GOD made DIRT and DIRT don't HURT!
This was a fun one. My old architecture pal April Magill of Root Down Designs has designed a rammed earth house that is currently under construction on Johns Island. Danielle and I went out to visit with April and learn about rammed earth and to see this kick-ass project. I have also created a separate post about April and her work with Root Down Designs at:
I had studied rammed earth construction a little while in graduate school and I have seen these buildings in glossy magazines like Architectural Record, but I have never seen one in person. There are not many rammed earth projects on the East Coast so April is definitely a trail-blazer. Which is a bit ironic because as we will find out in the interview, rammed earth construction has been around forever!
In this blog, I interview April on the basics of rammed earth construction and learn about Charleston South Carolina's first rammed earth building: the Walters Residence.
Not all of my readers are architects so before we get into the interview I thought I should answer the question:
So what is Rammed Earth Construction?
The very dumbed down Steve Ramos definition:
Rammed earth construction uses dirt to build walls.
Ok...so there is a little more to this.
Rammed earth is like the hippie cousin of concrete construction. Similar to concrete, rammed earth consists of a mixture of cement, large aggregates (usually gravel), small aggregates (sand) and water, except that rammed earth also includes earth.
Of course earth is a more sophisticated way of saying dirt!
The dirt is usually a composition of clay and silt. Concrete has a consistency that is similar to a milk shake whereas rammed earth is much more dense and dry like brownie batter.
Like concrete, the rammed earth mix is poured in between temporary formwork. The mix is then rammed or tamped to make it more dense and compressed. This is done in layers. The rammed earth wall will cure just like a concrete wall and the result is a wall with a very high compressive strength. .. i.e. it is as strong as a mofo.
And that is my dumbed down explanation of rammed earth. There are a ton of benefits to this type of construction, which April will explain in the interview below.
Without futher adieu.......Rammed Earth Architecture with April Magill
1. How did you ever convince your client to consider rammed earth construction?
AM: On this particular project (the Walters Residence), the builder (Joe Faust) actually had the conversation with her (Sue Walters, the client) first.
Joe and I have known each other for years and we've shared a common interest in earthen construction, specifically Rammed Earth. Joe met Sue through a common friend and Sue was researching affordable options for housing on her land; she found that she could put a trailer out there for $40k. Joe heard this and said,' Sue, I'll build you a Rammed Earth home for $40k!' (It will cost more than $40k.)
Joe brought me in and the 3 of us sat and discussed Rammed Earth and I think we were pretty convincing. I left the room and called the Charleston County Building department and spoke with Bob Howell about our potential plans; he assured me that with proper engineering and architectural plans he did not see problems with permitting this home. This was the selling point for Sue and she was all in!
On other Rammed Earth projects I've designed, the client has contacted me as they already had the interest and I did not need to convince.
2. Can you tell me about the design of the Walters Residence? And provide some detail on size, cost, etc?
AM: The home was designed with affordability in mind, therefore, it is a very simple plan: a 600sf rectangle with a 12:12 metal gable roof and 2 shed roof porches on each end.
The dimensions are designed to work with the formwork, as to re-use the forms over and over and reduce any waste. The kitchen & living space is set in an open floor plan with cathedral ceilings. There is a bedroom and bathroom/laundry space with a 200sf loft above. The total square footage when adding in porches and loft comes to 1200sf.
The home is set on a true east/west axis, with the entrance facing east and framing the view of a large Live Oak tree. Passive Solar/Cooling strategies are incorporated into the design.
We are anticipating the total cost to be around $75k-$80k (not including septic or permitting costs). We are tracking all costs; we will also track energy consumption for an entire year and then document our findings. We believe a safe estimate to be $100/sf for RE construction.
Construction time is yet to be determined, but anticipate the total build taking approx. 6 months with 2 builders on site.
All of my rammed earth projects have been structurally engineered by John Moore of 4S E Engineering and special testing by soil consultants Inc.
3. What are 5 reasons why rammed earth should be considered?
AM: FIVE?! Can I add a few more?:
- rot proof
- mold/mildew proof
- termite proof
- fire proof
- healthy, non-toxic air quality void of any chemical off-gassing
- above-average thermal/energy performance
- low carbon footprint
- relatively maintenance free
4. What were some of the challenges you have had working with rammed earth construction?
AM: The biggest challenge is convincing the public that RE (Rammed Earth Construction) works in our climate.
There's a misconception that RE only works in arid climates like New Mexico. RE dates back 7,000 years and along side Adobe is the oldest building method in the world, and still being used today.
RE has been built on 6 of the 7 continents and in almost every climate region, including hot and humid. Even more interesting, the southeast of the US, specifically SC, has its own RE history of 150+ year old structures built with RE, which are still standing today and are in good shape.
Clemson even published research on RE construction in the 1950's and rumor has it that Clemson is either currently building with, or plans to build with RE on campus. So the 'proof is in the pudding.'
5. What are some other sustainable design strategies that you believe are low-hanging fruit in Charleston?
AM: Whether a client is seeking an alternative/natural structure, or something very conventional, there is always an opportunity to incorporate Passive Solar and Cooling strategies (I like to call this common sense planning), minimizing square footage by designing really efficient spaces, zoning the building into different sections so we are not heating and cooling spaces not in use, and trying to source local/regional building materials as well as tapping into our Charleston artisans and craftsmen.
6. I grew up hearing that ‘God made dirt and dirt don’t hurt.’
Then I recall the late rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard saying, “God made dirt and dirt bust your ass.” Well which is it?
Dirt don't hurt, it's true. Dirt is a fun and interesting building medium to work with. Once you begin to understand the properties of dirt and how it works as a building material, and how it can be altered to form different kinds of methods and materials, it's simply amazing!
I lead Natural Building workshops a few times a year, and I have seen stiff, serious white dudes transform into a playful, giggling 'child' when working with dirt! It brings out the inner-child in everyone.
But ODB (RIP) is also correct. Dirt WILL bust your ass! It's heavy, it's dense, and if you are working with it....be it, rammed earth, adobe, plaster work, clay paints.....it will exhaust you.
For eons people have built with dirt by hand and with simple hand tools, luckily we live in a modern world full of heavy equipment and technology which significantly reduces the labor. There are extremely large contractor teams on the west coast and in other parts of the world who are building large commercial projects with Rammed Earth; they are using bobcats, front-loaders, and pneumatic tampers so that the dirt won't bust their asses.
Steve's Wrap Up
Whoa! That was awesome!! What a cool building and an awesome architect!
We spent most of our time talking about the details and the technical aspects of rammed earth. But I was also admiring the architectural and aesthetic qualities of this building.
I especially appreciated the depth of the walls. These walls were 2' thick. 2'! Conventional construction is often less than 12". There is an amazing sense of permanence that is created by this thickness. Not to mention that these deep window sills will be awesome little nooks for seating and whatnot.
I am very excited to see the finished product and hope that more rammed earth buildings are built as a result of the Walters Residence.
April's passion and work is very inspirational. The world needs more architects pushing the envelope and developing sustainable architecture.
But what is most impressive about April is that she is pushing the envelope while being a mother of two and a solo entrepreneur in a male dominated industry.
April Magill is the real deal!
To read more about April check out:
Give April a shout:
April can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can check her out at:
As always I appreciate your time and hope you'll consider sharing this blog with a bud.