Friday, December 4, 2009

I wanted to put it out there to all of you that Carole Crews, the renowned Taos adobera and enjarradras of Adobe Gourmet , who has worked with and alongside a long line of women adoberas has just published a book! As the back blurb reads "Open the door to self-reliance..create and maintain natural clay finishes over a variety of surfaces. Beautify walls or make works of art with natural materials collected from the Earth or purchased lnexpensively from ceramic suppliers". As a student of Carole's, I recommend her book highly , she opened the door for me to the world of clay plasters and clay paints. Through her recipes I have earth-plastered over adobe, made alis paints, made homemade plasters and clay paints from ingredients from the ceramics store. This book can aid the independent-minded self-reliant soul who inhabits any kind of home. The mystery of clay plaster over sheetrock is revealed through recipes from Yolanda Rawlings and Janine Bjornson. To buy the book send a check for $22 plus $5 shipping to:

Carol Crews

HC 78 Box 9811

Ranchos de Taos, NM 87557

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

On Living Modestly and Simply

My partner John Corcoran and I recently built a small light-filled adobe home near Santa Fe, New Mexico. The home was designed to be beautiful, efficient and easy to run. Ironically, many visitors to our home announce that they don't have the skills to live the life we live. To this I say, " Wow, what skills?"  By making everything simple we somehow have communicated a complicated household. To live in our house the skills needed are:  the ability to wash dishes by hand(a treat in the desert where any contact with water is a pleasure); the ability to bring wood inside, light a fire in a woodstove and to sit still in front of a fireplace  with a book or a game on long winter nights;  the ability to hang clothes on the line to dry; the ability to once or twice a year add water to the batteries that store our solar energy; the ability to start a generator on rare cloud filled weeks (for us,this has happened once.) That's it, no furnace and air conditioner filters to change,  no waiting for countless repairmen. No dark smelly basement to clean and bait with  mouse poison. The life we have made for ourselves off the grid is like the life we lived on the grid, only its easier and cheaper. I will grant that learning to live a simpler life did take a lot of homework, research and independent thinking. As a thank you, I thank all the human ingenuity that has come before us, that solved centuries ago what we see as today's problems. A great little book with countless solutions concerning energy efficiency and efficiency in general: John S. Taylor A Shelter Sketchbook: Timeless Building Solutions.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

In Praise of Walnut Oil as a Finish for Earthen Adobe Floors

Last January, after laying down an earthen floor in the adobe home we were living in, the question of what to finish the floor with arose.  In New Mexico adobe floors were traditionally sealed with ox blood. Today, the  choice both here in New Mexico and in contemporary cob building in England, is to seal the floors with  several coats of boiled linseed oil diluted with a thinner such as turpentine or, the more natural alternative, citrus solvent. To this is added a final waterproofing coat, a polish made from a mixture of beeswax and linseed oil.

Linseed oil is a gummy derivative of the flax plant which must be thinned to help it penetrate the earthen floor it is being applied to as well as to speed up its drying time. At the time of year that we needed to seal our floors, the freezing temperatures outdoors prevented us from being able to adequately ventilate the room we were working in, making the choice of linseed oil unattractive because of the strong and long-lasting fumes the oil gives off while drying. While researching alternatives to linseed oil  both milk and blood meal were named as alternatives,  but as neither fully answered our requirements for a beautiful, long-lasting finish that we could mop, we began to consider walnut oil. In our research we had found no reference to walnut oil as a finish for an earthen floor,  but we had recently finished our kitchen cabinets and counters with the oil on the suggestion of a friend, colorist and inventor Stephen Auger. Having used it on wood with great results, we thought it might work well on an earthen floor. For our cabinets we had applied food grade walnut oil which we purchased at the local food co-op. We puit it on with a paint brush, let it soak in for  a couple minutes and rubbed any puddled areas dry with a clean cotton rag. The oil gave the wood a warm oiled glow and  served also as a stain and water repellent. Although walnut oil is said to polymerize(fully dry and harden) over several months it was dry to the touch  almost immediately and left no sticky or smelly residue. Relying on  this experience with walnut oil, Auger's experience, and with previous experience oiling floors with thinned linseed oil we decided to take the leap of faith with the unknown and ordered 5 gallons of food grade walnut oil online. 

The area we were working on was about 300 square feet. We applied the oil generously with a paint  brush, allowing it to soak into the earthen floor, occasionally going back and wiping up the puddled areas. The next day we gave it another coat, not noticing any difference in the floor's willingness to take the oil. On the third day we moved  ourselves and furniture back into the room which is both our kitchen and living room. With the walnut oil finish the floor  had taken  on a luscious chocolate brown color and though not dry ( we tracked oily footprints onto the hallway saltillo tiles, which we simply wiped clean) we were pleased.
Ideally at that time we would have liked to have applied another coat to achive a richer and more protective finsh. A coat we did apply the following summer. Today,a year and half later the floor has gone through weekly moppings with water and a little castile soap and still looks great, thus negating the need for the beeswax polish. As a footnote, we are a household that rarely takes our shoes off when coming in from outdoors, something we do frequently throughout the day. 

