One homeowner uses pisé de terre, a 2,000-year-old building method, to make his sustainable home.
For his stunning rammed-earth home in Napa Valley, David Easton uses ancient tools and cutting-edge technology to create a back-to-the-future eco-haven. "My life's work is helping to reintroduce earthen materials to world architecture."
A lofty goal for an altruistic twenty-something lad with his head in the clouds but his feet firmly planted on the ground. The very ground that he has years since incorporated into his 2,800-square-foot home nestled against the majestic eastern hills of California’s Napa Valley. The very ground he has helped incorporate into over 150 rammed-earth homes around the globe.
Here amid the thriving vineyards that produce some of the world’s most exquisite wines, David Easton practices what he preaches: reintroducing ancient earthen building materials and techniques to his own backyard. Here, Easton—engineer, contractor, and author of The Rammed Earth House, the definitive blueprint on rammed-earth construction—has perfected the art of building with the soil that sustains us.
Easton has refined the art of building with pisé de terre, a method of “stuffed earth” construction introduced to the Rhone River Valley 2,000 years ago by Phoenician traders in the Mediterranean, as Lugdunum—the capital of Roman Gaul—Lyons, France was, and is, the regional center. Pisé de terre is the process of ramming moist earth into moveable forms to create monolithic walls, and the construction method has dominated the region for centuries.
Easton has brought pisé de terre into the twenty-first century by creating his own earth-construction method called PISE, an acronym for Pneumatically Impacted Stablized Earth. This technique, which consists of using highly pressurized air to shoot a soil and cement mixture against a one-sided form, makes rammed earth construction less time consuming and more cost effective than conventional building methods.
Conventional, Easton’s house is not. It echoes the Old World charm of a vintage vintner’s Provence estate, complete with magnificent landscaping.
“The house and surrounding buildings take advantage of the two-acre site and the small creek running through it. There’s an intimate relationship between the building and the ambiance of the site, with its surrounding native oak woodland vegetation,” says Easton.
The result is masterful. The buildings are centered on an interior courtyard with pool, anchored by the main residence and flanked by a two-story guest cottage and several outbuildings—all surrounded by a low, rammed-earth wall that encloses magnificent gardens and orchards. “Our gardens”—lovingly tended by Easton’s wife and business partner Cynthia Wright, an avid horticulturist—“provide fragrance and color for the birds and butterflies that share the courtyard with us.”
The couple wanted their home to be both natural and environmentally responsible. The thermal mass of the 18-inch-thick PISE walls is ideal for soaking up natural sunlight, storing heat during the day and releasing it at night. Also warming the house are a pair of massive, wood-burning fireplaces and radiant-heat flooring.
On hot days, whole-house ventilation and cooling is accomplished via exterior shutters, ceiling fans, and exterior shading from arbors of kiwi and grape. The pool’s alignment with the main house allows prevailing breezes from San Francisco Bay to skim its surface and deliver cool, moist air. The strip of irrigated lawn adjacent to the arbor provides evaporative cooling effects to help chill the thermal wall mass.
Other eco-measures include lighting choices. Energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs are used in the kitchen and baths, while MR16 bulbs are used for task lighting elsewhere in the house.
A high-efficiency, natural-gas-fired water heater helps keep water usage to a minimum, as does the use of recycled household water to irrigate the orchard near the guest house.
Even the floor plan of the Easton/Wright house was designed with sustainability in mind. “I wanted our home to look as though it has been standing here for generations, much like the homes in Provence and southern Italy where, as families grew in both size and prosperity, rooms were added to the main structure.” So Easton designed the main residence to appear as though its core had spawned a later master suite and kitchen.
The materials for the house originated in the couple’s own “backyard.” Literally. “All the earth we used consists of a byproduct from a nearby quarry,” says Easton, “an ideal blend of clay, sand, and small gravel. I feel lucky that it was appropriate for building because soil selection is critical to the success of any earth building project.”
Who should know better than Easton, who, after collaboration with rammed-earth specialists in France and Australia during the 1980s, drafted the first soil-content standards for engineered-earth construction.
“People usually think of rammed earth as just mud—a messy, primitive element that requires little skill to build with,” says Easton. “But proper soil preparation takes knowledge and experience. Not just any old mud will do.” He suggests that rammed-earth builders have their soil tested for suitability prior to construction. 18-inch-thick PISE walls are ideal for soaking up natural sunlight, storing heat during the day and releasing it at night.
