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Revista hábitat sustentable

versión On-line ISSN 0719-0700

Rev. hábitat sustentable vol.10 no.2 Concepción dic. 2020

http://dx.doi.org/10.22320/07190700.2020.10.02.04 

Articles

ASSESSMENT OF EARTH BLOCKS BY MEANS OF A CONSTRUCTION FEASIBILITY STUDY (CFS)

Ana Romero-Girón* 
http://orcid.org/0000-0002-0536-4458

Jacinto Canivell** 
http://orcid.org/0000-0001-7636-102X

Maria Reyes Rodríguez-García*** 
http://orcid.org/0000-0002-8331-2303

Ana González-Serrano**** 
http://orcid.org/0000-0001-5104-8555

*Investigadora, Doctora en Arquitectura, Universidad de Sevilla, Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura, Departamento de Construcciones Arquitectónicas I, Sevilla, España, anaromerogiron@gmail.com.

**Profesor Contratado, Doctor en Arquitectura, Universidad de Sevilla, Escuela Técnica Superior de Ingeniería de Edificación, Departamento de Construcciones Arquitectónicas II, Sevilla, España, jacanivell@us.es.

***Profesor titular, Doctora en Química, Universidad de Sevilla, Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura, Departamento de Construcciones Arquitectónicas I, Sevilla, España, rgarcia@us.es.

****Profesora titular, Doctora en Arquitectura, Universidad de Sevilla, Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura, Departamento de Construcciones Arquitectónicas I, Sevilla, España, gserrano@us.es.

ABSTRACT:

Although earth block construction (EB) is supported by numerous scientific works, there is a lack of confidence in its constructive viability, aggravated by the lack of specific technical training. In view of this uncertainty, which is widespread in Spain, it is necessary to provide well-founded technical responses. This article, considering these aspects, presents the design and validation of a tool to assess the constructive viability of EB. For this purpose, 29 case studies are chosen in Spain, which establish the constructive use determinations and indicators to assess a degree of technical suitability. This parameter, as a result of the proposed tool, acts as a support for decision-making, the improvement of the design and, the efficiency of the solutions that use EB. It concludes by validating the tool, demonstrating its reliability and adaptability to any situation. Finally, the case analysis shows how the quality of the product combined with adverse external conditions, even with correct construction designs, defines a common situation where the degree of suitability of the solution is reduced. Therefore, it is also necessary to demand products with guarantees and prescriptions that ensure and offer sufficient technical safety.

Keywords: Sustainable construction; traditional materials; bio-construction; building envelope

Table 2: Nomenclature. 

CFS Construction feasibility study
EB Earth block
CEB Compressed earth block
EEB Extruded earth block
C-CA Reference to the quality of the product
C-RC Reference to the construction requirements
C-AE Reference to the external actions
CFS Construction feasibility study
GI i Degree of suitability for i aspects
NET q Technical assessment level of the q indicators
NETP i Weighted technical assessment level for i aspects
W i Weighted coefficient for the i aspects

Source: Preparation by the Authors.

INTRODUCTION

Over the last two decades, the international environmental and economic situation is generating the need and interest to develop suitable construction solutions for the environmental, energy and social demands. In this context, the use of adobe and earth blocks (EB), that mainly includes compressed earth blocks (CEB), as manufactured masonry, may be a more sustainable construction alternative.

To support this statement, the current EB research framework has focused on studies about their mechanical (Gandia, Gomes, Corrêa, Rodrigues & Mendes, 2019; Mahmood, Habeeb & Al-Jumaili, 2019), thermal (Mosquera, Canas, Cid-Falceto & Marcos, 2014; Molar-Orozco, Velázquez-Lozano & Vázquez-Jimánez, 2020; Miloudi et al, 2019; Wati, Bidoung, Damfeu, & Meukam, 2020) and durability (Fernandes, Peixoto, Mateus & Gervásio, 2019; Lavie Arsène, Frédéric & Nathalie, 2020; Jové Sandoval, Muñoz de la Calle & Pahíno Rodríguez, 2011) properties. Others support the use of EB, arguing economic aspects, low toxicity and, even, as a product that benefits indoor air quality (Fernandes et al., 2019). It also uses natural local materials, freeing, to a great extent, the environmental impact associated to transportation (Deboucha & Hashim, 2011).

From the application point of view of the product, it is necessary that EB reaches a higher level of acceptance, similar to that of other construction materials, and that certain factors that negatively affect the decision-making of technicians are overcome: the production cost, the low availability of technical data of the product to justify regulatory requirements, added to the bad practice on not knowing the application conditions of the material. As a result, it is necessary to establish a framework that better defines the construction, economic or environmental determinations of using EB. These must serve as the basis for its choice to be viable and guaranteed with technical data and for the trusts of all the agents involved in the construction grows, with the purpose of setting directives on the correct use, and in line with the technical-construction requirements.

