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On site at Waugh Thistleton’s extension of the Bushey Jewish Cemetery

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Laura Mark takes a look at how Waugh Thistleton is building a series of rammed earth structures at Bushey Jewish Cemetery in Hertfordshire


Rammed earth is a little-used construction technique in the UK. Despite having a history of building with earth in this country, many of these buildings have failed to survive and the environmentally friendly building technique is rarely used in modern British architecture.

Set within London’s green belt, Bushey Cemetery is one of the UK’s most significant Jewish burial sites and it is about to become home to a series of rammed earth buildings designed by East London-based Waugh Thistleton. The practice was brought onto the project almost five years ago when plans were afoot to extend the 16-acre burial ground, which was first established in 1947.

Waugh Thistleton’s plans, which will see a new ceremonial space with two prayer halls and a series of service buildings completed next year, were heavily influenced by the processional nature of the Orthodox Jewish practice of burial. The buildings are laid out to facilitate the movement from arrival, to congregation, to prayer, procession to the graveside and then a return to pray. Mourners arrive at the site through a timber reception building which opens out onto a timber colonnade forming the processional route to the prayer halls. These are entered from the west and exited to the east before the mourners head through a narrowing path between the buildings and on towards the graveside.

It was in order to build these 7m-tall prayer rooms that Waugh Thistleton turned to rammed earth, a choice of building material that echoes the return to earth of those being interred at the cemetery.

‘In time the cemetery will outgrow this site,’ says practice co-founder Andrew Waugh. ‘When that day comes the buildings will return to the earth.’

When the cemetery outgrows the site the buildings will return to the earth

Andrew Waugh

The buildings have in fact been formed from the site. The ecological construction material is made up of earth mostly excavated from where the buildings stand and which had to be removed to landscape the area. The earth was mixed with limestone, sand and a small quantity of cement and water to create what is better-known as stabilised rammed earth, or SRE. At first Waugh was uneasy about the addition of cement but it means the walls, with similar properties to concrete, have greater structural strength and will withstand the elements better.

The rammed earth walls are quick to construct. It took an eight-man team just 46 days to construct the 400mm-thick walls using formwork which could be reused in sections. But the UK is lacking in these construction skills: the rammed earth project team, Earth Structures, came over from Australia to work with the scheme’s main contractors.

Other rammed earth projects in the UK have suffered from a lack of such expertise. The WISE building at the Centre for Alternative Technology, which has a large rammed earth drum forming its main lecture theatre, suffered a collapse part-way through its construction as a result of discrepancies in the mix and ramming process.

But here the quality of the construction is good. As with all rammed earth walls, there are imperfections in the finish typical of the material but they add character and interest, and show the 150mm layers of each ramming session.

The rammed earth will be left exposed externally and in the ceremonial spaces of the prayer halls, while in the congregational areas the prayer halls are lined with English oak, continuing the theme of natural, tactile surfaces. A simple single oak bench will line the wall. The floor, which will be paved in brown earthen tiles, slopes east in the direction of the procession.

Using rammed earth here has given the project an earthy character, with the different colours of the materials visible in the stratification across its surface. It is a material you want to touch and which also feels calming and in some ways sombre. It possesses a beauty not unlike a perfectly poured and detailed concrete wall.

The challenges of perception that face rammed earth are considerable

Rick Lindsay 

‘The challenges of perception that face the modern rammed earth industry are still considerable – people need to be assured the walls will be durable, sustainable and beautiful in their humble but monumental way,’ says Rick Lindsay of Earth Structures.

Europe has many examples of rammed earth structures, from the buildings for Swiss herbal sweet manufacturer Ricola by Herzog & de Meuron to the houses of Austrian architect Martin Rauch. These sleek examples prove the material can be as accurate as in-situ concrete and should usher away any thoughts of hairy hippy buildings. Yet in the UK it still struggles to catch on. When this building completes next year it will stand on its own merits as an example of earth building and hold an important place in changing the UK’s construction landscape. 


Bushey Cemetary by Waugh Thistelton

Bushey Cemetary by Waugh Thistelton


Bushey Cemetary by Waugh Thistelton

Bushey Cemetary by Waugh Thistelton


Bushey Cemetary by Waugh Thistelton

Bushey Cemetary by Waugh Thistelton

The colonnade’s larch glulam columns, over 3.5m high, are connected to glulam beams with L-shaped steel plates, fixed with steel dowels to form a rigid joint. Steel shoes are bolted to concrete footings below ground to root the colonnade. A stained larch slatted soffit and stepped fascia echo the treatment of the cladding on the reception and mortuary buildings.

The colonnade is separated from the buildings by 200mm, providing shelter outside the main prayer halls and the smaller halls set aside for the Cohanim, but as a separate structure, and with contrasting materials. The 400mm-thick rammed earth walls rise above the colonnade, with a 6.5m-long window admitting light to the congregation area from the west. Cor-ten steel doors, 3.5m high, open into the prayer halls. Window and door openings are framed with steel goalpost structures set in the rammed earth. The walls are built in vertical sections approximately 2.2m wide. The mix is rammed in 600mm-high increments and compacted to 150mm, with only the vertical joints expressed with chamfered joints and a chamfered corner around doors and windows where visible.

A standing seam zinc roof falls from the front of the prayer hall, and then steps up to define the area for the coffin, flooded with light from a clerestory window. The floor slopes gently down through the congregation area and the walls funnel the passage of people – focusing their view onto the coffin and the rabbi. A pendant light designed by Omer Arbel made up of 37 individually hand-blown glass spheres hangs in front of the massive Cor-ten doors.

