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Wyoming Rammed Earth Home (USA)

Credits: ©2009 Natural Home Magazine

by Mindy Pantiel, Natural Home Magazine September 2009

When they’d tired of New York City in the 1980s, architect Tom Ward and his wife, Katherine Reedy, yearned for a home that would accommodate their large Newfoundland, Hector; where Tom could drive his Alfa Romeo on winding mountain roads; and where Katherine could walk out the door and fly fish. In 1998, they found the perfect place: a slightly dilapidated house on seven-plus unzoned acres just south of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Though Tom says the area, east of the Snake River and about 12 miles south of Jackson Hole, “is not a fashionable address,” the wide open spaces and proximity to the Snake River made the property perfectly suited to him and Katherine. They envisioned building their dream home there using rammed earth, a material no one in Wyoming had used before. Though building with rammed earth was unprecedented in the area, the rural location made using an unusual building method easier. In more populated areas, proving an untested new material can become a bureaucratic nightmare, but the county’s lack of covenants and building restrictions simplified the process. Plus, the building style seemed suited to its surroundings.


Wyoming Rammed Earth Entry

The entry foyer displays Tom and Katherine's collection of antique mediterranean vessels. ©2009 Michael Shopenn/Natural Home Magazine

“With its barren walls, it was complementary to the region and our site,” Katherine says. Tom became fascinated with rammed earth construction when, investigating the building method for a client, he talked with rammed-earth guru Rick Joy, an Arizona-based architect known for his desert dirt designs. But his years of experience told Tom what worked in the stable, earthquake-free desert wasn’t likely to translate to Wyoming, where seismic activity is considerable. Not one to be easily dissuaded, Tom worked with the University of Wyoming’s Civil Engineering Department to patent EarthWall, a low-tech method of stabilizing rammed earth walls with reinforced steel rods. “The steel provides the tensile strength,” he says.

The construction method relies on a base material of native soil and crusher fines, a gravel residue byproduct, joined with Portland cement. “You add water to activate the cement, and the crusher fines give the mixture horsepower,” Tom says. “The process is similar to pouring a concrete wall, but instead of concrete, you’re using soil from the site.”

Thick walls, long views After years of planning and developing their building system, Katherine and Tom were ready to build in 2004, six years after buying the land. Their home, completed in 2004, is a 2,700-square-foot structure with rammed earth walls and large glass panels that frame views of the rugged terrain. “The house is focused on the 20-million-year-old bluffs behind it and across the valley, where it’s all national forest,” Tom says. “We can see mountain lions and elk in the park and deer and peregrine falcons out our kitchen window. It’s 24/7 wildlife around here.”

The 18-inch-thick walls make for comfortable, energy-efficient living year-round. “It’s a concept called thermal mass, and it’s the same reason adobe works so well,” Tom says. “You have these thick, dense walls that absorb heat from the sun, and on a cold day or after the sun sets, the walls slowly release heat back into the house.” In summer, nighttime temperatures cool the thick walls, which are shielded from the heat of the afternoon sun by strategically placed overhangs. Energy-efficient Solarban 60 windows diffuse direct sunlight to further reduce heat gain in summer while allowing the sun’s warmth into the house in winter.

A radiant heat system pipes warm or cool water, depending on the season, through tubing laid beneath the concrete and slate floors, modulating temperatures and eliminating the need for air conditioning. The long, slender residence makes the most of natural ventilation by paralleling the steep hillside, and openings on the north and south ends encourage air flow in the summer. “After having lived here for so many years, we knew how the site behaved and that the breezes didn’t flow up or down it; they flowed across it,” Tom says. A butterfly roof tilts up to reveal a fir ceiling and steel beam supports. The inverted roof form forces rain and melting snow to flow toward the center, where drains funnel it through internal pipes and redirect it to the landscape. “The shape guarantees that the eaves never drip, and that prevents erosion,” Tom says.

Simple inside
The home’s earthen walls were a springboard for the interior design, defined by smooth fly ash concrete floors with slate banding interspersed to define circulation and direct traffic flow (and control cracking). “Because the walls and floor make such a strong textural and visual statement, the furnishings could be simple,” Katherine says. A leather sofa, a pair of Le Corbusier chairs, a custom cherrywood table and a wool area rug are enough to create an inviting conversation grouping in the living room. “Similar to concrete and slate, materials like wool and leather are sustainable and will last forever,” she says.

