ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — As a building material, the simple earthen bricks known as adobe have been used around the world since ancient times.
Aficionados of this building method, nonetheless, find there is still plenty to learn about how to build efficiently and affordably with earthen materials requiring few ingredients beyond dirt and water. Earthen residential building topics ranging from adobe to rammed earth will be the focus of the 6th Earth USA Conference and Trade Fair in Albuquerque on Sept. 30-Oct. 2. The event is already attracting attendees from New Mexico to Bulgaria.
Northern New Mexico College in El Rito is a sponsor of the three-day conference, which takes place at the National Hispanic Cultural Center and is both preceded and followed by a number of other workshops (see fee and workshop schedule in box). There are also two bus tours available, and visits to several pueblos are part of the tour line-up.
A free trade and vendor fair is open to the public Sept. 30 and Oct 1. Attendees can meet and visit with vendors, exhibitors, construction contractors, educators and other companies related to the field of earthen construction. Participating contractors and organizations include Adobe Alliance, Northern N.M. College Adobe Construction Department, Adobe in Action, Southwest Solar Adobe School, Cornerstones Community Partnership, The Earth Builders’ Guild, Carole Crews, EarthCo. Building Systems and the Natural Building Bookstore. Demonstrations are to include clay paints, finishes and plasters, and the making of adobe bricks by hand and machine.
Adobe building “makes a lot of sense and always has,” says Quentin Wilson,one of the conference organizers and director of the NNMC adobe construction program. “And if you are interested in passive solar housing, hands down, adobe bricks are the best way to store heat in the walls of the home.”
Adobe bricks’ “sluggishness” in giving back stored heat makes it such a good building material, Wilson said.
And, adobe’s basic ingredients — dirt, water and sometimes straw — are easily and inexpensively obtained, he added.
“The building material is right there at your feet,” said Wilson. “And you don’t necessarily have to be in an arid area.”
The Earth USA conference, the first to be held in Albuquerque instead of El Rito, will feature a number of podium presentations — some by international speakers — on topics ranging from thermal properties to stabilization projects undertaken by New Mexico organizations such as Cornerstones Community Partnerships. The conference this year has attracted the likes of Saudi Prince Sultan Bin Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud and Bulgarian architect Georgi Georgiev, who will touch on earthen building materials used in their parts of the world, ranging from rammed earth to cob.
While adobe in recent years has acquired a reputation as an expensive way to build because of the time and labor involved, the material itself is inexpensive and used worldwide. It can be made into bricks on the building site.
“Adobe is tied into all the heritages in New Mexico, whether it’s the pueblos or the Spanish that arrived with adobe as a familiar form from Europe,” said Wilson. “Pioneers as well as the U.S. Army built forts out of adobe — Fort Union, Fort Marcy and other forts up through Colorado.”
It would probably surprise the adobe builders of yesteryear that their expertise and knowledge about building with traditional earthen elements could help earn them college credits today. Indeed, the college in El Rito offers a one-year certification program in adobe construction. Students can follow up with a second year focusing on other contractor and business classes to earn an associate’s degree.
Wilson estimates that about 30 percent of the homes in New Mexico were constructed of adobe as recently as 1960. Ironically, he notes, adobe has now become a premium building material used in custom homes that are accented with the best of windows, $2,000 doors and stunning carved vigas.
Nonetheless, Quentin says, a do-it-yourselfer willing to build his own bricks, cut his own vigas or acquire used lumber, and scrounge for second-hand windows could probably still build an adobe home in the $70 per square foot range. A simple floor plan built by a contractor is likely to be closer to $150 per square foot.