Rammed Earth Architecture's Journey to the High Hills of the Santee
Rammed earth, a form of earthen architecture and construction that has been used for thousands of years, has gone through periods of resurgence and decline. Its modern era rediscovery through practice and publications during the late 18th and early 19th century was fueled by writers and practitioners who disseminated the ideas of pisé starting in France extending to England and eventually to other European countries and the United States. Once these ideas reached America, farmers and intellectuals alike were interested in this simple yet durable means of construction.
Rammed earth ideas, while intellectualized in Europe, originated from practice in Africa and the West Indies where enslaved and free Africans used their traditional methods of earth walling and wattle and daub construction. These traditions transferred to America through slave trade and immigration of free blacks and can be found in many southern states including Louisiana and South Carolina. Pisé and other forms of earthen architecture, tabby and bousillage, are examined to better understand earthen construction, its origins, methodology, influences, and position as an ancient and emerging construction technique.
In South Carolina, Dr. William Wallace Anderson of Stateburg built wings on his house out of pisé, seven outbuildings, and a nearby church of the material. These rammed earth structures in the High Hills of the Santee, the Borough House (c. 1821) and the Church of the Holy Cross (c. 1850 – 1852) are studied as exceptional examples of surviving rammed earth in the United States. Their histories are explored, current conditions assessed, and conservation efforts discussed. The physical composition of rammed earth, strong and hard to penetrate, is analyzed and broken down into material components. Based on the analysis, methods of repair are specified. Finally, the long standing question of preservationists and engineers is addressed: is pisé an early form of concrete that evolved just before the invention of Portland cement in the early 19th century?