A brief look ahead at our natural building courses for 2018

Attend our natural building course and take the first step to a sustainable future by learning hands-on natural building skills. Learn a whole range of materials and techniques while exploring questions around sustainable living based in Peter McIntosh’s experience living off-grid since 1999.

Natural building courses in South Africa 2018

If you’re serious about building naturally and sustainably then you’ll know that each technique has pros and cons. That is why our natural building course is designed around the principles of understanding earth, how it works and does not work together. You will leave with the theoretical understanding and practical grounding of a range of techniques and materials, so that you are able to make the most appropriate decisions regarding materials and or sustainability once you are ready to begin your project.

This year, Peter will be hosting two CPD accredited courses at Jakkalskloof farm, in Swellendam. Continue reading

https://www.naturalbuildingcollective.com

We need your help with our crowdfunding campaign

We’ve launched a crowdfunding campaign because we really need your help to finish building the edu-centre in Delft so carers from informal crèches can get training in early childhood development.

We are busy building a passive solar, earth sheltered building out of tyres, cob, compressed earth bricks and glass bottles at the Delft Early Childhood Development (ECD) centre. But, we need your help to finish building it. The building will be an edu-centre so carers from informal crèches can get training in early childhood development.  

Please consider making a contribution to the campaign or spreading the word to people you know.

Following our involvement with building the Delft Early Childhood Development centre with natural and sustainable building materials we saw the space and need for an adult training centre there so that, amongst other things, carers from informal crèches in Delft and surrounding areas can receive training in early childhood development.

If you’ve ever been to a township you’ve seen how many children under the age of seven are often milling about, quietly entertaining themselves. They are starting their young lives at a distinct disadvantage as they will start primary school at age seven without any educational preparation. This is disastrous for these children and the future of our country. In the Cape Town area there are a staggering 18 000 children up to the age of 7 years old who do not attend an edu-care (according to local authority figures). Strong, inspiring and tenacious women (and occasionally men as well) qualify themselves as ECD teachers and operate an ECD from informal structures.

Visit Thundafund to make your contribution!

It has been widely accepted that the first 1000 days in a child’s life is critical to their, as well as society-at-large’s health and wellbeing. During this period, children’s brains can form 1,000 neural connections every second and these connections are the building blocks of their future. But, we need your help to complete the building…

What we have achieved to so far:

  • Peter McIntosh has raised R120 000 from The Sophia foundation towards materials and has donated three months of his time towards the success of the project.
  • We have provided employment for eight members of the local community during the building process.
  • We have provided a month-long training sustainable building course including for architecture students of CPUT. The course was presented in collaboration with Guy Williams on behalf of international NGO Long Way Home from Guatemala.
  • We have also used provided other learning opportunities for volunteers, architecture interns.

We need to get from here:

We are this close to finishing

We are very close to finishing the building

To here:

The end-goal

This is what we’re aiming for and with your help can achieve

How we’ll use your contribution:

With your help we can complete this building… Your contribution will go towards completing the following activities:

  • Planning gum pole purloins to level to install roof sheets
  • Installing IBR roof sheets
  • Complete last two sections of ring beam (shutter/form and pour concrete)
  • Source and make over 2000 more bottle bricks
  • Install bottle bricks in cob above ring beam
  • Cob scratch plaster coat, form coat and final lime plaster coat internally
  • Form and final plaster coat on internal and external bottle walls
  • Level and stamp floor
  • Gravel, newspaper, cob and compressed earth brick floor layers
  • Final layer on floor
  • External plaster finishes on tyre walls and ringbeams
  • Final touches on tyre retaining wall and earth berm
  • Front level ramp and paving threshold
  • Painting fibre board on door-front

With your support we are making a difference… Please consider making a contribution to the campaign or spreading the word. Thank you! 

https://www.naturalbuildingcollective.com

Guest post: Hybrid alternative and natural building blocks at the Delft ECD (Early Childhood Development Centre)

In Delft, an impoverished township on the outskirts of the Cape Flats, local government is changing its approach to building early childhood development centres with a pioneering project showcasing a hybrid of natural building methods and up-cycled waste materials.

