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How mud bricks work – using unsaturated soil mechanics principles to explain the material properties of earth buildings

How mud bricks work – using unsaturated soil mechanics principles to explain the material properties of earth buildings

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A research into soil mechanics principles and how these affect mud construction.
A research into soil mechanics principles and how these affect mud construction.

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Published by: Engineers Without Borders UK on Mar 26, 2013
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EWB-UK Research Conference 2009Hosted by The Royal Academy of EngineeringFebruary 20Community of Practice: HabitatAuthor: Paul JaquinInstitution: Ramboll Whitbybird (formerly Durham University)Previously published: (Geotechnique, February 2009)
How mud bricks work – using unsaturated soil mechanics principles to explainthe material properties of earth buildings.
Paul Jaquin
Across the world, soil is piled , shaped, formed into bricks or compacted betweenforms, to make solid walls. One third of the world’s population live in buildingsconstructed from soil. Although many other building material are now available,soil remains one of the most ubiquitous construction materials on the planet.While often seen as the preserve of the developing world (and many view themove away from earth buildings as a step forward in development), earth isbecoming increasingly popular as a modern, chic, green building material.The scientific understanding of earth buildings is relatively low when comparedto steel or concrete. Traditional construction uses heuristic and locally developedtechniques. While these methods work well locally, they are dependent on thelocal soil and construction techniques which makes technology transfer betweendifferent regions difficult.In the last 30 years there has been a drive to better understand earthenconstruction. Practitioners such as Gernot Minke, Hugo Houben and SatpremMaini have performed many experiments to improve construction techniques andrefine raw material to improve the performance of earth buildings. Theseinitiatives are relatively poorly documented and more rigorous scientific methodhas only been only recently introduced. Work undertaken at Durham Universityhas used the principles of unsaturated soil mechanics to better understand theengineering properties of earth buildings. Unsaturated soil mechanics considersthe behaviour of soil where the pores are filled with both air and water. Inaddition to friction and interlock, water is held in tension between the soilparticles in the form of liquid bridges. These liquid bridges act as a bond givingthe soil additional strength and stiffness over that of a fully saturated soil.This paper will describe some aspects of research carried out as part of a PhD atDurham University. Some of the principles of unsaturated soil mechanics, suchas surface tension, relative humidity and the attractive force between particlesare outlined. Arguments for using the principles of unsaturated soil mechanicsto describe earth buildings are discussed. A series of experiments to test thisnotion were devised. These experiments are described and the results arediscussed. The wider implications of considering earth buildings as highlyunsaturated soils are then presented and conclusions drawn as to how tounderstand their engineering specification, construction and behaviour.
Unsaturated soil mechanics principles
In an unsaturated soil, water is held between soil particles by surface tension.Surface tension exists in all fluids. At a vapour to liquid interface there is adifference in pressure between the liquid and the vapour. As the vapour pressureis greater than the liquid pressure, there is an unsymmetrical force balance atthe interface. The interface (meniscus) must compensate for the difference inthe two pressures and behaves as a membrane acting in uniform tension. Water
 
EWB-UK Research Conference 2009Hosted by The Royal Academy of EngineeringFebruary 20Community of Practice: HabitatAuthor: Paul JaquinInstitution: Ramboll Whitbybird (formerly Durham University)Previously published: (Geotechnique, February 2009)
held between two soil particles within such menisci and is known as a liquidbridge. The combined tension of this membrane and the lower pressure of thewater provides an attractive force between the soil particles (Fisher 1926) asdescribed by Figure 1 and Equation 1.
 
