- Rammed earth walls are constructed by ramming a mixture of gravel, sand, silt and a small amount of clay into place between flat panels called formwork.
- Stabilised rammed earth adds a small amount of cement (typically 5–10%) to increase strength and durability.
- Rammed earth provides excellent thermal mass but limited insulation.
- Rammed earth is very strong in compression and can be used for multistorey loadbearing construction.
- Complex structures may require reinforcement or frames, but most simple and commonly built rammed earth buildings do not.
- The building design should plan for services well in advance to minimise logistical challenges, with conduits located carefully not to affect the surface finishes of walls.
- Rammed earth is generally very durable but needs protection from driving rain and long-term exposure to moisture. Most modern Australian rammed earth walls do not require additional waterproofing except in very exposed conditions.
- Rammed earth generally has low embodied energy and low environmental impact, but this depends on cement content and the source of the materials. Materials that are quarried and transported long distances to the construction site will have higher embodied energy and impact.
Understanding rammed earth
Rammed earth walls are constructed by ramming a mixture of selected aggregates, including gravel, sand, silt, and a small amount of clay, into place between flat panels called formwork. Traditional technology repeatedly rammed the end of a wooden pole into the earth mixture to compress it. Modern technology replaces the pole with a mechanical ram.
Stabilised rammed earth is a variant of traditional rammed earth that adds a small amount of cement (typically 5–10%) to increase strength and durability. Stabilised rammed earth walls need little added protection but are usually coated with an air-permeable sealer to increase the life of the material.
Rammed earth walls are sometimes known as pisé walls — from the French ‘pisé de terre’. The term was applied to the principle of constructing walls at least 500mm thick by ramming earth between 2 parallel frames that were then removed, revealing a completed section of compressed earth wall. While 500mm thick walls can still be constructed if desired, with or without cement, most modern rammed earth walls in Australia are built using cement as a stabiliser and are typically 300mm thick for external walls and 300mm or 200mm for internal walls.
Photo: ©Monique Manolini, Crib Creative
Buildability, availability and cost
Rammed earth is an in situ construction method. Basic materials for rammed earth making are readily available across Australia, but cement and formwork may have to be transported long distances, increasing environmental and economic costs. Testing of local aggregates and potential mixes is essential if not using a proprietary system.
Although its buildability is good, formwork for rammed earth demands good site and logistics planning to ensure that other trades are not adversely affected in the building program. Services should be well planned in advance to minimise difficulties. After walls have been rammed in place, conduits for pipes and wires can be provided much as in other masonry construction, but may affect surface finishes.
Proprietary approaches to rammed earth help guarantee consistency and predictable performance but come at a cost. The cost of a professional rammed earth building is comparable to other more conventional good quality masonry construction. It can be more than twice as expensive as a rendered 200mm wide autoclaved aerated concrete block wall.
The rammed earth construction method is well established in Western Australia and is an economical option in that state. Most states have experienced builders who understand its potential and limitations, but it tends to have a relatively high cost outside of Western Australia because it is not a common construction method. It typically requires high levels of control over material sourcing and batching, and expensive formwork. A key element in controlling costs is to design walls as simple panels and to avoid unnecessary complexity. Traditional rammed earth using human power for ramming and simple wooden formwork can be low cost (and low energy), but this is rarely a realistic option.
There are good information networks in Australia including a national organisation, the Earth Building Association of Australia.
The colour of rammed earth walls is determined by the earth and aggregate used. The ramming process proceeds layer by layer and can introduce the appearance of horizontal stratification to the walls. Stratification can be controlled as a feature or eliminated.
Aggregates can be exposed, and special effects created by the addition of different coloured material in some layers, and elements such as feature stones or objects, alcoves or relief mouldings can be incorporated into rammed earth walls, at a price. Decorative finishes can be achieved by including shapes in the formwork that can be released after the wall has been rammed.
Photo: Paul Downton
Chamfered corners allow the walls to be easily released from the formwork. Brushed finishes help reduce formwork marks that can create a concrete-like appearance, but this is only necessary with fine-grained ingredients. Vertical curves can be formed by carefully ramming along a drawn guideline on the interior of the formwork. Horizontal curves are also possible but require specialised, and therefore expensive, formwork.
