Understanding Earth II: Testing earth

By Peter McIntosh

(Please note that in order to understand what is written here you will need to have read my previous post on understanding earth)

 

Earth requires two properties to make it strong enough for building, compressive and tensile strength. In much the same way that steel works in concrete they can’t be looked at in isolation as they work together. For example, even though concrete when supported can take an enormous amount of pressure / compression without disintegrating, if you were to cast a concrete lintel without steel and suspend it between two points and apply pressure / tension, it would snap. Steel has enormous strength in tension while concrete has enormous strength in compression.

Compressive strength is measured in Megapascal (MPa). One atmospheric pressure is 101 325 Pascal; a Megapascal is more-or-less one million Pascal, or 10 times atmospheric pressure. In other words, one MPa is 10 times stronger than it needs to be to resist the force of gravity on earth, stand on its own and not be crushed.

A good mud-brick has a MPa strength of around 1.6 to 1.9 MPa, while a clay-fired brick has an MPa strength of around 14. Concrete ranges between 15 and 25 MPa. Obviously these figures vary widely, but these are good averages. A mud-brick at 1.4 MPa is 14 times stronger than gravity, a clay-fired brick at 14 MPa is 140 times stronger than gravity or 140 atmospheric pressures.

Tensile strength is found in all material, just in varying degrees. Concrete as we have seen has high compressive strength but relatively low tensile strength. The addition of steel (reinforced concrete) increases its tensile strength. Mud bricks can handle 14 atmospheres, but like concrete they have poor tensile strength. However, as clay is somewhat plastic in its behaviour it’s not as poor as one may think. This is why the addition of straw to a mud brick is essential as it not only increases the insulation value of the mud brick but also acts like steel in concrete. (I am told that weight-for-weight straw is stronger than steel or at least in the same realm.)

In short, the tensile strength of a material is its ability to resist snapping and cracking. Increasing the hardness of an earthen material, for example by adding lime, may not increase its tensile strength or resistance to cracking, as it may end up becoming less plastic and more brittle. Thus, clay buildings are often more resistant to cracking because they can absorb the movement that harder more brittle materials may not.

When building with earth, strong enough is what you are aiming for. At 1.3 MPa, a double-storey building is already seven times stronger than it needs to be. However, given window and door openings and the fact that the gravitational forces need to be transferred around them, 1.3 MPa just covers it with a safety margin. It is important to grasp that it does not matter at all if you used clay bricks at 14 MPa, once something is strong enough, the extra strength means nothing at all.

Testing of the material

Tensile testing

–          Make a brick using the cob method (that is using sand, clay and straw ) and a 2 litre ice-cream tub as mould. Number each mix and mark your bricks and balls.

–          Allow the bricks to cure for 3 weeks minimum in the sun. A brick is considered cured after 3 months, but I have found that 3 weeks gives you a really good idea, after all it will only get stronger.

–          Drop the brick from waist height, onto a very hard and flat surface and observe how it breaks up. If it shatters it is no good; breaking into a few large pieces is acceptable. Often enough it does not break at all, which is fantastic.

A failed tensile strength test after being dropped on a hard surface; the brick should not disintegrate. Four big pieces is just a pass, but one is happiest when the brick bounces and does not break at all. This often happens.

A failed tensile strength test after being dropped on a hard surface; the brick should not disintegrate. Four big pieces is just a pass, but one is happiest when the brick bounces and does not break at all. This often happens.

Observe the cracking. Surface cracks, no deeper than a centimetre are fine. Cracks that run deeper compromise the material. They may be due to a very aggressive clay or because there is too much clay in the material. There can be other causes of the cracking such as the addition of too much water or uneven drying of the material.

Compressive testing

–          Make tennis ball size balls using the cob method and allow to cure, as above. A ball has a point and you are testing the point load. Remember to mark the balls.

–          Place the ball on a hard and flat surface. Stand on the ball with your heal and slowly increase your weight on the ball until all your weight is suspended on it.

My weight is around 80 kg and I know that if the ball crushes just before all my weight is suspended the MPa strength is 1.3. If it takes all my weight then the MPa strength is at least 1.4. As you gain more experience and your frame of reference increases you can quite accurately gauge greater MPa strengths by gently bouncing with your heal on the ball. At around 1.8 MPa the balls are very resistant to crushing with the heal, even with repeated bouncing; but then it does not matter because the material is already more than strong enough.

Both the compressive and tensile strength tests need to be passed for the material to be good enough to build with. Of course, if the material fails these tests it does not mean it can’t be used, especially if cracking is the result of failure. You can try excluding water and instead try ramming the material as a way of lining up the particles and see if that will works; or try making compressed earth bricks or even a sand-bag house?

Bottle, tongue and touch are all good indicators of how an earth is composed, but nothing beats compressive and tensile testing.

Bottle: place 4 cm of the earth in a 400ml bottle, add water and a teaspoon of salt to help it settle and shake it all up. It will give you an indication of the particle ranges you are dealing with and their ratios. However beware you will not be able to tell the difference between sand and silt.

To check if clay is present, make the material very wet and rub between your hands, then dip your hands in water, if the material sticks then there is clay present if it falls away then there is mostly or only silt.

Resistance to water erosion is dealt with separately in the plaster stage which will be dealt with later.

Below is a list of tests I made for Magic Mountains retreat as an example of a comprehensive earth test.