The feasibility of using CEB and adobe has been analyzed by Maldonado Ramos, Castilla Pascual, Vela Cossio and Rivera Gómez (2001) demonstrating that, for a small to mid-sized scale project, it is an economic solution, as well as being an improvement for thermal insulation compared to other materials like concrete, bricks or steel. Likewise, in the international regulatory sphere, there are several documents that regulate the use and application of EB, such as the Brazilian (1986-1996), Colombian (2004), Peruvian (2000) or Spanish (2008) regulations, all of them reviewed and analyzed by Cid-Falceto, Mazarrón and Cañas (2011). However, none of the contributions mentioned offer a tool that allows analyzing the feasibility of applying EB in buildings, reason why its applicability is reduced on being subjected to a technical criterion without enough or suitable knowledge regarding its qualities and performance.

As for the assessment methodologies, those that use quantitative or qualitative indicators have been extensively developed in literature. In terms of those focused on earth construction, the contribution of Canivell for the evaluation of adobe brick factories stands out (Canivell, Rodríguez-García, González-Serrano & Romero Girón, 2020; López-Zambrano, Canivell & Calama, 2019). Although its purpose is focused on the evaluation of the physical risk, certain operating capacity of the indicators have been taken as reference. However, no methodological tools that are useful to evaluate the suitability of certain construction products like EB, have been developed.

This work focuses on the construction aspects that affect the suitability of EB as a product, for which its physical, chemical and mechanical characteristics have been defined, as have the production phases and construction techniques for the sake of adopting solutions adapted to different contexts. In this case, the framework of the requirements to analyze the feasibility of EB is the Spanish building regulation (Spain, 2008). The goals of this article are (I) establishing the construction determinations of EB and its associated indicators; (II) presenting and validating the methodological procedure of a tool to evaluate the construction aspects of an architectonic design at the level of basic project developed using EB; (III) presenting the results of said tool in the case studies considered; and (IV) analyzing the response of the indicators used. It is estimated that this task, namely, clearly establishing the demands and determinations of this tool, offering an analysis of the indicators, will facilitate decision-making in this aspect and, subsequently, will contribute towards optimizing the applicability of EB as a sustainable construction solution.

METHODOLOGICAL PROCEDURE OF THE RESEARCH. INDICATORS

The methodological process carried out to set up the tool, which will be called construction feasibility study (CFS), has been compartmentalized in the phases and contents that are detailed in Figure 1.

Source: Preparation by the authors.

Figure 1: Methodological procedure set out to establish the CFS 

Starting from the inventory made on buildings that have used EB in their design in Spain, in a first phase, a set of 70 cases are chosen and analyzed, which correspond to 59 dwellings (residential use) and another 11 properties for tertiary, education or industrial use. Later, with fieldwork, the most relevant cases are chosen, leaving a total of 28 out of the 70 studied ones, which are divided in 15 cases of single-family residential use, 5 of multi-family use, 6 of third-party use and 2 educational buildings. In the second phase, the construction determinations associated to EB are cataloged (Table 1). In the third one, the tool is implemented in the 28 cases mentioned and, using improvement cycles, their optimal response is adapted. In the last phase, the operation of the CFS (Table 2) is validated in a case study not included in the 28 previous ones.

Table 1: Determinations considered and associated indicators. 

Source: Preparation by the Authors.

The first key aspect of CFS consists in setting out the construction determinations (second phase), which are organized considering the three categories developed in Table 1: the characteristics of the product (quality), the construction requirements (requirements of the construction system itself), and the external conditions (external actions). Thus, the product’s quality considers the physical, chemical and mechanical characteristics of the EB, defined and/or stated by the manufacturer and established in the project. Secondly, the construction requirements are associated to the product to respond to certain aspects regarding compliance of the current regulations (Ministry of Development, 1999), fundamentally the structural stability of the factory and the inhabitability of the spaces. And, regarding the third category, it will have to consider the analysis of external actions that may affect the EB factory throughout its service life, which depend on the function that the wall has (load bearing or enclosure), its location and orientation, and the aggressiveness of the environment it is exposed to (Soronis, 1992).

