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F. Aymerich°, L. Fenu*, P. Meloni**,

°Dipartimento di Ingegneria Meccanica, Università degli Studi di Cagliari
Piazza d’Armi, 09123 Cagliari;

*Dipartimento di Ingegneria Strutturale, Università degli Studi di Cagliari

Piazza d’Armi, 09123 Cagliari;

**Dipartimento di Ingegneria Chimica, Università degli Studi di Cagliari

Piazza d’Armi, 09123 Cagliari;

Theme 3: Conservation and management of cultural heritage

Key Words: Earthen materials, Reinforcing fibres, Toughness, Modulus of Rupture

This paper reports the preliminary results of an experimental program aimed at investigating the
improvement of mechanical properties of earthen materials achievable by the use of reinforcing
fibres. Samples made with soil material and various kinds of natural and artificial fibres were
prepared and tested to compare the mechanical performances of the different materials.
The study indicates that a marked improvement in toughness and flexural strength may be
obtained by fibre reinforcement, even though higher water content is needed for obtaining
sufficient workability of the fibre-reinforced mixture. The best properties in terms of strength and
energy absorption were exhibited by soil specimens reinforced with hemp fibres, while good
results were also obtained by the use of a combination of hemp and posidonia fibres. The
findings of the study suggest that the structural performance of earth-based materials can be
significantly improved by an appropriate selection of fibrous reinforcement.

Adobe and earthen materials have been rediscovered in recent times as construction
materials not only for the conservation and restoration of cultural heritage buildings in
several countries, but also as low-energy and environmentally friendly materials for use
in bio-ecological and sustainable architecture (Houben et al, 1989; Mattone, 2001).
Earthen construction, which was widely diffused in the past, is still common today in
regions of favourable climate conditions because of the low cost of raw materials and
of the simple technological and production process.
In the tradition of earthen buildings, the soil is stabilized in different ways in order to
improve its performances (Houben et al, 1989) Different stabilizers have been used,
such as dung, lime, bitumen, cement, oils, vegetal additives and fibres, blood of
animals, casein and other animal proteins (Fodde, 2004). All these additives have a
proper role in soil stabilization and a number of them are for instance employed to
make the soil less permeable and erodible.
It is well known that the addition of fibres greatly reduces cracking, makes the soil less
brittle and allows to control soil shrinkage (Binici et al., 2005; Yetgin et al, 2008).
Analogously to fibre-reinforced concretes (Schmidt M., Fehling E., Geisenhanslüke C.,
2004), the use of fibres is particularly favourable not only for the limitation of initial
cracks due to shrinkage, but also for avoiding fracture propagation (Carpinteri A.,
Gambarova P., Ferro G., Plizzari G., 2007), since fibres constitute often the most
effective mechanism to restrain crack propagation in earth-based materials.
This paper reports preliminary results of a study on the use of natural and artificial
fibres for soil stabilization; particular attention was devoted during the investigation to
the analysis of the influence exerted by reinforcement on the final toughness and
flexural strength of the material.


The soil investigated in this study was traditionally used for earthen constructions in the
villages near Oristano, Sardinia (Italy). The characteristics of the soil are summarized
in table 1 and Fig. 1.
Samples for mechanical testing were prepared by mixing the soil with about 20% in
weight of water, and then adding and mixing the reinforcing fibres. A limited number of
samples was prepared without added fibres for comparison of properties and
performances of reinforced and unreinforced materials.

Table 1 : Soil properties

(%) (%) (%)
28 17 11 48

Fig.1- Granulometric curve of the soil investigated in the study

Three kinds of stabilizing and reinforcing fibres were employed in the study:

1) natural fibres obtained from posidonia oceanica, with a length of 10 mm;

2) natural fibres obtained from hemp, with a length of 35 mm;
3) artificial polypropylene fibres, with a length of 19 mm.

Four different reinforced materials were used for preparation of samples: FC with 5% in
weight of posidonia fibres, FL with 3% of hemp fibres, FP with 2% of polypropylene
fibres, and MIX with 2.5% of posidonia and 1.5% of hemp fibres (table 2). The use of
unreinforced soil is indicated by the notation NF.
Both unnotched and notched specimens were manufactured for experimental
evaluation of the toughness and the flexural properties of the earthen materials.
Unnotched specimens 100 mm long and with a rectangular cross section of 25 mm ×
25 mm were tested under a three-point loading configuration with a lower span length
of 75 mm for measurement of flexural strength (MOR= Modulus of Rupture).
Notched samples 360 mm long, with a cross section of 75 mm × 75 mm and with a
central notch 25 mm in depth (fig. 2), were tested under a three-point loading
configuration using a lower span length of 310 mm for assessing and comparing the
properties of the various materials in terms of toughness and ductility.

