A Traditional Research Paper

Rammed Earth Construction

The compaction of successive layers of earth between forms to build a wall.

The Church of the Holy Cross, was built in 1850-52, on the site of the original Episcopal Church of Claremont, an offshoot of Saint Mark's Pinewood Church. Rather than travel the distance to Pinewood, the early church members petitioned for a Chapel of Ease, located near Wedgefield, and then received a charter from the state legislature in 1788 to build their own church in Stateburg on land donated by General Thomas Sumter. By 1847 the congregation had outgrown the wooden church, and Edward Jones, a Charleston architect, was commissioned to draw a plan for a Victorian Gothic Church of cruciform design, and named, The Church of the Holy Cross. Being a very busy man, Mr. Jones entrusted the actual construction of the building to the Building Committee, chaired by Dr. William Wallace Anderson. Finding the Vestry members undecided as to building with stone, brick, or wood, Dr. Anderson persuaded them to use Pise De Terre (rammed earth). Dr. Anderson's home, located across the street, was built with rammed earth in 1820 (Sumter 1).

The cornerstone was laid on September 11, 1850, and the church consecrated by the Right Reverend Francis Huger Rutledge, Bishop of Florida, on July 14, 1852. The Church is an exceptionally beautiful example of Victorian Gothic, both in architectural design and furnishings. The highly vaulted ceilings were made from uncut lumber, 37 feet in length. To protect the 18 and 22 inch walls from moisture, a mixture of sand, clay, lime and pebbles were flung on the earthen walls with brooms. The inside walls are finished in lath and plaster. The beautifully molded ceiling of the chancel provides a lovely frame for the magnificent trio of stained glass windows, made in Bavaria after the designs of Frederick Auerbach, a protege of the famous French architect and restorer, Violet-Le-Duc. The existing pulpit, lectern, altar, bishop's chair and Prie Dieu are the originals. The nameplate on the Henry Erben Organ is dated 1851. This organ is almost unique in that it is still used as the primary means of music in the church.

This 140 year old church has endured more than 100 years of 100 plus inches of rain per year it has withstood the Great Charleston Earthquake of 1886, a hurricane in 1903 which toppled the upper portion of the wooden steeple, and Hurricane Hugo in 1989 (1).

The Church of the Holy Cross is considered to be the best example of rammed earth construction in the United States. How many more years will the church survive? The Victorian Gothic design and the history of the church attest to the malleability, adaptability and endurance of rammed earth construction. The Church of the Holy Cross was declared a National landmark in 1978 (1). Rammed earth is a technique of construction not an architectural design. Rammed earth can be made to look like any type of architecture. On the other hand, Mr. Miller is known more for promoting the idea of rammed earth than the architectural design.

David J. Miller is to rammed earth as Babe Ruth is to baseball. David and Lydia Miller have been proponents of rammed earth homes for more than 55 years and living in rammed earth houses since 1945. The Millers initially encountered the "building with soil" process in an article from a 1937 issue of American Home magazine. Their interest grew with trips to Eastern Europe in the late 1930's and corresponding with several English and German architects who have used this method. In 1940, David and Lydia met the man who would design their rammed earth homes: J. Palmer Boggs, an environmentally oriented architect and professor of architecture at Oklahoma State University. Together, Boggs and the Millers built their first house in 1945.

Then, in 1949—after David and Lydia had been airlifted out of Berlin (where David had spent two years as a civilian legal analyst for General Lucius Clay)—they again got together with Boggs. David and Lydia's present home was Boggs' second collaboration on a rammed earth house, the architect made use of his previous experience to produce a design that could still be called advanced by today's standards but was a downright radical departure from normal building practices back in 1949 (Living 121-123).