By Mary Anne Constable

This post first appeared on Earthworks Magazine in February 2017. We are re-posting it here with the permission of  Young Africa Publishing and author Mary-Anne Constable. 

Peter McIntosh, founder of the Natural Building Collective was the project coordinator for the alternative materials (natural and recycled) portion of the Delft ECD build.

Delft ECD_Natural building collective

The new Delft ECD (Early Childhood Development Centre) represents the first time that government – in this case the City of Cape Town – has significantly integrated alternative and unconventional building methods for the construction of a public building.

The considered design of the Delft ECD building is an example that will make an essential contribution to the development of South Africa’s youngest residents. The alternative building materials, which include both natural methods (compressed earth bricks and cob) and recycled waste materials (ecobricks, tyres, glass bottles), deviate from conventional brick and concrete, while creating a healthy environment.  Continue reading

https://www.naturalbuildingcollective.com

TERRA Award ~ first international prize for contemporary earthen architecture

The TERRA award is a collaborative effort on an international scale to enable both professionals and the general public to fully appreciate earth’s increasing popularity as a building material of high aesthetic and technical quality. 

Earth is becoming increasingly popular in contemporary architecture: hundreds of projects of high aesthetic and technical quality are emerging across five continents. This material, which has low embodied energy, is readily available and appropriate for participatory buildings. It could help provide a solution to the needs for ecological and economical housing.

To enable both professionals and the general public to fully appreciate this building material, the following partners have taken the initiative, under the auspices of the UNESCO Chair “Earthen architecture, construction cultures and sustainable development”, to launch the first international prize for contemporary earthen architecture: the Labex AE & CC-CRAterre-ENSAG Lab research unit, the amàco project, the Grands Ateliers, the CRAterre association and EcologiK/EK magazine.

Wang Shu, 2012 Pritzker architecture prize laureate, is the president of honour of this TERRA Award, the trophies for which will be presented in Lyon on July 14, 2016 at the Terra 2016 World Congress.

Context

Since its creation in 1979, the CRAterre-ENSAG Lab has been considered as the international research and training reference centre for earthen construction. It will organize in July 2016, under the auspices of the UNESCO Chair “Earthen architecture”, the Terra 2016. This World Congress takes place every four years on a different continent and will be held for the second time in Europe. It is expected to draw around 800 professionals, teachers and researches to Lyon (France).

The TERRA Award was initiated within this framework. It will be the first international prize for contemporary earthen architecture and a natural furtherance of the national award launched in 2013 in France by CRAterre-ENSAG, AsTerre and EcologiK/EK magazine.

Objective

The purpose of the TERRA Award is not only to identify and distinguish outstanding projects, but also to highlight the audacity of the project owners for choosing to use earth, the creativity of the designers and the skills of the craftsmen and entrepreneurs.
An itinerant exhibition will feature 40 buildings from all continents, constructed using various techniques (adobe, cob, CEB, rammed earth, plaster, etc.) for all types of programs: housing, public facilities, activities, and exterior and interior designs. The exhibition will be completed with lectures and workshops by CRAterre-ENSAG and the amàco project.
The search for outstanding achievements deserving of this prize and the associated exhibition will make it possible to generate the first worldwide database on contemporary earthen architecture. The resulting virtual library will be available both to the general public and professionals via this website.

Involved projects

The projects must have been completed after January 2000.
There are eight categories covering all types of programs, whether new or renovated:

  • Individual housing
  • Collective housing
  • School, sports and health facilities
  • Cultural facilities and religious buildings
  • Offices, shops and factories
  • Interior layout and design
  • Exterior design, art and landscape
  • Architecture and local development

Text from the Terra Award website.

https://www.naturalbuildingcollective.com

CPD accredited natural building course: Materials and techniques

Our natural building course is comprehensive and covers a range of materials and techniques based on Peter McIntosh’s professional and personal experience working with these approaches and from having lived off-grid since 1999. You will be empowered to be successful and make rational choices whatever the given situation.

