DIRT CHEAP: THE GARDENDALE EXPERIMENT AND RAMMED EARTH HOME CONSTRUCTION IN THE UNITED STATES
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This work addresses an understudied and little appreciated construction type—rammed earth—and argues that understanding its history helps us better evaluate the relationship between our built environment and cultural values. Historically, rammed earth has expressed itself as an economical do-it-yourself project for farmers, enthusiasts, and environmentalists. It has also been understood as a way to correct social ills, minimize financial difficulties, and remedy overabundances of labor. During the Great Depression, these factors came together and pushed the federal government to experiment with the technique, erecting seven rammed earth homes as part of the Resettlement Administration’s Gardendale Homestead north of Birmingham, Alabama. They remained an experiment, as a true federal rammed earth initiative never fully developed. Gardendale thus provides an example of an alternative building technology that has not received wide cultural acceptance in the United States, despite a history that reaches back to the 19th century. This reluctance to adopt rammed earth could be attributed to the groups that have utilized the technique, who until recently, were considered marginal. Documenting and preserving Gardendale’s extant rammed earth homes is necessary because of their unique construction type and the story they tell about our nation and the way we live. Moreover, the successes and failures of Gardendale provide context for rammed earth’s latest reincarnation within the current green building movement.