In lieu of a formal dining room, the kitchen’s oversized island seats eight. “Tom loves to cook, so it was important to have a great kitchen and a place for entertaining,” Katherine says. The central gathering place functions like an Italian farmhouse kitchen, where guests often linger over food and wine. Humans aren’t the only guests attracted to the unusual home—deer regularly pass the bank of high windows, and foxes and marmots stop to ogle human activity through a long, low horizontal kitchen window.

Also on the main floor, the master suite is a study in Zen. “Your pulse goes way down as soon as you enter the room,” says Katherine, who intentionally left the private quarters unadorned—a custom bed with a leather headboard and small bedside table are the only furniture. “It’s just for sleeping and yoga, so we kept it as simple as we could.”

A third of the interior walls are sheetrock painted with rich, muted tones that complement the earthen colors and provide a smooth counterpoint to the inherent roughness. “This is not a cathedral to earthiness,” Tom says. “In response to the gnarliness of the earth walls, the materials get more refined as you move inward.” “We wanted a place to entertain but we also wanted a shelter that is calm, quiet and serene,” Katherine says. “This house expresses our shared modern approach, but it is also tactile and sensitive to the site.”

A chat with the homeowners
What books are on your nightstand?
Tom Ward: Irving Stone’s biographical novel of Michelangelo, The Agony and the Ecstasy (Signet, 1987). Katherine Reedy: The Bostonians by Henry James (Penguin Classics, 1984). He’s a wonderful writer, and it’s a wonderful story that has a triangle of emotions, the feminist movement, mordant humor and romance. And who wouldn’t like a gentleman named Basil? I think this may be our next Newfie’s name.

If you could invite anyone to dinner, who would it be?
Tom: Comedy Central host Lewis Black. He isn’t boring, and a good rant will set you free.

What would you serve at that dinner party?
Katherine: Asparagus and mushroom ravioli in roasted red pepper sauce, grilled ahi with quinoa pilaf, garden-fresh mixed vegetables, pineapple upside-down cake with vanilla ice cream and Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio.

What’s always in your fridge or pantry?
Tom: Fig Newtons.

When you aren’t working or puttering around the house, where would you be?
Katherine: On the Snake River, fly fishing. The scenery is monumental, with the Tetons in the background, and the eagles and osprey flying; fishing and meditation is one and the same.

Article appeared in Natural Home Magazine. Author: Mindy Pantiel frequently writes about architecture and design. Her articles have appeared in Metropolitan Home, Better Homes and Gardens, Traditional Home and many other national publications

Project Info:
Architect: Ward+Blake Architects, (307) 733-6867
Builder: Cox Construction, (307) 733-0554
Interior Design: ek.REEDY interiors, (307) 739-9121
Landscaping: Teton Landscape Specialties, (307) 733-1002
Art: Lyndsay McCandless Contemporary (307) 734-0649

House Size (square footage): 2,700 square feet
Bedrooms: 2 Bathrooms: 2.5
Energy Heating/Cooling System: Oil-fired radiant floor
Electricity Source: Grid-provided wind energy
Lighting: Halogen Appliances: Energy Star electric/gas
Insulation: Soy-based foam, blown-in fiberglass bibbs (blown-in blanket system)
Building Materials
Exterior Materials: Rammed earth
Interior Materials: Rammed earth, fly ash concrete
Water Conservation Systems: Restricted-flow fixtures
Fixtures: Dornbracht, Duravit
Waste Reduction: None
Recycling: All construction debris recycled as appropriate
Construction Method: Rammed earth walls, EarthWall system
Site and Land Use: Rainwater runoff used for landscaping
Plants: Native grasses and shrubs
Water conservation: Artificial irrigation terminated once native grasses mature each season

Additional Information:
Article by Eliza Cross
Originally published in Architectural West magazine
September 2006

The New Face of Rammed Earth
Architect Tom Ward Puts His Recently Patented Process to the Test at His Jackson, Wyoming Home

In the way that so many great visions are first borne, architect Tom Ward’s initial ideas for improving the rammed earth building process were sketched on the back of a cocktail napkin. Ward, a partner with Ward + Blake Architects of Jackson, Wyoming, was watching a televised newscast of the aftermath of a Turkish earthquake and noticed that some of the region’s earthen structures sustained less damage than the more modern buildings. As he considered the great challenge of building relief housing, Ward saw a vast, untapped resource in the surrounding rubble. He knew, however, that traditional rammed earth buildings can have structural weaknesses and wondered if there might be a way to stabilize the indigenous materials even further.