We’re excited to announce the first course of the year will be taking place from 26 April – 2 May, at Wild Spirit Backpacker’s lodge in the beautiful Nature’s Valley.

Take the first step to a sustainable future by learning hands-on natural building skills. Understand the alchemy of how different types of earth work, and do not work together, their potential and limitations. You will also explore questions around sustainable living based in Peter McIntosh’s experience living off-grid since 1999.

Email naturalbuildingcollective@gmail.com to book your spot!

CPD accredited Natural Building 7 day course_April_WS

 

 

https://www.naturalbuildingcollective.com

Understanding earth III: Plaster and mortars mixes

(Please note that in order to understand what is written here you will need to have read my previous posts on understanding earth and testing earth)

Plasters and mortars are by far the process that I get asked about the most, and for good reason as plasters are what protect the building from the elements and give them their beautiful finish. Understanding how the material is going to behave right the way through the process, plasters and mortars should be planned for from the beginning. Plasters that are not planned are plasters that fail and if they do the building not only looks unsightly but loses a valuable layer of protection.

As discussed in the earlier articles on understanding earth and earth testing, it is important to establish the most appropriate earth mix at the beginning of the building process. This mix quite literally informs the whole building process from the ground up to the last 3mm of plastering. The initial testing phase establishes a basic cob mix that has both sufficient compressive and tensile strength and has acceptably low cracking. It is important to have an idea of how you will approach each phase and ensure that the different materials ‘talk to one another’ to prevent excessive cracking and delamination, which are the most common failures associated with natural building. Essentially the same original mix is manipulated to be appropriate for different areas, depending on the purpose. Areas that will require the original mix to be manipulated are, amongst others, the foundations and plasters.

It is important to remember that there are as many mixes as there are building sites and what follows is just a taste of what is possible. Over the years one comes to settle on a strategy that works and begins to perfect it to prevent failure. What follows works, but is by no means the only way and is one amongst many.

Let us imagine that the mix you worked out after the testing phase was two parts clay and three parts sand, i.e. 40% clay earth and 60% rough sand, and straw. Just an aside, this formula would indicate that there is a percentage of silt present in the clay earth (often the case), otherwise the clay percentage would usually be lower.

Let’s start with a mortar mix for the foundations. Firstly you will leave straw out of the mortar mix for the foundation, as it would degrade with any moisture. Obviously the foundation should be able to resist water, so using un-stabilized mud-bricks or cob is not possible; ideally you have rock available.

Lime is often seen as the answer to stabilise mortar mixes, as it hardens over time especially when exposed to moisture. However, lime is not friendly to the environment due to the high embodied energy i.e. the energy used to create the product. Over time lime does re-absorb the gasses given off by it during its production, the energy required in this phase is considerable and may well come from a polluting source such as coal. Furthermore, lime is quarried or produced by crushing coral. Lime also makes the material more brittle and prone to cracking, even though the material gets a lot harder, compressive strength is not everything. Often, lime is considered to be better than cement, not because it is less damaging to the environment, but rather because it is naturally occurring and an ingredient of cement. So the strategy should be to minimize its use.

Earth mixes are more plastic and able to resist a certain amount of movement so care needs to be taken just where you apply the lime. However the use of lime is beneficial in foundations where the pros of lime, its hardness and resistance to moisture, are required. With the earths in our example, a mortar mix that will work with the rock foundation is 30% clay, 50% sand and 20% lime. This keeps the material as close as possible to the original mix while getting the benefits of the lime right where you need it. If you pay attention to how the rock work is done you will minimize the use of the mortar and thus minimize the use of lime.

As your house is exposed to variances in temperature and humidity, you want to prevent the materials in the walls from moving at different rates as it causes delamination and cracking, which is in my opinion, the number one reason for a natural building failing. To help prevent this you need a good mortar mix. This is an area that your mix does not need to be manipulated. Between your mud bricks it is ideal if you stick to the original mix that came directly out of the testing phase, including straw.

While some imperfections are fine in the foundations and mortar mixes, any imperfection in your plaster mix will have dire consequences for you final finish. This is mainly because there is generally no amount of acceptable cracking in the final plaster as this leaves the building vulnerable to water erosion. In a nutshell, plaster provides the final finish look and provides protection from the elements.

