Ancient building technique gaining popularity in Penticton

Al Nichols, a Penticton contractor, uses rammed earth to build everything from stoves to houses.

Al Nichols specializes in building with rammed earth

Al Nichols specializes in building with rammed earth

Steve Kidd

Western News Staff

Al Nichols just finished his latest construction project.

Thats not particularly unusual, though the Penticton contractor’s specialty is. The latest project in question is a wood stove, built on site using rammed earth techhniques for a Penticton customer.

Rammed earth is one of the most ancient construction techniques on earth. It’s still used in many areas of the developing world, but it’s currently enjoying a resurgence as people look for  building methods that are more ecologically friendly and cost-saving.

“Rammed earth has been used for I don’t know how many thousands of years to build houses. There are a few houses around town already made from rammed earth,” said Nichols. One of them, he said is in the Carmi area, and he estimates the owners spend about a dollar a day for heating in the winter, thanks to the insulating properties of rammed earth.

Nichols also teaches how to build with rammed earth, and said he has volunteered to build the rammed earth wall that is a component of the environmentally-friendly house Habitat for Humanity is constructing in Penticton.

“There is always something going on,” said Nichols, who teaches a one-day continuing studies course in the technique through Okanagan College’s Centre of Excellence in Sustainable Building Technologies and Renewable Energy Conservation.

Nichols spent three years in the Australian outback, where he developed a machine to produce rammed earth blocks on the building site.

“Aboriginals would build their houses from that. That was quite popular,” said Nichols. “When I moved into Darwin, I took two pallets of those blocks with me and put it around the yard, just to see how long it would last. When I sold that house three years later, they were still as good as new.”

The oldest houses in the world are still around and they are made from earth, according to Nichols, who points to St. Thomas Anglican Church in Ontario,  built in 1852, three stories high and made from rammed earth.

Rammed earth has many benefits, including being able to build with materials found locally, even right on the building site.

“You can use the material from the foundations or you can go to any gravel pit and use what they use, basically it’s gravel road base with a little sand,” said Nichols. “If you have a little knowledge, you can build a house quite cheaply.”