The determinations presented in Table 1 are used to establish a total of 35 associated indicators. The indicators are identified using a code (C-CA: quality constructive indicators; C-RC: constructive requirements; C-AE: external actions) and are evaluated using numeric values based on concepts and appreciations. The quantitative and/or qualitative valuation of each indicator is called Technical Assessment Level (NET in Spanish) and requires its basic definition following: (I) a description of its three possible levels (1, 2 or 3), and (II) the references and sources used, as suggested by the UNE 21929-1:2010 (AENOR, 2009) to define sustainability indicators for buildings. The three levels of indicators are expressed as: 1 (low assessment level, negative valuation); 2 (medium level, moderate valuation); and 3 (high level, positive valuation) (Figure 2).

Source: Preparation by the authors based on the UNE 41410 (2008) and ASTM D559 (1989) standards.

Figure 2: Basic definition of the NET for the indicator of resistance to wet/dry cycles.  

METHODOLOGICAL PROPOSAL FOR THE CFS

The CFS is designed to be applied in the first stage of preparation of the architectonic project. In this phase, the goal is to consider possible strategies in the constructive design of the enclosure non-load bearing wall. The assessment procedure (Figure 3) comprises three differentiated stages: data entry, establishing indicator levels, and evaluation which, for its part, is developed in two concatenated stages.

Source: Preparation by the Authors.

Figure 3: CFS procedure stages. 

In the first stage, the information sources having been considered, the constructive determinations of the case study are compiled and classified following the categories of Table 1, which is used to later value the associated indicators, following the NET for each one of the 35 indicators of the three categories. It is worth clarifying that on each indicator being of a different nature and the application settings within a wall being different, not all the indicators will have the same degree of influence on the assessment, as such their values must not be added directly. For this reason, weighing methods are established, following the UNE-ISO/TS 21929 (AENOR, 2009), through the application of correction coefficients or weights, prepared from surveys to experts (see Figure 1, phase 3), emphasizing in the valuation of the degree of determination of each indicator, following nine application aspects of the EB defined as enclosure elements (these consider: foundation, wall base, parts of an opening - lintel, jambs, sill -, finishing - indoor and outdoor - installations and crowning of the wall) (Figure 4). Three types of indicators are also included in these surveys, determined considering the associated weights: decisive, moderate or slight. The ranges of the NET (1 to 3) are weighted in terms of the relationship between the proposed indicators and the nine defined aspects of the wall. Thus, the NET will reduce or maintain its value proportionally through the product with the coefficient, obtaining the weighted technical assessment level (NETP)

Source: Preparation by the Authors.

Figure 4: Result of the survey to experts to establish the weight averages (W i ) in each wall aspect of all the indicators. 

Therefore, as there are nine aspects, just as Figure 4 shows, nine sets of NETP are obtained, after applying the following equation [1]:

Where W i is the weight for each one of the nine aspects studied.

The surveys to experts are also used to consider which circumstances are the most adverse when there are certain critical combinations. Starting from these, seven critical combinations of indicators that reduce the valuations of the NETPi are established. In this way, for each one of the nine aspects, some of the seven possible combinations that are outlined in Figure 5 would develop. On establishing the condition that, for NET < 3 of the indicators associated to the combinations, the valuations of their corresponding NETP will be reduced 50% through the K j coefficient, leaving the weighing of NET following equation 2.

Source: Preparation by the authors.

Figure 5: Critical combinations following the survey to experts and their Kj weight coefficients considering the established aspects 

Next, all the NETP of each block are added (C-CA, C-RC and C-AE) and by combination, within each one of the nine aspects of the wall, as is detailed in the graph of Figure 6. The degree of suitability of each aspect (hereinafter GI i ) would correspond to the minimum of the combinations made, obtaining with the average of the nine GI i , the GI for each block (C-CA, C-RC, C-AE), through which the two levels of assessment will be developed.

Source: Preparation by the authors.

Figure 6: Sequence of stages in the NET assessment. 

The first assessment level of the GI allows obtaining an affirmative (“Suitable”) or negative (“Unsuitable”) response on the constructive feasibility of the EB. For this, a final criterion is established depending on the GI, evaluated as “Suitable” as long as the average GI of the three blocks (GI(C-CA) = 1.5, GI(C-RC) = 2.3, GI(C-AE) = 2.5) is higher than or equal to the preset GI thresholds (also see Figure 11). The rating of “Suitable” implies that the constructive solutions are feasible from a constructive point of view and could be implemented in the execution project. However, the negative response of “Unsuitable” would imply making a second assessment level.