I have adopted a three phase approach to plastering that is well accepted and works. The first is the scratch coat, the second the form coat and lastly the final plaster coat. The scratch coat is your original cob mix applied to the mud bricks to give purchase to the subsequent layers. It includes straw and is left rough often with lots of fingertip marks.

Scratch coat on this straw bale building near Groot Marico includes more straw and is left rough and textured.

Scratch coat on this straw bale building near Groot Marico includes more straw and is left rough and textured.

The form coat is just what it says and creates the final shape of the building. At this stage it is best to leave out the straw as you don’t want anything protruding through your final plaster coat. The form coat is hand smoothed in such a way that the final plaster coat can go on evenly with a plastering trowel or steel float. Fine cracking is still acceptable in this phase.

On this mud brick building in Scarborough near Cape Point, you can see the scratch coat on the left, while on the right the form coat cob mix, excluding straw, is being hand smoothed.

On this mud brick building in Scarborough near Cape Point, you can see the scratch coat on the left, while on the right the form coat cob mix, excluding straw, is being hand smoothed.

Prior to the final plaster you will need to do a number of tests on top of your form coat. This is done to ensure that there are no fine cracks that will lead to erosion by water. Often cracks create wonderful patterns and you may want to leave the mix to show off its beauty but only on the inside plaster. On the outside no cracking is acceptable after the material has been polished. Usually I do about four tests to select the best mix. Based on our theoretical mix for this article the four tests may look something like this.

  1. First your original mix, 40% clay, 60% sand with 5 % lime =105%
  2. Second reduce the clay a little to reduce potential cracking 35 % clay earth, 65 % sand plus 5% lime.
  3. Reduce the clay some more just in case there is still cracking to 30 % clay earth, 70 % sand plus 5 % lime.
  4. Lastly increase the clay content over the original mix, 45% clay earth, 55% sand plus 5% lime.

    The walls were still going up when we started the Final plaster test patches for this compressed earth brick (CEB) building in Scarborough, Cape Point, SA.

    The walls were still going up when we started the Final plaster test patches for this compressed earth brick (CEB) building in Scarborough, Cape Point, SA.

As these samples are applied so thin they will dry fast so decisions can be made fairly quickly, perhaps after three days or so. You will need to choose the mix that does not crack. If it so happens that none of them do, pick the one closest to your original mix to ensure that the dreaded delamination is ruled out. If you are confident that this will not happen then choosing the mix with the highest clay content will lead to a very fine finish.

Technique is as important as information when it comes to natural building and nowhere is that more important than with the final plaster mix. The final plaster mix needs to go on evenly between 3 and 5 mm thick. The mix changes slightly to include 5 % lime, but only in these last few millimetres. The reason lime is added to this final 3mm – 5mm of the walls is to improve the resistance of the final plaster to water; the percentage is kept low so that the material does not become brittle and prone to cracking, and allows the natural plasticity of earth mixes to overcome small amounts of movement and not delaminate from the wall. There is also a reaction that takes place between the lime and clay that is complete between 5 and 7 %, which greatly increases its durability.

The final plaster mix will need to be finely sieved so that bigger particles do not protrude through the plaster and the result is smooth and even. I prefer the common kitchen flour sieve. Don’t be put off, by how long you think it would take, because you really need so little for the final plaster mix that it goes quite quickly and you can do it directly into a bucket.

Here the final plaster coat is being applied to the exterior of the straw bale building near Groot Marico. It’s between 3mm and 5mm with 5% lime and polished.

Here the final plaster coat is being applied to the exterior of the straw bale building near Groot Marico. It’s between 3mm and 5mm with 5% lime and polished.

Once the final plaster is applied it is polished to provide a very smooth almost fine leathery appearance, further driving the material into the wall and providing durable weather protection. A plastic tool cut from feta or ice-cream tubs work well for this final polishing stage.

