Romancing the Earth: An Encore for Ancient Architecture

Romancing the Earth:
An Encore for Ancient Architecture:
Cover story for Sonoma Living Magazine
by Sharon Rockey

The first time you hear the term “rammed earth construction”, it probably won’t conjure up any romantic images. It sounds a bit unrefined, rough, almost brutish. But what kind of images are invoked when you hear: 7000 BC. Mesopotamian villages, Babylonian temples, the Great Wall of China, or the city of Jericho?

The technique of literally pounding moist earth mixed with a little cement into movable wooden forms has been around for thousands of years and was used to create each of these ancient sites along with almost everything else dating back to the dawning of civilizations.

Today we are experiencing a timely turning back to this more esthetic and environmentally correct style of architecture, thanks to the people who value the tradition, the beauty, and the energy efficiency of rammed earth construction.

One of those people is Suzanne Brangham. Suzanne, a Sonoma resident for the past ten years, has gained a reputation for being a committed and forward thinking designer/developer who knows how to apply her artistic talents, savvy business sense and a “just do it” drive to some of the most innovative projects in town. She also has a propensity toward caring for our environment.

Suzanne’s introduction to rammed earth construction came as a kind of wake-up call while she was building a traditional wood construction home in Kenwood. She had been living in San Francisco where she purchased, renovated and redesigned over 70 houses. But in 1989, she decided to have her own new home built from the ground up.

“I was appalled and frustrated by the amount of perfectly good usable wood left in the dumpster at the end of each day.” Suzanne recalled. “I knew there had to be some way to avoid such senseless waste”. Her research into an alternative led her to Rammed Earth Works (REW), a Napa company founded and operated by David Easton.

David was and still is one of the foremost experts in California on rammed earth construction. For twenty years, REW’s designs and structures have set new standards for beauty, durability and efficient use of natural resources for clients that span the globe. David’s enthusiasm for his work was contagious and Suzanne caught the bug.

Now, to the delight of Sonoma residents, Suzanne has taken on a unique new project that will give the rest of us a chance to witness the entire process of this age-old technology first-hand. Ground was recently broken for a new culinary school, “Ramekins”, at 450 West Spain Street adjoining the property of The General’s Daughter Restaurant — which, for those who did not already know, is another of Suzanne’s success stories.

Not only will Ramekins bring an important and exciting new business venture to our town, the actual construction of Ramekins will offer a rare opportunity for residents and visitors to learn more about the simplicity of building with rammed earth. You can watch everything from the assembling of the wooden forms to the mixing and pounding of earth using handheld machine-powered pneumatic tampers. When it’s completed, you’ll be able step inside and experience the timeless and quiet beauty inherent in a 24-inch thick earth-walled structure.

There is an undeniable magic that happens when you live inside thick earth walls. You can feel it when you step inside Suzanne’s own home perched atop a hill overlooking the Sonoma countryside. This 4000 square foot home is a perfect example of what can be achieved by applying the primordial principles of rammed earth construction to today’s mix of modern and classic design.

The natural hues and organic texture of the walls reflect a rich warmth into the rooms, but the walls remain cool to the touch even on the hottest days. The interior feels so natural and earthy, you barely notice the change when you step outside to the patio and pool area. Suzanne’s artistic detail work has been applied with equal care to the area surrounding the home. Poured concrete has been hand-crafted to resemble flagstone, drought resistant flowering plants surround the unadorned pool and a tree grows up through the center of a table next to the stone barbecue area.

Besides being a gracious and beautifully appointed living space, the entire home has a sense of permanence — and why shouldn’t it? Structures built of rammed earth have a life expectancy of over 150 years!

The growing worldwide concern over the planet’s air, water, soil and natural resources is forcing us to look for unique and alternative ways of dealing with everyday things. Building with this most ancient of all materials, virtually limitless in supply, is one of today’s most simple and practical solutions to environmental challenges.

Rammed earth not only saves our natural resources, it gives back something that is durable, beautiful, comfortable and ranks tops in energy efficiency. But in case you don’t respond to a practical point of view, try looking at it from a more ethereal perspective. As David Easton says, “Earth architecture never really dies. It’s part of our planet, and it touches something deep inside us, something perhaps that reminds us of our origins and reconnects us to the living earth.”

With that said, why not stroll on over and watch Ramekins being built. You’ll see what we mean by Romancing the Earth!