Rice Architecture lectures to make a case for mud

Series of 3 talks on earth as an essential – and modern – construction material

An urban environment of wood, brick, steel and concrete makes mud seem anachronistic. But some architects suggest earth has advantages that should be taken seriously when other options are not nearly as energy-efficient or environmentally friendly – or easy to come by.

This month, the Rice Architecture lecture series will take a close look at modern construction techniques that draw upon the abundant resource right under our feet.

The Rauch House by architects Roger Boltshauser and Martin Rauch is an example of modern rammed earth construction. Boltshauser will speak at Rice University March 26. (Credit: Albrecht Schnabel)

The Rauch House by architects Roger Boltshauser and Martin Rauch is an example of modern rammed earth construction. Boltshauser will speak at Rice University March 26. Photo by Albrecht Schnabel

“The Form of Mud” lecture series organized by Jesús Vassallo, a Rice assistant professor of architecture, will bring architects with expertise in mud construction to Rice for events March 26, 28 and 30. All are part of the Rice Architecture spring lecture series titled “Here,” which has focused on specificities of context and, with these three lectures, specificities of material. The lectures will be presented in Anderson Hall’s Farish Gallery.

The free series kicks off March 26 with a talk by Roger Boltshauser at 5:30 p.m. Vassallo characterized Boltshauser as the current European master of earthen construction, with a wealth of experience in designing rammed earth projects. Among his most recent is an aquarium in Basel, Switzerland, Ozeanium, with rammed earth as a major construction element. Vassallo and his students visited with Boltshauser earlier this semester and toured a rammed earth home in Austria he designed with and for master builder Martin Rauch.

Rick Joy brings the American viewpoint March 28 at 5:30 p.m. The Arizona-based architect is the best-known early proponent of rammed earth construction in the United States. Joy started experimenting with the material at the beginning of his career in a series of residential projects and has recently completed such larger realizations as the Amangiri resort in Utah.

Jesús Vassallo, Rice University assistant professor of architecture. (Credit: Rice University)

Jesús Vassallo

Arabella Masson and Csaba Tarsoly will visit March 30 for a talk at noon. The partners at Masson Tarsoly Architectes and professors at EPFL Lausanne and the University of Liechtenstein have studied earth construction as part of their research and also in their own designs, including the yet-to-be-realized campus project at Burgohondo.

“We invited these lecturers because they bring different viewpoints about mud construction,” said Vassallo, who hopes those differences will prompt healthy dialogue among colleagues as well as those in his current advanced studio, in which students are designing projects that use rammed earth. “These are techniques used for millennia, then abandoned for perhaps a century at least. Now we’re slowly starting to work with them again.

“Within a certain scale of building and within certain programmatic types, we could use earth for structures the way they use brick and concrete in Europe or the way that we use two-by-fours in the U.S.,” he said. “As an architect, I think it’s very exciting to be involved with because we can contribute to the definition of how an ancient material can be re-envisioned for new, contemporary industrial-scale construction.”

Earth can be handled in many ways and has been for millennia. Builders squeeze it, fire it in kilns and bake it in the sun to make building blocks, and Vassallo said modern materials science is bound to make it even more suitable with additives for industrial-scale projects that address the challenge of increased urban density.

“Our whole way to assess what buildings do and how they do it has changed because sustainability has become the pressing issue that everything has to respond to,” Vassallo said. “Until recently, our view of sustainability in buildings had to do with reducing energy consumption, insulating the buildings and reducing the amount of electricity we use for heating and air conditioning.

The Rick Joy Studio in Tucson, Ariz. Rick Joy will speak at Rice University March 28. (Credit: Courtesy of Rick Joy Studio)

The Rick Joy Studio in Tucson, Ariz. Rick Joy will speak at Rice University March 28. Courtesy of Rick Joy Studio

“Increasingly, we are thinking about these within the whole life cycle of a building,” he said. “That starts with where the materials are sourced for construction and ends when the building is demolished or disassembled and what happens to those materials. Within that expanded view of sustainability, the structure of the building is one of the main factors.

“Earth construction is interesting and compelling because, if you are digging it from your own foundation or your own site, this is a material that is free,” he said. “It’s not like buying steel or concrete, which is very expensive and has a strong energy footprint. This approach to construction could be much more holistic, much healthier, more fair and more sustainable in terms of energy and materials.”

In many new projects, thick walls of compacted earth replace the thin layers that in traditional construction handle protection from the weather, insulation and interior cladding. It could even work in Houston, Vassallo said.

“People tend to think earth construction cannot work in a humid climate, and that’s why nobody has tried it in Houston,” he said. “But that is not exactly true. It’s not that it doesn’t work well in a humid country; we just came back from a research trip to Switzerland and Austria, where they’ve been doing these things forever. It rains a lot in southern Austria, probably more than Houston.

“Also, the soil of Houston is very rich and precisely the type of clay and sand that is good raw material for this type of construction. So I think there’s a lot of potential.”

“The Form of Mud” series is supported by Rice’s Conference and Workshop Development Fund.

About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.