Earth Sheltered Homes

Adobe Homes

Custom Home Construction

Jeanette Harris is a freelance writer, realtor, and lover of interesting houses. Her article appeared in Southwest Homes, Sun-News on June 30, 2002.
Today adobe is labor and detail intensive. Some adobe bricks are still made with straw and also have a small bit of asphalt to stabilize them. Recipes can vary, and there are many types of adobe.
The end result, however, is a much heavier house than a frame variety. An adobe house requires not only cleared but compressed ground before the foundation and bricks are laid. Once the foundation is completed a layer of special adobe bricks made with more asphalt for waterproofing is laid. Consistency is important with not too much clay or sand.
The traditional adobes have lintels made from beams of wood over the windows and doors that can be attractively carved. Bond beams are laid to tie all the walls together and wood vigas are laid on top with more adobe between them. Latias, smaller poles of pine, spruce or aspen, are laid at angles to each other and so create an interesting pattern. Fiberglass insulation can be installed between the sloped sleepers and a canale or drain channel helps drain water from the roof. Extra foam insulation can increase the R-value. While a frame house may be built in a couple of months, a 3,000 or so square foot adobe might take five times as long. Charming bancos, nichos, trasteros (a built-in cupboard), tile work, corbels, and lintels add to the character and the cost.

Rammed Earth Houses

Rammed earth houses have also become popular and may be suitable for wetter conditions, too. I always think of them as adobes on steroids. Rammed earth was apparently used on the eastern seaboard around the time of the Civil War and later in the 1930s in an Alabama homestead program. Walls are formed by pounding a mixture of soil, cement, and water into reusable forms using pneumatic tampers which create very efficient and owner-friendly homes that are meant to be termite-free and fire-proof, as well as energy-efficient and solar oriented.

Small wonder that adobe is experiencing a rebirth. A timeless classic that both saves the owner energy and requires little energy to produce compared to other building materials, it provides beauty with real substance. When the Spanish explored this part of the New World, they were intent upon finding the cities of gold and were rather disappointed at their lack of success. Perhaps we know better. Not all that is gold glitters here as the sun both creates and shines on a unique landscape of homes that hug the shimmering earth.

Earth Shelter Homes

The Extraordinary House That Jim Built

It took one man’s special needs, one woman’s special imagination, one family’s determination to pitch in and one craftsman’s ability to translate the plan to reality.
This is the house that Jim built. He built it mostly for Murray.

Extraordinary Home

Murray and Aurora Galves moved to Las Cruces from New York nearly 10 years ago. For eight of those years, the two lived here only during the cold months, going back to their home in New York when it got warmer there.

But Murray is confined to a wheelchair, and the moving got to be too much for him. The couple decided to make Las Cruces their permanent home since they had a son here whose family was able to look after Murray while Aurora, who is still quite active, traveled and took care of the couple’s outside interests.

It soon became apparent that caring for Murray would require special accommodations. Besides the difficulties inherent to getting a wheelchair through a home of standard design, there was the problem of shuttling people back and forth from the house of son, Al, his wife, Nancy, and two children, Andrew and Becca, which was several blocks away.

The answer, of course, was to regroup. And the plans for the house that Jim built began to take shape.

Jim Graham is an Albuquerque native who graduated from New Mexico State University in 1969 with a degree in biology. He’s a natural carpenter who worked construction jobs to put himself through school and has always had a project going somewhere. He was approached by the Galves family in June 1985 regarding the project of building a single, large home with two separate family living areas divided in the center by an enormous common atrium.

“It’s quite nervy at 81 years of age,” Aurora says, “to worry about a new house, and this one was my idea. But you live. And I’m alive. I get ideas.”

The Galves family bought two lots within the city limits but were told by zoning officials that a building permit could not be issued because the house would contain two totally separate family dwellings under one roof.

Instead of scrapping the plans, however, the family scouted for land outside, but near the city limits. They found an excellent location on Engler Road just north of the city and a quarter-mile east of US Highway 85.

Construction began in June, 1986 with the erection of the 18-foot-high frame front of the atrium.

