modern version of earth building, which is stabilised to
solve the longstanding problem of solubility, has developed
through an interesting set of international connections.
An English trained Architect and Engineer, George Middleton,
worked at the Experimental Building Station in Sydney in
the late 1940’s. Looking for methods of building low-cost
housing, he experimented with stabilising earth and produced
a publication from the Station: “Bulletin 5, Earth Wall
Construction”, which eventually became a standard reference
for earth building in Australia. In 1953 he published a
book: “Build Your House of Earth; A Manual of Earth Wall
Construction”, which has been reprinted several times. Middleton
advised the Israelis on low-cost housing and their developments
were published in "Soil Construction - Its Principles and
Application for Housing" in 1957 by S. Cytryn. This publication,
which introduced the term Stabilised Rammed Earth, came
to the notice of the architect Tom Roberts and artist Giles
Hohnen in 1975 in Western Australia. Their interest in earth-wall
building started with the search for an aesthetic and cost
effective wall material for a new Winery at Margaret River.
Western Australia at the time was a “brick and tile” state,
with the only other option, timber frame, viewed as a “low
rent” building material, actively discouraged by local councils.
This, combined with the 1973 OPEC oil price hikes (prices
quadrupling between 1973 and 1974 and rose a further 150%
in 1979 in the wake of the Iranian Revolution) created an
inflationary period that the brick industry seemed to be
cheerfully exploiting. Apart from jacking prices, they were
able to dump failed experiments in brick and tile fashions
on the country builders and Margaret River was facing a
creeping rash of what they called “ tropical disease” houses
with speckled mixes of brown, cream, white, pink and green
walls and roofs.
Based on Cytryn’s advice, these men took the critical decision
to use local lateritic gravel and stabilise it with a low
percentage of (approx 2-3% initially) cement rather than
use earth with 40% clay as had been done previously in Australia.
They built a shed in Stabilised Rammed Earth at Cape Mentelle
in 1976 to demonstrate to the Council the durability and
strength of the material, which still stands today in pristine
condition unaffected by the weather. The following year
the council approved the construction of the first stage
of the winery and within 10 years approximately 20% of new
houses in the shire were of SRE. This was the start of a
SRE building boom in Margaret River, Western Australia,
where within a few years, 20% of new houses were being built
in this new material.
At about the same time, David Eastern in the USA and Patrice
Doat and Hugo Houben in France were rediscovering earth
building. They initiated renewed interest in their countries
and have built many buildings since, extending their knowledge
and publishing excellent books on this subject.