Earthen Architecture A Sustainable and Resilient Building Material – RTF


In a world combating climate change and the need for sustainable development, the construction industry has a crucial role to play. For decades, conventional building materials such as concrete and steel have dominated the construction landscape, shaping iconic skylines and expansive urban developments. While undeniably indispensable, these materials have left a significant impact on our environment. The steel industry alone accounts for approximately 7-9% of global carbon emissions, while cement production, the key ingredient in concrete, contributes to nearly 8% of all CO2 emissions worldwide. (World Steel Association 2019; Rodgers, 2018) This environmental toll has highlighted the pressing need to rethink our reliance on these materials and explore innovative, eco-friendly alternatives.

What if there was a building material that was readily available, sustainable, and economical? 

Well, there is—you’re quite literally standing on it right now. Earthen architecture, which utilizes earth as a primary building material, has emerged as a promising solution. This ancient building technique, harnessing the Earth’s abundant resources, is making a comeback in contemporary construction due to its numerous environmental, economic, and cultural advantages.

The Timeless Appeal of Earthen Architecture 

Thousands of years ago, our ancestors discovered the extraordinary potential of the ground beneath their feet as a potential construction material. The prevalence of earthen architecture across numerous historical sites worldwide serves as a testament to the durability of this technique. Contrary to the common perception of earth as a fragile material, these buildings represent the oldest surviving structures on the planet. 

One of the most iconic examples of earth architecture are the pyramids of ancient Egypt. These colossal structures, including the Great Pyramid of Giza, were constructed using limestone and granite. Yet, it’s fascinating to note that the inner core of these marvels often consisted of “mud bricks.” This seemingly humble yet sturdy material contributed to structural stability and thermal insulation against the extreme desert climate. This resilient design continues to baffle engineers and historians alike. (Dethier, 2020)

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Pyramids of Giza_©Ricardo Liberato

Venture eastward, and you’ll encounter yet another marvel, the Great Wall of China. Spanning thousands of miles across China, this ancient fortification showcases another remarkable feat of earthen architecture: the “rammed earth” technique. Portions of this ancient fortification were built using layers of earth, stone, and various materials, compacted together, forming walls that have withstood the test of time. (Dethier, 2020)

These ancient examples, among many others, illustrate the adaptability of earth architecture across diverse climates and cultures. With its rich history and adaptability, earthen architecture offers solutions to modern challenges while connecting us to our architectural heritage. Architects are increasingly exploring this construction method as a viable and sustainable building material. 

Contemporary Applications of Earthen Architecture

The use of earth as a building material is a testament to human ingenuity and an embodiment of sustainability. Earthen architecture offers a compelling solution to the environmental and resilience challenges faced by modern construction. Its sustainability is rooted in its ubiquitous nature, reduced carbon footprint associated with material production and transportation, and minimal waste generation. (Mileto & Vegas, 2018)

Earth is often perceived as a material only used in rural environments, found solely in developing countries, as a symbol of poverty. (Kulshreshtha et al., 2020) However, against this stereotypical notion, one can discover earthen structures in almost every building typology worldwide, ranging from ancient archaeological sites to modern facilities. The 16th-century walled city of Shibam, Yemen, with a population density rivaling New York City, houses its residents in a dense cluster of five hundred tower houses, rising nine stories high. What’s truly astonishing is that these skyscrapers are entirely constructed from mud brick, showcasing the adaptability of earthen architecture. (Dethier, 2020; Rael, 2009)

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Walled City of Shibam_©Helovi

One of the remarkable qualities of earthen architecture is its earthquake resistance. “Wattle and Daub,” as the name suggests, comprises two components: a woven structure of plant elements held together in a frame and mud (daub). The system results in a lightweight, flexible construction that is inherently earthquake resistant. Hence, one can find a wealth of these earth-based structures in regions prone to seismic activity such as South America and Indonesia. (Rael, 2009)

In the 20th century, prominent architect Hassan Fathy advocated the use of traditional earth construction techniques in modern contexts. His projects, such as the New Gourna Village in Luxor, Egypt, showcased the potential of earth materials to provide affordable and sustainable housing solutions. Fathy’s work is a living testimony to the timelessness of earthen architecture, demonstrating that our connection to the earth is not just a historical curiosity but a path to a more sustainable future. (Dethier, 2020; Rael, 2009)

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New Gourna Village_©Heritage Conservation Consulting

The evolution of 3D printing technology has opened doors to exciting possibilities in experimental architecture. A groundbreaking project in Massa Lombarda, a small town in northern Italy called TECLA, illustrates how 3D printing is now realizing its potential in the construction industry. Two hundred hours and seven thousand instructions later, specialized printing arms meticulously crafted 350 layers of riverbed earth, forming a series of curved walls. The result? An elegant dome—an extraordinary milestone, the first 3D-printed house made entirely from raw earth. This eco-conscious construction consumed less than 6 kW of energy, pointing towards a promising future for sustainable and efficient building methods. (Katwala, 2021)

TECLA_Iago Corazza

Despite its many benefits, earthen architecture faces challenges such as erosion, moisture damage, and limited design flexibility that must be addressed. However, ongoing research and innovation are gradually overcoming these challenges, making earthen construction more resilient.


Earthen architecture tells a story where mud, straw, and clay transform into resilient, living structures that not only stand upon the Earth but also embrace it. From ancient civilizations to modern metropolises, this technique has played a significant role in shaping human settlements. Various examples worldwide showcase that earthen architecture’s beauty lies not only in its aesthetic allure but also in its profound environmental significance. By utilizing the very soil and clay at hand, we bypass the critical implications on the environment due to traditional materials. In essence, we heal the scars of our planet’s industrial pursuits and leave a sustainable footprint on the Earth. Earthen architecture is not just a return to the past; it is a step into a more sustainable and resilient future for construction.


World Steel Association (2019) Steel’s contribution to a low carbon future and climate resilient. Available at: (Accessed: 07 October 2023). 

Dethier, J. (2020) The art of earth architecture: Past, present, future. New York: Princeton Architectural press. 

Katwala, A. (2021) This 3D-printed house is made entirely from Mud, WIRED UK. Available at: (Accessed: 07 October 2023). 

Kulshreshtha, Y. et al. (2020) ‘The potential and current status of earthen material for low-cost housing in rural India’, Construction and Building Materials, 247, p. 118615. doi:10.1016/j.conbuildmat.2020.118615. 

Mileto, C. and Vegas, F. (2018) Earthen architecture: sustainability and heritage.

Minke, G. (2007) Building with earth: Design and technology of a sustainable architecture. Swtizerland: Birkhauser Basel. 

Moriset, S., Rakotomamonjy, B. and Gandreau, D. (2021) ‘Can earthen architectural heritage save us?’, Built Heritage, 5(1). doi:10.1186/s43238-021-00041-x. 

Rael (2009) Earth architecture. New York: Princeton Architectural Press. 

Rodgers, L. (2018) Climate change: The massive CO2 emitter you may not know about, BBC News. Available at: (Accessed: 07 October 2023). 


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