In the early 1980's David and Lydia founded the Rammed Earth Institute International, a non-profit organization. The purpose of the Institute was to:

A. To bring together those interested in research on rammed earth in all its phases.

B. Search for all publications on rammed earth and prepare a World Wide Bibliography on rammed earth.

C. Public education on the advantages of rammed earth.

D. Conduct, sponsor and support scientific research of rammed earth as a building material.

E. Obtain grants from any private or public source for the funding of research.

F. Secure and raise funds by publishing books, slides and other communication.

G. Secure acceptance of rammed earth as a building material and develop tests to assure construction of high quality rammed earth walls. (66)

Today, David and Lydia still live in their second rammed earth house that they built in 1945. David J. Miller is retired, and all of his documents (more than fifty years of research) have been donated to the University of Northern Colorado. Furthermore, I had the distinct pleasure of talking to Mr. Miller on the telephone, February 17, 1993. To me it was incredible, talking to a living legend. While talking to Mr. Miller, I had the picture of the movie, "Little Big Man" (the old man recounting his past) in my mind, and Mr. Miller's aged voice of wisdom added to the scenario.

Thus, a stark contrast exists between David J. Miller who spent most of his life researching and promoting rammed earth construction, (His life's documentation is regulated to five boxes in the Michener Archives, University of Northern Colorado), and on the other hand the unheeded proof of that research and promoting, is the Church of the Holy Cross standing in all its, 140 years of glory, as a monument to rammed earth construction.


Rammed earth construction was first recorded by the Babylonians in 5000 B.C.. The 1500 mile long Great Wall of China is the only man-made structure that can be seen from the moon with the naked eye. The wall was built around 300 B.C. and parts of the western portion are built of rammed earth. From there rammed earth migrated to India, over the Indian Ocean to Madagascar, across the continent of Africa, to Morocco, and then with Hannibal to Spain, the Pyrenees Mountains (where he built a string of watch towers, made from rammed earth, within eye sight of each other, many still standing), through the Alps, down into Italy (218-201 B.C., Hannibal introduced rammed earth to the Romans during the Second Punic War), then the Romans transported the idea to France and the lowland countries of Europe (Pliny 287).

In The Bible, (Old Testament, Exodus, Chapter 5), The Pharaoh of Egypt commanded that the Children of Israel should not be given straw to make bricks, which was the work their taskmasters had set them. These were adobe bricks for which they needed straw. In certain cases internal load bearing pillars were built of adobe blocks, while the walls were of rammed earth (Cytryn 61).

Moveover, earth has been the most basic building material since the dawn of man. To be sure, the earliest known kinds of earth construction were very crude by our standards today. Gradually man learned that some kinds of earth made better houses than others. Some of the best would last his entire lifetime. Next to food, water and air, shelter is man's most basic need.

In the next two pages, I've copied a portion of Mr. Miller's book (4-5). These drawings are included to show the different types of earth construction. (Two rammed earth buildings built in 1820 (Miller 50), houses from around the world (DeLong 19), and a rammed earth house on the Gardendale Homesteads, a U.S. Resettlement Administration project. [Note: The drawings are omitted in the workbook and online version.]


The use of earth on the site as a building material saves cost, time, energy, and transportation. The higher the ratio of non-manufactured local materials, the lower the ratio of man-made energy. Earth is nature's product; it requires no energy to produce, it saves man-made energy, it's labor intensive (with pneumatic tampers labor isn't as intensive), and it's massive and enduring. Rammed earth's massive walls are ideally suited for passive solar building. Contrary to common belief, earth provides the natural comforts of balanced temperatures, humidity and noise control. The lack of noise from traffic, irksome furnaces, compressors, fans and ducts, helps contribute to peace of mind.

Rammed earth has such a low rate of thermal conductivity (it's actually near zero); warmth takes almost 12 hours to work its way through a 14 inch thick wall. The half-day rate of heat transfer makes the material a perfect substance for providing thermal mass in passive solar construction. The sun's warmth will actually be reaching the interior of the house during the cold hours of the night, yet the walls insulate the interior from summer temperatures. Rammed earth is an excellent material for climates that have large daily temperature variations (Day 115).

