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6 MUD BRICK (Adobe) 151 material use

Mud Brick (Adobe)

The ideal building material would be The use of earth construction is well-
‘borrowed’ from the environment and established in energy efficient housing. There
replaced after use. There would be little or are many aspects to earth construction and
no processing of the raw material and all the despite the fact that most of the world’s
energy inputs would be directly, or indirectly, buildings are made of earth and it is one of the
from the sun. This ideal material would also oldest known building materials, there is much
be cheap. Mud bricks can come close to about its properties and potential that remains
this ideal. undeveloped and poorly researched.

Basic mud bricks are made by mixing earth

with water, placing the mixture into moulds and PERFORMANCE SUMMARY
drying the bricks in the open air. Straw or other
fibres that are strong in tension are often added Appearance
to the bricks to help reduce cracking. Mud
bricks are joined with a mud mortar and can be The appearance of mud bricks reflects the
material they are made from. They are thus
used to build walls, vaults and domes.
earthy, with colour determined by colour of
clays and sands in the mix. Finished walls
can express the brick patterns very strongly Thermal mass
at one extreme or be made into a smoothly
continuous surface. Adobe walls can provide moderate to high
thermal mass, but for most Australian climatic
conditions, as a rule of thumb, walls should be
a minimum of 300mm thick to provide effective
thermal mass. [See: 4.9 Thermal Mass]

Contrary to popular belief mud bricks are not
good insulators. Since they are extremely
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dense they lack the ability to trap air within their

structure, the attribute of bulk insulation that
allows it to resist the transfer of heat. Insulation
can be added to adobe walls with linings but is
Structural capability not intrinsic to the material, and, depending on
At its simplest, mud brick making involves the building design may not be needed in some
placing mud in moulds which, after initial drying, With thick enough walls, mud brick can create
climate zones. [See: 4.7 Insulation]
are removed to allow the bricks to dry slowly load bearing structures up to several stories
(not in direct sun). Moulds can be made from high. Vaults and domes enable adobe to be
timber or metal – anything that can be shaped used for many situations other than vertical Sound insulation
to provide the desired size for the bricks. walls. The mud brick may be used as infill in a
timber frame building or for load-bearing walls, A well-built adobe wall has very good sound
Virtually all the energy input for mud brick although its compressive strength is relatively insulation properties. In fact, it can be almost
construction is human labour (indirectly, fueled low. Typically, Australian adobe structures are equivalent to a monolithic masonry structure
by the sun) and after a lifetime of use, the bricks single or double storey. In the Yemen there are in its capacity for sound attenuation. [See: 2.7
break back down into the earth they came buildings 8 stories high and more that have Noise Control]
from. The most effective use of mud bricks in stood for centuries! [See: 5.5 Construction
building healthy, environmentally responsible Systems]
housing, comes from understanding their merits Fire and vermin resistance
and accepting their limitations. Mud brick
Since earth does not burn, and earth walls do
construction is often referred to as ‘adobe’
not readily provide habitat for vermin, mud brick
which is an Arabic and Berber word brought
walls generally have excellent fire and vermin
by Spaniards to the Americas, where it was
adopted into English.
material use 152 5.6 MUD BRICK (Adobe)

Durability and moisture resistance good networks in Australia including a broad or metal. Bricks must dry evenly to avoid
based national organisation, the Earth Building cracking and they should be covered to
Adobe walls are capable of providing structural Association of Australia (EBAA), which is a avoid direct sunlight and overly quick drying
support for centuries but they need protection not for profit organisation “formed to promote out. There are a number of mud brick
from extreme weather (eg. with deep eaves) or the use of Unfired Earth as a building medium manufacturers that cater to the market for
continuous maintenance (the ancient structures throughout Australia.” people who do not have the time or resources
of the Yemen have been repaired continuously to make their own.
for the centuries they have been standing). The materials for making mud bricks are
As a general rule, adobe needs protection from readily available in most areas and may be A typical standard mud brick is between
driving rain (although some adobe soils are sourced directly from the site of the building in 300-375mm long, 250-300mm wide and
very resistant to weathering) and should not be some cases. 125mm high and can weigh up to 18kg – as
exposed to continuous high moisture. much as a straw bale! Smaller brick sizes
Low costs in construction can only be
are recommended for owner building. Mud
effectively achieved by self-build, reducing the
bricks can be made in a range of sizes and
labour costs associated with manufacture and/
Breathability and toxicity or laying of bricks. Commercially produced mud
moulds and can be made in special shapes
for fitting around structural elements and
Mud bricks make ‘breathable’ walls but some brick construction can be as expensive, or even
accommodating pipes and wires. Stabilised
mud brick recipes include bitumen, which more expensive, than brick veneer.
mud bricks may contain materials such as
potentially results in some outgassing of
straw, cement or bitumen. [See: 5.8 Straw
hydrocarbons. Ideally earth should be used
in its natural state or as near it as can be TYPICAL DOMESTIC
achieved. CONSTRUCTION Although adobe can be load bearing, there
is also widespread use of frames. The
Construction process advantages of this are that a roof structure
Environmental impacts can be erected to provide weather protection
Mud brick wall construction has generally
Mud bricks have the potential to provide the for both mud brick making and construction.
been the province of owner-builders, but a
lowest impact of all construction materials. Disadvantages include the need to connect
large proportion of mudbrick buildings are now
Adobe should not contain any organic matter with and build around frame structures.
constructed by or with the help of commercial
– the bricks should be made from clays and builders. The potential for sourcing the main After the footings have been placed and
sands and not include living soil. They require wall construction material from one’s own site, the bricks are ready for laying, the building
very little generated energy to manufacture, but making the bricks, and building the walls, can process is similar to that of any other masonry
large amounts of water. The embodied energy be very appealing as both an economic and construction.
content of mud bricks is potentially the lowest lifestyle choice. As a result, the first stage of
All structural design should be prepared
of all building materials but additives, excessive construction may involve excavating the mud
by a competent person and may require
transport and other mechanical energy use can from the site.
preparation or checking by a qualified
increase the ‘delivered’ embodied energy of all
engineer. Qualified professionals, architects
earth construction. [See: 5.2 Embodied Energy]
and designers provide years of experience
In a similar way, the greenhouse gas emissions and access to intellectual property that has
associated with unfired mud bricks can (and the potential to save house builders time and
should) be very low. To keep emissions to money as well as help ensure environmental
an absolute minimum, the consumption of performance. All masonry construction has to
fossil fuel and other combustion processes comply with the Building Code and Australian
have to be avoided. [See: 5.1 Material Use
Paul Downton