Photo: © Simone Cottrell
Rammed earth is very strong in compression and can be used for multistorey loadbearing construction. Research in New Zealand indicates that monolithic earth walls perform better under earthquake conditions than walls made of separate bricks or blocks. A 5-storey hotel in Queensland is built of stabilised rammed earth. Rammed earth can be engineered to achieve reasonably high strengths and be reinforced in a similar manner to concrete. Horizontal reinforcement is not recommended and excessive vertical reinforcement can cause cracking problems.
Interesting structural features, including leaning walls, have been constructed in rammed earth. Any difficulties associated with placing and ramming around reinforcement can be eased by careful management of the construction process and need not add significantly to the cost.
Durability and moisture resistance
Rammed earth is generally very durable – the basic technology has been around for thousands of years and there are many rammed earth buildings still standing that are centuries old.
All types of rammed earth walls are porous by nature and need protection from driving rain and long-term exposure to moisture.
Maintain water protection to the tops and bottoms of walls. Continued exposure to moisture may degrade the internal structure of the earth by reversing the cement stabilisation and allowing the clays to expand. In general, rammed earth does have moderate to good moisture resistance and most modern Australian rammed earth walls do not require additional waterproofing. New water-repellent additives that waterproof the walls right through may make rammed earth suitable for very exposed conditions, including retaining walls, but may inhibit the breathability of the material.
Photo: © Simone Cottrell
Thermal mass and insulation
Rammed earth behaves as heavyweight masonry with a high thermal mass. Thermal mass absorbs or ‘slows down’ the passage of heat through a material and then releases that heat when the surrounding ambient temperature goes down.
Used correctly, and in the right climate, the thermal mass of rammed earth can delay heat flow through the building envelope by as much as 10 to 12 hours and can even out daily temperature variations. Rammed earth walls become effective when the difference between day and night outdoor temperatures is at least 6°C.
You do not need to build an entire home of rammed earth to take advantage of its thermal mass. In cool or cold climates, well-located rammed earth walls (for example, feature walls within a well-insulated envelope) can supply a battery of useful thermal storage. Rammed earth is not recommended for tropical climates where high-mass construction can cause a house to hold too much heat and cause thermal discomfort.
Rammed earth has limited insulation qualities – similar to an uninsulated fibre cement wall. Typically, the indoor temperature of an uninsulated rammed earth building remains close to the 24-hour average of outdoor temperatures for any given time of year. In many climates this may be too cold or warm for comfort. Insulation can be added to rammed earth walls with linings. Generally a 300mm rammed earth wall will not meet National Construction Code requirements for external wall insulation.
The best location for insulation with rammed earth is on the interior face of the wall, so that the thermal mass is within a contained and controllable external envelope. Insulation can also be added within the thickness of a rammed earth wall, but this adds to its cost and changes the structural properties of the wall. However, it does provide the benefits of both excellent thermal mass and good thermal insulation in the one wall while retaining the desirable look, texture, feel, acoustics and low maintenance properties of rammed earth exposed on each side. Hybrid buildings that use insulated lightweight framed external walls with rammed earth internal walls and feature elements can achieve high insulation and high thermal mass.
Photo: ©Monique Manolini, Crib Creative
One of the best ways to insulate against sound is to have monolithic mass such as rammed earth. It has excellent sound reverberation characteristics and does not generate the harsh echoes characteristic of many conventional wall materials.
Fire and pest resistance
There are no flammable components in a rammed earth wall and its fire resistance is very good. In tests by the CSIRO, a 150mm thick Cinva-rammed earth block wall (similar to rammed earth) achieved a near 4-hour fire resistance rating. There is no cavity to harbour pests and nothing in the material to attract or support them, so its resistance to pest attack is very high.
Breathability and toxicity
Provided it is not sealed with material that is impermeable to air molecules, rammed earth maintains its breathability. Finished walls are inert, but take care to choose waterproofing or antidust finishes that are nontoxic and free of, or at least low in, volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions.
