Waugh Thistleton Architects selected rammed earth construction at Bushey Cemetery for its symbolic and practical sensitivity to the Jewish faith, explains Andrew Waugh


Andrew Waugh

Lewis Khan

Bushey Cemetery in Hertfordshire is situated within the meadows of north London’s green belt. Two monolithic prayer halls are at the heart of a small group of buildings built of rammed earth – a material that defines the overall design and was chosen for both its symbolic and practical sensitivity to the Jewish faith, echoing the tradition of the deceased being laid to rest in plain hardboard caskets, ‘returning to the earth’.

The rammed earth walls are 500mm thick and sit on a 225mm-high concrete upstand, which provides a robust base and a visual datum across the site. They are built in-situ, in sections 2.2 metres wide, compacted into layers of 150mm.


View from the east. Two prayer halls flank a ‘prayer arch’. Adjacent structures house Cohanim rooms for priests. 

Chamfered edges express the vertical joints in the formwork, and frame door and window openings. In contrast, the horizontal joints of the 600mm formwork are left flush, the traces of the horizontal build-up of the earth layers demonstrating a human hand and scale to the construction. Circular imprints left by the structural ties add pattern and order to the massive walls.

In the early design stages we made contact with a rammed earth specialist contractor from Western Australia, Earth Structures. We communicated remotely at first, before meeting in early 2013. Elliot Wood, the structural engineer, was instrumental in this relationship and worked with Earth Structures to create a two-metre-high section of wall on site in late 2013, which allowed us to test both the aesthetic and structural qualities of the material. Carefully specified quantities of sand, limestone and earth were mixed with around 5 per cent cement and a little water. The client body from United Synagogues approved this sample wall, and we began to schedule construction with Buxton, the main contractor.


A chandelier by Omer Abel hangs above the east doors towards Jerusalem, the direction for prayer

A four-man team from Earth Structures arrived on site from Australia in April 2016, and spent the first few weeks sourcing materials and training a local workforce. In May they began work in earnest, mixing the ingredients on site with two small Bobcat loaders. The formwork arrived on site in a single shipping container, and within a week the first layer of wall was complete. The entire rammed earth structure for all four buildings was completed within ten weeks.

Framing the main buildings is a 3.5-metre-high colonnade of larch glulam, providing an important congregational element to the burial process. It was designed to be a simple form, like the earth walls of the prayer halls. Glulam columns are fixed at the base with flush steel dowels to a steel plate to form a rigid joint. The stained larch soffit and fascia echo the treatment of the cladding on the reception and mortuary buildings, and sit among a palette of brown brick pavers, hand-made encaustic tiles and solid oak.

Rammed earth walls with encaustic ceramic tile floor and oak bench

The walls rise above the colonnade, with a six-metre-long window admitting west light to the congregation area. Corten steel doors, 3.5m-high, open into the prayer halls from the west elevation, with a matching pair exiting to the east. Openings are framed with steel goalposts set into the rammed earth and resin-fixed with steel bolts.

A standing-seam zinc roof falls from the front of the prayer hall, stepping up to define the area where the coffin sits during the service, flooded with natural light from the clerestorey window. The floor slopes gently down to the exit in the east. The angled plan of the walls also focuses the passage of the congregation, guiding their view towards the coffin and the rabbi.

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Waugh Thistleton Architects
Structural engineer
Elliot Wood
Rammed earth contractor
Earth Structures
Main contractor
Buxton Building Contractors
United Synagogues