ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Adobe – the simple mixture of clay- and sand-rich earth with a pinch of straw to help bind it together – makes an environmentally friendly building material that provides insulation from noise and extreme temperatures.
It’s also aesthetically pleasing – walls made from adobe are softly curvaceous – a quality that so captivated Minnesota-farm-girl-turned-builder Rose Morin on a visit to New Mexico that she decided to move here and master the technique.
“I came to do a remodel for a friend in Albuquerque, and I fell in love with the Southwest,” Morin said. “I was utterly fascinated with adobe. It was so different from the square angular wood trim of the old Victorian houses I’d worked on.”
Nearly 35 years later, Morin runs her own general contracting company Earth & Straw, specializing in constructing, remodeling and restoring adobe and straw bale buildings. In 2016, she completed the extensive renovation of the landmark Casa Vieja in Corrales.
The building dates to the 1700s and is made mostly from terrones, sod bricks that were dug from the Rio Grande plain and sun-dried.
“I was very impressed with her level of expertise, and mostly her integrity,” said Casa Vieja co-owner Linda Socha.
Morin cut her teeth in the building trades as part of a women-only construction company called Calamity Jane Contracting in Minnesota. She admits they weren’t highly skilled, often taking how-to books along to the jobs they’d taken.
“But we figured how to learn, and it’s been a core thing I’ve taken with me through my years in business,” said Morin.
When she moved to New Mexico in 1984, Morin plunged into learning about adobe construction. She took classes with Paul McHenry, widely considered an expert and author of “Adobe and Rammed Earth Buildings: Design and Construction.” She studied with Danny Martinez of Casa del Sol Construction, passed the required licensing exams and worked for him for a decade.
Martinez and the other family members in his company were “amazing teachers,” she said.
The years of learning hands-on taught her how tough the job is – an adobe brick weighs 30 pounds. It also gave her a deep respect for the expertise, professionalism and work ethic of the subcontractors that can make or break a building project.
“I know what it’s like to show up in 100-degree weather and sling adobes, or to demolish a house in mid-winter in Minnesota. You learn to deal with the climate issues and show up every day. I have immense respect for workers, because I’ve been there,” she said.
The respect she holds for adobe workmanship extends to the materials themselves. Morin is certified as a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) builder. Building with mud bricks or straw bales will reduce the amount of heating and cooling energy you need in a home, she said.
Morin is a big fan of recycling. She keeps stacks of bricks that have come from demolished homes in a shed on her property in Albuquerque’s Duranes neighborhood. Extensions she has built onto an existing house and garage on the property are full of recycled wood, bricks and windows.
When she uses new bricks, they come from New Mexico Earth Adobes, one of two adobe manufacturers operating in the state. Helen Levine and her brother, Mark Levine, carry on the work started by their father in 1972 on a four-acre property at Edith and El Pueblo, in the North Valley.
During the spring through early fall manufacturing season, they produce up to 200,000 bricks. That’s down from the nearly half a million they produced annually before the economic crash of 2008, Helen Levine said.
It’s labor-intensive work. The basic material – dirt with the right mix of clay, tiny stones and sand, comes from a pit near Algodones. It’s dumped into a huge hopper and fed into a mixing machine that blends in water and straw. Helen Levine said the dirt has the right constituents to hold together without the straw, but customers expect it because it’s traditional.
The mud mixture is poured into wooden forms to produce 4-inch-thick, 10- by 14-inch bricks. The Levines use large hoes to scrape the excess mud off the forms, then leave the bricks to dry. This takes about 10 days in warm weather, up to four weeks if it’s cool. Once dry, the forms are removed and each brick is laid on its side to await a customer.
New Mexico Earth produces plain adobes used mostly for hornos, outdoor beehive-shaped ovens, and two grades of “stabilized” adobe. Emulsified asphalt added to semi-stabilized and fully stabilized bricks makes them resist water absorption, and thus more weather-hardy.
Helen Levine said they mostly sell to homeowners and contractors in the Albuquerque area but they’ve also shipped to Colorado, Texas, Maine, Virginia and to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.