Earthy living – Family builds rammed-earth house for its many benefits |

Earthy living – Family builds rammed-earth house for its many benefits

Pam Jung

Houses that stand for hundreds, even thousands, of years – this is one of the benefits people who build and live in rammed-earth homes give for wanting to build with earth.

The Black family of Nevada City is living in such a home. Given the fact that it’s a family of five girls ranging from 15 to 25, having a house that will stand for many generations to come makes lots of sense.

Patriarch of the clan, Hunter Black, 50, who holds a degree in construction management from the University of Washington, said it all began when he attended a workshop in 1988 led by the dean of rammed-earth building, David Easton.

He liked what he learned and decided to join the ranks of approximately one-half of the world’s population that lives or works in buildings constructed of earth, and build his own – with lots of help, of course.

That was 12 years ago.

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“It took a crew of six working for three weeks to erect the walls,” he recalled. A mixture of earth from the site, augmented with such things as cement, was poured into frames and tamped down with a machine to produce what the building department calls “stabilized soil cement.”

“The process of building was fun,” says Black, “and a lot easier than people think, since machines do most of the work.”

The sculpted-looking, 18-inch-thick by 10-foot-tall walls in the living room look, well, earthy – a couple of cracks here and there, rough finish in parts, but mostly smooth and looking quite substantial.

Elsewhere, the interior walls are disguised with plaster and paint so they look like any other standard construction. Outside, the walls are well-protected from the elements with a layer of stucco, overhangs and a good foundation. Apparently, the key to their longevity is to keep them from becoming wet and then having them freeze.

“A good hat and galoshes work well for rammed earth,” said Black.

But all the trouble is worth it.

“The inside is 20 degrees cooler than outside” for most of the summer, said Audie Black. By following the old “open windows during the cool evening and close them during the day” theory, the walls, with the help of an attic fan, keep the house livable without air-conditioning. The process is reversed in the winter, with the walls retaining the heat of a massive stove. It’s called “thermal mass.”

The second story, with lots of bedrooms, is standard construction, but that’s where conventionality ends. The family used natural floorings, such as Terratile, royal peasant flooring (mud and straw mix) and cork.

Solar panels provide the household with much of its electricity and heated water. “In fact,” said Black, sounding evangelical, “in this climate the best ROI (return on investment) is hot water heating (with a system on the roof), which everyone should be doing.”

As far as expense, he admitted these earthen walls are more expensive to build and finish than conventional stud walls per lineal foot, “but if compared to building with stone, they are considerably cheaper and safer, and I consider this a stone house.”

While he can’t come up with a per-square-foot cost, he said the walls were only about 7 percent of the cost of the entire house.

Black and his wife believe in chaos theory – the more the merrier. Their home of 4,800 square feet with its seven bedrooms and four bathrooms is a place for their children to come home to, from school or work, often with friends in tow. One can usually find a temporary boarder on the premises, and guests come en masse.

This summer, for instance, a family of six arrives from Hong Kong for several weeks. It’s not unusual for a dozen people to sit down together around the dinner table. Come New Year’s Eve, the house is packed with upwards of 100 people, mostly from the Ananda Community, where the Blacks have lived for 17 years.

“It’s a people house,” said Black with a big grin.

People’s reactions when they first come into the house interest Black.

“They are in awe,” he said. “That is what the power of design, combined with the materials used, can do.”

But perhaps the greatest benefit, he said, is “feeling like you’re living in a temple; there’s a feeling of upliftment felt in a church that is brought home to a certain degree.”

Where to learn more

Perhaps the biggest example of rammed-earth structures in the county is the Encompass conference and learning center on Tyler Foote Road, not far from where the Blacks live.

For more general information on rammed earth, try David Easton’s Web site,, or read his book, “The Rammed Earth House.” His business, Rammed EarthWorks, was established 25 years ago.

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