I was in Europe this summer and toured a factory that made rammed earth walls. These walls are historic and built on basic principles. Once the forms are set, local earth is placed in the forms and then rammed to become compact. Hence the name “rammed earth walls.” It may seem simple enough but it becomes more complex when you consider the need for the right type of soil, moisture content and sufficient force to achieve good compaction. Then there are the openings to consider, the corners and a host of other items to make these walls work in modern society. Not to mention meeting modern building codes.

The owner of the factory is Austrian Architect Martin Rauch. He designs and builds rammed earth projects all around the world. He also lectures and is considered a world authority on the subject. In 2019, Harvard University even sent a group of students to his facility in Austria. He continues to lecture at top universities, gaining even more worldwide respect.

Old vs. New America

I was curious about his projects, the details of sustainable construction and lowering our collective carbon footprint. I also was curious about specific projects he had done. We talked about several in Switzerland, Germany, England, Africa and even South America.

When I asked about America, he smiled and chuckled. His reply was, “I work everywhere but America.” He told me he did it once and will never do it again. He explained that our rules and roadblocks are just too restrictive. And while he never came out and said this, he indicated to me that America is not what it used to be. I took him to mean that America—once the innovator of new ideas, cutting through bureaucratic red tape to explore new possibilities, on the front edge of doing good things—has fallen behind the rest of the world.

Nowadays, it seems we are focused solely on profit, market share, and establishing rules and regulations to take other’s market share, regardless of how it impacts the public good. These are my words, but he was clear that the U.S. has a problem with its regulations; or more to the point, an over-regulating driven society. He did note that so many U.S. regulations made no sense to him. Rauch related that thought to an experience he had on the American project where his crews resorted to night work, just to avoid overly restrictive U.S. rules.

When I’m in Europe, I focus on construction projects. I think most Americans would assume Europe is the more restrictive country compared to the United States. It’s always ironic to hear the opposite. I now hear that some projects in the United States are requiring European hard hats. These hard hats claim to be safer and are on the cutting edge of technology. American safety experts relay it is needed to keep up with Europe. However, I also have noticed how European construction [practices] and hard hats are not as prevalent as they are in the U.S. Even on commercial or government projects. This includes the infamous yellow safety vest our road workers here wear. I always get a laugh out of shocking my son, a carpenter here in the U.S., when I text him pictures of German highway road workers wearing T-shirts/shorts but no hard hats or safety vests.

Is America’s Profit Decreasing?

The problem we face has become systemic. The 2021 code came out with some of the most restrictive rules on cement plaster ever introduced and some want to make them even stricter. What seems crazy is that industry experts—the real experts—are often excluded to participate in these discussions. Too often, the rules are made by a select group with an agenda, typically to gain market share, hurt the competition or sell consulting services; leaving the public to suck it up and pay more for the same thing.  Some contractors are told this is actually good for them. A higher cost simply translates to more profit as percentage numbers increase:

  • First, profit margins diminish as costs increase;
  • Second, there is a price point when people switch to other products or systems.

Finding that sweet spot is tricky. It is a little like selling a house. An extremely successful realtor told me, “Pricing is the key to getting your home sold for a maximum profit; you have to set the price right. Set your price too high and you can get snake bit.” He is right. I have another architect friend in Seattle. While he loves cement plaster, it is now priced out of the market and they’ve began to use other products.

Just like real estate, it is hard to get that buyer to come back, once they are snake bitten. I wonder if America, now snake bitten, can get back to what it once was: innovative for the public good and not just about corporate profits.