In that second assessment level, the indicators are studied in greater detail based on two lines of analysis, to identify deficiencies and to propose improvements. The first analysis corresponds to the product’s quality indicators, as such the corresponding NET are cross checked with the demands of the current standards in force (essentially UNE 41410:2008) and shortcomings are detected in the technical specifications of the manufacturer’s statements, which, at the same time, can be resolved or at least proposals of alternative measures could be allowed. For this purpose, some conditional algorithms have been designed in the CFS that link these indicators with the data entry values related to the product’s quality. The second analysis is focused on the GI i of the constructive requirements and on the external actions that affect all aspects of the wall where EB is used. In this case, three classifications of the GI i ranges have been established: optimal (green), moderate (yellow) or low (red). This classification is made from the GI i intervals of the 28 case studies implemented (Figure 7). Depending on the classification of each GI i , possible solutions can be established to improve the aspects considered as deficient.

Source: Preparation by the Authors.

Figure 7: Classification of GI according to the intervals established for the second assessment level. 

Once the methodology procedure of the CFS is developed, a variation is made through the implementation of the method on a case study not included in the list of the 28 ones chosen as the basis to make the tool.

VALIDATION AND RESULTS

The goal of the proposed tool’s validation is to verify that the procedure is suitable for the constructive assessment of EB walls as part of an architectonic project. With said purpose, it is confirmed whether the results of the CFS or any case study are those estimated in terms of their GI. To validate the CFS, a sufficiently sized building is chosen (approximately 700m2 built) with available technical documentation, where the constructive solutions are varied and that uses EB with technical certification on the enclosure walls.

With these starting conditions, the La Font del Rieral Municipal Primary School in Santa Eulàlia de Ronçana (Barcelona) is chosen, designated as BAR-001. In one sector, CEB are used, with a size of 29x14.5x9.5 cm, from a manufacturer that provides product datasheets, where the regulatory requirements are justified, although without official standardization. The main characteristics of the walls’ constructive solutions appear on the building’s south-facing façade, comprised by a double CEB sheet load-bearing wall (each sheet with a thickness of 14.5 cm), anchored to each other with zinc-coated steel pins, with a natural cork insulation layer (2 cm) and inner air chamber (5 cm). These walls, towards the inside have a visible CEB with a baseboard covered with laminate panels up to the window sills; and on the outside, these are treated with water repellant that is coated with lime and cement mortar. The openings are designed with suitably waterproofed wood carpentry. The support of the load-bearing wall to the foundation is made using cement mortar block course, connected with corrugated metal bars to the reinforced concrete strip footing; the waterproofing sheet is placed on the base of the CEB wall above ground level. A reinforced concrete truss beam crowns the wall, where the roof’s sawn wooden beam rests. The project considers the requirements of the Technical Building Code (Spain).

Upon analyzing the available information on the project, data entry is made (Figure 8), looking to obtain an optimal CFS response for the first assessment level, given that the starting parameters for the three blocks considered are favorable. All indicators have a NET of three, except for C-RC-S-001.4 (Spatial configuration), C-RC-S-0021 (Fire safety) and C-AE-F-001.3 (Temperature), which are valued with two; and C-CA-AQ-002 (water as constituent part) which has a value of 1, on not having proof of the tempering water requirements, as per UNE 41410.

Source: Preparation by the authors.

Figure 8: Initial data entry for BAR-001 case study. 

The first result of the CFS (Figure 9) shows the NETP and GI i corresponding to the different aspects of the studied wall, as well as the average GI, which makes it possible to pass the first assessment level. The initial hypothesis is thus confirmed, where it was estimated that the type of EB used was viable for the project’s solutions.

Source: Preparation by the authors.

Figure 9: Results of NETP and GI (first assessment level) of the chosen case study. 

In the second assessment level, all requirements are met (Figure 10) for the block in terms of quality indicators (C-CA). Regarding the GI i of the C-RC and C_AE blocks, values close to 3 are determined and, therefore, they also show an excellent constructive viability for the proposed constructive solutions.

Below, in the interest of gaining different responses of the tool, hypothetical constructive variations are assigned. Thus, variants are established, where it is analyzed which GI is not suitable, and it is verified which solutions are proposed. The first hypothesis focuses on altering the product’s quality, assuming that it does not have certain technical declarations: resistance to wetting cycles (indicator C-CA-AF-003, NET=1), resistance to erosion (indicator C-CA-AF-004, NET=1) and resistance to freeze-thaw cycles (indicator C-CA-AF-006, NET=1). In addition, it is assumed that the external sheet of the CEB wall is uncoated, changing the entry data considering these same criteria. Consequently, the result of the second assessment level in terms of quality, reflects a non-compliance of the three aspects required by UNE 41410, which would guarantee an optimal quality for an elevated degree of exposure; capillary water absorption, resistance to freeze/thaw cycles and water vapor permeability tests. The GI i (C-RC) are slightly changed on having altered the C-RC-H-001 indicator, that controls the hygroscopic response of the enclosure, now exposed. Meanwhile the GI i (C-AE) are unaltered on not having changed the conditions (Figure 10). It can also be confirmed that these changes do not imply a non-compliance of the first assessment (Figure 9).