Besides insulating and storing heat, rammed earth also allows more air exchange than does any comparable material. A rammed earth house breathes (and doesn't become clammy like a concrete structure) without suffering any significant heat loss. This is especially important today because the interior of houses are 5 to 7 times more polluted than the outside (Inside, 4).

The thick walls also provide a feeling of security which goes beyond their warmth and strength. Moreover, putting metal grills on window and door openings can make your house a fortress. The compressional strength of rammed earth can be as high as 625 pounds per square inch, which - though it's only two-thirds the value of a similar thickness of concrete - still makes a rammed earth building nearly as durable as a bomb shelter. If you plan on using stucco, the anchors to wire the chicken wire on must be inserted immediately (the first 18 hours) after form removal, or you will have to drill to get them in. Although the surface hardens, the wall will take up to two years to cure. The wall actually gains strength as it cures. What makes rammed earth so hard? Like the hardening of concrete, it's still not completely understood.

A rammed earth wall is about 40 percent cheaper to build than a standard stud wall, including labor. It takes two or three days to ram the walls for a large house, 2000-2200 square feet. Rammed earth is not just an economy construction technique it results in some of the most pleasant, comfortable, and energy- efficient buildings available at any price (Day 83-84). Using tinted stucco, the pise builder can finish his house in almost any color or architectural style, combining economy, utility, and beauty. Untouched, the walls have the color of the natural earth. There are also unseen ecological benefits. Using less wood allows more trees to live and provide all living things with more oxygen. Less paint and chemicals are used that otherwise would pollute our environment.


The two historical disadvantages to rammed earth has been water damage and labor intensity. The Australians have solved the water damage by spraying the wall with a transparent plastic Ideal for wall cleaning with a hose or damp sponge. Labor intensity has been solved by the use of gasoline and pneumatic powered tamping devices (Beyond 2000). Selma Robinson, a magazine writer, in her article "Houses Dirt Cheap" states:

And if the houses of Pise de terre are scarce, architects and builders who know about this type of construction are scarcer still. The low cost of pise de terre construction work may, paradoxically, tend to limit its acceptance. There is very little money to be made from it by contractors and the skilled building trades. Even the architects, collecting their customary percentage on total cost, made less on this type of building. (24)

One of the modern disadvantages are the building codes. You may need an exemption from the building code to erect a rammed earth structure for human occupation. This reflects more sorely on our building codes than on rammed earth construction. The second modern disadvantage is financing. Rammed Earth Institute International has tried in vain to secure construction loan status for rammed earth (Miller 8). The Federal Housing Authority and the Veterans Administration have so far refused to approve loans on rammed earth construction.

Wayne A. Dunlap, an engineering professor at Texas A&M, in his pamphlet states:

A significant problem associated with the construction of earthen buildings is the lack of standard criteria to evaluate the finished product. For conventional houses, there are specifications and methods of tests for evaluating nearly every item of construction material that goes into the house from gypsum sheathing to roofing shingles. Local building codes often supplement these requirements. However, one can not find such specifications for adobe blocks or rammed earth walls. This certainly serves as a deterrent to potential owners of earth homes. More importantly, it deters the lending institutions from investing money in such a home when they have no guarantee that the structure will be standing halfway through the life of the loan. (1)

Acceptance of Rammed Earth Construction

"Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored." — Aldous Huxley

A lot of money, time, and research have been invested in rammed earth construction. Why then, if rammed earth construction is so strong and so time-honored, hasn't this building method caught on in the United States? Well, the fact is it did, once, during the latter 1920's until the late 1940's. Millions of government monies were spent on the research of rammed earth construction. The South Dakota State College did extensive research, built nearly 100 weathering walls, researched the use of paints and plasters, and the relation of colloids in soil, over a period of thirty years. The Clemson Agricultural College of South Carolina, in 1945 published its findings in their pamphlet, Rammed Earth Building Construction. Also several large western universities did research on rammed earth construction.

