In concern with embodied energy in construction, I attempt to find an ecologically friendly material. Through researching various vernacular earth architecture around the world and comparing these through different eras of earth building, I’m trying to discover how it can and is, this ancient practice, used nowadays. How going back to the absolute basics our ancestors used can help the current climate crisis we are facing. Gathering information and proposing a new modern pillar of architecture.
Carrara Marble Quarry, Italy
Watching the “Anthropocene: The Human Epoch”1 film, I was mesmerized by the Italian Carrara marble quarry. After seeing this beautiful senary it got me thinking, what is the cost on our planet to export one of the most prestigious marbles worldwide and how can we cut down on embodied energy. The most used material, concrete, I found out it contributes about 8% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. If the entirety of the cement industry was combined into a country, it would be the third-largest emitter, behind China and the US.
The industry contributes more CO2 than aviation fuel and it’s not far from the global agriculture industry (12%). But this is not slowing down, the cement industry quadrupled since the 1990s and is likely to increase even more in the future if we won’t find greener alternatives.
1 Anthropocene: The Hum
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Trying to find a material with low embodied energy, I didn’t have to look far but just below me, Earth! Mudbricks have been used widely across the globe for centuries as the main building material. For some of the greatest ancient civilizations, Mesopotamia, not only used it as a housing material but also for megastructures that are still standing centuries after construction. Such as the Taq Kasra which is the largest single-span vault of unreinforced brickwork, made from mudbricks, in the world till this day.
Truly shows the durability of soil. That got me questioning how can this material that withstands the test of time can be adapted to the modern world and practices. Mudbrick is a rectangular mold-made brick from the soil, chopped straw, and water. Vernacular architecture is the “native science of building”1 as mentioned by Oliver P, so why don’t we go back to this.
1 Oliver Paul, Built to meet need: culture issues in vernacular architecture, Architectural Press
Started by researching 4 random buildings on the list given to try and figure out what I wanted to focus on. When researching the Yaodong Complex in China, which are underground house complexes I realized I wanted to investigate earth architecture and how it was done in vernacular architecture and how that is implemented nowadays. Through this study am trying to see if the earth is a reliable and efficient material to use for the future construction of structures.
Starting off, the Adobe Pueblo in Mexico, are mudbrick houses built in the southeast of the USA and Mexico. Its multistoried rooms, up to 5 stories, usually in a pyramid-like arrangement where the roof, that were made from wooden posts, straw, mud, and plaster, can act as a terrace to the room above. Movement between them was usually accomplished with wooden ladders and each could house multiple families.
Following on to Cyprus traditional houses that were made from mudbricks with a plaster finish on each side of the walls, creating great insulation for the subtropical Mediterranean climate. They are usually 1-2 stories houses with an enclosed yard and a secondary structure that can be used as storage or as a barn.
Moving on to the incredible Shibam Hadramawt in Yemen, known as the “Manhattan of the desert”. They are the first high-rise apartment buildings, made from mudbricks, dating back to the 9th century, they vary from 5 to 11 stories high. A truly great example of the extent and strengths soil can have when it comes to construction.
Stepping into the post-industrial interpretation of earth architecture things start to change and new technologies are emerging, making earth architecture even more efficient and easier. Hassan Fathy, an Egyptian architect, created a movement around the 1940s, having a political motive of the disfavor of both political ideologies, he promoted the third one. An ideology of political, economic, cultural, and technological self-sufficiency. Boycotting cement imports and reviving the adobe ancestral tradition.
New Baris, is a very well-thought-through mudbrick complex in Egypt (1967) that ameliorates an extremely harsh environment without mechanical means. Fathy achieved that by adapting medieval practices in Cairo. Adding a second chimney with incline metal louvres, which was extremely experimental in such harsh heat conditions, was extremely successful due to visitors reporting shivering with cold in the lower levels even on the hottest summer days.