mensicus pressure
F F
= +
 
( )
2
neck T neck a w
F r r u u
π σ  
= +
 
EQUATION 1 MAGNITUDE OF THE ATTRACTIVE FORCE BETWEEN SOILPARTICLES AS A RESULT OF THE LIQUID BRIDGE
Where
mensicus
is the attractive force due to the meniscus and
 pressure
is theattractive force caused by the difference in pressure between the air and thewater,
neck 
is the radius of the neck of the liquid bridge,
σ  
is the surface tensionand
a
u
and
w
u
are the air and water pressure respectively.Relative humidity is the ratio between the actual vapour pressure in the air andthe maximum possible vapour pressure. There is a unique relationship betweenwater tension and relative humidity which was first described by Lord Kelvin(Thomson 1871).The origins of strength in earthen materials have long been the cause of muchdebate. An authoritative textbook on the subject (Houben and Guillaud 1994)and state of the art review (Avrami and Guillaud 2008) describes the strength asbeing a result of electrostatic forces, cementation, capillarity and friction. It hasbeen argued (Jaquin 2008) that although electrostatic forces can be used todescribe the attraction between clay platelets, the magnitude of attractive forcesbetween larger particles must be a result of the liquid bridges between theparticles, in addition to the interparticle friction and interlock. It was proposedthat the number and strength of these bridges determines the overall samplesstrength and stiffness. The number of liquid bridges depends on the number of pores in the soil across which they can act. At a high negative pore waterpressure, liquid bridges act across the majority of pores in a soil sample,resulting in a highly bonded, therefore stronger sample. At low negative porewater pressures, there are fewer liquid bridges which leads to lower samplestrength.
Experimentation
A small series of simple tests were proposed to investigate the link between thestrength of earth buildings and the pore water pressure. The experiments usedprobes to measure the magnitude of the negative pore water pressure (tension)called tensiometers (Lourenço, Gallipoli
et al.
2008). Soil cylinders wereconstructed using methods based on the light Proctor method developed at theUniversity (Horncastle 2006). Soil was oven dried at 105°C, before being mixedwith a known volume of water to create a mix of known water content. Themixture was bagged and left for 7 days to allow the moisture content to
 
EWB-UK Research Conference 2009Hosted by The Royal Academy of EngineeringFebruary 20Community of Practice: HabitatAuthor: Paul JaquinInstitution: Ramboll Whitbybird (formerly Durham University)Previously published: (Geotechnique, February 2009)
equalise. To make a sample this mixture was sequentially compacted in fivelayers of equal mass, with each layer receiving 25 blows from the Proctorhammer. The final layer was a fine screed of particles smaller than 425µm. Thislayer provided a flat surface against which a tensiometer was placed and whichwas used for loading. The cylinders were then placed on a mass balance, andthe mass noted while the cylinders air dried. On reaching a specified mass, andtherefore water content, the cylinders were wrapped in a rubber triaixal sleeveand sealed to prevent further evaporation. The cylinders were left for at least 7days prior to testing to allow water to distribute evenly within the samples. Thesamples were tested in unconfined compression, in a rig shown in Figure 16.Tensiometers were placed against the top surface of the cylinder, through theloading platen to measure the change in pore water pressure during the loading.The axial strain and load were measured. Following failure the whole sample wasweighed and placed in the oven to determine the final water content.
Results
The sample cylinders were prepared at a known water content of 12%, anddifferent samples allowed to air dry to different water contents. Figure 17 showsthe results of unconfined compression tests carried out on samples at watercontents ranging from 10.2 to 5.5%. Samples with a high initial water contenthave a low negative pore water pressure, whereas samples with a lower initialwater content have a higher negative pore water pressure. On loading of thesamples (increasing deviator stress) the three highest water content samples(10.2, 9.4 and 8.4%) show an increase in pore water pressure, whereas thelower water content samples show a reduction in pore water pressure. The peakdeviator stress (sample strength) increases from 170kPa to 600kPa with thewater content reducing from 10.2 to 5.5%. Lower water content samples weretested, but these proved to have a negative pore water pressure beyond therange of the tensiometers (-1500kPa).Figure 18 shows the peak deviator stress versus water content. It comprisesthose samples shown in Figure 17 and further experimentation on samples of lower water content, where the negative pore water pressure was beyond therange of the tensiometers. This shows a linear relationship between watercontent and sample strength. showing the strength reducing from a peak of 1100kPa at a water content of 2% to a minimum of 100kPa at water contentsclose to those of compaction (12%).
Interpretation
The change in suction on loading of unsaturated soil samples has been observedby a number of other researchers (for example Cunningham, Ridley
et al.
2003;Tarantino 2007). To explain this behaviour the dilatancy of the sample must beconsidered, as must the fact that water considered as incompressible comparedto air. If unconfined loading of a fully saturated soil sample is considered, porewater pressure would reduce (become more negative) if the sample were todilate. The dilatant behaviour of the whole soil sample causes an increase in thetotal pore volume. As the sample is not drained, no water is lost, so the samevolume of water occupies a larger pore volume so its pressure is reduced. Thisbehaviour may be observed for the high water content samples (10.2 and

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