Graham said the frame had to be assembled and laid down on sawhorses, then pulled upright by a winch truck using chains and pulleys for leverage.

“People would drive by and look at it standing out here all by itself and wonder what we were up to,” Graham said. “A few even stopped to ask.”

The second order of business was to build a two-car garage that Graham could employ as a woodshop. Every beam in the house, every door, every cabinet, every window frame, and even an elegant spiral staircase in the atrium were handcrafted by Graham’s crew using predominantly white ash, with black walnut and African purple heartwood for accent.

Inside the house are 5,300 square feet heated by a combination active/passive solar system. Graham said, however, that by the time all is said and done, there will be closer to 6,000 heated square feet.

There are five entrances, two double car enclosed garages, a double car carport, two kitchens, two living rooms, both with kiva-style fireplaces, six bedrooms, two full- and four three-quarter baths, an enormous built-in jacuzzi (on Al and Nancy’s side), a second floor writer’s room/office for Aurora (who is an aspiring fiction and non-fiction author) and an outside, second-story deck that faces west and provides an impressive view of the Mesilla Valley sunsets.

Built-in shelving and cabinets – all handcrafted by Jim Graham and his crew – soften the ambience of the living areas and kitchens. All the door and window frames are dovetailed; nails and screws were used sparingly in the construction of this behemoth.

“It’s a pretty astounding house,” Graham said, leaning against the staircase railings. “It was miraculously free of backtracking and screwups. We had a high skill level on the crew, a good foreman who kept me on track and top quality journeymen all along the way.”

Graham said that a large part of his pride in the home resulted from the high standards he set for himself and the many requirements set by the owners.

An integral part of the plan for the house is privacy. There is enough room for all six occupants to get away and be alone, yet all are close enough to help Murray if he needs it. An extensive intercom/alarm system ensures that anyone in any part of the house can communicate with anyone, anywhere else.

“Caretakers,” Aurora explains in a lilting Italian accent, “need time off. The way the house is designed we can be alone, but available if Murray needs us. I can travel without worrying and the children can help take care of Murray without sacrificing their privacy.”

The west side of the house – Murray and Aurora’s side – is designed particularly with Murray in mind.

Graham made all the doorways extra wide and almost eliminated doors inside the house, opting instead for wide and graceful archways.

The archways, Aurora says, were Jim’s idea. “I like them except they take up so much wall space where I wanted to hang art. As far as design, it’s more Jim’s house than mine.”

Graham acknowledged that he played a large part in planning specific aspects of the home that helped to fit the specific needs of two families and one handicapped individual.

Murray has a special place at the kitchen counter to which he can roll up and talk with Aurora while she cooks. In the spacious bathroom is a vanity arrangement that allows Murray to take care of his personal needs. There is even a roll-in shower so he can bathe with minimal assistance.

All the floors in the west half of the house are elegant tile or hardwood to make it easier for Murray to get around in his chair. Kitchen cabinets and drawers are down low so he can get to items he needs, and there are plenty of windows where he can sun himself and read.

The east half of the house is for Al and his family.

Seventeen-year-old Andrew has the room farthest south. The walls to his room are all solid adobe so he can crank up his stereo without disturbing other members of the household. He has his own bath on the east side of his room, which provides yet another insulation against sound.

His sister, Becca, 15, lives upstairs from her brother with a room overlooking the atrium. She, too, has a private bath.

Al and Nancy, both 46, share an enormous master bedroom that connects to the bathroom with the jacuzzi.

The upper level of the house is mostly carpeted in rich earth tones. Downstairs is predominantly sand-colored tile, with the exception of Andrew’s room, which – at his special request – is carpeted in an unforgettable purple.

The house contains, by Jim Graham’s estimation, some 29,000 feet of wiring, 9,000 of which is devoted to the intercom/alarm system. It took a full-time crew of 15, eight months to construct the thick adobe walls, piece together and varnish the woodwork, and generally stick the rest of the house to the atrium window.

“It’s quite a house,” Graham said proudly, looking around at his handiwork. And the Galves families seem to agree.