Source: Preparation by the authors.

Figure 10: Results of the second assessment level for the case study. 

In the second hypothesis, starting from the initial status, some constructive solutions are altered, which imply an eccentric transmission of loads on the foundation (C-RC-S-001.1, NET=2), an unsuitable wall slenderness (>1:10), and the presence of elements that reduce the wall’s load-bearing capacity (for example, unsuitable filling mortar of joints) (C-RC-S-001-3, NET=2). In addition, the openings would have dimensions that are greater than those recommended for building with earth (Walker, 2001) (C-RC-S-001.5, NET=1). As for the first assessment level (Figure 9), a non-compliance will be seen, as the GI i (C-RC) is lower than the established mean (2.3). Considering the second level, the requirements of UNE 41410 are met, as the product’s quality is not altered (Figure 10). Likewise, as the external circumstances do not alter either, the GI i (C-AE) continue to be favorable. However, the GI i (C-RC) show low or medium valuations, specifically in the most critical aspects: base, crown and lintels, so it would be necessary to review the proposed constructive solutions, fundamentally in these aspects.

Finally, in summary, Figure 11 reflects the results obtained for the first assessment level of all the case studies used in the design of this tool.

Source: Preparation by the authors.

Figure 11: Results of the first CFS assessment level for all case studies. 

It is concluded that, of the 28 cases analyzed, diverse results are obtained that can reproduce, at a general level, certain common guidelines in a building project. Consequently, despite these cases not being statistically representative, they allow generating a valid feedback tool. The compliance of the first assessment level occurs in most cases, although the causes of pathologies are much more diverse and reflect that the problems reside, be it in the quality of the product supplied or in the adverse conditions of the context (or even in both simultaneously).

CONCLUSIONS

The methodological procedure of the research has allowed validating the operation of the CFS tool to assess the design determinations of EB walls, as the results obtained are coherent with the constructive reality of the case study used. In this way, CFS could be implemented in any architectonic design that uses EB, which would help its use with a better technical support that is capable of ensuring better results and favoring the use of materials with a low environmental impact, such as this product.

It is insisted that the use of indicators, with an objective weighting that fits the constructive reality and that of the material, contributes to technical decision-making being impartial and objective, and not influenced by social prejudices or by a lack of knowledge regarding use of EB.

The possibility offered to establish an accessible tool for this decision-making, allows that products with a more environmentally sustainable and friendly consideration are brought to the market, which also provide a variety to normal solutions for the construction of non-load bearing enclosure walls. This strategy could be implemented in the rest of the constructive solutions and for the rest of the products that are being generated with environmentally friendly criteria, that can imply elements not trusted by building technicians.

In particular, from the CFS results in the 28 case studies, the following can be highlighted:

EB quality, considering the categories established for the indicators, closely conditions the constructive feasibility of an architectonic solution. The results show that, when the EB does not have certified/declared durability requirements (in terms of resistance to dry/wet cycles, erosion, freeze/thaw cycles or capillary water absorption), and is exposed to unfavorable conditions, the GI indicate that the design must be revised for the suitable constructive layout (Guettala et. al, 2006).

The values established for the weights and combinations are valid for a broad geographical context, on having been designed by international experts, although they could be adapted for other situations that were not considered.

On analyzing the three categories of indicators set out, it can be highlighted that the constructive requirements provide the highest proportion of decisive indicators for the design of the wall’s stable structure.

Starting from the indicators used, it is confirmed that, as in any factory design, the start at the base or at its join with the foundation, the finishing of the outside wall and the design of openings are the singular points where the most decision weights are accumulated and, therefore, are aspects to look out for to obtain the best degree of suitability.

In brief, it is concluded that this CFS can be used as a basic resource to make decisions in projects of new works or building retrofits where one wishes to use EB. To develop a set of criteria with greater applicability, economic, environmental or social indicators must be considered, which could be included in a methodological procedure that complements the one presented here.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

First of all, we would like to thank Daniel Maskell, Guillermo Rolón, Miguel Rocha, Rubén Salvador Roux Gutiérrez and Félix Jové for their invaluable interest to provide their critical and technical views. Likewise, we thank all the technical staff, constructors, companies and private parties, especially the architect Gabriel Barbeta, for providing crucial information about all the domestic cases that made the development of this tool possible.

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Received: May 19, 2020; Accepted: November 02, 2020

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