The University of Arizona’s architectural education program utilizes the dual learning vehicles of design-build pedagogy and affordable housing projects to investigate the cost effectiveness of regional vernacular construction methods paired with contemporary energy and water conservation strategies to control initial construction costs and long-term operational costs of single-family dwellings.

Earth, clay and stone, indigenous building materials with long histories in the arid deserts of the southwestern U.S., have diminished in use as labor prices have risen in the construction industry. Over the course of six design-build projects, Building Technology faculty and students experimented with and improved wall forming systems for rammed earth and pumice-crete, in order to reduce labor costs and bring these vernacular materials into use for affordable housing. The focus of the applied field research was the design of the wall forms and the sequence of building multiple walls with bond beams. Students built full scale wall mock-ups, created budget and energy models, tackled critical path construction scheduling, and interacted with subcontractors, inspectors, and building permit officials during design and construction of the housing units.

Our methods of earthen wall construction were refined over three main iterations and six projects, resulting in streamlined procedures, reduced construction time, and costs that were much lower than similar commercially built systems. The value of the design-build and research processes for students goes beyond exposure to the entire spectrum of housing design; the iterative investigations of wall forming systems across multiple projects teaches the value of Building Technology research and discovery through architectural practice.