"The idea of sustainable housing developed as a reaction to what I perceived as a counter intuitive-course that construction development was taking in regard to the public good. In other words, I could see that our construction community was failing to provide shelter that was affordable, functional, healthy and durable, e.g. sustainable."
(Paul Geraets - Company Director, Terra Firma Earth Building Co. Ltd)
My mission now was to find a sustainable, traditional way to build houses that wasn’t going to cost, well, the earth!
|One of the first events that initialised this view was evidence of the increased use of toxic building materials that were clearly dangerous to not only the dwelling occupier but also the poor buggars who built the thing (i.e. my work colleagues and I).
My first step actively in this direction was in 1989, shortly after arriving home in New Zealand from almost 10 years abroad. I was being asked to advise friends and others on the ‘best’ way to go about building a home. Here was an opportunity to influence ethics into the decisions made when choosing the type of materials used in the construction of one’s home.
One of my first realisations (which didn’t really surprise me) was that a pretty effective guide to construction sustainability was tradition. In other words what we have been doing for hundreds of years - if not thousands - came with the immediate benefit that we could determine the lifespan of a building.
The evidence is right there in our existing construction culture.
Unfortunately, it was pretty obvious that to build ‘the old way’ was going to cost more; for most people, anything that costs more is immediately unaffordable.
It was late 1989 and earth building appeared for the first time on my radar in the form of a book, The Rammed Earth Experience by David Easton. Reading this inspiring book triggered a focused passion that I can say has not diminished to this day. The logic of earth building was, and still is, obvious to me. I set about finding others in New Zealand who were building homes in this way.
What I found was a passionate group of people who were mostly building their own homes. I consistently saw that these owner builders were inexperienced when it came to construction practice and methodology, yet they were still building strong and beautiful homes. But their inexperience meant that they were taking a long time to complete their projects and ending up doing a lot of backbreaking work. I could see many ways to improve, which only encouraged me further.
I was now at a stage where I felt that I had a solution to the problem of finding a construction method that was going to provide quality, durable shelter and have a minimum impact on our environment, i.e. ‘a vastly reduced carbon footprint’ in current green building parlance. I needed to build a prototype and I needed to find a place to build it.
My first priority for location had nothing to do with construction. I had to be as close as possible to good surf, my ‘other’ life. Hence the first rammed earth project was to be a home for my family in Whale Bay, Raglan, overlooking the world-class wave, ‘Indicators’.
To begin, I built a temporary structure and moved onto the property in early 1990. I spent the next 12 months going through an exhaustive process of research and logistics; not the least problematic step being convincing Waikato District Council that I ‘knew’ what I was doing.
All this preparation time eventually paid off. We erected the walls to our first rammed earth house in 17 days, a structure involving 30 m3 of rammed earth walls weighing over 60 tonne. As far as we were aware, this time-frame for rammed earth wall construction in New Zealand was unheard of.
We were off.
So it was time to put it out there, ‘We can build affordable rammed earth walls for houses.’
Our first project was a small café just outside of Cambridge, which became an early lesson regarding the need to stay in control of design. The project went well enough and the café went on to be very successful but the rammed earth wall aspect of the project, without doubt, could have been designed far more efficiently.
In other words, the designer must have empathy with the material.
Our next project was my first total rammed earth design/ build project other than my own home. Peter and Eunice Martin approached me to build their home in Cambridge. After viewing my own home, they talked me into designing theirs but I was initially not too confident as I had received no formal architectural training. As I became more immersed in the needs of design and then working drawings, I definitely found my feet and looking back, am very proud of what we created. This project signified the official beginning of Terra Firma as a rammed earth home building company.
The Olive Grove is still there today, 20 years later and has aged beautifully. Peter and Eunice still live there and have no intention of leaving. The home has even withstood a major flood with minimal damage (see 100-year flood)
For the next few years, Terra Firma went through much innovation and self-funded research. We developed a core group of very passionate company members and built many houses in the Waikato, Coromandel and Auckland.
It was also around this time that I re-established a close and very productive working relationship with Kevin Grimes. Kevin and I had already worked together on a number of demanding construction projects and were confident with our ability to get results. When the opportunity presented itself to get our heads together to solve rammed earth innovation hurdles - especially in-line with our commitment and passion towards buildings sustainability - we jumped at it.
After 20 years, Kevin and I still work together closely on the design, project management and construction of Terra Firma’s rammed earth homes
Another especially important member of our team since those early days has been, and still is, Terry Steven. Terry is a very experienced engineer, with a deep interest in traditional masonry structures. He pushed us to design formwork that would create walls with profound structural integrity.
Terry was also the first engineer that would stand by his design calculations no matter who was challenging his methodology. This was very important for us as we were constantly pushing boundaries to develop more efficient construction systems.
From that heady time of discovery and company growth, the fundamental systems that we developed to build rammed earth walls have essentially remained unchanged. What has significantly developed since then has been my experience and knowledge as a designer of rammed earth homes embodying a strong ethos of sustainability.
Over the last 20-plus years, our company has built at least 80 rammed earth dwellings and structures, most of these becoming much-loved family homes.
I have personally designed about 50 of these buildings and have been an integral part of the design team for the rest. All of these homes are located in New Zealand’s upper North Island in 12 different district and city councils.
In 2009 our family uprooted from Whale Bay in Raglan, selling the family home, my three sons and I moving to Auckland. It has been my hope that in moving to Auckland (along with more educational choices for my boys) I am able to further help develop a construction culture of rammed earth and bring these beautiful and intelligent homes to a wider market.
After over 20 years of building with rammed earth, this form of construction has if anything become more relevant as society is accepting and acknowledging sustainable practices in all aspects of life.
I passionately believe the choice to build in rammed earth is a logical one for those who have a belief in sustainability, durability and an eye for beauty in both form and function.
Contact me now for a personal discussion about your design ideas and let us build you, the earth rammed home of your dreams.