Ward’s cogitations eventually resulted in an idea to stabilize rammed earth walls with reinforced steel rods in a “post tensioning system.” Teaming up with Joe Grill of Nelson Engineering in Jackson, Wyoming, Ward says, “We did some mathematical calculations based on the reinforcing idea, the thickness of the wall and its relative strength. The numbers led us to theorize that we could make a rammed earth wall as a strong as a conventional eight-inch thick concrete block wall.”

Ward received a grant from the Newton Foundation to construct four wall prototypes—built by Ward’s rammed earth construction mentor Jug Branjord of Casper, Wyoming—and test those walls at the University of Wyoming Department of Civil and Architectural Engineering. Loading the walls horizontally, the team carefully documented the strain gauges relative to the loads superimposed on them. “When we tested the walls to failure, three out of four matched our theoretical strength calculations perfectly,” Ward says. “After making some minor adjustments, the results were consistently repeatable.”

Earlier this year, Ward was awarded a U.S. intellectual property patent for his low-tech, high-functioning process for stabilizing rammed earth walls with reinforced steel rods. “We didn’t invent the componentry; we simply put it together in a way that hadn’t been tried before,” Ward says. “Fifty percent of the world’s population lives in earthen houses, many of them in seismically active parts of the world. This strong, low-tech method could allow for the rebuilding of structures in areas ravaged by earthquakes—or even for replacing existing structures to prevent future damage—without resorting to expensive, culturally foreign building systems.”

In addition to the new technique’s seismically resistant qualities, rammed earth structures are environmentally friendly – efficient to heat and cool, and built with indigenous materials that blend into natural surroundings. Ward is finding out about these properties first-hand, having just completed the world’s first “earthquake resistant” rammed earth residence—his own 3,000-square-foot home. Perched on a hillside overlooking the Snake River, the home blends easily into its surroundings, incorporating materials mined from the site along with gravel pit by-products.

“I decided to try the technique on my own home, because above and beyond all the rational test data, it met my criteria as an architect,” Ward says. “I appreciated the sense of terroir, the coloration of the walls and the way they pick up the composition of the surrounding rock structure.”

“This was also a litmus test of sorts; prior to building our house we had submitted all testing data to local code officials. Obviously the technique had never done before, but based on the quality of the test data and documentation by the University of Wyoming, the Teton County Building Department accepted not only the technique but the data and structural analysis as well.”

The building site, at an elevation of 6250 feet, posed its own set of challenges. “It was a very steep, difficult, cramped site,” Ward says, “but the views were spectacular. I designed a very simple form for a two-story house with a singular roof and the main walls slightly angled and splayed to certain view corridors on the property; the cliffs behind our house were a special focus. The ‘inverted V’ roof opens the house and liberates the views at the walls. The roof is fitted with interior roof drains piped out on the site, so I can control where the runoff goes and by routing the water off the site we don’t ever have an icicle or drip problem.”

“The 18-inch thick earthen walls have a low R-value, but their high thermal mass naturally keeps the home warm in the winter and cool in the summer. During the hottest days of summer, we button the house up and the walls have cooled sufficiently at night that they don’t warm up very fast; the interior temperature of the house remains constant. Then we open up the house at night and cool the interior of the house.”

In the winter, the home is heated with a conventional oil-fired boiler and radiant slab floor heating. Concrete floors throughout the home keep it clean and mold-free. “The heavy masonry construction has nice acoustic properties, too,” Ward says. “The house is very quiet despite the large expanses of glass.”

Seven years have passed since Ward first scribbled his ideas on a cocktail napkin, and he and his family continue to marvel at the experience of living in the first home built from the now-patented process. “This house always has an organic, ‘breathing’ feel to it,” Ward says. “In the evening, the breezes blow parallel to the mountains and when you open the doors you can immediately feel the air migrating from one end to the other; you should feel it after a rainstorm when the air is ionized.”

“We really feel healthier in this house,” he adds. “It’s a very nice environment to live in.”

Tom Ward Ward + Blake Architects