Earthen buildings today...

A few weeks ago I have received a link to Patricio Arias new website, which made me think about what it meant to build with earth today.

Patricio Arias is an architect from Chile who is definitely amongst the group of very talented people – such as Rick Joy, Plano B, Martin Rauch, Marcelo Cortes (with whom he has worked) – looking at the current use of earthen materials as a product of our time and, therefore, bringing earth as a building material to the mainstream of the building industry.

Although I still struggle a bit with the concept of ‘contemporary earthen architecture’ (I shall leave this issue to a later post), I have to say that I have seen quite a lot of examples of buildings that would qualify as such. However, Patricio’s approach differs substantially from all of what is already out there.
I met Patricio in a conference last year and have been following his work ever since. I was able to witness his enormous passion for architecture in general and, in particular, for the way earth can be used to meet current needs and demands. Patricio Arias’ work reveals a deep understanding of both architectural space and the essence of building materials. Moreover, he makes a clear statement with his buildings by proclaiming to the world that it is possible to create extraordinary architecture with earth, using one or several of its many associated construction techniques. His architecture emerges from within its time and context, and reveals that, no matter what the future brings in terms of fashion or architectural styles, the same approach can be pursued and successfully accomplished.
As always, some criticism has also been made about the use of the main technique used by Patricio – tecnobarro (or quincha metalica). This was mostly to do with the introduction of steel as a structure for the earthen walls. Those who are more “purists” in what concerns the use of earth as building material often question the compatibility of earth with concrete or steel. In a way I can understand this concern, especially since there are complex chemical processes involved in the heat and humidity transfer of unbaked earthen materials. This is the reason why, for example, one usually combines natural insulating materials (such as cork or sheep wool) with earthen building elements. Nevertheless, I am not aware of any studies that have been carried out in order to test this theory. I had this same conversation with Patricio, who was very interested in finding out whether the thermal performance of the buildings he designs is in any way influenced by the use of steel.

In addition to the thermal performance, I would probably add a very current issue – the ecological footprint and environmental impact of quincha buildings. Apparently, the overall sustainability of these buildings may be somewhat compromised, due to the energy intensive overall construction process (when compared to traditional earthen building techniques). Not only some of the materials have a high embodied energy, but also mechanical methods are used throughout.

Again, I am certainly not an expert in this type of earthen technology, nor can I refer to any study that has been carried out to share some light on this particular subject; however, one has to wonder about the viability of applying this technique to other, perhaps not so resourceful, contexts.

While some features may be questioned, others are without a doubt, very positive. This consists of a very effective seismic resistant construction. Once more, I refer to what Patricio stated himself after the last major earthquake in Chile: his houses were not affected, whereas others have literally crumbled apart.

In my opinion, we do not always have to have a definite answer or solution for every problem encountered, there is no such thing as a universal thruth... Patricio’s buildings are incredibly interesting and appealing as architectural objects. One cannot help but feeling fascinated by them. Further to this, they bear witness to the immense possibilities and flexibility of this building material and probably are providing a view into what the future of earthen materials will be.

The main question raised here, which can easily be applied to a more general architectural universe, is whether or not the future of earthen buildings will still be one of sustainability above all? By employing mechanical processes, are we contributing towards the increase of CO2 emissions? Will that also mean that earthen buildings will not be as low-cost as they are known for? Who will be able to afford these high-quality earthen houses?

On the other hand, I can also envisage a myriad of positive aspects arising from the combination of modern technologies with such an ancient building material. One only has to look at the photos below to understand that the preconceived ideas that usually associate earth with backwardness and poorness are indeed obsolete. And this, my fellow readers, the social perception, has been the paramount obstacle against the use of earthen materials today.

For this reason, and just to conclude for today, it is my belief that if it takes a bit of a compromise in order for people to accept once and for all that “earthen architecture” is just Architecture, then I am not against some kind of hybrid approach, where one can make use of the good natural features of earth and today’s technological advances in the field of architecture and engineering.

See you soon!

Some examples of buildings designed by Patricio Arias. All images have been sourced from his website http://www.patricioarias.cl/Index.php/

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