Once the plastering is complete, coat the building with three coats of raw linseed oil. Mix the first two 50/50 with mineral turpentine to ensure that the linseed oil penetrates well into the plaster. Allow each layer to dry before you apply the next. Finally a coat of undiluted raw linseed oil will finish it off.

Looking at the whole process as being one thing instead of being separate little bits helps to avoid common problems. Always pay attention to the testing phase, understanding that the same mixes you use for your bricks and mortars will be reflected in your foundations and plasters.

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https://www.naturalbuildingcollective.com

Understanding Earth II: Testing earth

By Peter McIntosh

(Please note that in order to understand what is written here you will need to have read my previous post on understanding earth)

 

Earth requires two properties to make it strong enough for building, compressive and tensile strength. In much the same way that steel works in concrete they can’t be looked at in isolation as they work together. For example, even though concrete when supported can take an enormous amount of pressure / compression without disintegrating, if you were to cast a concrete lintel without steel and suspend it between two points and apply pressure / tension, it would snap. Steel has enormous strength in tension while concrete has enormous strength in compression.

Compressive strength is measured in Megapascal (MPa). One atmospheric pressure is 101 325 Pascal; a Megapascal is more-or-less one million Pascal, or 10 times atmospheric pressure. In other words, one MPa is 10 times stronger than it needs to be to resist the force of gravity on earth, stand on its own and not be crushed.

A good mud-brick has a MPa strength of around 1.6 to 1.9 MPa, while a clay-fired brick has an MPa strength of around 14. Concrete ranges between 15 and 25 MPa. Obviously these figures vary widely, but these are good averages. A mud-brick at 1.4 MPa is 14 times stronger than gravity, a clay-fired brick at 14 MPa is 140 times stronger than gravity or 140 atmospheric pressures.

Tensile strength is found in all material, just in varying degrees. Concrete as we have seen has high compressive strength but relatively low tensile strength. The addition of steel (reinforced concrete) increases its tensile strength. Mud bricks can handle 14 atmospheres, but like concrete they have poor tensile strength. However, as clay is somewhat plastic in its behaviour it’s not as poor as one may think. This is why the addition of straw to a mud brick is essential as it not only increases the insulation value of the mud brick but also acts like steel in concrete. (I am told that weight-for-weight straw is stronger than steel or at least in the same realm.)

In short, the tensile strength of a material is its ability to resist snapping and cracking. Increasing the hardness of an earthen material, for example by adding lime, may not increase its tensile strength or resistance to cracking, as it may end up becoming less plastic and more brittle. Thus, clay buildings are often more resistant to cracking because they can absorb the movement that harder more brittle materials may not.

When building with earth, strong enough is what you are aiming for. At 1.3 MPa, a double-storey building is already seven times stronger than it needs to be. However, given window and door openings and the fact that the gravitational forces need to be transferred around them, 1.3 MPa just covers it with a safety margin. It is important to grasp that it does not matter at all if you used clay bricks at 14 MPa, once something is strong enough, the extra strength means nothing at all.

Testing of the material

Tensile testing

–          Make a brick using the cob method (that is using sand, clay and straw ) and a 2 litre ice-cream tub as mould. Number each mix and mark your bricks and balls.

–          Allow the bricks to cure for 3 weeks minimum in the sun. A brick is considered cured after 3 months, but I have found that 3 weeks gives you a really good idea, after all it will only get stronger.

–          Drop the brick from waist height, onto a very hard and flat surface and observe how it breaks up. If it shatters it is no good; breaking into a few large pieces is acceptable. Often enough it does not break at all, which is fantastic.

A failed tensile strength test after being dropped on a hard surface; the brick should not disintegrate. Four big pieces is just a pass, but one is happiest when the brick bounces and does not break at all. This often happens.

A failed tensile strength test after being dropped on a hard surface; the brick should not disintegrate. Four big pieces is just a pass, but one is happiest when the brick bounces and does not break at all. This often happens.

Observe the cracking. Surface cracks, no deeper than a centimetre are fine. Cracks that run deeper compromise the material. They may be due to a very aggressive clay or because there is too much clay in the material. There can be other causes of the cracking such as the addition of too much water or uneven drying of the material.

