Rammed earth is an age-old method of building walls by packing moist subsoil into formwork and then compacting it, either by machine or manually. The formwork is then struck and lifted to form the next layer. In terms of embodied energythe total amount of energy it takes to make a material (or a building). See more on embodied energy (0.45 MJ/Kg) and using sustainable materials the method is superb since the materials can usually be found on or near to the building site and very little energy indeed is used to shift, mix and compact them. It is also quick, as the preceding layer can be built on immediately.
It is however a rather difficult technique for the average UK self builder to access. You will almost certainly have to contract the work to a specialist. This is because sturdy specialised formwork is required for the process and this is not generally available because so little rammed earth building is done here. Chicken and egg! Also there will probably be a deal of soil testing required to get the right grade of material and this is not something most structural engineers specialise in.
Soil is very complex stuff, being made of mainly sand, humic materials, clay and gravel in varying proportions. It is important that the mix is correct. Too much clay and there will be shrinkage problems, too much humics and it will lack strength etc. Sometimes soils from different areas need to be blended. This sort of testing may be uneconomic for something as small scale as a single house.
If you do decide to use a specialist company then the question arises as to whether to go for the more traditional method (unstabilised) which uses no cement in the mixture or ‘stabilised’ which uses a small to medium amount of cement. This too can depend on the soil available and gets into quite contentious areas. It is interesting to compare the approach of Earth Structures who make a robust defence for using 6-7% cement (particularly here) with that of Ram Cast who have shunned it for reasons of the CO2Carbon dioxide is a gas which is given off when carbon based materials such as fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) are burned. It is called a greenhouse gas because it works like the glazing of a greenhouse and causes global warming produced by cement manufacturing.
As with all earth building techniques you end up with rather thick walls which have very poor insulation values (k value about 0.8, depending mainly on the density of the earth) This is 23 times worse than mineral fibre for example so you need to add a considerable amount of insulation. This can create an extremely thick wall – maybe in the region of 750mm. This may have implications for the size of the building’s footprint and for window design.
Used as an internal wall[for the purposes of part C of the Approved Documents] - Any wall that does not have a separating function., rammed earth will add considerable mass which is helpful with thermal stability.
Of course concrete foundations will normally be necessary and, depending on the thickness and density of the walls, they may be a significant factor in CO2 generation from cement manufacture.
The picture shows Amazon Nails displaying rammed earth formwork at the Ecobuild exhibition. Note the black steel side plates held together with threaded steel bars. The earth is rammed in from above using a punner.
The Building Regulations part A covers the structure of a building. The Approved DocumentsThese are a part of the Building RegulationsThese are the legal regulations which govern how a house is constructed. (not to be confused with Planning Permission which is about whether you are allowed to build the house at all or what it might look like) see Building Regulations) which ensure, if you follow them, that your plans will be automatically approved. The full set of the documents is available here part Apart A of the Building Regulations Approved Documents relates to Structure. See an abridged version which covers house building go into a lot of detail for traditional masonry buildings but almost none for timber frame, steel frame, earth building SIPsStructural Insulated Panels - prefabricated (usually in a factory) timber panels often forming part of an integrated building system and aimed at fast site erection. see more on SIPs etc. For these you will need to consult a structural engineer (while SIPs structures are usually handled by the manufacturer)
With most forms of construction there will be implications concerning fire safety. These are covered in the Building Regulations and you can see examples of how to conform with these in the Approved Documents Part B (Fire Safety)
The regulations include a section called “Part C – Site preparation and resistance to contaminants and moisture” which covers site remediation along with protection from nasties which might affect the construction and occupants such as damp, rain, radon etc. There is an abridged version of the Approved DocumentThese are a part of the Building RegulationsThese are the legal regulations which govern how a house is constructed. (not to be confused with Planning Permission which is about whether you are allowed to build the house at all or what it might look like) see Building Regulations) which ensure, if you follow them, that your plans will be automatically approved. The full set of the documents is available here specially for houses.