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Check out our adobe building workshops.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Paper for AdobeSW Conference

Passing New Mexico Energy Conservation and Building Codes in Traditional Adobe Construction

In New Mexico, the adobe builder is fortunate to be able to call on extensive traditional and modern resources, as well as an excellent and unique earthen building code.   These advantages allow us to study and make use of methods that have succeeded over centuries, in addition to modern techniques that have not necessarily been strictly adapted into the codes. However, navigating the system of codes and the bureaucracy which supports them can be daunting and frustrating.  Some choose to ignore the system and build without permits or any bureaucratic oversight.  In rural New Mexico, because of  isolation by distance and landscape; and low or no enforcement  of codes, this remains an option.  But those who build in more populated areas, more visibly, and perhaps with stricter oversight, or who are under mortgage constrictions, will have to walk the officially condoned path laid out by local, state and even international building codes. 

There is another reason for working within the  system.  It is critical that traditional and sustainable earthen building practices be promoted and  championed openly and legally, so that they are not forgotten, neglected - even outlawed - and eventually lost.    As well, architects and engineers who design systems and stamp plans need to be brought into awareness and appreciation of traditional and sustainable  alternative building methods so that they can foster them in their contact with code agencies.

When the authors moved to Santa Fe County from New York, where they had built using stick framing and post-and-beam methods, they were captivated by the examples of traditional adobe buildings still  standing; still in use, or in some cases in ruins.   Less interesting, and often confusing, were the adobe houses under construction in Santa Fe.  The use of foam insulation and cement stucco, while providing defensible utility,  seemed environmentally and aesthetically unsustainable.  To us, the whole idea was to honor the earth, in every sense; and when we actually got our hands in the mud we were even more convinced. The specialist in adobe preservation, Ed Crocker, has put it this way:  "Over the course of two generations adobe buildings with earthen plasters were replaced by soil blocks saturated with asphalt emulsion, laid up in Portland cement, tied with a concrete bond beam...[and] sprayed with polyurethane foam...This is not earthen construction: it is a composite with which one could build an adobe submarine."    

Bound to build in  adobe using traditional methods, we designed a small house  built on a rubble trench foundation, with earthen floors, mud plaster inside and out and -most critically- no insulation on or in the walls.   This decision was taken after extensive research on the subject, especially(and quite accessibly) in  the work of Paul G. Mc Henry who, in his comprehensive study of insulation and thermal mass values in Adobe and Rammed Earth Buildings, covers the scientific  as well as anecdotal evidence which lends support to the fact that traditional adobe buildings are cool in summer and warm in winter:  "People who have lived in earth houses have stated a satisfactory comfort standard repeatedly, more comfortable than temperature measurements might lead us to believe."   A statement something quite like this was heard from many others,  including as an aside from a state building inspector who allowed that he lived comfortably in an uninsulated adobe house, but nevertheless officially stood by the International Building Code, which requires wall insulation.  

The authors' decision to build on a rubble trench foundation  was based on the determination to use as little Portland cement/concrete in the building as possible, given that the embodied energy in a 94 pound  bag of Portland is 381,624 Btu, or the equivalent  energy of about 3 gallons of gasoline.  Consideration was given to building with no foundation at all, as have been many earthen structures in New Mexico, including much of the Taos pueblo.  On high, stable ground this method, which requires nothing more than laying adobes directly on the earth, is a tempting and extremely sustainable alternative.  However, it might be impossible to find an engineer who would sign off on it, and even then, the state might reject the plan.   Buildings under 140 square feet are exempt from  code oversight, so this method, or a variation - like setting a course of stones on the earth before laying the adobe wall - might be employed with good result.

We decided to put in a gravel-filled trench with a steel reinforced concrete grade beam on top.  This resulted in about a 70% reduction in concrete and rebar as compared with a conventional footing/stemwall foundation.  The design involved digging a 16" wide trench to below the frost line(about 2' in our case), making sure that the bottom of the trench was undisturbed ground and sloping slightly from one corner.  This required continuing the trench about 50' from the low corner of the building until it reached daylight.  This allows any water that runs toward the building to drain through the gravel trench and out.  To facilitate this, we set a 4" PVC perforated pipe, holes down,  on top of the first inch or two of gravel at the bottom, and ran that all the way around and to daylight as well.  We set in vertically a 2' high panel of 2" thick styrofoam insulation inside and against the outer wall of the trench, holding it to the height of our eventual grade beam, and filled the trench to grade with gravel.  We used one-and-a-half inch round stone, which settles very solidly with little or no tamping required, much as marbles poured into a jar naturally form their most compact arrangement.  

