Architect April Magill sits atop an eight-foot wall with a leg slung over each side, so that one foot meets the smooth outer earthen wall while the other rests against the make-shift wooden mold still supporting it. Next to her, head builder Joe Faust is using a pneumatic tamper, painstakingly packing down the material that makes up the very wall on which he stands. “You’ve come at just the right time,” she calls down. “We’re about to pull the mold.” Exciting stuff because Magill’s the architect for an unusual project.
Let’s say you need a house. The problem is, your funds are so limited that one with only three walls starts to look attractive. Maybe you try to build your own out of straw, sticks, or bricks. Maybe you look into purchasing a more modest home only to recoil at the $40,000 price tag attached to a bare-bones trailer. Maybe you do what Sue Walters did after she considered all the other possibilities, and build from the ground up. Literally.
Walters, a New England transplant who’s lived on James Island for the past 20 years, finally made her lifelong dream a reality last year when she purchased a large plot of land on Johns Island. She wanted to start a citrus and nut farm, hire some farmers, and with meticulous planning and a little luck, live out the rest of her years under the leafy trees, enjoying the fruits of her labor. She also wanted to provide a home on the land for her head farmer or farmers to live in, but when she started looking into options, she balked. Walters had just sold her rental home to finance the purchase of the land and didn’t have a lot left in the kitty for a new house. She was trying to get comfortable with spending a lot of money on a mobile home she didn’t really want, but when she mentioned her plan to a friend, she was harshly rebuked. “She said I was absolutely not allowed to put an ugly trailer on my beautiful new land,” Walters says, laughing. Her friend had a better idea: build a rammed earth house. At first, Walters was tentative about even considering the project. Yet when that friend introduced her to Faust, who in turn brought in Magill, their confidence was contagious. Plus, building with clay soil wasn’t such a leap for Walters … she’s the successful potter behind Palmetto Pottery at the downtown city market.
Rammed earth building isn’t a nouvelle concept; it’s been around for thousands of years — parts of the Great Wall of China are rammed earth. It’s commonly used in Europe, New Zealand, Australia, closer to home in California, and it even has a history in South Carolina dating back to 1850 — the Church of the Holy Cross in Stateburg was built this way, back before permits became the bane of every Charleston builder’s existence. The concept is simple: take clay soil, mix it with some aggregate and a binder, and pack it very tightly in stages using a temporary mold. The mold is removed and what’s left is an incredibly strong structure with ergonomic benefits and some major aesthetic value.
For their material, Faust and his fellow builder John Burnet mix up a handwritten recipe of clay from Dorchester County, Johns Island sand shell and gravel, and — a modern touch — cement. They created a concrete foundation for the home and now spend their 40 hour work week packing their earth mixture into their custom-made wooden molds in small sections, about six to eight inches at a time. The duo then uses the tamper to compact the dirt tightly, so that they are left with only two to four inches of finished wall. Faust and Burnet are basically creating rock at warp speed. When they’re done with a section, they remove the wooden frame and move on to the next. As they repeat the process again and again, the shape of the small 25’x35’ house is slowly materializing.
When they pull the mold away, the packed dirt underneath is darker than the drier patches around it. You can trace the packings, striations of color playing across the wall. Walls made of dirt seem like something you could poke your finger right through. But they’re rock-hard, two feet thick, and show no signs of weakness. And compared to the standard frames of our modern houses, these walls are almost magical. Their superpower? They can breathe.
“Today the life expectancy of a regular new home is around 50 years,” says Magill. “Rammed earth homes will last for hundreds of years because they’re fireproof, flood-proof, and rot-proof. There’s no wood to break down and no incendiary materials. You’ll never deal with termites or mold problems, and since these walls are actually able to breath, to absorb and release heat and water, there are way less structural issues down the road.” For added protection against hurricanes and extreme weather, the group is fortifying the frame with rebar incorporated right into the structural walls.
Flooding is a huge concern, particularly on Johns Island. “Imagine this entire area was under 10 feet of water,” Faust says. “Most of the houses around here, if they were still standing when the water receded, would be completely ruined. This house would absorb some of the water, and as it drained away, the walls would shed their water as well. Eventually, you’d be left with exactly the same structure you started with.”