First walk the area you have to source your materials and then collect samples from various sites. Here I located 2 distinct earth types. White building sand was located close to the farm. Make observations of the material so you can begin to make rational choices for you mixes.

Earths ready for blending at Magic Mountains Retreat. Note the 2 litre ice-cream container for making a brick.

Earths ready for blending at Magic Mountains Retreat. Note the 2 litre ice-cream container for making a brick.

Red earth located in the South East corner of the property. This earth appears to have a high clay content. It is also attractive in colour. Made up of fine sand clay and unspecified amount of silt

Brown earth located to the North. This earth appears to have a higher sand content although very fine. Certainly has a lower clay content than the red earth.

White sand located to the South on a neighbours farm. This sand has a particle range that excludes finer particles and is angular and not rounded.

The following test samples were made to deduce the tensile and compressive strength of the material, clay content of the red earth, and cracking of the material will also be noted:

A100: 3 x 2l 100% earth bricks red earth and test balls

A100: 3 x 2l 100% earth bricks red earth with straw and test balls

3 x 300mm x 300mm x 170mm red earth bricks with straw

 

B100: 3 x 2l 100% earth bricks brown earth and test balls

B100: 3 x 2l 100% earth bricks brown earth with straw and test balls

3 x 300mm x 300mm x 170mm brown earth bricks with straw

 

50/50: 3 x 2l earth bricks 50%/50% red and brown earth and test balls

50/50: 3 x 2l earth bricks 50%/50% red and brown earth with straw and test balls

2 x 300mm x 300mm x 170mm 50%/50% red and brown earth bricks with straw

 

W80: 2 x 2l earth bricks 20% red earth 80% white sand and test balls

W66: 2x 2l earth bricks 33% red earth 66% white sand and test balls

W50: 2 x 2l earth bricks 50% red earth 50% white sand and test balls

 

C4:     2 x 2l earth bricks 50% red earth 50% sand and test balls

C66: 2 x 2l earth bricks 33% red earth 66% sand and test balls

 

2x compressed earth bricks from red earth

The completed bricks and balls should be left to cure in the sun for at least 3 weeks, and turned a few times to ensure even drying whilst keeping an eye on the weather.

The completed bricks and balls should be left to cure in the sun for at least 3 weeks, and turned a few times to ensure even drying whilst keeping an eye on the weather.

The bricks ready to be tested on a hard surface

The bricks ready to be tested on a hard surface

Results of the brick testing above

It was established that the red earth has a high clay content. Certainly above 60% as the bricks with 20% red earth and 80% white plaster sand were only just below minimum building strength. As soon as the ratio of red earth reached 33% it was obvious that the bricks passed both a compressive and a tensile strength test. It is estimated that the MPa strength at 33% is 1.4. Above 33% red earth and the bricks harden a lot.

The brown earth from below the dam could be used as a filler with the red earth, but this was decided against as it is in valuable agricultural land. It is not suitable on its own.

The addition of straw added to the tensile strength of the material in all cases.

The red earth bricks displayed deep cracks indicating a high clay content, once 50% sand was added the cracking was acceptable. The addition of sand will ensure that this does not happen and is a good enough reason to not use the red earth on its own.

The tests done with the white sand and red earth were strong enough from 33% red earth. A second test was also done with 50% red earth and 50% white sand which delivered a brick over 1.6 MPA.

 

Compressed earth bricks using red earth only, are strong enough and has no cracking. It is interesting to note that the red earth was suitable as a building material on its own if it were not for excessive cracking due to the swelling of the clay with water and that if one uses compression as a method of lining up the particles and so exclude water the earth can be used as it is.

It was decided that, because the white sand was easy to access with little environmental damage and because it would eliminate cracking, that the addition of 60% sand was the most favourable option; 40% red earth just to remain clear of the 33% mark that we know is good, in case the earth varies slightly. So 60% white sand and 40% red earth.

A series of tests made in Groot Marico. All these tests passed and although the red earth was most attractive it was decided to go with the brown earth as the red earth was further away and good for agriculture. The red earth was however used in the final plaster coat where the quantities are very small and not in the walls themselves. When a number of tests pass you are given the freedom to make choices around sustainability, and ease gathering the material when one compares them to each other.

A series of tests made in Groot Marico. All these tests passed and although the red earth was most attractive it was decided to go with the brown earth as the red earth was further away and good for agriculture. The red earth was however used in the final plaster coat where the quantities are very small and not in the walls themselves. When a number of tests pass you are given the freedom to make choices around sustainability, and ease gathering the material when one compares them to each other.

In conclusion, often when doing tests with different earths you will find that a number of your samples will pass both compressive and tensile test. This allows you the freedom to make choices affecting sustainability or aesthetics; such as how far the material has to travel, how easy is it to gather the material and what environmental damage is being done. Remember that you are not looking for the strongest sample but rather the one that makes the most sense after it has passed the tests. Strong enough is strong enough.

In my next blog post I will look at plastering of a building where the walls are able to resist the erosion of rain and the beauty of the material shines through.

3 thoughts on “Understanding Earth II: Testing earth

  1. Pingback: Understanding Earth: The beginnings of a Natural Builder | Natural Building Collective

  2. Pingback: All good things must come to an end |

  3. Pingback: Understanding earth III: Plaster and mortars mixes |

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