Tidal Resonance Chamber

Image: © Robert Horner

As the first rammed-earth construct in the City of Tacoma, The Tidal Resonance Chamber provides a contemplative and relaxation space for users of the Center for Urban Waters (a LEED Platinum Marine research and analysis facility) . Aimed at serving as an instrument for perceptual synchronize with the natural rhythms of Commencement Bay, the chamber’s thick insulated earthen walls buffer out the heavy industrial sounds of the surrounding Port of Tacoma, and through a series of feed back pump operations the chamber’s water level mirrors that of the Thea Foss Waterway manifesting as a ratio-reduction.

Image: © Robert Horner

Designed by Robert Horner, the Tidal Resonance Chamber’s main interior space has a trapezoidal footprint roughly 12’ x 18’. The fortified rammed-earth walls measure 8’6” in height, and rest atop a concrete foundation that measures 4’ in height. The chamber has a maximum filling capacity of 2500 gallons, which will fill at the highest of high tides. The interior of the chamber is filled with reclaimed granite curb fragments, river stones and will eventually populate with micro-organisms, barnacles and other aquatic lifeforms.

Bousillage Construction

The Gaudet House c. 1830, Lutcher, Louisiana

Bousillage, or bouzillage, a hybrid mud brick/cob/wattle and daub technique is a mixture of clay and Spanish moss or clay and grass that is used as a plaster to fill the spaces between structural framing and particularly found in French Vernacular architecture of Louisiana of the early 1700s. A series of wood bars (barreaux), set between the posts, helped to hold the plaster in place. Bousillage, molded into bricks, was also used as infilling between posts; then called briquette-entre-poteaux. The bousillage formed a solid mud wall that was plastered and then painted. The bousillage also formed a very effective insulation.

French Acadienne house in Lyon, France

The tradition was brought to New Orleans from France by the Acadienne (Cajun). The technique also has Naive American influences. This paper describes how “When the French built in Louisiana, their earliest houses (maison) were of this frame structure, but with the post in the ground (poteaux en terre). Sometimes the post were placed close together palisade fashion (cabane). This was a technique used by local Indians. The Indians infilled the cracks between the posts with a mixture of mud and retted Spanish moss. The French did likewise and called this mixture “bousillage”. The first framed structures were covered with horizontal cypress boards (madriers). The roof (couverture) frame was finished with cypress bark, shakes, boards, or palmetto thatch. All of these earliest structures had dirt floors and were usually only one room deep and two rooms wide separated by a fireplace.”

New Orleans Marine Hospital 1867 was Rammed Earth

The all-iron Marine Hospital, innovative in its day, yet doomed by construction costs. Photo / Theodore Lilienthal

A new book of essays, New Orleans 1867: Photographs by Theodore Lilienthal, on rediscovered photographs of New Orleans in 1867, written by the curator of architecture and design at the MIT Museum, shows how the city tried to rebuild its economy and retrieve its prestige in the aftermath of war. One of the photographs is of a vast, domed building under construction at the edge of the city turned out to be the Marine Hospital, New Orleans’ version of Boston’s Big Dig. The iron building, insulated with rammed earth, was thought to be lighter and therefore better suited to swampy local conditions, as well as fireproof. The proposal was innovative but the technology was costly, a sinkhole of federal money. Never completed, eventually demolished, the hospital was one of the most advanced buildings of its time, but it has been forgotten today.

Down and Dirty

The article Down and Dirty from the New York Times, discusses the growing populatiry of earthen floors. (subscription required)

Early one Saturday morning in January, Kevin Rowell dumped a bucket of dark mud on the floor of his big south-facing bedroom. It landed with a plop, spreading out and merging with a blanket of wet earth that already extended across much of the room. On his knees, Mr. Rowell took a trowel to the pile, nudging it this way and that until the mud was roughly level and about an inch and a half deep.

Is Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello Constructed of Rammed Earth?


Many web sites explicitly state that Monticello is constructed of rammed earth. Here are just a few quotes and the links:

“Some of the oldest structures still standing were made of rammed earth, including the Great Wall of China, as well as such later domiciles as Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson” http://www.forbes.com/2001/11/09/1109how.html

“By the late 1700’s and early 1800’s German immigrants had established rammed earth in New York and Pennsylvania. Some of these old homes are still in use, although it is difficult to document them because the dwellers themselves have no idea of wall constructions. It is hard to say who the enthusiasts were along the mid-eastern seaboard, but a least one was Thomas Jefferson. The essence of “owner-coordinator”, Jefferson built his home, Monticello, of rammed earth and he was vociferous about urging other colonists to do likewise.”