Inside the ‘Platinum Trailblazer’

Don and Beatriz Rudisill reach for the highest level of LEED certification

By Bethany Conway, The Las Cruces Bulletin
Editor’s note: This is the first article in a series following the construction of Las Cruces’ first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum Certified home. Though owners Don and Beatriz Rudisill will not know whether they achieve this certification until their home is complete, sharing their story will help others on their journey to becoming green.

For Don Rudisill, the story behind his home at 4367 Isleta Court is in many ways similar to that of “the first penguin.”


Reaching for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum Certification – never before achieved in southern New Mexico – he is a lot like the first penguin that takes the plunge into cold, unfamiliar territory.
“When you watch a film about penguins, most people notice how they bunch up on the edge of the ice. No penguin wants to be the first to jump into the water where unknown dangers may lurk,” Rudisill said, referencing an excerpt from “The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch. “The same happens with building something new. Many people like the idea of a green home – improved energy efficiency, a healthier home, and improved utilization of the planet’s resources all sound good – but there are many unknowns.”

After two years of intense planning and overcoming many obstacles, Rudisill is blazing a trail for others to follow – a green trail. He will accomplish this with the help of builder Jim Graham of Sun and Earth, who has 30 years of green-building experience.

“It a very ambitious project,” said Miles Dyson, owner of Inspection Connection LC and the only certified Home Energy Rater in Las Cruces. “He has it very well laid out.”

Dyson, southern New Mexico’s go-to guy when it comes to achieving LEED and Build Green New Mexico (BGNM) certification, will inspect the home throughout the entire process. Credit categories for LEED homes include Sustainable Sights, Locations and Linkages, Indoor Environmental Quality, Water Efficiency, Materials and Resources, Awareness and Education, and Energy and Atmosphere.

The trail began when Don and Beatriz Rudisill sat down to create the home’s footprint. The unusual floor plan is partially the result of the couple trying to meet the LEED requirements for passive-solar design. According to the LEED program, the maximum conditioned square footage for a three-bedroom house should be 1,900 square feet. By going above this amount, the couple loses points. By going below it, they gain points.

“We are trying to stay under 1,690 square feet, which gives us three points (toward LEED Platinum Certification),” he said. By creating a storage closet for seasonal clothing near the master bedroom and a sunroom on the southeast side of the house – two areas that will not be heated or air-conditioned – they will be able to add extra space not counted toward their conditioned square footage.

“This is going to generate a lot of solar heat in the winter,” Rudisill said of the sunroom. “During the summer months, we intend just to leave the windows open, and this will be a bonus room. Jim (Graham) is going to put a fan in here because in the winter it will produce surplus heat that we will be able to blow into the house.” Solar hot water panels hidden behind the parapet over the garage roof will provide additional heat.

Another way they were able to gain points and energy efficiency was by keeping all of the hot water within a 20-foot radius. For this reason, the kitchen and bathrooms are all “clustered within the center of the house.”

“If you look at the plans, we had this 20-foot circle drawn, and that created another requirement for the floor plan,” Rudisill said.

When it came to the slab itself, they used 30 percent fly ash – a waste product from coal after it has been burned in a boiler.

Next on the list was the framing, which was done using finger-jointed lumber. “You take scraps that are too small to be used and make a usable piece out of it,” Rudisill said.

When it came to placing the Marvin windows with ULTREX fiberglass frames, Rudisill also had to be very particular in order to gain LEED points. “I put a lot of time into trying to capture the views because we are given glass budgets. You have to keep the glass within a certain percentage,” he said.

One of the most important attributes of the home are the Structured Insulated Panels manufactured by KC Panels of Animas, N.M, which will make up its 4-inch thick walls. Graham said this is the first time he has used the insulated panels. The thermal resistance, or R-value of the panels, is so high they perform almost twice as well as standard 6-inch walls and result in more than 30 square feet of space being shifted from the walls to the available living space. They are held together by polyurethane foam.

“The foam creates a complete seal around the building,” Rudisill said. “So again, through using this one product, we are saving space and improving energy efficiency. The air-tight seal contributes to improved indoor air quality, and the foam has a class-one fire rating, improving the safety of the home.”

