A South Carolina Architect’s Journey to Natural Building & Rammed Earth

Cob Cottage workshop

Cob Cottage workshop

By April Magill

 “I want to build a cob house. Can you help me?”

It’s a phrase I hear a lot these days.

From what people are telling me, I’m the only Architect in South Carolina who is designing and building with natural building methods. Needless to say, I’m getting a lot of inquiries.

Three and a half years ago, when I began this venture, I had no idea how South Carolina was going to respond to Cob; the only ‘cob’ being discussed around here was of a different variety; the conversation typically went something like this:

Me: “I want to design and build and teach people about cob.”

Them: “Cob? What’s that? Oh you mean, like…. corn cobs?”

Nicaragua with Liz Johndrow

Nicaragua with Liz Johndrow

Me: *big sigh*

Cob, natural building, permaculture, and the like, were not common dinner table conversations around here just a few years ago. Today however, my inbox is constantly flooded, I screen my phone calls, and I recently had to put up one of those statements: ‘I’m sorry but it may take me several weeks to respond to your email’ on the ‘Contact Me’ part of my website. I’m not saying this to toot my own horn, I’m saying this because, much to my pleasant surprise, it’s a testament to the fact that there IS a demand for natural building in the southeast, and this demand is growing exponentially and at a rate I cannot keep up with. I hear it time and time again; people looking for something different, wanting to build with non-toxic materials, wanting to build with their own two hands, wanting freedom from the energy and mortgage industries. This overwhelming interest is very exciting to me; after all, this is the south…and we are slow….not just slow in talking and driving, but we tend to a bit ‘slower’ to catch on to new trends, etc.

Cross Workshop

Cross Workshop

Five years ago, on my night stand sat ‘The Hand Sculpted House’ by Ianto Evans. My world opened up and the seed was planted. Discouraged with the ‘conventional’ architecture practice I’d been participating in for the past 8 years, Ianto’s words struck a chord and spoke to my soul. I threw in the towel, headed to Asheville, NC and enlisted in a 3 week Natural Building course offered by Ashevillage (www.ashevillage.org) I was smitten, giddy and relieved. I was a kid in a candy shop. I’d finally found my path.   Knowing my path was certain, I did not know how this knowledge would be used back in South Carolina. Were people ready for this? How would people respond? Will there be an interest or a demand?

I returned to my sticky island home and I started clay-hunting. I dug up clay from river banks at low tide. I collected cat tails in the marsh and spanish moss from the low-hanging oaks. I set up experiments in my back yard. I smeared clay plasters on the walls of my home. I removed an exterior door and in-filled the void with cob and wine bottles. Friends and neighbors thought I was loco (ok maybe I am to a degree, but so are many great thinkers!). My friends named me ‘Dirt Queen Architect’ and I started a blog under this very name. My goal was to create awareness and that’s just what I was doing.

cob cottage workshopMy first cob Oven workshop was in Cross, South Carolina in a predominately African American, low-income community. I begged and conned my friends with promises of beer and food to come and show up, and they did. People slowed down to look; they stopped to find out. I witnessed a community come together. We salvaged trash together and created beauty. A tough looking, young African American man broke down in tears while he told me how ‘no one has EVER built anything so beautiful in MY community before.’   Another man told me stories of how his grandmother would eat that red clay when he was a kid because they were so poor. My heart broke open a little more and I once again saw the massive potential that underlies Natural Building; I often explain in my workshops that it’s not just about building techniques, it’s about the process.

The work continues: I kept teaching in and around Charleston, as well as in parts of Georgia & Florida. Twice, I met my mentor Liz Johndrow (www.earthenendeavors.com) in Nicaragua and built with mostly women in rural communities. I was designing recycled pallet sheds, bamboo green houses, and cordwood tiny homes. In July of 2013 I was asked to come and co-teach a 10-day cob workshop at none other than Ianto’s Cob Cottage Company! (www.cobcottage.com) What an honor! My last workshop here in South Carolina was maxed out and I had folks driving from as far as New Orleans to participate; once again, a testament to the boundless interest which currently exists here in the south.

