Understanding earth III: Plaster and mortars mixes

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

Plasters and mortars are by far the process that I get asked about the most, and for good reason as plasters are what protect the building from the elements and give them their beautiful finish. Understanding how the material is going to behave right the way through the process, plasters and mortars should be planned for from the beginning. Plasters that are not planned are plasters that fail and if they do the building not only looks unsightly but loses a valuable layer of protection.

As discussed in the earlier articles on understanding earth and earth testing, it is important to establish the most appropriate earth mix at the beginning of the building process. This mix quite literally informs the whole building process from the ground up to the last 3mm of plastering. The initial testing phase establishes a basic cob mix that has both sufficient compressive and tensile strength and has acceptably low cracking. It is important to have an idea of how you will approach each phase and ensure that the different materials ‘talk to one another’ to prevent excessive cracking and delamination, which are the most common failures associated with natural building. Essentially the same original mix is manipulated to be appropriate for different areas, depending on the purpose. Areas that will require the original mix to be manipulated are, amongst others, the foundations and plasters.

It is important to remember that there are as many mixes as there are building sites and what follows is just a taste of what is possible. Over the years one comes to settle on a strategy that works and begins to perfect it to prevent failure. What follows works, but is by no means the only way and is one amongst many.

Let us imagine that the mix you worked out after the testing phase was two parts clay and three parts sand, i.e. 40% clay earth and 60% rough sand, and straw. Just an aside, this formula would indicate that there is a percentage of silt present in the clay earth (often the case), otherwise the clay percentage would usually be lower.

Let’s start with a mortar mix for the foundations. Firstly you will leave straw out of the mortar mix for the foundation, as it would degrade with any moisture. Obviously the foundation should be able to resist water, so using un-stabilized mud-bricks or cob is not possible; ideally you have rock available.

Lime is often seen as the answer to stabilise mortar mixes, as it hardens over time especially when exposed to moisture. However, lime is not friendly to the environment due to the high embodied energy i.e. the energy used to create the product. Over time lime does re-absorb the gasses given off by it during its production, the energy required in this phase is considerable and may well come from a polluting source such as coal. Furthermore, lime is quarried or produced by crushing coral. Lime also makes the material more brittle and prone to cracking, even though the material gets a lot harder, compressive strength is not everything. Often, lime is considered to be better than cement, not because it is less damaging to the environment, but rather because it is naturally occurring and an ingredient of cement. So the strategy should be to minimize its use.

Earth mixes are more plastic and able to resist a certain amount of movement so care needs to be taken just where you apply the lime. However the use of lime is beneficial in foundations where the pros of lime, its hardness and resistance to moisture, are required. With the earths in our example, a mortar mix that will work with the rock foundation is 30% clay, 50% sand and 20% lime. This keeps the material as close as possible to the original mix while getting the benefits of the lime right where you need it. If you pay attention to how the rock work is done you will minimize the use of the mortar and thus minimize the use of lime.

As your house is exposed to variances in temperature and humidity, you want to prevent the materials in the walls from moving at different rates as it causes delamination and cracking, which is in my opinion, the number one reason for a natural building failing. To help prevent this you need a good mortar mix. This is an area that your mix does not need to be manipulated. Between your mud bricks it is ideal if you stick to the original mix that came directly out of the testing phase, including straw.

While some imperfections are fine in the foundations and mortar mixes, any imperfection in your plaster mix will have dire consequences for you final finish. This is mainly because there is generally no amount of acceptable cracking in the final plaster as this leaves the building vulnerable to water erosion. In a nutshell, plaster provides the final finish look and provides protection from the elements.

I have adopted a three phase approach to plastering that is well accepted and works. The first is the scratch coat, the second the form coat and lastly the final plaster coat. The scratch coat is your original cob mix applied to the mud bricks to give purchase to the subsequent layers. It includes straw and is left rough often with lots of fingertip marks.

Scratch coat on this straw bale building near Groot Marico includes more straw and is left rough and textured.

Scratch coat on this straw bale building near Groot Marico includes more straw and is left rough and textured.

