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By Dale in Richland, AZ on 8/24/2005


All right! Lets discuss the new, bold and future of building. First, as moderator I would like to welcome all of you to this discussion.

I am new at being a moderator, so be kind. But when it comes to Green Building I have 20 years experience as a designer and several years experience as a builder/consultant. Much of my work  revolves around owner-builders. And before it comes up, I have not built my own house, yet. My credentials include being a member of the US Green Building Council and a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. I wrote the O-B Special Reports on green building and related topics.


A few rules.
1) Be polite.
2) No flaming.
3) Remember that some comments will be out of left field, but should be considered before responding. Green building discussions may bring some rather non-conventional ideas to the front-line.
4) If you have an experience, share kindly without running down someone else's alternative materials.
5) Alternative materials are part of green building, and green building is part of sustainability.
6) If you have suggestions of new threads let me know. I want to keep the number of threads easy to manage.
7) If you are willing to be a resource let me know and we'll work up something without clogging the conversation with promo pieces.
8) I will delete comments or off-base discussions when necessary.
9) Keep the political comments within the framework of a positive discussion.


10) Lets make GREEN BUILDING a valuable experience for all.

And thanks to Mark for letting us leave the beaten path and explore the side trails of construction.

your humble host,
dale


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By Netie in Salt Lake City, UT on 9/5/2005


Will the "green industry" realize an increase of interest &/or sales due to hurricane Katrina?  

I'm thinking that conventional building materials will skyrocket - again - so folks all over the country might start to look at "unconventional" methods of building as a way to keep costs down.  

Also, down south,  labor is going to be hard to come by, so  that might lend a hand to "green methods" which tend to be more friendly to the DIY'er.


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By Dale in Richland, AZ on 9/5/2005


After a hurricane a couple of years past,  the ICF manufacturers have proudly shown their product standing without a roff while everything else in the neighborhood was destroyed.

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By Eve in Paso Robles, CA on 2/19/2006


Hi all:  This is my very first and only post so far on this fantastic forum. I still need to get my feet wet so will only ask one question at this point and it is a big one for me! Has anyone had any experience with rammed earth walls. My land is in Paso Robles, California. I'm mainly interested at this point in the cost and how that compares with conventional framing etc. AND who can I get out this way with enough experience to sub this out to. Thanks all of you for some interesting reading so far.  Eve from Paso
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By Dale in Richland, AZ on 2/19/2006


Rammed Earth is a great material, although labor makes it expensive.

I have used it in a couple of homes, one for an owner-builder. He did the work himself and it took most of a year for him to get the walls finished. The GC I did two houses for specialized in rammed earth, there are  two or three guys here in Tucson that built their businesses around this material/technology.

The material itself is cheap, especially if your soil has adequate amounts of clay, if not, Portland is usually added to stabilize and bind the walls. One thing to be careful of is where pipes are located, if they are too close to the surface there will be cracks.

Not sure where you are located, but when designing think about needing 24" thick walls. And as to who can do it? Well find a sub excavator with a thumper and a pin tamper. Or rent one. The fundamentals are easy to learn, its just back-breaking work.

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By Eve in Paso Robles, CA on 2/19/2006


Thanx Dale. As for the back breaking part, I think I will try to avoid that and leave it to people who have the backs for this job. At least you gave the thumbs up for this material. I'm very much into doing this rammed earth house up here as I have been following the thermal mass debate and think it would be perfect in this climate as we have do have wide temperature fluctuations. We're about 3 hours South of San Francisco and about 25 minutes from the coast. I'm surprised you said that the walls should be 24" thick, I thought that I had read about 12-18". Do you think you could give me the names of the Tucson guys who do it?
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By Michael in Cave Creek, AZ on 2/20/2006


Eve,

I encourage you to investigate this material. My last two houses have been stick built. I think the thermal mass concept is very powerful for keeping heating and cooling costs low.

I believe central California is in Seismic Zone IV, which means there can be big earthquakes. So reinforcing this mass of earth with steel is likely to be required. Check with your local building department, you may need an engineer to design some reinforcement in the walls.

In terms of initial cost, I am almost certain that stick framing is cheaper. Now if you look at it from a lifetime cost perspective and the potential energy savings, rammed earth may make a lot of sense.

An alternative project like this could be fun for an architecture or civil engineering student, do you know anyone at Cal Poly?

