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 1930’s 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.