DSCN9863I’m often asked, ‘what is the most appropriate natural building method for our climate?’ This is a loaded question without an easy answer.

Here in the south we are hot. We are humid. We are sticky and wet. We sweat and so do our walls in the middle of the night in July. On the flip side, we are also quite cold in the winter. We are a community of little islands and water is abundant and always present. We call ourselves ‘The Lowcountry.’ The ground elevation is a whopping 9 feet above sea level. College kids kayak the streets of downtown during a full moon and high tide. Mold, mildew, and rot are huge concerns. On top of this, we have termites and flying cockroaches (I’m serious). We must design for 140 mph hurricanes and if this isn’t enough already, we also sit right on top of a fault line. In 1866 Charleston was devastated by a major earthquake. All of these factors present interesting design challenges and makes for answering that question very difficult. Natural Building methods and techniques, which work well for the Pacific Northwest, Taos, New Mexico, and even Asheville, NC may not be the appropriate choice for the deep south.

Barclay School

Barclay School

The answer is not simple because unlike the conventional home model which is applied everywhere regardless of the climate and the regional materials, with natural building, we must start by analyzing the site, the client, the available resources, the ability of the builder, the comfort level of the owner, the size of the structure, how will it be heated and cooled, and so on. I will typically turn that question back around to the client in the form of a long questionnaire, so that we can begin to allow the project parameters to shape the method, instead of the method shaping the project.

I find that most people are first attracted to cob because, well lets face it, cob is curvy, sexy and fun! I see cob as the ‘gateway drug.’ People start with cob…. their minds are expanded….. they get hooked, and like a good drug, they can never go back. Then, their minds are open and they begin to explore all of the other available methods: strawbale, cordwood, light straw-clay, adobe, rammed earth, etc.

My quest to figure out which methods seem to be the most appropriate ones for this region is one which begs me to use history as a guide. We know that in the Deep South, the vernacular architecture is one of high ceilings and deep porches. Ventilation and shading is a no-brainer. Additionally, what history has presented to me is that Rammed Earth has shown her pretty face time and time again in pockets of the Deep South.

The Church of the Holy Cross (Wikipedia Entry) in Stateburg, SC is a Rammed Earth church built in 1850. Across the street from the church is the Borough House Plantation, which consists of multiple houses and outbuildings built using Rammed Earth. These structures are still standing and in good shape today; they are on the National Register of Historic Places. These structures have withstood over 100 years of 50+ inches of annual rainfall, the great Charleston earthquake of 1886, as well as several major hurricanes.

Nicaragua

Nicaragua

In the 1940’s Clemson University’s College of Agriculture and Engineering performed experiments using Rammed Earth and published papers and bulletins promoting this building method. In 1945, the US Department of Agriculture designed and built an experimental community of Rammed Earth homes in Gardendale, AL while looking for housing solutions for low-income families. I uncovered an interesting fact, which stated that Rammed Earth became popular in the South and in regions where on average there were not more than 10 rain-free days in a row, thus eliminating Adobe as a viable option.

My conclusion: History does not lie; Rammed Earth is a durable and sustainable method, which can be used in the South.

Rammed Earth has perked my interest not only because of it’s historical roots, but also because of it’s ability to be rot resistant, termite resistant, fire resistant, it’s thermal mass properties (cooling!), it does not require any finishing plasters or paints, and the incredible beauty of the striated layers.

Modern day testing and advances in the Rammed Earth industry has detailed out ways to stabilize the earth with a small percentage of cement, ways to reinforce the walls to account for lateral forces, ways to integrate insulation (much needed in this climate!), and ways to take advantage of modern technology and tools to help reduce on time and labor. While the ‘purist’ natural builder may not agree with some these advancements and additives to the age-old method, I feel that these additives are helpful in making it a viable and realistic method for many. The reinforcing and stabilization allows the wall to meet the current engineering and safety standards, which can then lead to a building permit. If I design a building that fails during an earthquake or a hurricane, then I have not done my job and I loose credibility, as does natural building.

Rael states, in the book ‘Earth Architecture,’ “Earth is one of the few materials on the planet that has not been subjected to large-scale industrialization … yet the advancements of the industrial revolution have brought about technologies that, when appropriately coupled with earth techniques, can result in ingenious hybrid forms of construction.”