Magill spent the first eight years of her architectural career bored stiff, disillusioned by the “conventional” practices she was a part of. Five years ago she walked away and stumbled into a natural building course in Asheville. Reinvigorated with new ideas and a desire to work holistically, she decided to start her own natural building company, Root Down Designs. Using her own home and yard as a laboratory, Magill began experimenting with cob building. Cob is a lot like rammed earth, but instead of using a mold, the structures are sculpted by hand. (In adobe, another common way of building with earth, the clay is formed and dried in big slabs which are then assembled.) Magill started teaching workshops on natural building and began getting some design jobs, and things began to take off.
“What I’m offering is kind of a niche concept, so I wasn’t sure how well people were going to take it here,” Magill says. They took it pretty well. These days, she’s looking to expand her one-woman, home-based business — she can’t grow rapidly enough to meet the surging demand for natural building jobs. Among her bevy of current projects, Magill’s designing a Berkeley County wellness center/eco-resort called Dragonfly in Berkeley County, the first rammed earth commercial project in South Carolina.
Charleston’s new passion for natural building is only one facet of the permaculture movement growing in the area. “Permaculture,” a mash-up of permanent and agriculture, is a system of integrating natural ecosystems into agricultural and social design. By studying and utilizing nature responsibly, it can be harnessed to work with civilization instead of alongside or against it. Civilization, in turn, works with nature instead of destroying it. Though she wasn’t able to do so in her early architect days, Magill can now plan a site around elements like the sun, wind patterns, and the nature of the land. This has amazing implications where energy efficiency is concerned.
In the winter, the walls of Walters’s house will absorb sunlight and the heat from the wood stove inside, holding in that heat in a way that no regular home could. In the summer, it will be mostly shaded by the leafy trees and the stone will keep the house cooler. Much of the house is seamless, but even where the doors and windows meet the wall, the seal will be incredibly tight because the fit can be manually perfected — and that makes for masterful insulation. Walters doesn’t even need to worry about plaster and paint jobs because, save for a lime plaster in the bathroom to protect the stone from constant moisture, the naked walls look great. (They’ll be sanded once the house is completed to blend some of the color disparities and buff away fine, natural cracks.)
Faust and Burnet predict their completion date will be somewhere between the end of May and mid-June. The finished house will have wooden front and back porches and a gabled metal roof. The living room and kitchen will share an open space in the front of the home; a bedroom and bathroom will be separate, walled rooms in back. A small loft will be tucked away above the bedroom. The home can comfortably sleep two to three people, or one small family. Though Walters originally planned to move a farmer in to the dwelling, she hasn’t found the right match to head the farm. So right now, she’s just sitting on the idea. She wants to enjoy the home for a bit and reflect on where to go next with it. “My dream is to build several more homes here and offer them as low-income housing,” Walters says. “This is all so new to me, though, that I’m just kind of taking it in.”
“It’s really awesome that we’ve all come together and that Sue is comfortable with this level of experimentation,” says Magill. ”This is so new that we don’t even have a method of data collection specific to this region. Her trust in us is really what made everything possible.”
There have been some minor delays due mostly to weather, and they’re coming in a bit over Walters’s budget of $38,000, but she’s not too troubled by it. If everything works out as planned, she’ll still have gotten away with the deal . “Instead of wasting that extra money on interior stuff and the constant upkeep I’d have needed with a trailer at the same starting price, I get to have a whole house. And it’s so efficient and it’s going to be around forever,” she says, smiling broadly.
On the farming side, Walters is cultivating almonds, pecans, chestnuts, Asian pears, ruby reds, and mandarin oranges, to name a few. She’s also trying her hand at what she calls “borderline” things, like olives and avocados. Though some of her trees are already bearing fruit, it will be a good three or four years before her farm is in full swing.
By that point the borderline olives may have failed, but one thing is certain: the house will still be there. As a condition of the permit, the building is required to undergo rounds of stress testing. A four inch deep cylinder is extracted from the wall and put into a machine which squeezes it until it breaks. The amount of force needed to cause the break is recorded. To be deemed sound, a structure’s sample only needs to withstand 200 Psi (pressure per square inch). Preliminary samples from Walters’s house tested at 900 Psi — and that’s before the walls have had a chance to dry out more and really harden up. The crew expects the final test to hit 1200 Psi.
Nothing borderline about that.