With stone, timber and grass, earth is one of the oldest of building materials. Archaeologists have found evidence of earthen buildings in Iraq, in Mesopotamia, which date back to the 6th millenia B.C. If earth is one of the oldest of building materials, it is also one of the widest in use, in use today as well as in the past. It has a history of thousands of years and a distribution over much of the world. The distribution of earthen building relates directly to the kinds of soils that are to be found in the world. The best soils for earthen building are probably the laterites which are found in South America, in West and Central Africa, and Western Australia. Another useful form of soil are the desertic soils which are to be found in a belt across the South West of the USA, North Africa, Middle East, Gobi Desert, and China. In the Northern hemisphere the podzolic soils are to be found in Canada, in Britain and Europe and in Russia. These too are useful for building. What I wish to discuss is the kinds of earthern building which are to be found in various parts of the world, and also some of the problems that are to be encountered if earthern building is to be used in the future. But why should we be concerned with building in earth? It's not new. Many authorities concerned with the development of architecture have recognised the use of earth in the past. But it has not entered much of the discussion about modern architecture. It's clear, however, that modern architecture is most appropriate in countries which are industrialised, which have considerable financial resources. In poorer countries earth is extensively used, though seldom studied. It seems to me that not only have we much to learn about the use of the materials, and particularly the use of earth in many parts of the Third World, but that it also has a potential for the development of successful housing for the world's millions in the closing parts of this century and the opening of the next. Having spent a number of years travelling in various parts of Africa and the Middle East and other parts of the world where I have seen earth building, I personally have come to respect the work of those builders who construct their buildings out of available resources with great skill and with great under- standing of the potential of their material. This in a way is a lesson to us all who are interested in architecture. For myself, I'm particularly interested in simple technologies and the rational use of natural materials. Earth, it seems to me, presents a model of how we can employ the resources available to us.
Earth has been used for building even in England especially in the West of England, in Devon, where earthern buildings are constructed from a local clay called shillet. Shillet has within it flakes of stone and this acts as a binder. The clay building is called cob, and the buildings are protected, generally speaking, with a surface of clay plaster painted over with a lime wash. Where the lime wash has not been applied, the cob walls tend to deterior- ate. Where it has been applied, it's protected against the weather. There is a saying in Devon that an earthern building requires a good hat and a good pair of shoes. In other words, that the walls are protected by a thatch at the top and a coating of bitumen at the base to prevent deterioration from splashback from rain.
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