The form coat is just what it says and creates the final shape of the building. At this stage it is best to leave out the straw as you don’t want anything protruding through your final plaster coat. The form coat is hand smoothed in such a way that the final plaster coat can go on evenly with a plastering trowel or steel float. Fine cracking is still acceptable in this phase.

On this mud brick building in Scarborough near Cape Point, you can see the scratch coat on the left, while on the right the form coat cob mix, excluding straw, is being hand smoothed.

On this mud brick building in Scarborough near Cape Point, you can see the scratch coat on the left, while on the right the form coat cob mix, excluding straw, is being hand smoothed.

Prior to the final plaster you will need to do a number of tests on top of your form coat. This is done to ensure that there are no fine cracks that will lead to erosion by water. Often cracks create wonderful patterns and you may want to leave the mix to show off its beauty but only on the inside plaster. On the outside no cracking is acceptable after the material has been polished. Usually I do about four tests to select the best mix. Based on our theoretical mix for this article the four tests may look something like this.

  1. First your original mix, 40% clay, 60% sand with 5 % lime =105%
  2. Second reduce the clay a little to reduce potential cracking 35 % clay earth, 65 % sand plus 5% lime.
  3. Reduce the clay some more just in case there is still cracking to 30 % clay earth, 70 % sand plus 5 % lime.
  4. Lastly increase the clay content over the original mix, 45% clay earth, 55% sand plus 5% lime.

    The walls were still going up when we started the Final plaster test patches for this compressed earth brick (CEB) building in Scarborough, Cape Point, SA.

    The walls were still going up when we started the Final plaster test patches for this compressed earth brick (CEB) building in Scarborough, Cape Point, SA.

As these samples are applied so thin they will dry fast so decisions can be made fairly quickly, perhaps after three days or so. You will need to choose the mix that does not crack. If it so happens that none of them do, pick the one closest to your original mix to ensure that the dreaded delamination is ruled out. If you are confident that this will not happen then choosing the mix with the highest clay content will lead to a very fine finish.

Technique is as important as information when it comes to natural building and nowhere is that more important than with the final plaster mix. The final plaster mix needs to go on evenly between 3 and 5 mm thick. The mix changes slightly to include 5 % lime, but only in these last few millimetres. The reason lime is added to this final 3mm – 5mm of the walls is to improve the resistance of the final plaster to water; the percentage is kept low so that the material does not become brittle and prone to cracking, and allows the natural plasticity of earth mixes to overcome small amounts of movement and not delaminate from the wall. There is also a reaction that takes place between the lime and clay that is complete between 5 and 7 %, which greatly increases its durability.

The final plaster mix will need to be finely sieved so that bigger particles do not protrude through the plaster and the result is smooth and even. I prefer the common kitchen flour sieve. Don’t be put off, by how long you think it would take, because you really need so little for the final plaster mix that it goes quite quickly and you can do it directly into a bucket.

Here the final plaster coat is being applied to the exterior of the straw bale building near Groot Marico. It’s between 3mm and 5mm with 5% lime and polished.

Here the final plaster coat is being applied to the exterior of the straw bale building near Groot Marico. It’s between 3mm and 5mm with 5% lime and polished.

Once the final plaster is applied it is polished to provide a very smooth almost fine leathery appearance, further driving the material into the wall and providing durable weather protection. A plastic tool cut from feta or ice-cream tubs work well for this final polishing stage.

Once the plastering is complete, coat the building with three coats of raw linseed oil. Mix the first two 50/50 with mineral turpentine to ensure that the linseed oil penetrates well into the plaster. Allow each layer to dry before you apply the next. Finally a coat of undiluted raw linseed oil will finish it off.

Looking at the whole process as being one thing instead of being separate little bits helps to avoid common problems. Always pay attention to the testing phase, understanding that the same mixes you use for your bricks and mortars will be reflected in your foundations and plasters.

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4 thoughts on “Understanding earth III: Plaster and mortars mixes

  1. Pingback: Understanding Earth II: Testing earth | Natural Building Collective

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

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