How to Build a Rammed Earth House

The author describes his experiences in the 1940s building a rammed earth house, an oddball decision at the time, and how well the structure has served him since then.

| September/October 1973

  • Rammed earth house - construction process 1
    LEFT: Forms McMeekin used in constructing the walls. RIGHT: John McMeekin tamping a section of wall.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
  • Rammed earth house - finished property
    The rammed earth house that John built.
    PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
  • Rammed earth house - construction process 3
    TOP: McMeekin finishing chimney made of rammed earth blocks (concrete blocks would have been better for this purpose). BOTTOM: Rammed earth block foundation for the chimney.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
  • Rammed earth house - construction process 2
    TOP: Foundation and first walls of the house under construction. BOTTOM LEFT: Ramming stick at work on dirt within half-filled form. BOTTOM RIGHT: Steel reinforcing rods in the foundation are recommended for earth buildings constructed in areas that experience frost.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
  • 023-052-01-Foundation
    LEFT: Diagram of the foundation form McMeekin used that was 12" at either end and 8" in the middle. RIGHT: Top view diagram of forms McMeeking used for the ramming phase.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF

  • Rammed earth house - construction process 1
  • Rammed earth house - finished property
  • Rammed earth house - construction process 3
  • Rammed earth house - construction process 2
  • 023-052-01-Foundation

Back in the 40's I was considered an oddball. I wore a beard—revolutionary then—and I started, by myself, to build a house out of (of all things) rammed earth. People wondered about me.

Today—as a V.P. and corporation director—I appear Establishment, and my home doesn't look unusual either. It hugs a hilltop landscape, it's surrounded by spacious lawns and sheltered by big oaks ... and in the garage are two (count them, two) Mercedes. But my house is still made of rammed earth.

It's a good building: snug in winter, cool in summer, fireproof, and termite- proof. Houses like it have stood for hundreds of years. When the windows are closed it's airtight, like a Volkswagen. In fact, a visitor wouldn't notice anything unusual except the thick walls. So what's different? Nothing, except that those walls are free. Free, that is, if you don't charge for your own work. 

Preparing the Earth

You want to build a rammed earth house? First of all find the right kind of soil ... sandy, but not all sand (between 50% and 75% is OK). You mustn't have too much clay either or the finished wall will shrink and crack. 



Once you've found the proper blend of earth, you're going to—in effect—turn it into sandstone the way nature does (with pressure) and the final result will be strongest and most pleasing if you keep your raw material as homogenous as possible. Your first construction step, then, should be the sieving of the soil through a slanted screen of 1" mesh hardware cloth to separate out any big stones, roots, etc. Spread a tarpaulin over the screened dirt to protect it from precipitation (if the soil contains more than 10% moisture it will puddle, not compress). When you make a ball of earth in your hand it should hold its shape but break and scatter when dropped. 

Setting the Foundation

My own home's foundation is of reinforced concrete that extends from 12 inches above ground to 24 inches below ... our local splash and frost lines. If you live in a climate with warmer winters than Pennsylvania's, you may not need to set your home's base so deep. 

texaswade
5/4/2018 1:42:35 PM

@jazz4Kurt - I'm pretty sure that was a typo and he meant Sheet steel. probably 24ga galvanized sheet. but he doesn't specify the thickness...


Jazz4Kurt
3/13/2016 7:09:14 PM

I'm currently in planning to add on to a stick built home but would like to try out rammed earth on a cabin site I'm still searching for. Your sectional foundation idea is awesome for next month and the tapered foundation form is clearly the way to go on the rammed earth. The point I'm confused on is the shoot steel lining for the rammed earth form. What is shoot steel, please? Thanks for all you do =D


Robert_114
7/16/2009 3:48:09 PM

Sounds reasonalbe way to build







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