The U.S. Department of the Army, Agriculture, Bureau of Standards, Housing and Urban Development, Agency for International Development, the Bureau of Public Roads, the United Nations, the governments of England, Germany, France, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, Poland and the U.S.S.R. have all conducted studies which found earth to be a good building material and recommend its use for housing.

In the 1930s a new factor was introduced. The properties of soils were studied on a scientific basis, and there grew rapidly a wealth of knowledge under the general title of "Soil Mechanics" (Fitzmaurice 7). The U.S. Army, Corps of Engineers, literally has tons of research on compacted earth. The Earth Manual(1), is a guide to the use of soils as foundations and as construction materials for hydraulic structures. This is the book of earthworks, foundations, rolled earth dams, canals , pipelines, and miscellaneous construction features (Highways and Railroads). The Panama Canal was the largest earth moving project in the history of the world.

The United States Department of Agriculture actually erected an experimental community of rammed earth buildings, Gardendale Homesteads at Mt. Olivet near Gardendale, Alabama (Thomas Hibben, Architect) in 1936. The project was entirely successful. The houses were built at a very reasonable cost. They were sold to the public, along with tracts of land sufficient enough for a garden and perhaps a little livestock. People from all over the world came to see the project, including Nehru of India.

The results of that test were positive. The USDA's final report noted that rammed earth structures, which would last indefinitely, could be built for as little as two-thirds the cost of standard frame houses. The earthen abodes were shown to be considerably less expensive to heat and cool. This information has generally been ignored (Experiments 8).

The U.S. Agency for International Development has spent millions and millions of dollars teaching Third World countries how to successfully build rammed earth houses (a fifty unit project in Korea). They even financed the writing of the Handbook of Rammed Earth by Texas A & M and the Texas Transportation Institute. This handbook was never available for purchase by the public until Rammed Earth Institute International obtained permission to reprint it. A.I.D's parent agency Housing and Urban Development, however, does not recognize the excellence of its own experiences.

Interest fell off after World War II, when building materials became abundant and cheap. Rammed earth is viewed as substandard and in fact suffers from a "What? Me live in a dirt house?" prejudice. I can only speculate as to why post-war America snubbed the rammed earth concept. Perhaps the modest Pise technique seemed too basic in the face of the newly formed technocracy. Or it may have been the construction industry, which depends so heavily on material-intensive methods for its livelihood, that helped deprive rammed earth of its rightful position in building. Furthermore, the public's then increasing want for miracle synthetics certainly had something to do with the lack of acceptance for so "earthy" a technique.

Acceptance of rammed earth is not simple nor easy. The lack of knowledge of rammed earth construction is exceeded only by the opposition of some who do know a little about it. Rammed earth builders have faced the unspoken skepticism and open criticism of engineers, builders, government officials and the public. This skepticism is aptly described by Anthony F. Merrill in his book The Rammed Earth House:

Introducing soil construction meets the opposition of many contractors, engineers, and tradesmen who immediately reject anything new or unfamiliar. Some feel uncertain whether a new method of construction will give them the same profits, and to others, the customary method of construction seems much easier. (29)

Earth has proven to be one of the world's best building materials because it is: historically the longest used by man, nature's product, universally available, a heavy solar mass, a natural barrier to cold winds and forces of nature (Including tornadoes, earthquakes, and hurricanes.), insects and rodents, not rationed, not monopolized by anyone, a superior building material, fire proof, and sound proof. Earth has been a basic building material since the dawn of man. Architecture in earth, whether it is relatively unknown, scorned, or praised and admired, continues to live on. It is important to point out that more than 30 percent of the world's population continues to use earth as a building material.