Compressive testing

–          Make tennis ball size balls using the cob method and allow to cure, as above. A ball has a point and you are testing the point load. Remember to mark the balls.

–          Place the ball on a hard and flat surface. Stand on the ball with your heal and slowly increase your weight on the ball until all your weight is suspended on it.

My weight is around 80 kg and I know that if the ball crushes just before all my weight is suspended the MPa strength is 1.3. If it takes all my weight then the MPa strength is at least 1.4. As you gain more experience and your frame of reference increases you can quite accurately gauge greater MPa strengths by gently bouncing with your heal on the ball. At around 1.8 MPa the balls are very resistant to crushing with the heal, even with repeated bouncing; but then it does not matter because the material is already more than strong enough.

Both the compressive and tensile strength tests need to be passed for the material to be good enough to build with. Of course, if the material fails these tests it does not mean it can’t be used, especially if cracking is the result of failure. You can try excluding water and instead try ramming the material as a way of lining up the particles and see if that will works; or try making compressed earth bricks or even a sand-bag house?

Bottle, tongue and touch are all good indicators of how an earth is composed, but nothing beats compressive and tensile testing.

Bottle: place 4 cm of the earth in a 400ml bottle, add water and a teaspoon of salt to help it settle and shake it all up. It will give you an indication of the particle ranges you are dealing with and their ratios. However beware you will not be able to tell the difference between sand and silt.

To check if clay is present, make the material very wet and rub between your hands, then dip your hands in water, if the material sticks then there is clay present if it falls away then there is mostly or only silt.

Resistance to water erosion is dealt with separately in the plaster stage which will be dealt with later.

Below is a list of tests I made for Magic Mountains retreat as an example of a comprehensive earth test.

First walk the area you have to source your materials and then collect samples from various sites. Here I located 2 distinct earth types. White building sand was located close to the farm. Make observations of the material so you can begin to make rational choices for you mixes.

Earths ready for blending at Magic Mountains Retreat. Note the 2 litre ice-cream container for making a brick.

Earths ready for blending at Magic Mountains Retreat. Note the 2 litre ice-cream container for making a brick.

Red earth located in the South East corner of the property. This earth appears to have a high clay content. It is also attractive in colour. Made up of fine sand clay and unspecified amount of silt

Brown earth located to the North. This earth appears to have a higher sand content although very fine. Certainly has a lower clay content than the red earth.

White sand located to the South on a neighbours farm. This sand has a particle range that excludes finer particles and is angular and not rounded.

The following test samples were made to deduce the tensile and compressive strength of the material, clay content of the red earth, and cracking of the material will also be noted:

A100: 3 x 2l 100% earth bricks red earth and test balls

A100: 3 x 2l 100% earth bricks red earth with straw and test balls

3 x 300mm x 300mm x 170mm red earth bricks with straw

 

B100: 3 x 2l 100% earth bricks brown earth and test balls

B100: 3 x 2l 100% earth bricks brown earth with straw and test balls

3 x 300mm x 300mm x 170mm brown earth bricks with straw

 

50/50: 3 x 2l earth bricks 50%/50% red and brown earth and test balls

50/50: 3 x 2l earth bricks 50%/50% red and brown earth with straw and test balls

2 x 300mm x 300mm x 170mm 50%/50% red and brown earth bricks with straw

 

W80: 2 x 2l earth bricks 20% red earth 80% white sand and test balls

W66: 2x 2l earth bricks 33% red earth 66% white sand and test balls

W50: 2 x 2l earth bricks 50% red earth 50% white sand and test balls

 

C4:     2 x 2l earth bricks 50% red earth 50% sand and test balls

C66: 2 x 2l earth bricks 33% red earth 66% sand and test balls

 

2x compressed earth bricks from red earth

The completed bricks and balls should be left to cure in the sun for at least 3 weeks, and turned a few times to ensure even drying whilst keeping an eye on the weather.

The completed bricks and balls should be left to cure in the sun for at least 3 weeks, and turned a few times to ensure even drying whilst keeping an eye on the weather.

