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.
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.
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.”