French Rammed Earth

France took pisé de terre across Europe and beyond


Pisé is the French word to ram and was used in the UK to mean rammed earth until the 1980's since its wider use began in the 1820's. French rammed earth was a revolutionary building material, much used around the time of the French revolution, late 18th, early 19th century under the influence of François Cointeraux. Because France was taking over a large part of Europe at the time many norms and ideas were exported and used across the continent. Much European rammed earth in the early 19th century can be traced to this influence.

Even the UK was not immune to this influence and rammed earth and particularly chalk was well used after the 1820's. In France there are rammed earth buildings from across the 19th century but the beginning and the end were particularly active periods in which public, private, commercial, agricultural and church buildings were all well represented in earth.

Because the material was so well understood and used in so many ways there are areas which are almost entirely built of rammed earth. Depending on the building type higher or lower levels of finish are achieved, from no finish to plaster, brick and stone elements being incorporated. A typical street combining a number of different building types will often combine a number of different styles of building and finish but all having a basic core of earth.


  A typical agricultural live/work unit from the 19th century still in occupation and use in the early 21st century  

This variety and diversity can be challenging to our modern sensibility of what earth building might be and how it 'should' look. For this reason a visit to a rammed earth area of France is extremely inspiring, not only for the practical demonstration of detail and finish, but for the grandiose and ubiquitous vision of a material which has not been well used for the past half century.

The formwork and organisation of rammed earth work achieved a high level of understanding of materials, tools and design. The wide range of different building types have different degrees of finish, earth and lime plasters, paints, cladding and no finish at all. Additionally earth was combined with lime to make a series of details around openings and corners. Lime and sand was also laid in to achieve both finish and aesthetic purposes.

French rammed earth builders in the 19th century were carpenters, those with the skill to assemble formwork, and they assembled and ran ramming teams, Evidently they achieved a level of market control in some areas and quality was driven up as costs came down under the pressure of competition.

Rammed earth was by no means a rural material, urban centres such as Lyon and Grenoble had extensive multi storey rammed earth buildings, often hard to spot due their ornate plaster finishes. This level of finish has often worked against the wider recognition of the material in countries as diverse as the UK and Zimbabwe where extensive building programs are now all but invisible while still enjoying a high market value and easy acceptance by mortgage lenders.

Some of the densest and finest examples are to be found in the region between Grenoble and Lyon, a region with a lot of high quality earth building material. It is this heritage which led the team which started the earth building group Craterre to base themselves in Grenoble. They have subsequently established the UNESCO chair of Earthen Archtecture.

Abandoning of this highly sustainable material during the 20th century has a number of causes but the continued market value, comfort and utility of the existing building stock should point a way for this building material to find a wider use in this.


    2, 3 and 4 storey buildings are common,  




    This town hall challenges many peoples perception of what an earth building might be