Earth houses

Highly sophisticated homes are being crafted out of earth, as architects reimagine this characterful, eco-friendly building material for a contemporary clientele. Dominic Bradbury surveys their groundbreaking work

Dust’s Tucson Mountain Retreat, near to Saguaro National Park, Arizona, similar projects from $2m
Dust’s Tucson Mountain Retreat, near to Saguaro National Park, Arizona, similar projects from $2m | Image: Jeff Goldberg/Esto

It is one of the oldest and most seductive materials on the planet, with 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 freethinking architects is taking a more sophisticated approach to earthen houses, splicing traditional building techniques with 21st-century living and contemporary architectural forms. For them, earth – whether in rammed or baked-brick form – is not at all primitive but quite the opposite, offering the chance to work with a material that is full of warmth and texture, but is also eco-friendly, long-lasting and engaging. Their houses, full of character and delight, are prompting a radical rethink of the way we look at earth buildings.

Dust’s Tucson Mountain Retreat, similar projects from $2m
Dust’s Tucson Mountain Retreat, similar projects from $2m | Image: Jeff Goldberg/Esto

This growing movement knows no boundaries or borders, with earthen homes being built in Europe, the US, Australia and elsewhere. For architect Cade Hayes, co-founder of Dust, based in Tucson, Arizona, building with earth has particular resonance, as he grew up in New Mexico exploring Indian adobe pueblos and other earthen architecture. When commissioned to create a new house (similar projects from $2m) out in the countryside close to Arizona’s Saguaro National Park, Hayes and his co-founder Jesús Robles naturally thought of rammed earth, made from layer upon layer of compacted soil.

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“There is something inherent in the material that evokes emotions from people,” says Hayes. “It is a poetic substance 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 lend themselves well to modern architecture. The client wanted to use it the first time he saw it – he fell in love with it, had the budget and so found it an easy decision.”

An exposed chalk panel above the stairs, in Barefoot Architecture’s rammed-chalk house in Dorchester
An exposed chalk panel above the stairs, in Barefoot Architecture’s rammed-chalk house in Dorchester | Image: Sam Goss

The low-slung house, with its rammed-earth walls, wide verandas and expanses of glazing, is rooted within the landscape and deeply connected to it. Three interlinked pavilions – one holding the main living spaces, one the bedrooms and the third 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; 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.”

Barefoot Architecture’s rammed-chalk house in Dorchester, which cost £500,000
Barefoot Architecture’s rammed-chalk house in Dorchester, which cost £500,000 | Image: Sam Goss

Morocco also has a long tradition of earth building, using both rammed earth – known here as pisé – and earth bricks, or briques de terre comprimée (BTC). French architecture firm Studio KO employed BTC in its design for Villa D (price on request) in the countryside not far from Marrakech, within sight of the Atlas Mountains. The client was not 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 juxtaposes tradition and modernity within a structure 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.

The exterior of Studio KO’s Villa D near Marrakech, price on request
The exterior of Studio KO’s Villa D near Marrakech, price on request | Image: Richard Powers

“They wanted a house that was elementary, meaning something that was very close to nature, using earth and water,” says Olivier Marty, co-founder of Studio KO, which is also renovating a farm in Morocco using both BTC and pisé. “The bricks are made with a mix of raw earth and lime, pressed and moulded and then sun‑dried. 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.”

The interior of Studio KO’s Villa D near Marrakech, price on request
The interior of Studio KO’s Villa D near Marrakech, price on request | Image: Richard Powers

Rammed-earth homes are even springing up in countries that have no particular heritage of earth building. Designer and innovator Martin 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 (price on request), designed in collaboration with architect Roger Boltshauser.

The exterior of Feldman Architecture’s Caterpillar House in Carmel, California, similar projects from $1.5m
The exterior of Feldman Architecture’s Caterpillar House in Carmel, California, similar projects from $1.5m | Image: Joe Fletcher Photography

Pushed into a hillside, surrounded by pasture and farmland, the rammed-earth walls were built over three years, with the work slotted in around other projects. Burnt-clay tiles reinforce the 60cm-thick walls and slow their erosion, while locally sourced timber functions as load-bearing beams. About 85 per cent of the house is made with earth from the site. “You can build with natural materials such as earth to a high standard and with excellent aesthetics,” says Rauch, who has collaborated on projects with architects the likes of Herzog de Meuron and Snøhetta. “The floors inside are also 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 consume so much primary energy in production or construction. It’s completely environmentally friendly and all the materials can be recycled.”

