Interview with Ronald Rael - via MYOO

I came across this interview by Ronald Rael this morning and thought it would be interesting to share with all of you earth building enthusiasts. 

Ronald is the author of the well known website eartharchitecture.org and more recently of the book Earth Architecture. As he says in the interview below, he has been involved in earthen architecture since he was quite young and today is considered one of the most prominent references in the field.
For me personally, I think that he is doing a great job at promoting the contemporary use of earthen buildings, mostly through his book and blog. I also like the fact that he is realistic in what he says about earth buildings, i.e, he doesn't claim that this is the most sustainable material in the world and that it is THE solution for the problems with the world's built environment (as I am sure you heard many people saying). Instead, he suggests that it can be used as a sustainable building material in some contexts and it may even be unsustainable in some cases. 
I guess that, as in everything, when planning a building there needs to be a careful analysis before selecting the most appropriate construction materials and technology. This will of course depend on the context of such buildings (in which geographical, environmental, social, economic and cultural aspects will have to be considered).

Interview with Ronald Rael - via: MYOO

After our June interview with Pietro Laureano, we started thinking about how regular people might actually apply traditional technology to their daily lives. Especially, we wondered, would large numbers of people ever live in houses made of mud? That seems like a good test of how far we’re willing to carry old, sustainable ideas into a new, sustainable future. Would earth houses be safe? Would they actually be better for the environment? Would they “feel” more natural?
To help answer these questions, we turned to Ronald Rael, the author of Earth Architecture, a book and website devoted to championing buildings made of dirt. He spoke with us from the roof of his office in a West Oakland warehouse.

MYOO: How did you start working with houses built out of earth?

RONALD RAEL: Personally, I became involved with earth architecture because I grew up on a cattle ranch on the border of southern Colorado and New Mexico. So it was a material I was very familiar with from my childhood. And then I studied architecture at Columbia in New York and became curious about the architectural methods from my upbringing.

MYOO: What’s not sustainable about the modern concrete and steel buildings we typically see today?

RONALD: I wouldn’t say there’s anything “not sustainable” about any of those materials. I think what needs to be considered is how those materials are used, the planned longevity, what context they’re being used in and so on. I think it’s far more complex than classifying some material as sustainable or not sustainable.
For example, earth has its potential for being unsustainable as well. Culturally, it’s a material that people see as being backwards or not modern or very poor, and people want to advance and have a better lifestyle. When they don’t associate a material like earth with cultural advancement, economic advancement, education and so on then in a sense earth becomes non-sustainable because it doesn’t sustain a reflection of what a culture intends itself to be or has aspirations to be.

MYOO: So then how are these materials–concrete, glass and steel–being used?

RONALD: One thing is that they are often used acontextually. Because of all the integrated technologies and all the associated materials, today’s buildings do not necessarily need to respond to their context. That means, for example, that you might build an entire south facade out of glass. But then you’ll constantly be cooling down that whole building.
That’s one of my biggest issues: there’s no contextuality to buildings today. We find the same buildings along the highway in South Carolina as we do in upstate New York as we do in the deserts of Arizona. The same exact building. It doesn’t matter where the building is built.
And that’s something that’s changed over the last century or so. Before, buildings were very contextual. The materials may have come within a certain distance from the site, they were produced, they were manufactured within some certain radius. Now the steel may came from China, the concrete may be mined from another part of the country, you might get the stone from India. There’s definitely something awry about that.

MYOO: Why would we have ever stopped using local materials and techniques and started using generic ones that don’t suit the local environment?

RONALD: My answer is capitalism. Because traditional buildings methods and materials don’t make money. No one’s gotten rich off of earth and one of the reasons why is because it can’t be homogenized, it can’t be standardized, and it can’t be sold. If you’re buying a certain type of concrete, you know it has a certain strength. Same with a certain type of steel. There’s a sameness. But earth is very difficult to homogenize. If you dig a hole outside your front door and again across the street, the earth may be very different, even though it still has the capacity to make a building.

MYOO: So if earth is difficult to homogenize as a commodity, how do you get more architects and builders working with it?

RONALD: I think if municipalities begin to adopt building codes that reflect traditional building methods, that’s one way. In fact there are movements to recognize earth as a building material. It’s been introduced into the International Building Code recently.
One of the biggest problems is that insurance companies will not insure buildings constructed of earth because it’s not defined by codes. If you won’t insure a building made of earth, a bank won’t give you money to build a building made of earth, and you’re caught in this vicious cycle.
Education is something that would allow people to start living in earth buildings. There are increasingly schools that are teaching earthen architecture. The more that people get educated about sustainable and traditional building methods, the more they will go out in the work force and build this way. But I think a lot of the knowledge has been stripped out of the culture. And it’s very hard to supplant and reintroduce.

