What is Old Becomes New Again

This proof of concept modern house in Southern Montana was built using traditional style compressed earth bricks by a Colorado University team.

We all know that with clothing, it pays to keep old clothes that go out of fashion because in a decade or so, they’ll come back into fashion.  I have ties in my wardrobe that have been in and out of fashion regularly – well, with ties, there’s only so much that can change, of course – wide or thin.

However, this is not an article about fashion and clothing.  We’re writing about building materials, and over the last decade or so, some of the most ancient building materials known to man – largely overlooked and forgotten during the last 100 years or so – are being ‘rediscovered’; and sometimes even being (mis)described as revolutionary.

One of the big challenges to us in designing retreats is the choice of building materials for the exterior walls.  We need a material that is low maintenance, fire-proof, long-lasting, resilient if shot at (and easily repaired), and with large thermal mass to minimize the energy cost of heating and/or cooling the interior.  Oh – and if it could be affordable, too, that would be much appreciated!

There’s no real secret to solving these requirements, except for finding a material that meets all the requirements including the affordability.  That is the big challenge for most of us.

Increasingly it seems the answer to such requirements lies not in futuristic new materials, but by looking back to ‘old fashioned’ building techniques – techniques that are long-lasting and low tech, and which have proven over decades and centuries to meet all the requirements we might have.  In particular, rammed earth, compressed earth brick, and adobe materials are showing themselves to be prudent choices.

Some of these older building techniques are now being claimed by ‘high tech’ developers as their own.  Here’s a short article about a combination of the latest high-tech 3D ‘printer’ technology together with not the normal plastic resin that such devices normally use, but instead, a sand slurry that sets into a very solid and sufficiently load bearing form.

There’s a video at the bottom of the short article that shoes a robotic arm building tiny structures at the sea-side.  Could this be scaled up to enable automated construction of large-sized retreats?  In theory, yes, but in reality, don’t look for it today or tomorrow as a practical possibility.

The amusing thing – if you go to the FAQs on the very scanty related website, stonespray.com, you’ll see how they describe building with soil and a binder liquid as a revolutionary new process.  Not so.  It dates back to Biblical times and before.

Building codes in many counties and states stumble a bit at the concept of using such materials.  A solution for some of us might be to build a structure using accepted methods and materials, and then to provide an external cladding using one of these earth based materials.

However you approach the issue, the two most important considerations for constructing your retreat are to make it fire-proof and resistant to attack.  Any type of traditional wood construction fails miserably at both these essential requirements.

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