Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

The Appeal of Ancient Building Techniques

When Marcus Miner and Tim Miller drive from their home in Las Cruces, NM, to the land they own in the Galisteo Basin Preserve 14 miles south of Santa Fe, they travel past rugged ancient lava fields. The married couple hired DUST, a Tucson, Ariz.-based architecture firm to design a new home using traditional rammed earth construction that includes layers of lava, known as scoria, in the walls.

“The ethos of Galisteo Basin Preserve is to build a home that’s rooted in the land and to preserve the natural landscape as much as possible,” says Miner, 47, an endodontist. “We visited houses built by DUST with scoria, which is almost a mystical process to see. It seems both experimental and modern and yet also historic.”

Miner and Miller, a 55-year-old healthcare administrator, live in a renovated modern home with adobe walls in Las Cruces. Miller says they prefer a minimalist approach to living and love the clean lines of modern architecture blended with the natural surfaces produced by rammed earth construction.

Centuries-old structures built with rammed earth and adobe are found on nearly every continent. The ancient building technique appeals to modern architects interested in simplicity and sustainability, says Jonathan Feldman, founding partner and CEO of Feldman Architecture in San Francisco, who has built rammed earth homes in California.

“A lot of architects are inspired by architectural history but also focus on sustainability,” says Feldman. “Rammed earth has an almost sculptural beauty that responds to the natural materials at hand,” he says.

Adobe and rammed earth are both made with dirt, with the soil for rammed earth often coming from the site. Homes built with rammed earth in New Mexico can be particularly beautiful because of the yellow, gray, and red soil found in the desert, Feldman says.

Adobe is made of soil and water formed into bricks, while with rammed earth, the walls are formed first and a mix of dirt and cement are added to grow the wall out of the ground, says Cade Hayes, co-founding principal with Jesús Robles of DUST. “As you compact the earth you get beautiful striations of color,” he explains.

When designing Miller and Miner’s home, Hayes and Robles were inspired by the desert and the residences built by Spanish and indigenous people from centuries ago. “We’re not trying to replicate the past,” Hayes says, “but we do want to understand the cultural context in which we’re building.”

A Jonathan Feldman-designed interior that uses rammed earth construction.

Joe Fletcher

The Spirit of the Site

The beauty of buildings constructed with rammed earth is what draws people in first, says Brent Kendle, an architect and principal of Kendle Design Collaborative in Scottsdale, Ariz.

“We always practice regional modernism, and our designs are driven by the clients, the climate, and the location,” he says. “There’s something about rammed earth construction that evokes the spirit of the site because you’re pulling soil directly into the structure.”

Rammed earth walls create a tapestry of local soil, Feldman says.

“It’s almost like an art project, like a human replication of geology,” he says. “At the same time, you’re showing the honesty of the building and its structure.”

Adobe and rammed earth walls are particularly suited to the climate of the US Southwest because of the big differential between daytime and nighttime temperatures, Robles says.

Miller and Miner’s home will rely on the thermal mass of the rammed earth walls for most of its heating and cooling. The bedrooms in the house will receive the most benefit from the rammed earth walls, while they may lose some of the thermal protection in the great room because of its primarily glass walls.

In areas with a tropical climate, rammed earth and adobe would be less appealing, says Feldman.

“In humid air, you want buildings that breathe like something with a thatched roof rather than a two-foot-thick wall.” The use of soil from thensite or from a nearby location is part of the sustainability benefit of rammed earth construction.

“Not only are you reusing the soil, you’re not hauling it off or trucking it in from a long distance like other building materials,” Feldman says. While not every soil is perfect for rammed earth construction, he adds, it’s also not a scarce commodity like lumber, steel, and other energy consuming materials.

A Slower Way to Build

Building with rammed earth can add three or four months to construction time, which increases costs, Kendle says. Hayes estimates that homes built with rammed earth construction cost about $500 to $600 per square foot.

Code compliance can be another obstacle for homes built with rammed earth, mostly because it’s a rarely used technique that many jurisdictions are unfamiliar with, Feldman says.

“There’s a renewed interest in rammed earth and adobe because of the use of locally sourced materials and the beauty of the design that we hope will inspire others,” Hayes says. “But the challenges are the expense and finding artisans who can build this way.”

This article appeared in the March 2022 issue of Penta magazine.

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