While I love and respect the simplicity of hand-tamping the earth, of trusting the strength of the rammed wall, of solely relying on the thermal mass to cool us, and not altering or straying from historical methodology, I feel that in order for a Natural Building method to become a reality for many, we must meet the local codes and engineering standards of current day. We must also find ways to limit and reduce the labor for the average person to be able to invest in the process. Time and time again, the people who contact me and want to build a home need a building permit in order to do this. Therefore, we must work with our building officials and engineers, gain their respect and trust first, and then continue to look for ways in which to better the method: reduce the carbon footprint even more, reduce water consumption even more, reduce the cement even more, switch from steel reinforcing to bamboo reinforcing, switch from rigid insulation to something more natural. All of this will require careful study and testing, but this is why I love natural building, because it is always a design in evolution.

Backyard rammed earth samples

Backyard rammed earth samples

Recently, I’ve taken Rammed Earth under my wing and adopted it as my current favorite method. I have teamed up with Structural Engineer, John Moore of 4SE Engineering and we received the first building permit for South Carolina’s first modern day Rammed Earth Structure for the Barclay School in Columbia, SC. This structure is a 400 sf outdoor classroom for disabled children; we will build the walls of Rammed Earth, Earthen Floors, Adobe & Cob Benches, and a Living Roof. We will begin construction and building workshop in early 2016.

John and I also just completed design on South Carolina’s first modern Rammed Earth single-family residence. This home is non-air conditioned, passive-solar design with insulated walls on the north and east and un-insulated walls on the south and west. Earthen floors will be installed throughout. The corners of the home have all been sculpted into smooth, rounded corners, which will help resist strong winds. The home will be located in Dorchester County, SC and construction and building workshops will begin later this year.

Compression Test

Compression Test

Both projects underwent soil testing at a geotechnical soils lab here in Charleston. I began by first experimenting with the soil on my own to determine what I felt was a good, strong mix for Rammed Earth (approx. 70% sand: 30% clay). We then tested each soil mix for compressive strength. The goal was to meet a minimum of 200psi. We surpassed this limit and the cylinders failed at 1130psi. I discovered that by adding 20% gravel into the mix (two different sized aggregates), this allowed for the small percentage of cement to bond well, and thus greatly increasing strength. We were able to reduce the cement content from the industry recommendation of 6-10% down to just 4%. We also discovered that only 8% moisture was needed to activate the cement, therefore making Rammed Earth a possible method for regions lacking ample water. We followed New Mexico’s Rammed Earth adopted code and made adjustments as needed to accommodate for our particular location. I hope to eventually write a Rammed Earth code for the state of South Carolina to adopt.

Currently, I am in the beginning stages of designing a Wellness Center/Eco-Resort called Dragonfly located in Berkeley County, SC. This will be the first commercial project in SC to utilize Rammed Earth as a building method.

Dragonfly

Dragonfly

Is Rammed Earth the right answer, the perfect answer? Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn’t. Right now, it seems to be the most appropriate method to me, for my region, for these particular situations. A year from now, I may change my mind, or I may make changes to Rammed Earth and discover a hybrid method. Just as a banana tree cannot be planted anywhere in any climate and be expected to flourish, buildings are the same. Buildings evolve and thoughts evolve. We should think of buildings as fluid, changing, breathing organisms that, just like us, have their own strong opinions about who they want to be.

To learn more about April’s work as well as upcoming natural building workshops, click here:

www.lowcountrynaturalbuilding.com

April Magill is an Architect with 10 years experience working in Charleston, SC.
In 2011, she decided to follow her passion for a more Natural, Holistic, and Earth-Friendly kind of architecture; she educated herself in Natural Building practices and started her company, Root Down Designs, LLC.  Since then she has been working with clients who wish to design and build using a more ‘out-of-the-box’ approach.  Periodically, she teaches Natural Building workshops in and around the southeast as to help spread awareness and educate a rapidly growing population of interested enthusiasts. April lives and works from her home & is kept busy by her work, her growing family, a growing Food Forest, and an ever-evolving house.

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