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Getting down to earth

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Rammed Earth By Martin Rauch. Birkhäuser, 2001. 159pp. £38

Like others before him, Martin Rauch is trying to resuscitate earth building - in his case, rammed earth in western Europe. The book records his built and unbuilt projects over two decades. Early ones focus on the potential utility of earthen structures, but Rauch has gradually moved back towards his former role as sculptor, creating feature walls - some for landscape, but otherwise mostly within the shelter of modern building shells, with the taller walls propped off supporting concrete or steelwork.

In terms of this sculptural agenda, Rauch is impressive, creating complex shapes and sharp arrises, layering earth in different colours, and using dusts and other colourants to give texture to surfaces. It is only disappointing that most of the illustrations in this otherwise well-produced book are in grey-and-white, not colour.

You might think that now is a good ecological moment for rammed earth wall construction, but its energy-consumption and labour-intensiveness counts against it.

In one case we even find Rauch prefabricating a 4m-long, 4 tonne wall and transporting it 300km to sit freestanding in a house as a piece of eco-tokenism.

This contradiction is not unique. In the adobe-country of the south-west US, earth building is advancing mainly among upmarket clients. For poorer people, as earthfocused development organisations such as CRATerre (www. craterre. archi. fr) have found, earth is the material people want to leave behind, despite one-third of the world's population living in earthen buildings.

Technically, earth works. The old UK saying is that you just need a good hat and boots - good wall capping and foundations. Rauch has little to say on the techniques of his increasingly sophisticated construction process beyond the desirability of adopting mechanical compaction. If you want a lower-tech, practical UK treatment there is Building in Cob, Pisé and Stabilised Earth, a 1999 reissue by Donhead Publishing of a book written in 1919 and revised in 1947.

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