Rammed earth has potentially low manufacturing impacts, depending on cement content and level of local material sourcing. Most rammed earth in Australia uses quarried aggregates, rather than the ‘earth’ it is popularly thought to be made from. On-site materials can often be used but materials need to be tested for their suitability.
The embodied energy of rammed earth is low to moderate. Composed of selected aggregates bound with cementitious material, rammed earth can be thought of as a kind of ‘weak concrete’. It may help to understand cement and earth products as being at different points on an energy continuum, with earth at the low end and high strength concrete at the high end. The cement and aggregate content of rammed earth can be varied to suit engineering and strength requirements.
Although in principle it is a low greenhouse gas emission product, transport and cement manufacture can add significantly to the overall emissions associated with typical modern rammed earth construction. Most of the energy used in the construction of rammed earth is in quarrying the raw material and transporting it to the site. Use of on-site materials can lessen energy consumed in construction.
The most basic kind of traditional rammed earth has very low greenhouse gas emissions, but the more highly engineered and processed variants may be responsible for significant emissions in their manufacture. For example, a 300mm rammed earth wall with 5% cement content produces slightly more emissions than a 100mm concrete wall.
Using rammed earth
Design and detailing
Rammed earth has fair to good compressive strength and is typically used as loadbearing construction.
Openings can be made without lintels with spans of up to 1m in stabilised walls subject to strength and engineering requirements. Specialised formwork can be made to create features such as pointed arches or circular windows, and the formwork can often be reused.
Nonstabilised rammed earth walls should be protected by eaves, overhangs or render, as they are more prone to erosion than stabilised rammed earth, which generally requires no additional finish. A clear water-repellent coating may be needed in some instances. Walls can be wire brushed shortly after being released from the formwork to eliminate the visual impact of the joins between the formwork and achieve an appearance closer to monolithic sandstone.
All structural design should be prepared by an experienced designer or builder and may require preparation or checking by a qualified engineer. All masonry construction must comply with the National Construction Code and Australian Standards.
The build process
Stabilised rammed earth is made by compacting a mixture of gravel, sand, silt, clay (and often cement) between formwork in a series of layers approximately 100mm thick. The modern process of making stabilised rammed earth is both labour intensive and highly mechanical, requiring the use of powered rams.
Photo: Paul Downton
Conventional concrete slab or strip footings are generally used, subject to soil conditions.
Frames and bond beams
Complex, more elaborately engineered structures may require reinforcement or frames that work in concert with the loadbearing capacity of rammed earth. Simple and commonly built rammed earth buildings do not require reinforcement.
Marine-grade plywood and steel sheets are both used in making formwork, which is superficially similar to the formwork used for in situ concrete, but with its own specific requirements.
Propping and temporary stays are required in the construction process and these may impact on other site work if the structure includes elements other than just rammed earth. Walls are built in sections and the rise of each level of formwork is often visible in the final finish. As the wall rises, it is possible to take out the lower portions of formwork provided the wall has set strongly enough.
Joints and connections
Walls are built in panels of approximately 3.5m in length with flexible joints to comply with building requirements for masonry structures. When a wall consists of more than one panel, a recess is built into the end of the first wall. The second wall then moulds into this to lock the walls together for lateral stability.
Most conventional masonry fixings work with rammed earth walls; they usually need to be set in at about twice the depth normally used for concrete.
Photo: Justin O'Connor
References and additional reading
- Australian Institute of Architects, Environment
- Earth Architecture
- Earth Building Association of Australia
- Easton D (2007). The rammed earth house. Chelsea Green, White River Junction, Vermont.
- Lawson B (1996). Building materials, energy and the environment: towards ecologically sustainable development. Royal Australian Institute of Architects, Canberra.
- Minke G (2009). Building with earth: design and technology of a sustainable architecture. Birkhäuser Architecture, Basel.
- Rael R (2009). Earth architecture. Princeton Architectural Press, New York.
- Simmons G and Gray A (eds) (1996). The earth builder’s handbook. Earth Garden Books, Trentham, Victoria.
- Read Design for climate to design a house to suit where you live
- Explore Preliminary research to discover what you should do as your first steps in building or buying a home
- Look at Insulation for more ideas on how to slow heat transfer through your home
Original author: Paul Downton 2013
Updated: Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources 2020