A Wholly Different Way of Building

by Scott Howard

In arid regions of the world, we can often see architecture made entirely of earth. These buildings usually employ adobe bricks to create vaulted and domed ceilings, adobe for the walls, and stabilized earthen or lime plaster for the roof. These buildings require some maintenance, but are by far the most ecological architecture on earth. However, the question most often posed against this kind of architecture is whether or not it is applicable to areas beyond arid regions. In my eyes, this one of the most important questions and challenges in architecture today. Can we create viable structures of nearly 100% earth in wetter, colder areas? Whoever can solve this problem may stand to gain massive wealth with these massive buildings. Building codes aside for one moment, let’s look at some possible solutions to these questions.

1) High-tech Coatings

My first impulse was to use specially engineered layers of waterproofing coatings that also allow water vapor to escape from the interior of the earthen material. Everyone knows that applying waterproof cement to earthen material will crack and fail due to build up of condensation on the underside which erodes the earth material from the inside. Plus, with tonnes of earth overhead, we’re left wondering if there might be water getting in somewhere that could cause saturation and failure of the roof. There are, however, a few products being used and developed today that show a lot of promise for waterproofing earthen materials without problems.

Reapplication may be necessary every few years, depending on the amount of water present. Examples of such products can be found through two European companies called Keim, and Arcilla Research. The results look promising, and perhaps some of these strategies can be used to create earthen roofs in wetter climates at some point in the near future. Along a similar approach, earthen roofs could be covered with some type of high-tech goretex-like material.

2) Float the Waterproof Layer

Another option someday might be to create low-cost, small space frames above earthen roofs, and attach the waterproof roofing such as metal or EPDM there. This would allow airflow for water vapor to escape, and prevent condensation from eroding the structure. I don’t know of any examples of a building that uses this method currently. Let me know if you find one.

3) Shingles

This amazing building technique allows water to shed while still letting the earthen material underneath to breath. The shingles themselves could be ceramic, thus lasting indefinitely, and could be reused should the building ever be taken down to build a different building.

4) Skybreak Dwellings

This little-known housing strategy was thought of by Buckminster Fuller.
The entire house could be enclosed in a clear greenhouse-like structure.
This has many advantages in the northern climates. First, it could keep all precipitation from ever hitting one’s house, so if it were made entirely of earth it wouldn’t need any protective coating at all. The occupants could control the amount of water in the gardens around their house by using irrigation from possibly a catchment tank. The skybreak dwelling, although pretty high-tech, could pay off rapidly because it would heat the ground beneath the house area and over years raise the ambient temperature of that spot on earth significantly. A few degrees
could make a huge difference in temperate climates for growing season and heating in the winter.

Keep in mind that an outstanding solution may involve combining several of these methods. Now that I have shared these ideas with you, please share your experiments with me via comments below!