Oracle resident is leading expert in
Rammed earth construction
By Linda Lyon
The small town of Oracle, located 21 miles north of Tangerine Rd. on Hwy 77, is an eclectic gem. Located about 1,900 feet higher in elevation than Oro Valley, it is generally at least 10 degrees cooler on most days. Unincorporated, it allows for wide open living and enjoys a diverse population from artists to ranchers to miners and even hippies. Quentin Branch and his wife Julie Szekely moved to Oracle in 2002 and fit right in with their love of the Earth and focus on sustainability.
For Quentin, his love of the Earth was evident as early as age 4, when he recalls sitting in the family’s vegetable garden, covering his legs with warm soil, freshly turned by his father. Unfortunately, by age 12, juvenile arthritis kept him confined on and off through his high school years so he taught himself to speed-read and attacked two sets of encyclopedias, his mother’s science text books, and his grandfather’s classics. On good days, he used crutches to attend classes, and to get to swim meets, ignoring complaints from contenders that he was cheating.
Quentin’s search for dryer climates brought him to Arizona in his 20’s and after a few years, he began farming in St. David, living in a geodesic dome he built of recycled materials. He soon realized that adobe, with its ability to store the sun’s radiant energy, was a superior building material.
Determined to build a home that would require minimal or no mechanical heating or cooling, he began making adobe blocks. He then met a neighbor whose father used rammed earth to build bunkers that blocked bullets and bombs during WWII. Rather than utilizing the time consuming method of making, drying and then stacking blocks, Quentin decided forming and filling large wall sections would be more efficient. And so Rammed Earth Solar Homes born.
As you can guess from the name, rammed earth construction involves tamping a mixture that includes dampened, highly faceted earthen materials into forms (typically of steel and wood) that define the inside and outside surfaces of a wall section. When tamped full, the forms are removed, revealing a finished wall section. As is true of all masonry products, the compressive strength increases with time. About half the strength of concrete, rammed earth is still plenty strong. In fact, the Department of Agriculture has noted that rammed-earth structures last indefinitely. Quentin notes that Casa Grande National Monument is rammed earth (stabilized with caliche) and has lasted more than 800 years. As to cost, Quentin says it is comparable to the cost of other custom homes.
When first developing his technique, Quentin was an organic farmer and a physics teacher. Today, farming continues to be a daily endeavor, interrupted by such projects as the series of landscape walls for a new health care center in Yuma he is currently working on. During his 40-year rammed-earth career, he has built about 150 custom homes and a few multi-occupant living structures. His commercial endeavors include an architectural design studio, two bed-and-breakfasts, and a bank. He has built structures for Prescott College, three churches, a library, a municipal park, and the entrance to the Phoenix Zoo, just to name a few. His projects have earned numerous awards, such as a 38,000-square-foot Phoenix television studio, named one of Arizona’s top architectural achievements. He was awarded the 2000 House of the Year from the American Institute of Architects, as well as equivalent honors from both the American Consulting Engineers Association and the American Society of Landscape Architects that same year.
Most of his projects have been in Arizona, but he has also done work in Nevada, Colorado, and California. His work has been featured in nine books, and 45 magazines from around the world, including the cover and a 10-page spread in Metropolitan Homes magazine, highlighting the first rammed earth home in Aspen, Colorado. He has been featured in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal (twice). In his lifetime thus far, he has built more than 50,000 tons of rammed earth equal to a wall four feet tall, two feet thick, and 20 miles long. Of his work with rammed earth, Quentin says, “with each job, I realize that the design and building capacity of rammed earth is apparently unlimited.”
In addition to building, Quentin also offers hands-on workshops for those interested in learning the rammed earth construction method; a recent client from Georgia called Quentin, “probably the best resource in the country for rammed earth walls.” In a testimonial of one of his workshops, a participant wrote, “the unselfish sharing of your vast knowledge and desire to teach others is incredible.”
Today, Quentin (now 74) and Julie (former newspaper writer and editor) grow vegetables, fruits and nuts for family and friends and care for an ever-revolving 100 to 150 chickens, who provide eggs, meat and fertilizing-manure. In underground cisterns, they catch, twice a year, 88,000 gallons of rain- and grey-water, which is purified by a forest of watercress thriving in a 75-foot-long recirculating stream. The 3,000-square-foot home they built and live in, has 2-foot-thick, rammed earth walls that partner with windows to keep the home warm each winter and cool each summer. The entire homestead is a demonstration that armed with the right knowledge and sufficient forethought, we can, even today, live comfortably in harmony with Mother Earth. The first step for Quentin Branch was just to love her.