Easton and Wright worked together to build their dream home from the ground up, creating everything from the siting to the specifics. The specifics include lots of family space. Gourmet cook Cynthia wanted a large area in which to practice her culinary skills, so the couple created a 250-square-foot kitchen that opens onto a patio of equal size. Its walls showcase the rough, stucco-like texture of PISE, its rustic surface integrated with terra-cotta-tone plaster. Underfoot are one-and-one-half foot-thick poured soil-cement pavers—or “terra tiles”—grouted to resemble their commercial cousins.
Anchoring the kitchen is a central cooking island made from recycled tiles purchased from a local “seconds” outlet, wood recycled from a defunct bowling alley, and fir recycled from a Bay Area salvage yard—the resource that supplied the rough-hewn, recycled, wood beams overhead.
Beyond the kitchen archway is a combination dining room/library where the family enjoys sharing matters of substance, literally and spiritually. “We intentionally made our dining area a place for talking things over,” says Wright, a former Montessori teacher who loves helping the couple’s six children enjoy learning for learning’s sake.
Across from the built-in bookshelves is a fireplace, one of two cast-earth fixtures on the first floor. The other fireplace anchors the living area, where PISE walls have been grout-washed to create the luxurious look of marble—a backdrop for the family’s oak, Mission-style, Gustav Stickley sofa.
The master suite is opposite the living area, which is divided from the dining room by a niched stairwell that leads to the second-floor bedrooms and bath. The suite’s floors consist of the same terra tiles as the kitchen and other first-floor rooms, while the tile countertops are seconds.
The house that David and Cynthia built took almost thirteen months to complete, a true labor of love. They worked sixty hours a week, with Easton supervising the project. The couple also did all the design work and some of the finish work, including laying floor tiles, crafting cabinets, and painting.
“Cynthia is an important part of why I’m able to successfully develop earth-building technology,” says an admiring Easton. “She not only contributes design ideas, but we worked side by side on the last phases of refining PISE to learn how it can fit today’s residential construction standards.”
Easton and Wright’s six children also contributed to the building process. “All the children have been involved in the R&D experience at one time or another,” he says, laughing. “In fact, it’s almost a joke that ‘Dad wants us to work on another crazy new idea’.”
One of Easton’s “crazy” ideas includes successful experiments with cast earth. This technique requires additional water and cement so the mixture flows into a form model. The results include not only the massive, cast-earth fireplaces but also the columns beneath the guest-house kiwi arbor, the front entry pediment, all floor tiles and blocks around windows and doors, and the coping or edging tile around the pool.
The development of regionally appropriate earth technologies drives Easton. And it all began with some adobe-block and soil-cement construction during college when he remodeled several cabins in the hills near Stanford, following only the directions in an issue of the Whole Earth Catalog.
One home at a time, Easton has perfected his earth-building techniques. “I’ve always used the sale of a personal residence—usually a rammed-earth experiment—as a stepping stone to new earth technologies. Each time I refine a technique, I sell the house and move on to the next level of research.”
Easton’s expertise has brought him fame and fortune, particularly in his own Napa Valley region where vintners appreciate the Old World earth construction reminiscent of the French wine region.
“Many people here like thick-wall masonry because it reminds them of the vernacular architecture in Southern Europe,” says Easton. His clients refer to living in their earth-built homes as comforting, calming, and reassuring. “They feel earthen walls have a solid, secure quality because they absorb sound—unlike wood-frame structures that actually heighten sound vibrations. One client even described walking into her rammed-earth home as being like walking into a lover’s outstretched arms.”
Those arms encircle the globe, where Easton has initiated numerous rammed-earth projects and programs. In 1993, he supervised construction of a preschool in Leon, Nicaragua, while teaching forty community volunteers how to build rammed-earth structures. Two years later he helped locals in Brazil build a rammed-earth orphanage outside São Paulo. And in 1997 he consulted with Habitat for Humanity volunteers to construct a rammed-earth building on a Native American reservation in South Dakota.
“Our belief, our goal, is to create environmentally responsible housing for the developing world,” says Easton of his work with Wright. “That’s why we’re developing construction techniques that utilize natural resources in a geographically appropriate way, taking the climate, tradition, and local building standards into consideration.”
The couple’s next project is designing a rammed-earth sewing factory in Kenya with Wildlife Works. The organization helps locals support themselves by sewing eco-clothing for worldwide sale rather than poaching wildlife. The sewing factory also will teach villagers a building method that can help them improve their own, and others’, communities.
Improving the lives of others is what Easton and Wright are all about. “We don’t think of ourselves as builders. We think of ourselves as teachers. We have the opportunity to make earthen buildings affordable and code compliant the world over. In essence, we’ve refined an ancient technology to create structures that are modern in every way.” NH
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