Turning Mud Into Wildfire-Resilient Housing

Ancient Technology Could Indicate New Way Forward for Climate Adaptation

An earth block sits next to a block of wood, with a flame of fire coming from the charred wood after being blowtorched.
An earth block, left, sits unsinged next to a burning block of wood after both were blasted by a 3,400 F blowtorch. UC Davis Professor Michele Barbato and team are investigating the wildfire-resilient potential of compressed earth blocks as a construction material. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

Wildfire, in one way or another, touches nearly everyone who lives in California and, increasingly, the West. How do you make your home where disaster is a given? How do you learn to live with it?

Those questions are at the root of Michele Barbato’s research. He co-directs the UC Davis Climate Adaptation Research Center and is a professor of structural engineering. He’s trying to find ways to build affordable homes that can withstand most of what the planet throws their way.

“I started with some colleagues looking at a new way of building,” Barbato said. “We ended up looking back at a very ancient solution — something that’s been around for more than 10,000 years.”

That “technology” was mud, or rather an engineered form of it called compressed and stabilized earth blocks.

Four scientists in blue lab coats huddle together looking at compressed earth block they made.
From left, UC Davis graduate student Nitin Kumar, undergraduate Julie Nguyen, Professor Michele Barbato and undergraduate student Thomas Tonthat look over a compressed and stabilized earth block they created in Barbato’s lab. (Karin Higgins, UC Davis)

Barbato and colleagues have tested it against multiple hazards, including earthquakes, hurricanes and tornadoes. When he moved to UC Davis, he naturally expanded the research to wildfire. He and his lab have tested earth blocks in a furnace at nearly 2,200 F. It doesn’t burn.

Learn more about this and other UC Davis wildfire and smoke research in the multimedia feature story, “The House That Doesn’t Burn,” published today on UC Davis Science & Climate.

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