 


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By Dale in Richland, AZ on 2/20/2006


Important Facts About Stabilized Earth

We're glad you're considering using stabilized earth for the walls of your project. When you take into account energy efficiency, environmental responsibility, price, comfort, longevity, inherent beauty and architectural power, there is simply no better value in today's construction market.
But before you make the final commitment to build with earth, there are a few important points you need to think about. The advantages, of course, are numerous and we've taken the opportunity of describing them for you below. There are also certain characteristics of the walls that some people think of as limitations (although to others these same features are considered enhancements). It's critical to us that you be fully aware of these characteristics so that if you do build with earth both your experiences during construction and your appreciation of the finished product will be as rewarding as possible.

The Benefits
Thermal Flywheel Effect

The ability of a solid earth wall to store energy for long periods of time results in interior temperatures that change very little from day to night. Mass walls absorb solar energy during winter days and then re-radiate that energy to offset nighttime heat losses within the building. In the summer months, the mass of the walls absorbs excess heat generated during the day, keeping the inside spaces surprisingly cool, then releases that stored heat to the clear night sky. In a properly designed and oriented building, this can mean significant savings in heating and cooling bills. And because the energy that controls the temperature inside the building radiates directly from the mass of the walls, the quality of the comfort inside is noticeably different than in a space regulated through mechanically altered air. Couple a mass wall with a hydronic radiant slab to achieve the most quiet, uniform, and dust-free heating system available.

Indoor air quality

Unlike wood-frame buildings, earthwalls do not outgas hazardous fumes. An earth walled building with a natural finish emits no toxins, and in combination with soil-cement flooring warmed by radiant tubing, the indoor air is superior to most other buildings on the market.

Longevity, durability, and low maintenance

Walls built of raw earth in China, Africa, and even the cold wet climates of northern Europe continue to provide shelter after several hundred years of use. With the addition of modern stabilizers, concrete foundations, and steel reinforcing, we can say in total confidence that our earth walls will last for many centuries. And like all other masonry wall systems, whether they are brick, stone, or concrete, exterior maintenance is virtually eliminated.

Fire and insect resistance

Two important reasons for choosing to build with solid earth walls are that they are fireproof and resistant to damage from termites and other insects. Both these factors contribute to greater longevity, of course, but they can also mean an important increase in safety for you and for future occupants

Intangible qualities

One of the most appealing aspects of a house with thick earth walls is the indescribable feeling you get just being inside. There is a certain calmness that simply can't be duplicated with lightweight building materials, no matter what the architecture. Whether it is simply the energy of thermal mass, the healthful air of a natural environment, the quiet that results from the sound absorbing nature of the solid earth, or some other less identifiable quality, there is something special about an earth building.

Environmental responsibility

Perhaps the best reason to build with earth is the boost it can give to the health of the planet. Earth is an unprocessed, widely available building material with virtually no side effects associated with its harvesting or use. Since an earth walled building saves construction and energy resources, doesn't pollute, and lasts practically forever is a wise investment in the future of the planet.

The Frequently Asked Questions

Structural integrity

The first question people usually ask about earth walls is, "How do they respond to earthquakes?" The answer is that earthquake safety is our number one concern. In fact, it was the very first engineering task we addressed twenty years ago when the modern renaissance of rammed earth began. Today, there are several different design approaches we employ depending on the design of the building, the method of construction, and the proximity to an earthquake fault. In some cases, individual panels of earth are enclosed within a framework of cast-in-place concrete. In others, the earth walls are fully reinforced with an integral grid of steel reinforcing rods. A third approach is a continuous solid earth wall topped with a bond beam of reinforced concrete. Whatever the engineering design, every wall system is in full compliance with local building codes, including projects built in seismic zone four localities. Each is constructed to the highest standards of workmanship and quality control.

Weathering characteristics

The second most frequently asked question is, "What happens when it rains?" The answer is that if the soil is selected properly and the wall constructed according to specifications, the finished product is as resistant to deterioration as the parent rock from which the soil came, and in some cases even more so. Tests conducted on samples of finished walls demonstrate that stabilized earth can be completely saturated for months at a time without any deterioration whatsoever. Because not all soils are ideal, and because earth loses its insulative properties when it becomes wet, in climates where rainfall can be extreme, walls should be protected against saturation with ample roof overhangs and raised foundations.

What about Radon?

Radon is in fact never confined to any one soil but rather originates deep underground in certain rock formations and passes directly through the mineral soil and the top soil as it escapes to the atmosphere. Radon is of concern when air tight houses are mistakenly constructed on top of these formations.