The bricks ready to be tested on a hard surface

The bricks ready to be tested on a hard surface

Results of the brick testing above

It was established that the red earth has a high clay content. Certainly above 60% as the bricks with 20% red earth and 80% white plaster sand were only just below minimum building strength. As soon as the ratio of red earth reached 33% it was obvious that the bricks passed both a compressive and a tensile strength test. It is estimated that the MPa strength at 33% is 1.4. Above 33% red earth and the bricks harden a lot.

The brown earth from below the dam could be used as a filler with the red earth, but this was decided against as it is in valuable agricultural land. It is not suitable on its own.

The addition of straw added to the tensile strength of the material in all cases.

The red earth bricks displayed deep cracks indicating a high clay content, once 50% sand was added the cracking was acceptable. The addition of sand will ensure that this does not happen and is a good enough reason to not use the red earth on its own.

The tests done with the white sand and red earth were strong enough from 33% red earth. A second test was also done with 50% red earth and 50% white sand which delivered a brick over 1.6 MPA.

 

Compressed earth bricks using red earth only, are strong enough and has no cracking. It is interesting to note that the red earth was suitable as a building material on its own if it were not for excessive cracking due to the swelling of the clay with water and that if one uses compression as a method of lining up the particles and so exclude water the earth can be used as it is.

It was decided that, because the white sand was easy to access with little environmental damage and because it would eliminate cracking, that the addition of 60% sand was the most favourable option; 40% red earth just to remain clear of the 33% mark that we know is good, in case the earth varies slightly. So 60% white sand and 40% red earth.

A series of tests made in Groot Marico. All these tests passed and although the red earth was most attractive it was decided to go with the brown earth as the red earth was further away and good for agriculture. The red earth was however used in the final plaster coat where the quantities are very small and not in the walls themselves. When a number of tests pass you are given the freedom to make choices around sustainability, and ease gathering the material when one compares them to each other.

A series of tests made in Groot Marico. All these tests passed and although the red earth was most attractive it was decided to go with the brown earth as the red earth was further away and good for agriculture. The red earth was however used in the final plaster coat where the quantities are very small and not in the walls themselves. When a number of tests pass you are given the freedom to make choices around sustainability, and ease gathering the material when one compares them to each other.

In conclusion, often when doing tests with different earths you will find that a number of your samples will pass both compressive and tensile test. This allows you the freedom to make choices affecting sustainability or aesthetics; such as how far the material has to travel, how easy is it to gather the material and what environmental damage is being done. Remember that you are not looking for the strongest sample but rather the one that makes the most sense after it has passed the tests. Strong enough is strong enough.

In my next blog post I will look at plastering of a building where the walls are able to resist the erosion of rain and the beauty of the material shines through.

https://www.naturalbuildingcollective.com

Understanding Earth: The beginnings of a Natural Builder

By Peter McIntosh

One of the challenges of working with earth is that no two sites are the same. The recipes one learns on one site may not work on another, because the earths’ found there are composed differently. Most earth building relies on a mix of sand and clay, which may be present in a single earth or need to be blended together.

Sand has a particular particle size and is like a rock only smaller. You go from boulders to rocks to stones to gravel to sand to silt, or something like that. Each is a smaller representation of the one before it and just like you get many sizes of rock so you get a range of sand size. Sand particles range in size between 2mm and 0.0625mm which is a huge deviation.

The shape of sand in an ideal world should be shattered rather than rounded, such as beach sand. River sand is considered better because it tends to be more fractured so the sand particles do not slip past each other but rather build bridges and lock in together.

Ideally you also want the sand to have a range of particle sizes and not just lumped on the large side, 2mm or the small 0.06mm. This is because when the larger sand particles are packed together you will have spaces in-between and you want those gaps closed with smaller sand particles. Of course as you look closer you will see that there are spaces in-between the smaller particles and it really is like a fractal. The next range down is silt and ranges between 0.06 mm to 0.0039 mm, this particle would be able to close those gaps and so you go. So with sand you are looking for two things primarily, a shattered particle and a good distribution of particle sizes.