On top of the gravel we formed an 8" high concrete grade beam, using the styrofoam we had set in the trench as the outside of the form.  The grade beam was 12"  wide plus the thickness of the styrofoam, which allowed a 14" adobe to be laid flush, inside and out.  Eventually, we brought our mud plaster right down to the ground, over the styrofoam(no lath or other preparation)and, more than a year later, it's still sticking well.

This method: the rubble trench foundation, has been employed extensively in myriad variations over centuries and has proven to be effective and lasting.  However, the practice has not been accepted in the International Building Code, and the Portland intensive method of concrete footing/stemwall/slab has become the standard in practice as well as code.  While a few architects and engineers know about the rubble trench foundation as a sustainable alternative, they are unwilling to incorporate it into their designs, most likely because they are leery of taking the risk of pushing through an innovation which is not in accepted practice.  Inspectors at New Mexico CID knew of the method, probably because of traditional use of it, but would not take the risk of approving our plans without a stamp from engineer or architect.  The authors were fortunate to find, with the help of Ed Crocker,  and at the eleventh hour, (trenches were dug, and we could have poured either concrete or gravel into them) an engineer in Santa Fe who was willing to stick his neck out on a practice he knew to be sound. 

Neither a rubble trench foundation nor uninsulated adobe walls are allowed in the International Building Code.  A few days after submitting our plans to NM Construction Industries Division, we got a call from an inspector in the Santa Fe office.  "You're going to need to insulate your walls; and that foundation isn't in the codes."  We told him we wanted to build in a sustainable way, and as close to the traditional as possible.

"You're going to have to get an engineer or architect to sign off on that foundation. But you still need to insulate your walls to R 19."    We asked him if there was no alternative.  At first he said there was none, but after persistent questioning, told us:

"Well you can fill out a trade-off worksheet and try that."

The 2003 New Mexico Energy Conservation Code Residential Applications Manual is a comprehensive and fairly easy to navigate 41 page book ( available  at, which includes tables and data on various thermal building characteristics including passive solar, mass wall allowance, building material thermal data, etc.  Its stated intent is to:

1.  Allow the use of a worksheet to trade off R-values between various parts of the 

    house, without increasing the energy use of the house.

2.  Make it easier to demonstrate code compliance for passive solar heated homes.

3.  Make it easier for massive construction to achieve code compliance.  

Included are worksheets by which allowances and tradeoffs are calculated.  Most important of these, for builders who want to use uninsulated adobe walls, is the Tradeoff Worksheet.   Essentially this allows you to balance positive thermal and insulative values against lesser or no values to achieve an overall compliance with the Energy Code.  In our case, high insulation values in the ceiling, demonstrated passive solar heating and allowance for the mass of our walls allowed us to exceed the code requirements while having no added insulation on the walls. 

Essentially what the Tradeoff Worksheet in the manual does is to compare total roof, wall and foundation R values in the proposed house to the values of a hypothetical code-compliant house.  It does this by requiring the applicant to enter figures which are attained by dividing square foot area by the R value of the materials comprising that area.  For instance,  a 14" adobe wall, with an inch of mud plaster inside and out, adding the Mass Wall Allowance given in the worksheet manual, has an R value of 7.3.  Divide this into the square footage of wall area and enter at the right.  Thus, the higher the R value the lower the end number.  Enter all walls, ceiling, windows, skylight and uninsulated slab edge, add these numbers together, and if the sum comes out to less than the sum for the  hypothetical code house of the same square footage, voila!  you pass.  If not, you must add insulation somewhere to bring down your numbers.   A 1000 square'  house with R 25 in the ceiling gives an end number of 40.  Double your insulation and you halve your end number.   Without much adjustment, the authors were able to  come in at  about 15% lower than the code house.  

As is frequently found with codes on the books in government agencies, recognition and enforcement appear to be matters of group or individual convenience and discretion.  Permit reviewers and inspectors may be ignorant of the Tradeoff Worksheet, or may be reluctant to accept it.  One official at Santa Fe CID refused to say whether a Worksheet in compliance would necessarily be accepted, saying that permits were reviewed on a case-by-case basis and that the International Building Code(which requires wall insulation) was used and enforced in New Mexico.  The Residential Applications Manual gives inspectors an out by saying, "This publication does not intend to negate any of the standards found in the International Energy Conservation Code."

After completing the process, and having received a certificate of occupancy for our house, our sense is that greater leeway is given to the homeowner/builder over  contractors, but this should not deter the contractor or the client from completing the worksheet and submitting it.  Our experience has been that politely standing ones ground and continuing to ask for an alternative to what is often a kneejerk "No,"  will win out in the end. 

