SDSU studies on rammed earth construction helped use worldwide

BROOKINGS, S.D. -- An Australian architectural professor visited South Dakota State University in late April to advise on how to preserve a 90-year-old rammed earth experimental building on campus. SDSU research in the 1920s and 1930s helped the ...

Raph Patty was an professor at South Dakota State University. He researched rammed earth in the 1920s until his death in 1945. He had a series of test walls on campus and built a rammed earth building. South Dakota Agricultural Heritage Museum
From left: Steve Burroughs in the H. H. DeLong Rammed Earth building meets in late April 2017 with Kate Nelson of the State Historic Preservation Office and Shari Thornes of the city of Brookings, and Jennifer Brosz, also of the SHPO. Photo taken late April 2017, Brookings, S.D. (Forum News Service/Agweek/South Dakota Agricultural Heritage Museum)

BROOKINGS, S.D. - An Australian architectural professor visited South Dakota State University in late April to advise on how to preserve a 90-year-old rammed earth experimental building on campus. SDSU research in the 1920s and 1930s helped the technique that has thrived worldwide, even as it has fallen out of favor here.

Steve Burroughs spent about three weeks in Brookings, conferring with state historical officials on the future of a rammed earth building and other experimental structures across campus, as well as giving lectures.

Burroughs is a professor from the University of South Australia and the University of Canberra in Australia. He has studied rammed earth for 40 years and specializes in building sustainable structures in remote areas for indigenous populations and for residential and commercial buildings.

The technique continues to be used today, including for multi-story buildings.

Earth, not sod


Most Dakotans are familiar with sod structures, in which pioneers in the late 1800s and early 1900s lived in during homesteading. They would use a breaking plow to cut a two-foot-thick layer of sod to build temporary structures, covered by a simple roof and a few timbers.

Rammed earth is different. Builders start by finding soil that is very low in clay, but a mix of sand and silt. They make sure the soil is at about 6 percent to 12 percent moisture, add in a small amount of binding agent - usually cement, fly ash or lime - and tamp it between forms, similar to what people use to pour cement for concrete. Workers use a post-like tamper with a large flat, metal disk at the bottom to compact the soil.

Gwen McCausland, director of the South Dakota Agricultural Heritage Museum, which is a department of SDSU, wrote a grant to bring Burroughs to assess the condition of the building, and to recommend ways to preserve the building, along with two garden walls on campus. Burroughs had visited SDSU in 1993 when he was working on his doctoral thesis, studying the SDSU structures.

The H.H. DeLong Rammed Earth Building was placed on the National Register for Historic Places in the 1993. The 72-by-26 feet structure was built sometime in the 1920s to early 1930s on the west side of the campus as part of the research by Ralph Patty, a professor of agricultural engineering. There has been some exterior restoration, but none on the inside.

McCausland plans to raise funds to preserve the building to the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Historic Preservation, and to use it as an outdoor education space for the museum. It's possible it could house SDSU's last blacksmithing forge, which was in use until last year.

"It has to be preserved; that's the ultimate goal," McCausland says.

For the birds

Patty was on staff from 1916 to his death in 1945. Other work was done by H.H. "Henry" DeLong, who graduated from SDSU in 1928 and retired in 1973.


McCausland says Patty initially started studying the difference between wood, concrete and rammed earth construction for housing poultry in the 1920s. Farms were diversified in those days and most had a small flock of chickens, geese or turkeys. The birds survived much better in the rammed earth structures because their humidity and temperature stability lessened the incidence of pneumonia. Patty's publications became the foundation for rammed earth construction in Australia and Africa. The technique is still used in even large structures, including hotels in some parts of the world.

In South Dakota, rammed earth construction was used in certain public buildings including the Flandreau Indian School, a community center in Flandreau and the Cottonwood Experiment Station near Philip, S.D. There is no accounting of where all of the buildings were placed. In the 1950s, the value of labor increased and rammed earth construction fell out of favor. Farmers and others found it much easier and quicker to build wood buildings.

The ag museum has both permanent and rotating exhibits. The current exhibits include "Barley to Barrel: Science and History of Brewing in South Dakota," through December 2017, and "The Unspun Tale: Sheep in South Dakota," through Oct. 1.

The South Dakota Agricultural Heritage Museum was founded in 1884 as a zoological collection, and is the state's official museum for preserving the history of agriculture and rural life. In 1974 the museum was located in the historic Stock Judging Pavilion, which was built in 1918 and expanded in 1925. The museum is open Mondays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 1-5 p.m. For information, go to , and for more information on the building, go to .

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