Standards. For example, all masonry walls are

Introduction] required to have movement/expansion joints
at specified intervals.

The clay content of adobe can range

between 30 and 70 per cent and the overall It is possible to make footings from rubble,
earth content may also include silt, gravel but unconventional construction may make
and stones. There are a number of tests it harder to obtain building approvals and
for suitability of the earth and the approval the usual method is to employ strip or raft
process may require an erosion test. Before concrete footings. A raft concrete slab can
excavating for on-site mud, consider the site provide a clean, flat surface for making mud
layout to minimise carrying and transport and bricks. A damp proof course must be laid
ensure there is space to keep any topsoil between the footings and brick wall to
separate for use on the garden. prevent rising damp. A ‘splash course’ of
Buildability, availability and cost fired bricks is advisable to prevent erosion
Owner builders should recognise that mud
Mud bricks provide a forgiving construction of the lower course of mud bricks resulting
brick making is a labour intensive activity.
medium well suited to owner-builder from heavy rain.
A house may require around 10,000 bricks,
construction. There are a number of but a working couple would be lucky to
proprietary mud brick makers and builders average a production rate of 200 a week.
able to provide good information and a strong Mud brick moulds can be made from wood
owner-builder oriented network. There are
5.6 MUD BRICK (Adobe) 153 material use

Frames The mud Mortar bed are normally quite thick Finishes
and needs to provide complete bedding for the
Mud bricks can be load bearing but it is also bricks. Perpends are similarly thick (about 20 – Linseed oil and turpentine can be used to
usual Australian practice to build mud brick 30mm). The intention is to produce a wall that provide a final finish. This is also a very effective
walls between timber or steel frames. is effectively monolithic, ie. as if it were a single method of protecting walls susceptible to
piece of material. erosion. There is even the option of using
the natural plastic of cellulose, processed by
Load bearing walls bovine beasts, to create mud and manure
Load bearing mud brick wall construction Fixings slurry, although this is seldom used in Australia.
requires particular attention to good bonding Finishes can range from rustic to smooth with
Fixings to mud brick need to allow for the this typical flexibility of approach being one of
(avoiding continuous vertical joints) and relatively poor ‘pull-out’ strength of the material.
ensuring stability by having returns on the walls the material’s many appealing qualities.
Strong fixings can be achieved by embedding
that buttress them against sideways forces. dowels or plugs into a wall – the depth and type
Again, normal, traditional masonry practice of which should be determined by reference to
applies to the pattern in which bricks should be a skilled builder or engineer if the load carrying additional READING
laid. It is possible to create arches, squinches capacity of the fixing is critical. BDEP Environment Design Guide, RAIA.
and domes in mud brick and although these
have featured in adobe structure since time
immemorial, they are rare in modern building Openings B iano A (2002), The Mud Brick Adventure, Earth
structures of this type. Garden Books, Trentham, Victoria.
Lintels can be in any structurally appropriate
material, although timber is typically used.  SIRO (1995), CSIRO Australia Bulletin 5: Earth Wall
Construction, CSIRO, North Ryde, NSW.
Joints and connections Beams and lintels can be formed from quite
‘rough and ready’ timber and readily blended E arth Building Association of Australia
Mud bricks are laid on thick mortar beds that into the mud brick construction. Mud bricks
are essentially the same mix as the brick, but can be also be laid to form arches, particularly
in its ‘muddy’ state. It is also common practice L awson, B (1996), Building Materials and the
over small spans (less than a metre), and even Environment: Towards Ecological Sustainable
in the commercial mudbrick industry to use domes, although this requires high levels of Development, RAIA, Canberra.
a sand-cement mortar. Once dried, it can be bricklaying skills as well as more stringent
difficult to distinguish between mortar bed and S immons G and Gray T (eds) (1996), The Earth
demands from engineering and approvals Builders Handbook, Earth Garden Books, Trentham
brick and some adobe aesthetics exploit this processes. Victoria.
‘seamless’ appearance to create a monolithic
effect. The roof timbers or steel members can
spring from the columns (particularly in the case Principal Author:
of steel) or bear on wallplates. It is generally Paul Downton
recommended that roofs have considerable
overhang in order to provide some protection to
walls from driving rain. In more sheltered areas
this requirement is less vital, but care must be
taken to provide a good quality render and
waterproofing finish, see ‘Finishes’.
Paul Downton

After brushing to get a fairly even surface, the

final finish is a mud slurry, typically finished
by hand. This slurry may also be the final
waterproofing coat (eg. A mud and cow dung
mix) or it may have a further clear coat of
proprietary waterproofing material. Linseed
oil and turpentine can be used to provide a
Paul Downton

final finish.

Walls are laid in the traditional manner of

masonry with string lines to provide a guide to
vertical and horizontal alignments.