From 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, April 18, and 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday, April 19, during the Guild of the Las Cruces Symphony Association’s green home tour, titled The Greening of Las Cruces, residents of Las Cruces will get a chance to visit the construction site and view these panels up close.

“I have an interest in trying to get the information out there about what really goes into a well-built house,” said Rudisill, adding that by educating the public he is actually gaining more points toward the home’s certification.

Though the Rudisills are hopeful they will reach their goal, they won’t know if LEED Platinum Certification will be achieved until the project is complete.

“Being the first to attempt the Platinum level means that we have to be the first in the area to earn certain points. One of the areas that we are earning points is by working as an integrated design team. We have been working very hard as a team with Miles, Jim, and several subcontractors all putting their heads together to help ensure that the rating is achieved.”

Assuming they achieve the platinum rating, the Rudisills will receive $9.50 per square foot in tax credits – close to $15,000.

Jim Graham overcomes the hype of going green

Sun & Earth lays the building blocks of energy efficiency

By Jonathan Butz, The Las Cruces Bulletin
Everyone seems to be endorsing “green” lately because of rising temperatures, higher energy costs and the endless mantra that seems to ring in every corner of our lives – green, green, green.

Despite the instant recognition people feel when they hear the word, not every product marketed as “green” is what it appears to be.

Sun & Earth Construction President Jim Graham hopes to clarify the current phenomenon of “green-sploitation” by providing realistic service in sustainable, energy-efficient building and remodeling.

Since the 1970s, Graham has been on the forefront of green building in southern New Mexico, making sure that clients get exactly what they expect from sustainable living.

“We’re cautious of green washing, which means applying a ‘green’ label on something just so you can sell it,” Graham said.

Passive Solar Home

Although green building has changed dramatically since the 1970s, Graham said he is still intent on building houses that adhere to Sun & Earth’s strict criteria of aesthetics, accessibility, energy efficiency, ease of maintenance, durability, safety, and comfort. Specializing in energy-efficient air conditioning, solar water heating, and sustainable roof coating, Sun & Earth Inc. strives to create a service and product that is more than just a buzzword.

“Green building has become more sophisticated since the ’70s and focuses not only on the sustainability of the house, but on aesthetics and livability,” Graham said. “At one time, green building was pretty raw. It may have been efficient, but it wasn’t comfortable to live in or pleasing to look at.”

Things have changed now, and more people are becoming interested in green building, Graham said. With more affordable options available, long-term utility savings, and a number of tax credits and incentives, Graham said it is becoming easier for individuals with modest incomes to have their homes remodeled or built to green standards. He said he remembers a time when he only saw a response from those associated with universities and research; however, he has seen his clientele base broaden, primarily among retirees.

“Affordability is a mainstay of what I do. If I do something more expensive than the mainstream it’s usually due to nicer amenities,” Graham said.
“I tailor to the clients’ individual needs and I try to be realistic about what I can do for people.”

With a lifetime’s worth of construction experience and a biology degree from New Mexico State University, Graham continues to challenge himself, creating innovative residences for people of southern New Mexico.

“I’ve always set a goal of making buildings 80 to 90 percent more efficient than conventional buildings,” Graham said. “When conventional buildings get more efficient, it challenges me to build more efficient buildings.”

Graham said one of his recent successes has been a two-stage evaporative cooling system, which he calls “one of the best available in the area.”

Additionally, Sun & Earth offers roof coating that can reduce the amount of needed air conditioning, and ezinc solar water heaters that can shave dollars off utility costs.

Now, after years of service, Graham said he always has the future in mind. He hopes to contribute to a cleaner, safer and more beautiful future, despite what color it may be.

“A building is not sustainable if people aren’t going to want to look at it 100 years from now,” Graham said with a laugh.

For more information, visit or call 521-3537.

JIM GRAHAM, contractor, Sun & Earth Construction

Escape from New York

By Bethany Conway, The Las Cruces Bulletin

It is not hard to see why those coming from the big city find Talavera so tranquil. For Sandra Barty of New York, choosing to locate her winter residence in Las Cruces was one of the easiest decisions she ever made.