MYOO: Is all dirt good for building?

RONALD: Almost all earth, all dirt that you can find, is able to be used in some way for building. There are a number of what can be called building techniques that can be used with earth. So for example rammed earth is one technique. Mud brick, cob, adobe–these are all techniques that can allow different soil types to be used in different ways.
So in some cases if the soil has less of some material, something else can be introduced that is local. So if there was less clay, it’s straw. Or you could use ox blood or you could use cactus mucilage. There are different ways to strengthen the earth. The earth itself will have shells and clay and sand particles in it; if it lacks or has too much of any of one of these, there’s going to be something in the context that could supplant that.
And also you could dry the earth with the sun. In some places you could ram the earth or also compact it by hand. In other places you could puddle it. If there was lots of vegetation matter around, you could weave vegetation matter together and apply mud to that. Earth exits on every continent. Every country has their own methods and techniques. Many of these are alive and well. It’s still the most widely used material on the planet.

MYOO: Yeah, I read on your website that roughly 3 billion people live in earth houses. That’s almost half the planet’s population. I’m assuming you’re counting brick as earth…?

RONALD: No, I’m only talking about buildings that use earth that’s not been chemically altered. Brick is fired and that’s a chemical transformation that takes place under high heat that won’t allow it to ever return back to its original soil properties.

MYOO: Where are those 3 billion earth homes? They don’t seem too common in the U.S.

RONALD: Most of them are in China, India, in Africa, and in South America. But there’s an enormous amount here in the United States. There’s plenty in New York. They’re on the East Coast. The oldest house in Boston is made of mud brick, and that’s Paul Revere’s house.
The oldest [European] house in the Americas was Christopher Columbus’s house. That was made of rammed earth and its ruins still exist. The oldest continuously occupied building in America is a multilevel apartment building in New Mexico made in the 1100s, made of mud. They’re everywhere. If you’re really interested in finding them, you’ll find that they’re right under your nose.

MYOO: Are there some people who will never accept the idea of living in an earth house? Or what I imagine they’d want to call a “dirt” house?

RONALD: I think there’s a general homogeneity in American culture that won’t allow them to live in an earth house. There are preconceptions about what it is, that it’s some kind of hut for an impoverished person. I don’t know what would allow it to be introduced into popular culture.
But I do think that there’s a potential to raise these issues in countries in the Middle East and in China where they are building huge cities overnight. They’re using tremendous resources, usually to construct these all out of concrete block. There’s a lot of interest and a lot of potential to do things there because they recognize the potential of the material and they have a tradition with the material.
They haven’t yet seen–how should I say this?–they haven’t gone through the kind of scarification that suggests the material is bad. I think that capitalism presents something as being good or bad and the good thing you buy and the bad thing you don’t. And so when earth is pushed to the background, they said, “Well earth is bad, look at this new modern fresh thing.” I don’t think that’s happened in some of the emerging countries. They may not be very far removed from earth in terms of the generations. They may have in fact been displaced from an earthen village and urbanised, for example, in China, so they can still see how you can use the material.

MYOO: What can you not do with earth? How does your architectural approach have to change from what we expect of buildings made from metal and glass and concrete?

RONALD: You can’t get it wet.

MYOO: Huh. That seems like a pretty big thing!

RONALD: Yeah. That is a big thing so you have to have a nice roof, you have to have a nice foundation. There’s a kind of overused cliché in the earth building world that says “An earth house has to have a good hat and a good pair of shoes.” And really that’s all it needs. It sounds like a big thing but you’d be surprised at how well the roofs and foundations work.
At a fundamental level, all buildings are attempting not to get wet, they just do it in different ways. And so a wood building does that with a roof, lots of paint, maybe tar. People think brick’s waterproof even though it’s not. Concrete’s not waterproof. All building’s really can’t get wet.
One thing that I think is beautiful about earth is that when it’s wet, it tells you it’s wet. It changes its color. Most buildings today are designed in such a way that you don’t see their responses with the environment. If a wooden building is leaking, you might not never know for ten years until it’s completely rotted. It doesn’t talk back to you. It doesn’t say what’s going on.

- Adam Bright

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