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.
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.
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.
Previous posts by Peter McIntosh:
Getting a feel for Light Earth
You might also enjoy: Using natural materials: a comparison, by Malcolm Worby
Thank you, this is very informative.