Huguenot settlers in North and South Carolina used this technique, and it is believed that some of the outbuildings at Monticello, Jefferson’s home in Virginia, were made of rammed earth.

According to Eric Johnson, the Library Services Coordinator at the Jefferson Library, Monticello was not constructed of rammed earth, but instead was built of bricks made here on the property.

Probably the single best source to turn to on the construction of Monticello is by Clemson University Professor Jack McLaughlin’s Jefferson and Monticello : The Biography of a Builder (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1988). McLaughlin states that: “To my knowledge, Jefferson did not use rammed earth as a construciton technique, certainly not at Monticello or Poplar Forest. These two buildings have been so thoroughly researched that any unusual materials would have turned up. Jefferson made his own bricks with slave labor so brick was readily available, as was stone rubble used for cellars. He did use rustication on the exterior of parts of Monticello, covering brick with stucco and sand and then scribing it to make it look like cut stone.”

Thomas Jefferson was very well aware of rammed earth. A mention of rammed-earth construction in a footnote to a 15 March 1810 letter sent by Thomas Jefferson to Stephen W. Johnson. Evidently, Mr. Johnson dedicated the first American treatise on rammed-earth construction to Jefferson, “Rural economy: containing a Treatise on Pisé Building” (New Brunswick, 1806). More information about the exchange of letters and Mr. Johnson can be found on page 297 of Volume 2 of the “Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series” (Princeton : Princeton University Press, 2004- ).

There are many more references to rammed earth and/or pisé construction in Jefferson’s letters (and in the footnotes of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson). And they do seem to support the earlier conclusion that he did not use it to build Monticello. In a footnote to a letter from the father of modern rammed earth construction, François Cointeraux on 16 June 1789 regarding rammed-earth construction, the editor of the Papers noted the following (Vol. 15, p. 185):

“TJ, who must have known about rammed-earth construction from his reading of Pliny and who had seen specimens of this type of building in the South of France in 1787, was inclined to question ‘how far it may offer benefit [in America] superior to the methods of the country founded in the actual circumstances of the country as to the combined costs of labour and materials, and the circumstances of durability comfort and appearance’ (TJ to Short, 13 Apr. 1800, acknowledging receipt of ‘the book on the method of building in Pisé,’ which must have been François Cointeraux’ Ecole d’architecture rurale, Paris, 1790-1791, a copy of which was in his library. . . . While he was secretary of state, TJ was asked by Washington to comment on Cointeraux’ proposal to come to America to demonstrate his method and TJ’s response was one of indifference (TJ to Washington, 18 Nov. 1792).”

The footnote continues with a brief discussion of pisé buildings in America, noting: “Others (of both pisé and mud-wall construction) are extant in Virginia, though there is no evidence that TJ had any connection with them or any application of either method. He advised his friend John Hartwell Cocke concerning the design of Bremo, but it was Cocke who built, in the last decade of TJ’s life, no less than four dependencies in pisé at Bremo Recess and at Upper Bremo. . . . Cocke was evidently the first in Virginia to employ pisé and mud-wall construction: ‘I know of no person in our country who has built mud walls but myself,’ he wrote years later. “It was not an original conception of mine, it having been in use for centuries in Europe,” (quoted by Philip St. George Cocke, “On the Value, and Mode of Construction of Mud Walls, for Farm Buildings and Enclosures,” Farmer’s Register, IV [July, 1836], 172-4; N. Herbemont, “On the Use of Pisé in Constructing Houses and Fences,” same, III [Dec. 1835], 490-2; A. W. Bohannon, Old Surry, Petersburg, Va., 1957, p. 30).”

There are two other articles that link Jefferson to Cointeraux: “Thomas Jefferson and François Cointereaux, Professor of Rural Architecture in Revolutionary Paris,” published in Architectural History, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain, volume 48 (2005), pp. 173-206 and another article will be published in 2006 in that same journal entitled “François Cointereaux’s Ecole d’Architecture Rurale (1791-92) and its influence in Europe and the Colonies.”

The written evidence seems to indicate that while Jefferson was familiar with rammed-earth construction, he didn’t employ it and it may have been John Hartwell Cocke might have been the first to do so in this region.

thanks to Eric Johnson, Library Services Coordinator at the Jefferson Library, and Clemson University Professor Jack McLaughlin for their valuable assistance