Waugh Thistleton does dirt

Bushey Cemetery
© Waugh Thistleton

Known more for their timber buildings, they have also just completed a lovely structure in rammed earth.

The architecture firm Waugh Thistleton has been on TreeHugger a number of times, as one of the leading proponents of wood construction. I met Andrew Waugh last weekend and toured some of his wood buildings. However, I was surprised to find out that they have worked with other unusual materials, including another TreeHugger favourite, rammed earth.

I usually have fun with rammed earth stories and their titles (see It’s a mud mud mud mud world and The dirt on rammed earth), but have to be more serious here; they have built structures for a Jewish Cemetery in Hertfordshire, in the greenbelt just outside London.

Jewish funerals are short, but involve a procession that stops seven times while psalms are read. They also involve dirt, as family members take shovels and participate in the filling of the grave. Instead of flowers, Jews put stones on tombstones when they visit, ostensibly to help the souls stay put, but there is another, simpler message. Jack Reimer wrote in Wrestling with the Angel: Jewish Insights on Death and Mourning,

There is something suiting the antiquity and solidity of Judaism in the symbol of a stone. In moments when we are faced with the fragility of life, Judaism reminds us that there is permanence amidst the pain. While other things fade, stones and souls endure.

exterior rammed earth side© Waugh Thistleton

So somehow, rammed earth seems really appropriate. It's solid and permanent. It endures. There is also a lot of standing around outside during Jewish funerals; rammed earth has a lot of thermal mass so it will be warmer in winter, cooler in summer, moderating the extremes.

collonade© Waugh Thistleton

Connected by a cloistered timber colonnade, the earthen prayer halls are lined in English Oak, with sections of the rammed earth left exposed in the ceremonial spaces. Corten steel doors complement the natural material palette, and the calm internal environments are accentuated with subtle, low lighting.

rammed earth construction© Waugh Thistleton

The walls are 16 inches thick and twenty feet high, made of a mix of of clay, limestone, sand, hoggin (I had to look it up -- “ a material composed of screenings or siftings of gravel or of a mixture of loam, coarse sand, and fine gravel”), and a small quantity of cement and water. A team of eight took 46 days to build it, climbing six inches a day. Glulam beams hold up a zinc roof.

interior of rammed earth building© Waugh Thistleton

The Prayer Halls provide a solemn place for contemplation, where the materiality echoes the return to the earth of loved ones. The rammed earth walls have a warm earthy character which sit well within the landscape, different colours visible in the stratification of the surface.

That's one of the lovely things about rammed earth; it can have many different colours depending on the source and composition of the earth.

Lloyd and Andrew Lloyd Alter and Andrew Waugh in Dalston Lane/CC BY 2.0

During my tour, Andrew Waugh told me that the practice was now almost entirely working in wood now, but it’s impressive to see that they can still get down and dirty occasionally.

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