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Raw Earth: A traditional material for contemporary use

08/2018


Using earth and clay for walls and surfaces in construction and architecture is one of the most ancient building methods.

There is evidence of raw earth being used in architecture as early as 5000 BC in China, in the form of rammed earth – a process of constructing natural walls and floors using raw materials such as earth, clay and chalk. Historical examples of rammed earth can still be seen today, for example on sections along the Great Wall of China.

Another way earth has been used historically in construction is with Adobe bricks. Although they have a similar appearance in terms of size and shape to the bricks we see in construction today, Adobe bricks are made from raw earth materials and are air-dried. Compared to rammed earth walls, adobe bricks are made prior to the build (rather than in-situ) and due to their size, they dry quicker.

If we fast-forward through time a little, we can start to see raw earth and clay being used in construction and architecture today, both in the form of rammed earth walls, Adobe bricks and for interior and exterior surfaces as a contemporary natural finish.

Waugh Thistleton Architects recently completed a RIBA award-winning project in Hertfordshire, where they used solid rammed earth walls for the enlargement of one of the UK's most significant Jewish cemeteries, Bushey Cemetery. They chose to leave parts of the raw earth exposed, appropriately referencing the cycle of life and death; and the burial as the return to the earth.

Although these construction methods have been used for thousands of years, the Waugh Thistleton project and other recent buildings, prove that it can be used as a very modern and sustainable building material. Both rammed earth and adobe bricks have high thermal mass, meaning that it absorbs heat and releases it when temperatures drop at night, reducing energy consumption as the need for heating or air-conditioning is minimised.

Another modern-day example of a project including this natural material as part of its palette, albeit for internal surfaces, is the new Hotel dei Barbieri in Rome, designed by MORQ Architects. The architects took a contemporary approach to raw earth by using our own Matteo Brioni's range of beautiful clay finishes for the hotel's walls. Whilst retaining the building's 17th century architectural features, MORQ wanted to restore the building using natural materials that respected the building's heritage and environment.

What is raw earth?

Earth as a building material is a compound of clay and other natural minerals, simply left to air-dry, with no firing necessary. Due to it not being fired, the material has low embodied energy, making it a sustainable alternative to other construction and surface materials.

Matteo Brioni has discovered that by mixing different clays, originating from different territories, you can create varying colour options when producing raw earth solutions for internal surfaces. They have also developed options for creating different natural textures, by incorporating different elements like jute, wheat, hemp and rice.

Raw earth interior finishes

Natural, sustainable, durable and strong are just a few of the benefits of using raw earth as an interior surface. Perfect for different environments, including residential and commercial, indoor and outdoor spaces, this all-natural material can be applied to the walls as a finish, almost becoming a second skin.

The benefits of raw earth interior finishes

Being completely natural, raw earth products are completely non-toxic and can contribute to a healthier living environment. The earth absorbs 20 times more humidity than a brick and then slowly releases and regulates the humidity, keeping the environment constant throughout the day and resisting the build up of mould on the surfaces.

As well as being able to maintain and regulate temperatures, earth products also have exceptional sound absorption qualities and are naturally non-combustible.

According to Matteo Brioni, the earth used in their surface products has the ability to absorb toxins and bind odors, such as cigarette smoke, improving indoor air quality.

Throughout history earth has been used for its healing properties. It can been found in the cosmetics industry and in some antiseptic pharmaceuticals. A fundamental element of earth's mineral structure is clay. This is a completely non-toxic component which doesn't go through any complex processing or emit any radiation.

Earth-based finishes can also be positive for psychological well-being. Matteo Lundgren from the Cob Therapy blog points out that clay releases negative ions into the air. Negative ions have been linked with an assortment of benefits to mood, clarity of mind and creativity. Once they reach our bloodstream, negative ions are believed to produce biochemical reactions that increase levels of the mood-enhancing chemical serotonin, helping to alleviate depression, relieve stress and boost our daytime energy.

A reinvention of a classic

Another example of using earth finishes in contemporary interiors is this project from Ukrainian architect Sergey Makhno. He unites classic Japanese aesthetics with the traditions of his home country in this stunning penthouse apartment, which he designed for his own family in Kiev.

All the walls are clay finished, following the technique used for traditional Ukrainian houses, while rough wooden beams that support the ceiling and doorways are another nod to tradition. The Japanese element comes from the philosophy of turning something imperfect into something valuable, known as Wabi-Sabi.

Wabi-Sabi is a concept of appreciating the unevenness, asymmetry and short life span of natural materials and forms: stone, hand-made pottery and raw earth surfaces. All these objects have a certain roughness, simplicity and uniqueness, which make them beautiful despite their imperfect shapes and textures.

A new age in architecture and design

Interiors should inspire, help preserve the environment, protect our health and delight our senses. Raw earth finishes fit this specification wonderfully, when used as a stunning contemporary interior finish.

After nearly 10 years of devotion and research into the use of raw earth in architecture and interior design, Matteo Brioni's work is driving a natural revolution in the world of materials and interior surfaces. Matteo Brioni is committed to the survival of this ancient process whilst giving it a contemporary slant. You can find examples of Matteo Brioni's raw earth walls, floors and sheathing, along with the work of its sister company Fornace Brioni, in our Shoreditch design space.


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