Whatever may happen, building in earth is presently, and will be for a long time, the only possible and logical building solution for many areas of the world. Some countries have only earth at their disposal and do not have the possibility of acquiring other material in sufficient quantity to house the large mass of their population. A portion of the foreword in Mr. S. Cytryn's book Soil Construction states the issue clearly:

I hope that the efforts made and the results obtained will be of value to all nations engaged in the development of their countries and the raising of the living standard of their populations. In such efforts the concern to provide a human and convenient home for 'man' contains in itself one of the most important reasons for success and also supplies one of the proofs of noble achievements. Golda Meir, Minister of Labour, State of Israel. (X)

In today's world of homeless people, high costs and ecological problems rammed earth can help, if it's not ignored. I hope the research I have done, and summarized above, will provide a better understanding of the rammed earth construction technique.

Works Cited

Beyond 2000. Discovery Channel. 1993.

Cytryn, S. Soil Construction. State Of Israel, Ministry of Labour, Housing Division, Weizmann

Science Press of Israel, Jerusalem, Apr. 1956, X.

Day, Richard. "He builds high tech rammed earth houses." Popular Science Nov. 1982: 83-85.

--- "Rammed Earth." Popular Science. Dec. 1981: 115-117.

DeLong H.H. Rammed Earth Walls. South Dakota Experiment Station Circular 149, Apr. 1959.

Dunlap, Wayne A. Soil Analysis for Earthen Buildings. Texas A. & M.: Austin, 1955.

Fitzmaurice, Robert. Manual On Stabilized Soil Construction For Housing. NewYork: United Nations,

Technical Assistance Programme, 1958.

Greater Sumter Chamber of Commerce. Sumter...Rich in History. Sumter, South Carolina: nd.

"Living In The Earth" The Mother Earth News .Jan/Feb, 1980: 121-123.

Merrill, Anthony F. The Rammed Earth House. New York: Harper, 1947.

Miller, Lydia A. & David. Rammed Earth Homes. Rammed Earth Institute International: Boulder, 1982.

Parish Profile. Stateburg, South Carolina: The Church of the Holy Cross, nd.

Patty, Ralph L. Agriculture Engineering vol. 23, number 9, Sept. 1942.

Pliny (Gaius Plinius Secundus). Natural History, Trans. Bostock and Riley. NewYork: Harper, 1927.

Robinson, Selma. "Houses Dirt Cheap." The Rotarian Aug. 1939: 24. United States. Department of Agriculture.

Farm Security Administration, Experiments In Rammed Earth Construction Washington: GPO, Nov. 1, 1938.

--- Department of the Interior. Water and Power Resources Service. Earth Manual. Washington: GPO, 1940.

--- Environmental Protection Agency. The Inside Story, A Guide to Indoor Air Quality. Washington: GPO, Sept. 1988.


I want to thank Lydia and David J. Miller, without whose research this paper would have never been written. Special thanks to Betty Mooso, Michener Archives, University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, Colorado. Special thanks to Sandy Steffen, Church of the Holy Cross, Stateburg, South Carolina.


My research paper, Rammed Earth Construction, is written in standard form.

I saw and video taped two Television shows (Beyond 2000 and A House For All Seasons) about rammed earth housing. This started me wondering about rammed earth construction. David Copperfield (a magician) on his television special, prior to transporting himself through The Great Wall of China , stated the Wall was the only man-made structure, on Earth, that can be seen with the naked eye from the moon. I filed this information in the back of my mind, and I was delighted when I found out portions of the Wall were made out of rammed earth.

In this paper I intend to show what rammed earth is, by going into the history, advantages, disadvantages, and the acceptance of rammed earth construction. I felt the above should be stated to give the reader a background in rammed earth construction, so that my thesis, "Why then, if rammed earth construction is so strong and so time-honored, hasn't this building method caught on in the United States?", would made sense. I have explained the situation and have speculated as to why rammed earth construction hasn't caught on in the United States.

In today's world of homeless people and ecological problems rammed earth can help, if it's not ignored.

—Robert O. Cassell, English 102, Spring 1993

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