How much do they cost?

Houses with walls of solid earth will cost slightly more than a comparably designed house with wood-frame walls. As explained above, they are both a better product and a better investment. How much more they cost will depend on your site, the height and complexity of the wall system, the available soil, and the seismic safety factors. Generally the cost increase ranges between 5% and 10%.

The Limitations

The Nature of the Process

Stabilized earth construction, whether it is traditional rammed earth or the new PISÉ process, is still a made-by-hand product. As such, it exhibits all the inconsistencies and variations that characterize any handmade item.
The color and texture of the finished wall will vary from spot to spot. Some areas may be rough and less well-consolidated than others. Shrinkage cracks, honeycombing, and voids are inevitable. Tolerances for line and level are typically more forgiving than for manufactured building materials. In short, a brand new earth wall looks old the minute the formwork comes off.
For the homeowner who desires this old world look, earth walls are a natural. To one who seeks the comfort, security, and energy efficiency of affordable thermal mass, without the patina of antiquity, a wide range of washes and plaster finishes can be applied to the interior wall surfaces.
The truth is, the way the walls look straight off the formwork may not be to your liking, and we recommend that you include the price of a plaster finish in your construction budgeting. If, as the rest of the building takes shape, the natural finish walls enhance the look of the interior in your eyes, then the money reserved for plastering can be invested in some other upgrade to the building finishes.

Efflorescence

In some cases, especially when walls are constructed during wet, cold weather, free lime in the soil mixture can migrate to the wall surfaces, causing a powdery white stain to appear. Efflorescence can be minimized during the curing process by covering the walls with polyethylene if prolonged wet weather is anticipated. Although it is difficult to remove completely, a washing with a mild muriatic solution will greatly reduce the staining.

Exterior waterproofing

Stabilized earth walls, like rock, are slightly porous. In arid regions, the exterior surfaces should require no waterproofing whatsoever. In areas where snow or wind driven rain can be severe, moisture may penetrate all the way to the inside surface of the walls during prolonged storms. In these regions, we recommend sealing the exterior walls, either all of them or only those which are expected to take the brunt of the storm and are not adequately protected by roof overhangs.

Interior wall sealing

For ease of cleaning and to retard dusting, a clear penetrating sealer should be applied to all unplastered interior walls. Ramseal is a product specially formulated for use on earthwalls. Other water-based sealers (such as Glaze ‘n Seal) are readily available.



<>for more info, this outfit is from Napa and would probably be better than a Tucson source for local design recommendations.
rammedearthworks.com

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By Eve in Paso Robles, CA on 2/20/2006


Lots of great info here Dale:  Almost all the questions are answered but one more comes to mind... I have been told by an architect who has designed one rammed earth house (Pise) that all the extra steel required for earthquake (how can I say this) is not necessarily the best for the integrity of the earth wall.. I have heard that it is actually a better wall without it. That having been said, earthquake engineering has to be part of any design out here, sort of like taking medicine I guess. I've just been through an earthquake on this property so of course I am more than leary but hate to give up on rammed earth - I'm really struggling with this...
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By Dale in Richland, AZ on 2/20/2006


And you are right to be struggling..this is a tough material to decide to proceed with.

Here in AZ the usual engineering approach is to build a reinforced footing, then do the rammed earth walls, then top with a bond beam. Steel in the rammed earth will tear it apart in an earthquake is what I have been told, but I'm not an engineer. Actually our local building code recommends this design approach.  Check to see if your local authority has adopted any "earthen structures" amendments. If not, I'm sure the guys in Napa can help you through the situation.

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By Dale in Richland, AZ on 2/21/2006


here's a great source for code and design info

dcat.net/resources

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By Dale in Richland, AZ on 3/1/2006


Here's an idea that I had not considered until this week.

I was sitting in on a discussion between an owner and a developer who had recently completed a similar project to the one under scrutiny. The developer was telling the owner of the new project that "stressing green building only attracts niche buyers, hippies and tree-huggers. You need to promote this as 'unique' and 'high performance construction'. because face,  reality most don't care what's behind the paint unless it effects operating costs, ie utility bills and maintenance."

So those building "green" for future resale should consider the potential marketing of your home. Some stuff is going to be an easy sell in two or three years, other things will cause only frustration and bewilderment.

Make sure your choices are adding long-term value to the home.

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