Earthen buildings come in a vast variety of shapes and sizes, made from materials like fired clay, compressed dirt and a mixture of clay, sand, straw and water. People have been using various forms of earth to build structures for centuries, from the traditional thatched cottages in Devon, England to the pueblo villages of the American west. The ancient ‘rammed earth’ building technique has been used in Neolithic architecture sites and modern cathedrals alike. From underground green homes to other futuristic green houses, here are 15 diverse examples of structures made from earthen materials.
Great Mosque, the World’s Largest Earthen Building
(image via: Wikipedia)
There’s no earthen building in the world larger than the Great Mosque of Djenne in Mali, Africa. Considered by many architects to be the pinnacle of Sudano-Sahelian architectural style, this mosque is one of the most famous landmarks in Africa and was built in 1907 (an earlier structure on this site was built in the 13th century). Bundles of deleb palm wood are embedded into the walls both for decoration and for use as scaffolding for annual repairs.
Cob House on Mayne Island, Canada
(images via: Cobworks.com)
This adorable little cob cabin mimics the style often seen in England but is actually located in Mayne Island, Canada. It features the smooth surfaces, curved walls and archways so typical of cob architecture. Some modern elements are included as well, such as the pre-fab windows.
Rammed Earth Chapel of Reconciliation in Berlin
(images via: Inhabitat)
The minimalist Chapel of Reconciliation in Berlin stands as a symbol of the reunion of East Germany and West Germany, standing on a spot that was once a “deadly no-man’s land”. It’s Berlin’s first public building and only church constructed of rammed earth, and is among the most modern examples of this building technique in the world. Use of the rammed earth style of building involves compressing a damp mixture of earth containing sand, gravel and clay into an externally supported frame that molds the shape of the wall section, creating a solid wall of earth.
Rammed Earth Home by Paul Weiner
(images via: Rammed Earth Homes)
While rammed earth fell out of vogue for a while during the 20th century, it’s experiencing a resurgence as a green building material since it’s natural, low-cost and provides good thermal mass. It’s also fireproof, soundproof and avoids the dilemma of deforestation and toxic materials. These photos show a modern rammed earth home made by architect Paul Weiner.
Fired Ceramic ‘Geltaftan’ Buildings
(images via: WebUrbanist)
The remarkable ‘Geltaftan’ system of building uses an earth mixture high in clay which is then fired to become ceramic. This technique was developed by Iranian architect Nader Khalili, whose research into creating ceramic houses was based on his idea that permanent, water-resistant and earthquake-resistant houses could be built with the implementation of the four elements. Earth and water are used to create the buildings, and fire and air finish them. Entire rooms are fired from the inside, reaching temperatures of at least 1,830°F. After the firing, only the ceiling flues are opened to allow cooling.
Mali ‘Ginna’ Earthen Dwelling for Spiritual Leaders
(images via: EarthArchitecture.org)
In Dogon Country, Mali, each village has a large family dwelling made from earth that is reserved for the spiritual leader of the community. These ‘ginnas’ have a raised living area reached by a ladder carved from a tree trunk, and the 80 niches on the front of the building represent the original ancestors and their descendents.
People’s Co-op, Portland, Oregon
(images via: CobProjects.info)
One of the advantages of cob is the malleability of the mud as it’s drying on the exterior and interior walls – it can be sculpted into beautiful relief designs, as seen here at the People’s Co-Op of Portland, Oregon. Cob was used as infill for two walls of the building as well as for the benches inside and outside the store.
Devon, England Traditional Cob Cottages
(images via: Cob Cottage)
Nowhere are cob homes more common than in Devon, England. These picturesque cottages are quintessentially British, with a look that just screams ‘English countryside’. Cob certainly isn’t a passing trend or a ‘weird new thing’ here – these cute cob cottages with their whitewashed exteriors and thatched roofs have been the norm in this area for centuries. This particular example is incredibly old – the date plate reads 1539.
Modern Rammed Earth Napa Valley Home
(images via: The New York Times)
Tatwina and Richard Lee’s hilltop Napa Valley property is a beautiful example of modern rammed-earth architecture that blends in with its natural surroundings. The house is technically a line of four one-story buildings made of earth, concrete and steel designed by the Lees’ own son and daughter-in-law, Eliot Lee and Eun Sun Chun.
Sustainable Hobbit House
(images via: SimonDale.net)
Looking like something straight off the Lord of the Rings set, this cozy hobbit hole of a home was built in Wales from stone, mud and remnant wood from nearby forests, resulting in a cost of just $10 per square foot. Natural light streams in from a skylight at the top of the earthen, grass-covered dome. The use of materials from the construction site and the way the home was designed give it that truly unique, eco-friendly character that can only be found in earthen homes.
Taos, New Mexico Pueblo Villages
(images via: TravelBlog.com)
The Taos Pueblo is a historical adobe village in Taos, New Mexico – multi-storied buildings that have been continuously inhabited for over 1,000 years. It was probably built between 1000 and 1450 A.D., and as of 2006 it had 150 inhabitants. Adobe is a natural building material made out of sand, clay, water and a fibrous organic material like sticks, straw or dung. It’s similar to cob, and is commonly used in hot desert climates.
Sun Ray Cob Yoga Studio
(images via: Cob Castle)
The Sun Ray yoga studio is a great example of how cob can be used to create sculptural forms. This unusual structure defies the typical boxy silhouette that cob houses tend to have – it’s round with an almost chapel-like entryway. The diamond-shaped windows are testament to how creative cob builders can get when designing these kinds of earthen buildings.
Rammed Earth Home in Westlake Hills, Texas
(images via: Lou Kimball)
This beautiful Westlake Hills, Texas home is testament to how versatile rammed earth really is. Designed by architect Lou Kimball, this 5,000-square-foot home has 2-foot-thick walls that make the building so energy efficient, it received a 5-star energy rating from the City of Austin Green Building Program.
Hakka Houses of China
(images via: AsiaWind)
The Hakka dwellings of China are earthen buildings were built by the Hakka people, who began immigrating to southern China from the northern part of the country in the 17th century. These round rammed earth buildings were designed for defensive purposes, with only one entrance and no windows at ground level. The largest Hakka houses covered up to 40,000 meters and most of the ones still standing today cover around 10,000 meters. The Hakka style of earthen architecture is largely unique to China.
Offbeat Eco-Village of Earthen Huts
(images via: The Daily Mail)
For five years, a group of people lived undisturbed in a hidden eco-village in the Preseli mountains of west Wales – until a pilot flying over the area saw a glint of sunlight reflecting off a solar panel on the main building. The inhabitants of this village of earthen huts then spent a decade fighting to keep their homes, which had been built without government permission, from being bulldozed. Happily, the village has finally been given planning approval, so the community can now return to living in sustainable peace and growing their own green furniture.