Better Building with Compressed Earth Blocks

In 2015, the United Nations adopted 17 long-term sustainability goals to improve global health, safety, and quality of life. Among those goals are plans to develop future-oriented industry, innovation, and infrastructure and to create sustainable cities and communities with a focus on reducing carbon emissions. With these goals in mind, the Hunt Institute’s Global Development Lab continues to work through the Better Building project is examining the effectiveness of using compressed earth blocks to investigate long-term energy-efficient structures.

Compressed Earth Blocks (CEB) are comprised of a mixture of local soil, sand, water, and a stabilizer (such as cement) that is machine-compacted into a mold and allowed to cure for approximately one month. These blocks provide the structure of buildings as alternatives to bricks or other construction materials. The Better Building project researches CEB’s effectiveness as a low-cost and sustainable building material and investigate strategies for scaling CEB into a widespread building material.

SMU Civil Engineering Assistant Professor Dr. Brett Story leads a group of students in a pressure test of earthen bricks on Thursday, July 14, 2016 in the J. Lindsay Embrey Engineering Building on the SMU campus in Dallas.

“Our society as a whole needs to leverage the forces of globalization, technological advancement, and climate change – what the UN calls ‘the three mega forces’ – for disruptive solutions to further inclusive sustainable economic development,” Director of the Hunt Institute Dr. Eva Csaky said. “We can reach this goal by harnessing the power of disruptive collaboration.” The CEB research partnership and collaboration between Dr. Brett Story and the Hunt Institute began in 2015. Dr. Story’s research for Phase I focused on the strength testing of CEBs under a variety of conditions including varying moisture levels, cement content, and soil type.

Phase II focused determining local soil characteristics for different types of soil found globally as a first step in standardization. Designing with CEB requires an understanding of the local soil conditions and how composition, moisture, and other variables interact and affect construction. This process is taught by Dwell Earth, an organization dedicated to spreading this knowledge through hands-on training workshops to share their efficient and intuitive building system. Founder, Adam De Jong, is an Affiliate in the Institute and has consistently provided his expertise to Dr. Story over the years as he expands his research now into Phase III.

Training with Dwell Earth
Training with Dwell Earth

Plans for Phase III will be to compare data pulled from three small-scale prototype structures built from insulated plywood, concrete masonry unit (CMU), and CEB. Duplicate prototypes will produce data to analyze from two locations, one set will be at the SMU @ Taos campus and the second set will be at the SMU’s main campus in Dallas, Texas.

Phase III’s objectives are to perform analyses and compare data from the test structures at both the Taos and Dallas campuses and investigate relationships between soil type and mix design, block strength, and thermal properties. This investigation will also include models developed by Dr. Story’s lab team, which includes Ph.D. students Jase Sitton and Robert Hillyard as well as undergraduate researchers Adriana Mena and Ziyu Sun. The Hunt Institute team includes an undergraduate project manager and the undergraduate researcher, Madison Rodriguez. This team will produce a report analyzing building requirements when using CEB in New Mexico which will inform the vision of a living laboratory in SMU @ Taos.

Dr. Story’s vision is, “…the end goal is to use the data obtained during this project to make recommendations for full-scale, more permanent structures than can be used by faculty and students at the SMU Taos campus. The information learned during this project will be used to start the design of a “living” laboratory, which would be a laboratory building constructed with CEB and instrumented with a variety of sensors. In this way, the structure is both the laboratory space as well as the test specimen.”

To read more about the Hunt Institute’s work to develop future-focused solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems, please click here. For the latest news on the Hunt Institute, follow our social media accounts on LinkedIn, Facebookand Instagram. We invite you to listen to our Podcast called Sages & Seekers. If you are considering engaging with the institute, you can donate, or sign-up for our newsletter by emailing

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