The community of La Luz in Albuquerque, New Mexico by Antoine Predock is a complex of houses built-in 1967. It is made from adobe walls from on-site materials, its massive adobe walls act as heat reservoirs and form acoustical barriers. Some walls are painted white to bounce light in rooms or patios with the buildings also considering the sun and wind patterns of the area where the west side offers mostly blank walls to lower sun exposure and the patios offer shelter from the winter winds.
The Chapel of Reconciliation in Berlin, by architects Retermann and Sassenroth built-in 1990, has a core of rammed earth. The remains of the former chapel, which was destroyed in 1987 because it was in the Berlin death strip, are integrated into the thick rammed earth walls.
A reiteration of earth architecture is rammed earth. Rammed earth is created by compacting subsoil material, unbaked earthen construction unlike mudbricks, in temporary formwork. Compacting multiple layers of soil can create a high aesthetic appeal, passive hygroscopic humidity regulation, and more important its extremely low embodied energy. All this can be built on-site with soil found there or from other constructions excavation waste. Some alterations of rammed earth are factory prefabricated walls and stabilized rammed earth, which is a mixture of rammed earth with concrete.
Progressing into the post-digital era of earth architecture can be seen worldwide. Mudbrick construction can be mostly found in developing countries. Some examples are the Gando Teacher’s Housing by Kere Architecture in Burkina Faso and the Orthodox church of St. George by Wallmakers in India. They use the same methods as vernacular buildings but with the help of new technologies such as CSBE, which is compressed earth blocks.
The great wall of WA by Luigi Rosselli in Australia is a 230m rammed earth wall on one side made of local earth and a sand dune on the other side. Enclosing the 12 residences provides them with the best thermal mass, making them cool in the subtropical climate.
A project by Joly & Loiret in Paris by the name “Manufacture Sur Seine – Réinventer la terre”, reinventing the earth, has the idea of creating a large multi-purpose urban estate that will be made from rammed earth. The soil used will be the one extracted from the Paris metropolis during the new digging of the metropolitan rail network.
Looking into earth architecture I would strongly argue that it’s worth starting construction with earth again. Rammed earth or mudbricks don’t only drastically cut down the embodied energy of a building, but also upcycle other industries' waste. Using soil from other industries and construction sites that would otherwise be considered as waste. As well as giving natural insulation and adding a passive solar factor to the building.
This field of earth building is slowly picking up again, now that the climate crisis is accelerating. Now that this practice is reawaking it will soon flourish again in urban areas. As in the words of sociologist and philosopher Edgar Morin “the great movements of transformation always start in a marginal, deviant, modest or even invisible way”.
The Anthropocene epoch of abusing the earth’s resources to construct short-lived architecture instead of investing in our future. So, on that note vernacular architecture, that is still around now for us to admire, lets not just admire them but actually learn from them and apply their ideologies into the modern pillars of good architecture.
Rodger, L., 2021. Climate change: The massive CO2 emitter you may not know about. BBC News
David Oates, 1990. Innovations in Mud-Brick: Decorative and Structural Techniques in Ancient Mesopotamia. World Archeology, Taylor & Francis Ltd.
Oliver Paul, Built to meet need: Culture issues in vernacular architecture, Architectural Press
Luebering, J., 2021. pueblo architecture. Encyclopedia Britannica
City Monitor. 2021. In Yemen, there's a city full of 500 year old skyscrapers made of mud - City Monitor
Steele, J., 1988. Hassan Fathy. London: Academy Editions.
Predock, A. and Collins, B., 2000. Antoine Predock houses. New York, NY: Rizzoli International Publications.
Maniatidis, V. and Walker, P., 2008. Structural Capacity of Rammed Earth in Compression. Journal of Materials in Civil Engineering, pp.230-238.
Walker, P., Keable, R., Martin, J. and Maniatidis, V., n.d. Rammed earth: design and construction guidelines.
Kapfinger, O. and Rauch, M., 2001. Rammed earth. Basel: Birkhäuser.
Agence Joly & Loiret. 2021. SEN1 (Manufacture sur Seine) - Agence Joly & Loiret.