-01-10). "Humidity buffering using stabilised rammed earth materials". Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers - Construction Materials.
  8. ^ "Soils for Rammed Earth, Caliche Block, and Soil Material Construction". Austin, TX, USA: Sustainable Sources. Retrieved 4 February 2012.
  9. ^ Keable, Rowland. "Rammed Earth – Pollution and Cement". Rammed Earth Consulting. London. Retrieved 4 February 2012.
  10. ^ Gwendolyn Leick: A Dictionary of Ancient Near Eastern Architecture, Routledge, London 1988, p. 165
  11. ^ Xujie, Liu; et al. (2002). Steinhardt, Nancy Shatzman (ed.). Chinese Architecture. New Haven, CT, USA: Yale University Press and Beijing, China: New World Press. pp. 12–14, 21–2. ISBN 978-0-300-09559-3. OCLC 186413872.
  12. ^ "National Register Properties in South Carolina: Borough House Plantation, Sumter County (SC Hwy 261, vicinity of Stateburg)". National Register Sites in South Carolina. Columbia, SC, USA: South Carolina Department of Archives and History. 20 April 2009. Retrieved 4 February 2012.
  13. ^ "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, South Carolina, USA: South Carolina Department of Archives and History. April 20, 2009. Retrieved February 4, 2012.
  14. ^ Howard, Glenn (1943). "Bulletin No. 3: Rammed Earth Building Construction.". Clemson, South Carolina: The Clemson Agricultural College of South Carolina, Engineering Experiment Station.
  15. ^ Wolfskill, Lyle A.; Dunlap, Wayne A.; Gallaway, Bob M. "Handbook For Building Homes of Earth" (PDF). Texas Transportation Institute bulletin. No. 21 (1453 ed.). College Station, Texas, USA: Texas Transportation Institute. Retrieved October 6, 2017.
  16. ^ "A Rammed-Earth Wall for the Ages at Nk'Mip Desert Cultural Centre". www.architecturalrecord.com. Retrieved 2021-03-12.
  17. ^ a b c d e Roskam, Cole (2022). "The Brick". In Altehenger, Jennifer; Ho, Denise Y. (eds.). Material Contradictions in Mao's China. Seattle: University of Washington Press. ISBN 978-0-295-75085-9.
  18. ^ a b Hou, Li (2021). Building for Oil: Daqing and the Formation of the Chinese Socialist State. Harvard-Yenching Institute monograph series. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Asia Center. ISBN 978-0-674-26022-1.
  19. ^ a b Meyskens, Covell F. (2022). "China's Cold War Motor City". In Altehenger, Jennifer; Ho, Denise Y. (eds.). Material Contradictions in Mao's China. Seattle: University of Washington Press. ISBN 978-0-295-75085-9.

External sources