Barty Home

Her life in the City of the Crosses began behind “A” Mountain at 5022 Black Quartz Road, a home that she purchased along with friend Laurie Churchill.

“In 2004, I visited Las Cruces and I fell in love with the sunsets and the views and the house, which was built by Jim Graham,” she said.

Since the 1970s, Graham, owner of Sun & Earth Construction, has been a pioneer when it comes to resource conservation and energy- efficient design and is known for his implementation of both active and passive solar. When it came time for Barty to build digs of her own, she could think of no one better to take on the task.

“I knew that Jim Graham was the only builder I would ever work with,” Barty said. “He is a man of such incredible integrity, and he really cares. He cares about the environment, he cares about his clients and he cares about the houses he builds. Jim is a gem.”

For her dream home, Barty chose a lot just down the street at 5012 Black Quartz Road, which did pose a challenge.

“This lot looked ridiculous,” Graham recalled standing outside of the home. “We dug it back into this hill. Most people want to build on the top of a hill – it seems like the real natural thing to do – but it doesn’t make a good environment for people because it is usually very windy. This lot is a lot calmer.”

After choosing the location, Barty set to work planning her dream home with the help of architectural drafter Naida Zucker.

“One of the things that Jim said to me when we were first designing the home in November of 2004 was to go through books of Southwest architecture and indicate the things that I liked and the things that I didn’t like. From that, I knew that I wanted a traditional adobe structure with one big room in the center and several rooms branching off to the sides,” she said. “I loved the simplicity of it, but I wanted it to have elegance.”

With the help of designer Maureen Villmer, Barty achieved her goal for grace. What came to fruition when Barty, Graham, Villmer and Zucker combined their creativity was a two-bedroom, inviting adobe with many energy-efficient characteristics.

“It has a feeling of spaciousness, but at the same time it is very intimate,” Barty said.

Though the home has more windows than Graham is accustomed to and veers from his normal passive-solar design, Barty, like any resident of Talavera, just couldn’t help it.

“We situated the house so we would take maximum advantage of the views of the mountains and the valley,” she said.

Leaving some of the adobe walls un-plastered, they gave the home a rustic appearance.

“The guys went over every single line of mortar in that exposed adobe to make it smooth and even,” Barty said. “Jim is a meticulous builder, so he made the details as good as they could possibly be.”

Not only did the adobe walls turn out aesthetically pleasing, but they also make for an energy-efficient, sustainable structure.

“The adobe walls provide a place to store heat in the winter time,” Graham said. “There is also insulation on the exterior, so that keeps the home from losing heat.”

Using solar reflectors over the skylights on the roof, Graham also created a way for Barty to harness the sun’s energy.

“Between the adobe walls, the way the house is situated and those solar collectors, I had almost no propane bill for the winter,” Barty said.

Photovoltaic panels, which Barty added later, also help to lower her bills during the summer time.

“Right now, even with my air conditioner on all the time, El Paso Electric is still sending me payments of about $90 a month,” she said.

Though onlookers are happy to hear of its many energy-efficient features, the home’s style speaks for itself. Cherry wood floors as well as custom colors and tile work are found throughout.

“Maureen helped me pick out those cherry floors. It is as though they have a personality that makes the house incredibly warm,” Barty said.

If the cherry wood floors have a personality, then the kitchen’s heavy concrete countertop has its own persona.

“I saw that in a New York showroom,” Barty said. “It has a softness to it.”

“We actually made it upside down,” Graham added. “You turn it over and you polish and you wax it. It is really a lot of work. It was more work to do this than to build the house.”

If you ask Barty what her favorite feature is, the answer is easy. Located on the north side of the house is a studio like no other. Made to function as its own suite, it includes a 17-foot window, a huge dance floor, a recessed seating area, and a full bathroom.

“I wanted to have space for a music concert or a free movement or yoga or anything like that,” she said. “I love that (seating) area for meditation because it really gives you the feeling that you are in the earth.”

Barty hopes it will offer the next resident a place to let their creative juices flow.

“I knew that Jim Graham was the only builder I would ever work with.”

SANDRA BARTY, homeowner