The interior of Feldman Architecture’s Caterpillar House in Carmel, California, similar projects from $1.5m
The interior of Feldman Architecture’s Caterpillar House in Carmel, California, similar projects from $1.5m | Image: Joe Fletcher Photography

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 be 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 with rammed earth.

Fitt De Felice’s Decontra Residence in Melbourne, similar projects from A$1.7m, about £923,000
Fitt De Felice’s Decontra Residence in Melbourne, similar projects from A$1.7m, about £923,000 | Image: Jaime Diaz-Berrio

Similar thinking led Jonathan Feldman, principal architect at Feldman Architecture, to use 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 large expanses of glass and photovoltaic panels on the roof (similar projects from $1.5m). “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 liked how they looked and appreciated the sustainability of using excavated soil that would otherwise have been hauled away. We love the visual weight of the thick walls, their smooth, silky texture and 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 keeping the overall feel of the building very light. One doesn’t typically think of rammed-earth houses as light.”

The stairwell in Lehm Ton Erde’s house in Schlins, Austria, price on request
The stairwell in Lehm Ton Erde’s house in Schlins, Austria, price on request

Brent Kendle, president of Kendle Design Collaborative, has also used rammed earth for a house in Paradise Valley (similar projects from about $2m), near his Scottsdale, Arizona base, as well as a number of other projects. This is a single-storey home, relatively modest in scale, with strong connections to the terraces, the pool alongside the house and the desert landscape beyond. The form and aesthetic are distinctly contemporary, with a careful balance between the mass of the rammed-earth walls themselves and more open living spaces, in addition to retractable glazing that provides an easy flow between inside and outside.

An external view of Lehm Ton Erde’s house in Schlins, Austria, price on request
An external view of Lehm Ton Erde’s house in Schlins, Austria, price on request | Image: Richard Powers

As well as sustainability and the way that rammed earth ties the building to the land, Kendle highlights other practical advantages. The 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 only to penetrate roughly half their depth before nightfall,” he says, “and then it moves back towards a cool temperature throughout the evening. But building with rammed earth is difficult, as the homes I do have a higher level of precision and detail than most rammed-earth constructions. 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 and understand that you won’t know what the building will look like until the forms are removed – 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.”

Kendle Design Collaborative’s house in Paradise Valley, Arizona, similar projects from about $2m
Kendle Design Collaborative’s house in Paradise Valley, Arizona, similar projects from about $2m | Image: Winquist Photography

Sam Goss, principal architect at 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, Dorset (£500,000). 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, were willing not only to commission the project but also to 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 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 2,000 wheelbarrows of chalk, excavated from the site itself, to put in the foundations, but the process was very simple and satisfying.”

Kendle Design Collaborative’s house in Paradise Valley, Arizona, similar projects from about $2m
Kendle Design Collaborative’s house in Paradise Valley, Arizona, similar projects from about $2m | Image: Winquist Photography

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

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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 employing rammed chalk for a striking extension to an Edwardian house in Winchester, Hampshire (similar projects from £180,000). The new addition holds a sitting room and study, while its elevated position offers a vista across the landscape. The building has a geometric, modern precision and is connected to the main house by a glass link. “The rammed chalk is visually stunning,” says Brill. “It can be highly textured or smooth and looks similar to 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 who can do the work, and the house’s new entrance courtyard will generate a significant quantity of excavated chalk that can be used for the extension, providing a sustainable and economic solution.”

In Australia, too, rammed earth has been gaining traction as a contemporary construction material. Architecture, interiors and design practice Fitt De Felice recently designed a four-bedroom house – the Decontra Residence – in Melbourne, with the U-shaped building arranged around a central courtyard and a swimming pool (similar projects from A$1.7m, about £923,000). 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. Their rich patina is exposed both outside and inside.

“Our brief was for a warm, contemporary yet somewhat raw and earthy family home,” says architect and practice co-director Elida De Felice. “Our immediate response was to choose rammed earth, as it has a lovely texture and we saw great potential in using the massive walls to create a very simple architectural composition. The beauty and features of the restrained material’s 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 past decade, especially in seaside and country properties. We have also designed one other residence in County Victoria that uses rammed earth – we enjoy the stone-like beauty and the striations that result from the construction process, similar to the layering of sand and silt in natural stone.”

So digging in the dirt has gained a fresh impetus, with rammed earth being given a whole new lease of life by such imaginative thinking. For 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 homes 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 Dust’s Hayes. “They make sense regionally and environmentally, while at the same time holding these poetic qualities. Rammed earth awakens the senses on so many levels.”

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