Table 2 : Fibre content of reinforced samples

Material Fibre content (% weigth) Fibre length (mm)

FC 5.0 % posidonia fibres 10 mm
FL 3.0 % hemp fibres 35 mm
2.5% posidonia fibres 10 mm
1.5% hemp fibres 35 mm
FP 2.0% polypropylene fibres 19 mm

360 mm
75 mm

75 mm
25 mm


50 mm

Fig. 2 : Geometry (a) and appearance of a notched specimen after fracture (b).
Tests were performed on a servo-electric 5 kN tension/compression machine. For tests
on notched samples, both the load and the displacement of the lower surface of the
sample in the proximity of the notch (fig. 3) were acquired during the test, using the
load cell of the testing machine and an LVDT transducer, respectively.


LVDT transducer

310 mm

Fig. 3 : Test setup for flexural tests of notched samples

The results of the experimental tests are summarized in figs. 4-6. Figs. 4 and 5 show,
respectively, flexural strength and energy absorbed by the notched samples for the
different materials investigated. The energy absorbed by the samples was evaluated as
the area lying under the force-displacement curve up to a maximum mid-span
displacement of 15 mm. Typical force vs. displacement curves of notched samples are
illustrated in fig. 6.
As expected, the results indicate that the presence of fibres increases both the flexural
strength (fig. 4) and the toughness of the material, as measured by the energy
absorbed by the material during fracture propagation. Moreover the experimental
results clearly indicate that the strength and the work of fracture are highly affected by
the fibre type.
FL samples with relatively long (35 mm) hemp fibres exhibit a much higher work of
fracture in comparison with samples stabilized with different fibres. The significant
ductility of the material is clearly evident from the observation of the force-displacement
curves of FL specimens (fig. 6), which show a rather slow load decrease, even for large
displacement values, after the peak load is attained.
Posidonia-reinforced FC samples show load vs. deflection curves typical of cohesive
fracture, which indicate that even rather short fibres may introduce toughening
mechanisms capable of preventing brittle failure typical of plain soil samples; at the
same time, however, fibre length does not appear to be sufficiently large to obtain a
substantial increase of the fracture toughness of the material.
MIX samples have, as expected, an intermediate behaviour. Their work of fracture
could be possibly improved by increasing the content of long hemp fibres with respect
to that of posidonia.
Finally, FP samples with polypropylene fibres exhibit a rather high work of fracture,
thus suggesting that a fibre length of about 20 mm may be sufficient to drastically
modify the fracture behaviour of the reinforced soil.
The experimental findings just summarized show that a proper use of fibre
reinforcement can drastically improve the structural behaviour of earth masonry
constructions by imparting larger ductility and fracture toughness as well as higher
flexural strength to earthen materials.

Fig. 4: Average flexural strength of different materials as obtained by unnotched specimens

Fig. 5 : Average absorbed energies of different materials as obtained by notched specimens

Fig. 6 : Typical force-displacement curves of notched samples

Good mechanical properties such as flexural strength and toughness are among the
key requirements for earth-based materials, which are widely adopted throughout the
world, even in earthquake-prone regions, as construction materials.
The addition of fibres to the typically brittle matrix of this class of materials is possibly
the most efficient way to increase their mechanical performances and ductility. The use
of natural fibres, in particular, appears particularly promising, in view of the increasing
demands for the adoption of sustainable ways of construction and for the utilization of
low-cost and environmentally compatible local resources.
The results reported in the paper indicate that fracture resistance and flexural strength
of soil as a building material may be drastically increased by the introduction of
environmentally compatible and abundantly available natural fibres, such as those
obtained from hemp and posidonia. Further improvements in the performance of
reinforced soils could be obtained by optimal selection of quality, length, shape ratio
and amount of reinforcing fibres, and by a proper design of the technological and
manufacturing process.


Houben H., Guillaud H., Traité de Construction en terre; Editions Parenthèses,

Marseille, 1989
Mattone A, La terra cruda tra innovazione e tradizione, L’industria dei laterizi, n. 71,
2001, p. 313-320
Fodde E., Architettura di Terra in Sardegna, Edizioni Aipsa, Cagliari, 2004.
Binici H, Aksogan H, Shah T., Investigation of fibre reinforced mud brick as a building
material, in Construction and Building Materials, Vol. 19, Issue 4, 2005, p.313–8
Yetgin S., Çavdar Ö., Çavdar A., The effects of the fiber contents on the mechanic
properties of the adobes, in Construction and Building Materials, Vol. 22, Issue 3, 2008,
p. 222-227.
Schmidt M., Fehling E., Geisenhanslüke C., Ultra High Performance Concrete, in
Structural Materials and Engineering Series No.3, University of Kassel, Germany,
Carpinteri A., Gambarova P., Ferro G., Plizzari G., High Performance Concrete, Brick
Masonry and Environmental Aspects, Taylor & Francis, London, 2007.