TERRA Award ~ first international prize for contemporary earthen architecture

Earth is becoming increasingly popular in contemporary architecture: hundreds of projects of high aesthetic and technical quality are emerging across five continents. This material, which has low embodied energy, is readily available and appropriate for participatory buildings. It could help provide a solution to the needs for ecological and economical housing.

To enable both professionals and the general public to fully appreciate this building material, the following partners have taken the initiative, under the auspices of the UNESCO Chair “Earthen architecture, construction cultures and sustainable development”, to launch the first international prize for contemporary earthen architecture: the Labex AE & CC-CRAterre-ENSAG Lab research unit, the amàco project, the Grands Ateliers, the CRAterre association and EcologiK/EK magazine.

Wang Shu, 2012 Pritzker architecture prize laureate, is the president of honour of this TERRA Award, the trophies for which will be presented in Lyon on July 14, 2016 at the Terra 2016 World Congress.


Since its creation in 1979, the CRAterre-ENSAG Lab has been considered as the international research and training reference centre for earthen construction. It will organize in July 2016, under the auspices of the UNESCO Chair “Earthen architecture”, the Terra 2016. This World Congress takes place every four years on a different continent and will be held for the second time in Europe. It is expected to draw around 800 professionals, teachers and researches to Lyon (France).

The TERRA Award was initiated within this framework. It will be the first international prize for contemporary earthen architecture and a natural furtherance of the national award launched in 2013 in France by CRAterre-ENSAG, AsTerre and EcologiK/EK magazine.


The purpose of the TERRA Award is not only to identify and distinguish outstanding projects, but also to highlight the audacity of the project owners for choosing to use earth, the creativity of the designers and the skills of the craftsmen and entrepreneurs.
An itinerant exhibition will feature 40 buildings from all continents, constructed using various techniques (adobe, cob, CEB, rammed earth, plaster, etc.) for all types of programs: housing, public facilities, activities, and exterior and interior designs. The exhibition will be completed with lectures and workshops by CRAterre-ENSAG and the amàco project.
The search for outstanding achievements deserving of this prize and the associated exhibition will make it possible to generate the first worldwide database on contemporary earthen architecture. The resulting virtual library will be available both to the general public and professionals via this website.

Involved projects

The projects must have been completed after January 2000.
There are eight categories covering all types of programs, whether new or renovated:

  • Individual housing
  • Collective housing
  • School, sports and health facilities
  • Cultural facilities and religious buildings
  • Offices, shops and factories
  • Interior layout and design
  • Exterior design, art and landscape
  • Architecture and local development

Text from the Terra Award website.

CPD accredited natural building course: Materials and techniques

We’re excited to announce the first course of the year will be taking place from 26 April – 2 May, at Wild Spirit Backpacker’s lodge in the beautiful Nature’s Valley. Email naturalbuildingcollective@gmail.com to book your spot!

CPD accredited Natural Building 7 day course_April_WS



Mud house design competition

Reinventing the African Mud Hut Together

Nka Foundation invites entries for Mud House Design 2014, an international architecture competition open to recent graduates and students of architecture, design and others from around the world who think earth architecture can be beautiful.

Registration and submission of entries run from March 15, 2014 until August 31, 2014.

The challenge is to design a single-family unit of about 30 x 40 feet on a plot of 60 x 60 feet to be built by maximum use of earth and local labor in the Ashanti Region of Ghana. The client of your design is the middle-income family in any township of your choice in the Ashanti Region. Total costs of constructing the design entry must not exceed $6,000; land value is excluded from this price point. The entry should serve as an example to the local people that mud architecture can be beautiful and durable.

What is the design problem? The cause is this: in Ghana, as in other countries in West Africa, stereotypes about buildings made of earth persist because of poor construction. Earth architecture is fast giving way to modern dwellings made of cement blocks and other modern materials that are not simply expensive but thermally and acoustically problematic. From the cities to the low-income villages, use of concrete – despite its dependence on imported resources – is considered indispensable for building. The rising cost of the modern building materials manufactured from imported resources makes it very difficult for low-income families to become homeowners. Yet an excellent, cheap and local alternative called laterite, red earth, is available everywhere in Ghana.

