Pompallier House, Russell, Built circa 1830. Possibly New Zealand's first rammed earth structure. Still standing, still beautiful.

quote2Rammed earth construction was used to construct countless monuments, temples, ziggurats, churches, and mosques. Many of these structures (the Great Wall of China being one) have stood the test of time and are still standing today.

The technique of ramming earth into forms to create structures was first used in arid climates that had little wood and other resources available for construction. It was the Romans that brought the technique to Europe around the 1st century AD. From this time until the dawn of the industrial revolution, earthen construction saw increased use.

The industrial revolution and development of production techniques for timber and wood saw the decline of earth construction, accompanied with the creation of mass-produced manufactured materials, capable of being assembled in less time saving money. It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that public awareness of environmental issues emerged in regards to the importance of constructing environmentally responsible houses. This has brought rammed earth construction for modern houses back into the spot light.
The basic principle of construction – ramming moist earth into movable formwork went basically unchanged until 18th century. A French builder, Francois Cointeraux, discovered Pisé construction being used in the region of Lyon (French Providence) and was drawn to its simplicity and uniqueness. He began a series of experiments on the structures, being the first to document the basic methods used in construction.

Cointeraux saw rammed earth as “a means by which the common man could vastly improve the quality of his life”. The ideals of the rammed earth matched those of the French revolution, occurring at the time, of ‘free earth’ and ‘honorable labor’.
quote2Archaeological evidence can date entire cities constructed of earth back over 10,000 years. All of the great civilisations of the Middle East were constructed with mud brick and rammed earth – Assyria, Babylon, Persia and Sumeria
With this said, he founded a Pisé Construction school in 1788 in Paris and wrote four text books on the tools, soil, formwork, and mythology of building with Pisé. Cointeraux’s work was the building blocks for all earthen construction for the following century.

The first decade of the 19th century experienced an exponential increase in the number of experiments and research in Pisé housing techniques.

As the boom of published information based upon Cointeraux’s work was beginning to gain wide acceptance; the mid 1800′s brought other building materials, such as timber, steel, and fired brick. Earth construction went untouched, except for continued agricultural use, until the outbreak of the Great Depression. Prior to this, earth housing was looked at only for the poor.

It was the US Department of Agriculture in the mid 1920′s that performed a study of the first rammed earth structures built over seventy years ago. The results of this study surprised many, with the structures still in serviceable conditions.

The Agriculture department published several complete technical papers detailing all aspects of rammed earth construction in the late twenties, which allowed many novice home owners to construct their own houses affordably. Coupled with the Depression, which created a shortage in building materials and flooded the market with cheap, available labor, rammed earth housing saw a boom exceeding that of the previous century.

After World War II, the expectation of the construction industry was toward more manufactured and component-based building, particularly as plastic based products were gaining widespread acceptance (regardless that we knew so little about their life span and durability). In this period earth building was seen as not modern by the consumer and a threat by the material suppliers that had (and even still have) a monopoly with the supply of these plastic-type (and other) products. The last 30 years have seen a paradigm shift in this situation.

It wasn’t until the Oil embargo and resulting energy crisis of the mid 1970′s that the present day revitalisation of rammed earth housing began throughout the world. Governmental agencies initiated energy saving credits, which offered financial rewards for investments in energy conservation measures. The simplicity of the rammed earth system and the logic of building with such an abundant and basic material, coupled with energy efficiency and government tax credits, spawned many new houses to be constructed.

In the last 30 years there has been considerable growth in the number of rammed earth buildings worldwide, including in Australia, France, Germany, USA and New Zealand. In France, about 15% of the population live in earth houses. In some regions of Australia over 20% of the houses are built with walls of unfired earth. In addition to the many housing projects, applications have included churches, hotels, factories, schools, and exhibition centres.

In New Zealand, early European settlers applied traditional English techniques of earth construction – using predominantly wattle-and-daub in the South Island and rammed earth in the North Island. Pompallier House at Russell is a well-known example of rammed earth construction, which has stood the test of earthquake, storms, and time.

Earth Building in New Zealand has undergone a revival in interest and this interest is reflected in the number of earth buildings that have been erected in the last two decades. There are currently some 600 earth buildings in New Zealand, with Pompallier House being possibly the oldest surviving (for over 180 years). Terra Firma has built 80 of them since 1991.


1. Christopher Cornwell – Construction for Humanity
2. Earth building around the world – waitakere.govt.nz

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