Earth Day, Every Day: 'Dirt Man' Digs Building Safer, Sustainable Homes

April 09, 2008

JACKSON, Wyo., April 8, 2008 /PRNewswire/ -- Building green may be all the rage, but for Tom Ward you might say the challenge is building brown -- and literally, from the ground up. The architect-inventor holds the patent to EarthWall, a seismically-stable rammed earth construction process for sustainable building. The main component of EarthWall? It's clean, natural and available in abundance: plain old dirt.

Watching the six o'clock news one evening in 1999, Ward recognized an opportunity to save lives. During coverage of the aftermath of an earthquake in Turkey, the Wyoming architect noticed that some of the homes -- those built from the region's indigenous rammed earth technique -- sustained less damage than the structures built with more modern methods. Ward wondered how the ages-old technique might be made more stable -- eventually developing an innovative method of stabilizing the earthen walls with reinforced steel rods in a "rational structural post tensioning system" -- that effectively creates earthquake resistance in rammed earth structures.

A principal in Ward + Blake Architects, the Jackson, Wyoming architect pursued the idea and his brainstorm held up in tests performed by the University of Wyoming's Civil Engineering Department as the first seismically stable rammed earth wall. In 2006, he received a patent on the eco-friendly building system that could help people in Third World countries construct earthquake-resistant homes. His innovative new-yet-old building technology -- with the potential for worldwide application -- won Ward + Blake a Newton Foundation research grant.

"Fifty percent of the world's population lives in earthen houses, many of them in seismically active parts of the world," says Ward. "This strong, low-tech method could allow for the rebuilding of structures in areas ravaged by earthquakes -- or even for replacing existing structures to prevent future damage-without resorting to expensive, culturally foreign building systems."

"The aspect that is most exciting to me," Ward adds, "is the potential for the worldwide application of EarthWall. Perhaps if the process is one day adopted in Third World countries, it will save not only homes from collapsing -- but lives as well."

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