Clay is the magic that does the binding in earth building. Clay is completely different to what has been mentioned above except that there is some relation to particle size with silt. If you went to the beach and made a sand castle and then when it was dry a little pressure would flatten it, especially with those rounded particles. Do the same with clay and once it is dry it is immensely strong. This is because clay is not just a smaller sand particle but rather a flat platelet that is held together by electrostatic force. It works in a similar fashion to a drop of water between two pieces of glass, you can slide them apart but you can’t pull them apart. The trick with clay is to work the material until the particles are lined up to allow the electrostatic forces to work. There is always enough humidity in the air and retained in the clay to allow this process to continue, even in very dry conditions. Clay and silt are often found together in the same deposits and are hard to tell apart if they are mixed together. Mostly what is termed as a clay earth is a mixture with silt. I consider 60% a reasonable clay content . Clays also all behave differently. Some clays swell considerably when water is added and are great for the sealing of dams and the like but no good for building with cob or mud/adobe brick, as this leads to cracking in the drying process. Really fine clays also tend to be brittle, such as Kaolin, a fine white clay. So with clay you are looking for a nice high percentage with as little silt as possible, not too fine and one that does not swell to the point of compromising the strength of the material with excessive cracking once dry.

Now to create a building material both sand and clay are blended together, to get the benefits of the structure of the sand with the binding properties of clay. Basically you just want to add enough clay to coat the sand particles and close the last of the gaps left between them and allow the electrostatic force to hold it all together. You certainly do not want silt as that is competing for the space between the sand particles and is just where you want the clay to be. At around 18% there would be just enough clay to do the job. If there is silt present with the addition of 18% clay you would begin to force the sand particles apart and you would have a more brittle material, as the material is strongest when the sand acts as a bridge over each other, locking together.

But that’s the theory, in reality you are dealing with what is available and that is always going to be less than perfect. Your sand may have only large and small particles and nothing in between or any number of permutations, depending on how nature left its deposits. Your clay may be a mixed bag of various amounts of silt and swell in a less than perfect manner. So what you are looking for is not the ideal, that does not exist, but rather something that is suitable and strong enough for your needs.

Different methods can help with how the material behaves so choice of approach is important. Blending and lining up of the material can be done in essentially two ways both have their benefits and drawbacks. The first is to add water and mix the material until well blended to achieve a good lining up of the particles. Different methods allow for different quantities of water however the addition of too much water can lead to avoidable cracking or a material with less compressive strength. Cob is often the standard most people refer to and also has some added straw (straw adds to the insulation value and tensile strength of the material) The cob mix needs to be stiff enough to resist slumping when placed on a wall to the height of 300 to 500 mm. One of the benefits of using water is that different earth can be easily blended and straw can be added, a drawback may be that if the clay is aggressive or of a high overall percentage it could lead to cracking and a weakening of the material.

Adding clay to the sand on a tarp

Adding clay to the sand on a tarp

Add some water

Add some water

 

Mix cob with your feet and add some straw

Mix cob with your feet and add some straw

Stitching cob onto a wall

Stitching cob onto a wall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The second method of lining up the particles is to put the material under pressure and not to add water beyond just slightly damp. The material can be stamped such as for rammed-earth or compressed such as with a compressed earth block. A benefit could be that as you are not adding water there will be less cracking even if the clay content is high and a drawback is that earths are not easily mixed together without water unless you have other machinery so a single earth is often used and the addition of straw is not possible.

Add your single earth into the compressed earth brick machine

Add your single earth into the compressed earth brick machine

Put the earth under pressure

Put the earth under pressure

Out pops a brick

Out pops a brick

Building with CEBs

Building with CEBs

Understanding how earth behaves is key to choosing a method of approach that supports the materials you have on hand.

In my next blog post I will talk about the qualities of earth what it means to say that a material is strong enough and how it performs (compressive and tensile strength, insulation and thermal mass) and how to test for these properties.

 

If you’re interested to learn how to put the theory of earth into practice, learn more about our natural building courses.

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Previous posts by Peter McIntosh:

Getting a feel for Light Earth

You might also enjoy: Using natural materials: a comparison, by Malcolm Worby

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