Perhaps because I spend much of the holiday season immersed in a sea of Italians, I find this topic to be especially heart warming. I recently acted as a mentor in a “speed mentoring” event at Archeworks in Chicago, and had some excellent conversation with a fellow mentor who had much to say about heritage conservation and sustainability in Italy. Needless to say, I was hopeful that she would be interested in guest blogging about these issues from time to time, and she has been kind enough to deliver. While Kersten speaks about earth built structures abroad, these same principals can be applied to adobe and other structures throughout the U.S., and her touching upon the idea of certain building types being associated with poverty certainly rings true with much of America’s mid-rise housing and current preservation issues with Mid-Century buildings. But also, I just wanted to share her experience because it’s completely cool.
Some info on today’s guest blogger: Kersten Harries is a licensed architect with a Masters in Sustainable Architecture from the University of Bologna, Italy. Kersten currently lives in Chicago, where she enjoys connecting with like-minded, passionate professionals through volunteering and networking at organizations such as the Chicago Women in Architecture, Chicago Architecture Foundation, and ADPSR.
Amen to that.
Italy’s ‘Terra Cruda’ Tradition
by Kersten Harries
The beautiful thing about utilizing earth as a building material is that it is economical, easy to use, bountiful, completely recyclable and non-toxic… in a word, sustainable. In addition, earth has a regulating effect on temperature and atmospheric humidity, two factors determining a comfortable feeling inside a room. While earth has been used as a building material for millennium and over 30% of the world’s population lives in buildings constructed with earth, it’s rarely considered a serious material choice today, at least in developed nations. While some ecologically sensitive individuals have embraced its use with a passion, the general public I’m sure remains skeptical of its validity.
Unbeknownst to even most Italians, there exists a tradition of building with raw earth in the Italian provinces of Abruzzo, Marche, Piemonte, and Sardegna. There are century old examples still standing today but which are in need of appreciation and preservation. I was first introduced to this Italian heritage in 2008 when I got my own hands-on experience repairing earth plasters at Panta Rei, an environmental education center in Umbria. The structures at Panta Rei showcase various earth construction techniques including raw earth blocks, compressed earth and straw walls, and earth plasters. They provide ongoing opportunities for experimenting with earth building through new projects and repair work that are always in progress. Living on site for three months I also gained an appreciation for the appeal of these buildings from the occupant’s viewpoint. For example the raw earth blocks absorbed the heat by day and slowly released it at night keeping us comfortable, often without the need for additional cooling or heating.
That year I also attended the ‘Festa della Terra’, an annual conference of Italian earth building enthusiasts run by Cedterra (center of documentation of earth houses), in the small town of Casalincontrada, Abruzzo. While visiting this town I visited various homes that had been constructed by stacking irregular loaf sized clumps made by hand with well mixed earth and straw. Then layers of earth plaster (sometimes mixed with lime) are applied to the surfaces of the walls. Most of these homes had been built a century ago. This local tradition was largely replaced by reinforced concrete and terra cotta block construction, especially since WWII. While homes constructed with earth had come to be associated with poverty; cement and concrete had become symbols of progress and prosperity for many. Though I think this is were the danger lies, as it puts old traditions at risk of being lost, which is especially sad when they still have advantages to offer. I was consoled to see some examples of old earth homes that had been restored or were being fixed and preserved. Though others remained abandoned; ready to be saved.
The Associazione Nazionale Città della Terra (National Association of Earth Cities) is an Italian organization formed by various townships within Italy that have a heritage of earth building. This group provides important advocacy, documentation, and information about existing Italian earth structures. They work to raise awareness about, appreciation of, and preserve these existing earth buildings. They also support activities and research that help preserve traditional sustainable building techniques so that they may continue to be utilized in current and future construction.