Rammed earth is almost as ancient as architecture itself. This construction technique compresses locally available natural raw materials like dirt, clay, chalk, lime, and gravel between flat panels called formwork to produce hard-packed bricks that stand the test of time. Many rammed earth structures still standing today, including the Great Wall of China and the Alhambra in Spain, were built over 1,000 years ago.

The local materials and formwork used give each rammed earth project its own unique look, and the result is just as attractive as it is low-cost and sustainable. The thick walls keep indoor spaces comfortable, even in the hottest, driest climates, and no finishing is needed inside or out.

The practice of building with rammed earth may have fallen out of favor in past decades, but a recent resurgence gives us new examples of what this material can really do. In Accra, Ghana, architecture firm Tzou Lubroth has created a stunning modern rammed earth residence and studio for an artist, incorporating natural ventilation, gallery spaces, a swimming pool, outdoor areas, and views of the sea.

The rammed earth construction lends layered pastel red, pink and beige tones to the two-story live/work complex, making it look like just as much of a work of art as the client’s own creations. Louvered wooden shades complement the natural materials and let in plenty of fresh air. Arched doorways and clumps of desert plants root it in the visuals of its location, while a dramatic shimmering silver staircase connects the private areas to the public ones.

The firm explains that they “were asked by the artist Amoako Boafo to develop a hybrid typology that brings together a home, a painter’s studio, a gallery, and facilities for three artists-in-residence. The project was motivated by the artist’s desire to return to Accra with the mission of bringing a newfound energy to the city’s art scene. A lack of contemporary art venues and opportunities for exchange between local and foreign artists was as important to Mr. Boako as his need to establish his studio in his homeland after long periods of being abroad.”

The house consists of two volumes interacting through slight shifts in geometry. The artist’s house and studio occupy one volume, while the residences, dining areas, and public gallery occupy the other. At the center of the courtyard, a circular staircase leads from the pool to the public gallery. By hybridizing public and private programs, the house had to become something new, something more that a mere dwelling. Rammed earth walls and galvanized steel platforms and railings combine to form a sculpted environment that is at once rigid yet earthbound and free.”

Loving the look of rammed earth? There’s lots more inspiration where this project came from. DUST Architects completed a gorgeous contemporary desert home surrounded by cacti, complete with a rooftop deck for taking in views of the dramatic landscape. Another modern rammed earth home in New Mexico has a roofline you’d never expect from this type of construction, but the effect feels fun and fresh all the same. And in China, the crumbling remains of a traditional “yaodong” cave house have been transformed with a new rammed earth insert by hyperSity Architects to gorgeous effect.