Rachel Crozier, architect, Waugh Thistleton

Client’s view

The United Synagogue is the main Synagogual body in the UK and operates the largest burial society in Europe. The new cemetery will accommodate burials for the next 50 years and, sadly, is probably the site most visited by the community.

The land adjoins our existing cemetery and was acquired some 20 years ago.

Being within the green belt, the scheme had to be sensitively designed, but with a clear understanding of the objective.

As well as knowing the physical requirements of the buildings, the architect also had to acquire a detailed knowledge of the religious requirements, which would impact on the design of the buildings, pathways and planting scheme.

From the very early stages Waugh Thistleton quickly mastered the brief.

The planning process was difficult, due to the sensitivity of the site within its green belt location. Waugh Thistleton suggested materials that would be appropriate to the environs – in particular the unusual and highly appropriate rammed earth structure – and worked in close co-operation with the appointed town planners. While challenging the advice to ensure the best possible outcome, they followed the guidelines given and planning was secured on the first application. Dealing with reserved matters was difficult but they showed great patience and struck up a good working relationship with the local authority. 

It was important for the project to have the full support of the client organisation’s trustees and as many of its members as possible. The architects attended numerous meetings to give presentations, always satisfying the questions that were raised. Throughout the construction period they remained focused, trying to ensure best practice and value at all times.

This has been a 10-year working relationship. We have become friends with the architectural team and inspired by their devotion to the project, which goes well beyond the boundaries of what we might have expected.

Stephen Rajbenbach, former director of property, United Synagogues  

Bushey Cemetary by Waugh Thistelton

Bushey Cemetary by Waugh Thistelton

Source: Lewis Khan

Bushey Cemetary by Waugh Thistelton

Bushey Cemetary by Waugh Thistelton

Source: Forbes Massie

Architect’s view

We were first approached by United Synagogues five years ago to discuss the possibility of extending the existing cemetery at Bushey. Through many meetings we honed a brief and gained a specific understanding of the Orthodox Jewish practice of burial. 

The buildings are designed around the specific prescribed nature of the ceremony. From arrival to congregation, to prayer then the procession to the graveside and then a return to pray in the Halls and then departure. The buildings and landscape are laid out so that this defined process is a seamless progression through the well understood nature of an Orthodox funeral. 

For the Mourners first arrive at the site by the timber reception building. This building opens onto a long colonnade that connects the four buildings and acts as a clearly defined route leading towards the prayer hall buildings. The prayer halls are entered from the West and exited from the East. As the mourners leave the hall they then walk back between the narrowing path between the buildings on their route to the graveside. 

The two monolithic prayer halls are formed by massive rammed earth walls over 8 metres tall and half a metre thick. Rammed earth is an ancient technology, the main walls are built out of soil – mostly excavated on site, mixed with aggregates and compacted in layers creates an immediate and profound link with the site. The nature of the material is that it is hand made, the imperfections are evident and demonstrate the individual labour that went into the making of the walls. When the life of the building is over it will return to the earth around it. 

The shelter provided by the prayer halls has no implied typology, as exists in most other religious buildings, these buildings should be known by their simplicity. The solemn spaces are lined in Oak panels with a simple single Oak bench lining each wall. The floor slopes very lightly to the East and is paved in earth brown encaustic tiles. 

The extension to the Jewish cemetery at Bushey has been designed to maintain the openness and natural beauty of the site. The landscaping provides a haven for wildlife and an appropriate context for the burial ceremony. Reed beds, lakes and ponds provide attenuation as well as a contemplative environment. The routes through the cemetery to the graveside are formed as avenues of trees with long views towards the prayer halls. These routes are narrated by existing ancient Oaks and the lay of the land.

Andrew Waugh, director, Waugh Thistleton

Bushey Cemetary by Waugh Thistelton

Bushey Cemetary by Waugh Thistelton

Source: Lewis Khan


Structural rammed earth Earth Structures

Aluminium windows Reynaers Windows, anodised bronze frames

Prayer hall floor tiles Solus Ceramics, 200 x 200mm grey cement tiles

Zinc roof VM Zinc, Pigmento Brown, plus standing seam roof

Cor-ten steel doors, arch and canopies Suffolk & Essex Joinery

Glulam columns and beams Constructional Timber, larch glulam

Clay pavers Hardscape Caron, 200 x 50 x 65mm

Sliding doors to prayer halls Spec 21, Alitherm, plus sliding doors, anodised bronze frames 

Bushey Cemetary by Waugh Thistelton

Bushey Cemetary by Waugh Thistelton

Source: Lewis Khan

Project data 

Start on site August 2015
Completion March 2016
Gross internal floor area Mortuary 218m2, reception/café/ancillary space 130m2, prayer halls and Cohanim rooms 115m2 and 31m2 (two of each); 8.5ha of landscaped site
Form of contract JCT standard building contract with quantities
Construction cost £ 6.125 million
Architect Waugh Thistleton Architects
Client United Synagogues
Structural engineer Elliot Wood
M&E consultant P3r
QS Deacon & Jones
Landscape consultant J & L Gibbons
Project manager Deacon & Jones
CDM co-ordinator Vance Miller
Approved building inspector Assent
Main contractor Buxton
CAD software used Vectorworks
Floor area with daylight >2 per cent Prayer halls: 5-10 per cent
On-site energy generation Prayer halls exempt; reception 25 per cent; mortuary 22 per cent
Airtightness at 50pa Prayer halls exempt, not tested; reception and mortuary 6 m3/h.m2
Heating and hot water load Prayer halls exempt; reception 50.75kWh/m2/year; mortuary 59.78 kWh/m2/year
Overall area-weighted U-value (W/m2K) Reception: walls 0.18, roof 0.11, windows 1.6, floor 0.14. Mortuary: walls 0.21, roof 0.11, windows 1.6, floor 0.14

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