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Rammed Earth

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Using rammed earth involves a process of compressing a damp mixture of earth that has suitable proportions of sand, gravel and clay (sometimes with an added stabilizer) into an externally supported frame that molds the shape of a wall section creating a solid wall of earth. Traditional stabilizers such as lime or animal blood were used to stabilize the material, but cement has been the stabilizer of choice for modern times. After compressing the earth the wall frames can be immediately removed and require an extent of warm dry days after construction to dry and harden. The structure can take up to two years to completely cure, and the more it cures the stronger the structure becomes. When the process is complete it is much like constructing a hand made wall of solid rock.

Formwork is set up creating the desired shape of the section of wall; damp material is poured in to a depth of between 100 to 250mm (4 to 10 inches). A pneumatically powered backfill tamper - something like a hand-held pogo stick with a flat plate on the bottom or even a manual tamper - is then used to compact the material to around 50% of its original height. Further layers of material are added and the process is repeated until the wall has reached the desired height. The wall is so solid that, if desired, the forms can be removed immediately. This is necessary if wire brushing to reveal texture is desired otherwise walls become too hard to brush after around 60 minutes. Walls take some time to dry out completely, but this does not prevent further work on the project. Any exposed walls should be sealed to prevent water damage - there are several proprietary products specifically designed to seal earth walls.

In modern variations of the method the rammed earth walls are constructed on top of conventional footings or a reinforced concrete base, sometimes with extra ground insulation from a horizontal layer of styrofoam. Some builders also add coloured oxides or other items such as bottles or pieces of timber to add variety to the structure.

Once completely cured the walls are very workable. It is easy to drive a nail or screw into them and they can be patched if necessary with the result being undetectable if the same material was used.

One of the significant benefits of rammed earth constructions is its excellent thermal mass; it heats up slowly during the day and releases its heat during the evening. This can even out daily temperature variations and reduce the need for air conditioning and heating. On the other hand, rammed earth is not a good insulator. Like brick and concrete (which also have excellent thermal mass), rammed earth is often insulated in colder climates. The thickness and density of the walls lends itself naturally to soundproofing and the materials used in the walls make them virtually fireproof.

Prior to the use of cement as a stabilizer, rammed earth buildings were most successful in dry climates with limited availability of building materials other than earth. Rammed earth has become a viable material in wetter climates, either through the use of cement stabilization, through placing the earth walls within the weatherproof fabric of the building, or by the application of external insulation and weatherproofing.

Rammed earth structures are beneficial for natural building because they can utilize locally available materials with little embodied energy and harmful waste. Earth is a widely available building material with virtually no side effects associated with harvesting for use in construction. The earth used is typically subsoil, leaving topsoil readily available for agricultural uses. Often the soil can be used on the site where the construction takes place reducing cost and energy used for transportation. It is also affordable to build with, as the materials are inexpensive or free. It is a viable building material for low- income builders with help from unskilled workers, friends, or family. Today more than 30 percent of the world's population uses earth as a building material.

Compressing the earth can be done manually using a tamper made of a heavy flat bottom plate connected to a long vertical handle. Using a pneumatically powered tamper the material can be compressed with much less manual labor. Although the cost of material is low, constructing rammed earth without mechanical tools is a time consuming project. With a mechanical tamper and the forms ready it can take about two to three days to construct the walls for a 2000 to 2200 sq foot house.

Rammed earth buildings reduce the need for lumber because the forms used are removable and can then be reused for different rammed earth wall construction. The forms are usually made of reinforced plywood, but sheet metal or even glass fiber can be used. The form wall faces must be externally reinforced with laterally running beams to prevent outward bending of the wall faces during the compression process. The two opposing wall faces must be clamped together and the wall edges need to be securely compressed between the form faces to withstand the high amounts of pressure created during compression.

The USDA observed that rammed earth structures last indefinitely and could be built for no more than two-thirds the cost of standard frame houses. Rammed earth can carry a heavy load and using re-bar, wood or bamboo reinforcement can prevent failure caused by earthquakes or heavy storms. Mixing cement with the soil mixture can also increase the structure's load bearing capacity. The compression strength of rammed earth can be up to 625 pounds per square inch. This is only two-thirds the value of a similar thickness of concrete, but a rammed earth building is still a useful durable material. Termites won't infest rammed earth walls and the material is reusable, biodegradable and highly fire resistant. The walls require no toxic treatments and have no risk of off-gassing toxic fumes, making it ideal for chemically sensitive dwellers. Properly built rammed earth can withstand loads for thousands of years as the history of rammed earth structures around the world has proven. Stucco can finish the walls in almost any color or style; untouched the walls have the color and texture of natural earth. Blemishes can also be patched up using the soil mixture as a plaster and sanded smooth.

In the UK it has been suggested that a compression strength of 2N/mm (290 pounds per square inch) should be assumed in the absence of data derived from testing of the earth that will be used.[6] Concrete typically used in UK construction is mixed off site and has a compression strength of 12-16N/mm (1700 to 2300 pounds per square inch, from a cube strength fcu = 30N/mm to 40N/mm), around seven times stronger than rammed earth. However, there are many factors that affect the width of a wall, so a plain concrete wall will not necessarily be much thinner than an equivalent in rammed earth.

Rammed earth is not only an economically viable construction technique, it results in pleasant, and energy-efficient buildings. The density and thickness of rammed earth makes it so that hot or cold temperature penetration has a slow rate of thermal conductivity. Warmth takes almost 12 hours to work its way through a 14 inch thick wall.[citation needed] The walls provide good thermal mass, which helps keep indoor temperatures stable, particularly in regions with dramatic daily temperature changes. The half-day rate of heat transfer and thermal mass of the material makes rammed earth a practical material for passive solar buildings. Rammed earth has been a popular choice for buildings where temperature fluctuations need to be kept to a minimum. It can be used in cooler climates but must be protected from heavy rain and insulated with vapor barriers.

Typically rammed earth walls are about 12 to 14 inches thick making them ideal for humidity control and noise barriers from traffic, furnaces, compressors, fans or ducts. Rammed earth also allows more air exchange than concrete structures allowing the building to breathe and not become clammy without significant heat loss as the material mass absorbs the temperature as the wall breathes.

By its very nature, earth is one of the best sustainable building materials as it is historically the longest used material by man. It is universally a naturally available product, with a heavy thermal mass and a natural barrier to cold winds and forces of nature including insects and rodents. The material is not rationed or monopolized, is fire proof, and sound proof.[ Rammed earth can contribute to a solution for much of the world of homelessness caused by high costs as well as today ecological dilemma caused by deforestation and toxic building materials.