Contact: info@nkafoundation.org

Read Disclaimer



Getting a feel for Light Earth

by Peter McIntosh

What I find exciting about natural building is that there are as many ways of using available resources as there are cultures around the world. No absolutes in terms of technique, consistency, design and use of materials exist. People approach similar decisions based on their physicality, life experience and imagination. It is always interesting to me to observe how people I teach and work with approach the material and I try not to prescribe my methods of doing things on people before giving them a chance to display their natural ability or cultural diversity. The world will be a poorer place if natural building became as regimented as the conventional building industry can be. Natural building is not a one size fits all scenario. It can’t be as the materials always vary depending on what is at hand, from rock to wood or a multitude of earths. What works here may not work there because the earth changes or the type of timber in your area is different and has different uses. What this affords us, is to become more engaged with the material and not reliant on books and building codes. There is what works and what does not, and a world in-between.

I have discovered for myself a range of techniques that work and have come to understand that technique is as important as knowledge. Little things become as important as the big things. Just how you apply a plaster coat is as important as the recipe for the mix. A material may not work in a particular way, but if you change the technique, add more or less water, put the material under pressure or just simply allow it to breathe you may have success. When I feel ready to abandon an idea that I thought might work, I find myself wondering what I am missing, because you can be sure that others with the same materials have found a way.

Combining the same materials in different ways has different outcomes in terms of structural ability and how they perform thermally. Adding just a little straw to a mud-brick will double its insulating ability and increase its tensile strength. That is not to say you want the material to become more insulating; you may want it to be a heat-sink, to radiate energy or simply just lighten the material up.

A good example of a material that offers both good insulation and a solid feel, while not being so heavy, is a mixture of straw and clay. Or, what I call Light Earth. This technique uses a common practice of placing the material in a simple brick mould and has many other uses too, from insulation in roofs to the walls themselves. It can be shuttered in situ or simply stuffed into spaces, made into boards for the ceiling or bricks.

One method of making Light Earth that I have found particularly easy is to do is to make a circle out of straw bales and lining it with plastic to form a dam.

1_Building a dam

The dam is filled with water about a quarter of the way, after which you can begin adding clay.

There is no exact recipe and a little experimentation is required. The more clay you add the thicker the ‘soup’ will become and the denser the resulting bricks. The dryer the clay is when you add it the better because it then dissolves quicker when added to water. Powering the mixer with loads of feet works best and I have a hard time stopping folks from having a clay bath during courses. Once all the clay has dissolved it’s time to add the straw. A whole straw bale is mixed in using the same method, although this stage of the recipe requires a little more effort.

2_Mixing the clay soup

Once all the straw is thoroughly coated with clay it is removed in heaps and placed on the side of the dam to drain back in any excess liquid. The mixture looks like a bunch of wet straw and not a heap of mud.

3_Extracting the material

This wet straw is then pushed into a mould with care taken to avoid layering. If the block is to be used as a structural element, for example a wall, the soup needs to be more dense so that all the gaps between the straw are filled with clay, otherwise its fine to have some gaps. Scoop any excess clay off of the top and return it to the dam.

The block moulds may be any size and can be as thin as 50 mm and one meter square if they are to be used for making a ceiling, just as you would use with conventional materials. The blocks below are 300 mm by 300 mm and 170 mm deep. A huge advantage is that Light Earth blocks are less than half the weight of a traditional mud brick and with the added advantage of all that insulation. Of course, the weight and thermal conductivity will depend on the amount of clay you added in the first place. As a rule of thumb the material approaches the insulating ability of a straw bale wall when it is 200mm thick.

4_Material in brick mould

Keep adding straw till the clay soup is used up.

These blocks are practically indestructible and survive repeated dropping with no effect. They do however take longer to dry in the sun than a mud brick and a good run of clear sky is essential. They take around 3 days to dry sufficiently before they can be turned on their side to speed up drying, depending on the weather. After about a week they can be stacked with gaps in-between the bricks to finish the process off and covered while stored to protect against the rain.

To conclude, Light Earth is a very versatile material with so many applications just dying to be tried and it’s a load of fun to make. I wonder what would happen if you threw a few kids into the mix as well?

Photos 1, 2 and 4 were taken during a Natural Building Course at Berg-en-dal, which Peter McIntosh co-facilitated with Neil Smith.

Photo 3 was taken at the Tara Rokpa Centre in Groot Marico, a Buddhist retreat where Peter was involved in the building along with architect Paul Marais.

For more information on the courses that Peter McIntosh is involved with please visit our Events page.