Presumably, codes are put in place to protect the public.  In New Mexico, at least, we have found that working within the system, the builder can pursue traditional, sustainable and alternative methods by using implemented paths as well as making full use of unofficial openess to these methods, when presented properly.  By building openly and legally, we are helping to continue tradition and to bring back or present new sustainable building practices. To us, this is critically important if the promise of true earthen building is to be fulfilled.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Consider the Shovel

Consider the humble shovel as an alternative to the  noisy, fuel guzzling, plant-killing, soil-ripping backhoe.  

Dig by hand?  Are you mad?  Actually, no.  For millenia, before the advent of fossil fuels and modern machinery, digging and excavation was done by hand.  Yes, it's slower, but yes, it got done.  It's time we all slowed down anyway;  stopped believing that  getting  things done requires us to rush.  Rushing stresses us out.  Many times, I've stood on a building site while backhoes and bulldozers careered across the landscape, noisily crushing everything under their huge wheels and metal tracks, feeling the panic of watching as hundreds of dollars an hour were sucked up and praying that the men behind the controls knew what they were doing.  

A machine needs room to move,  thus always an area 3 or 4 times the size of the machine ends up stripped bare of any plant or animal life.  When an earthmoving machine is on site, the noise blocks out everything else.  No one can think clearly.  Often mistaken decisions are taken, and these usually cost money.

Consider the humble shovel.   Digging is an art; digging is a science.  Digging can  be a  true pleasure.

 At the age of 20,  I learned to dig from a master.  I was living in Philadelphia and was between colleges (I'd been kicked out of one, was taking some time off before starting at another) and had gotten a job at a tree nursery on the  Main Line.  Most of the work involved planting trees - some of them full grown, with root balls up to 8' across, on  the estates of well-to-do locals.  Moore Nursery was an old, well-established business, and was known for its fine work and minimal impact on the landscape.  Thus all digging was done by hand.  Crews of Puerto Ricans worked in the nursery, digging up and wrapping the root balls of the trees.  The all-anglo crews that went out on the estates worked under one or another of the Moore brothers, all of them in their  sixties and seventies.  They were an Irish, hard-drinking bunch, who nevertheless knew their craft.  In addition to learning how to handle a shovel, I learned to drink shots of cheap rye followed by a short beer.  One of the Moore sisters had married a landscape architect, a  white-haired gentleman, who dressed in suits and wore a fine fedora.  It was he who really ran things and who sold the jobs to Moore Nursery's elegant clientele.

On-site crews were composed of two laborers and a boss, usually one of the Moore brothers.  On arrival, we would mark out the locations of the trees for planting and begin by laying burlap about 4' wide  around the perimeter of each hole.  This was where the dirt from our excavation was laid, so that when we were done, we lifted the burlap, sprinkling the final dirt near the base of the tree, and except for the temporary flattening of the grass, it looked as if we had never been there.

It was Earl Moore who first taught me how to handle a shovel and who bought me my first boilermaker at a saloon in Gladwyn, Pa.  I learned from Earl how to dig a straight-sided hole, how to work sequentially from one shovel-full to the next; how to let the weight of the pick work for, rather than  against you;  how to use your legs more than your back;  how to take your time: rest, reflect, tell a racy joke, play a prank, yet get the work done.  Earl was a tough man, a traditional boss, a bigot and a sexist. He was often mean in the morning, probably from being hung over, yet what he taught me about honest work has served me well all my working life.  

Since then, I've done a lot of digging: planting fruit trees on our property, water trenches for drainage, cleaning up after backhoes(the inevitable on any job done by machine) and more and more lately, digging and excavating for foundations or other earthwork:  Big digs.  In digging by hand, by the nature of it,  you go slowly, efficiently and considerately.  Earth is heavy: you plan just how much to dig and no more.  You observe the contents of each shovelful; learn the nature of the soil and the plants and creatures living on it and in it.  You work at your own pace.  Because it is tiring work, you stop frequently, look up, across the land, into the sky.  Smell the soil and the trees.  The birds stay close, not chased off by racing engines and diesel smoke.  You reflect, ideas come into your head.  You bend to the soil again.

Allow time for digging.  If you are in a hurry, ignore these words, or perhaps you should heed them.  Don't try to attack the work all at once.  Dig for a few hours a day, perhaps in one or two-hour sessions.  It's good exercise.  Food tastes better.  You sleep well.  Hire a helper or helpers.  A man with experience with a shovel(as most men I've known do, who come from the south of our border) can move a lot of soil in a day.  They'll move as much as a backhoe will in an hour and cost you the same amount, and at the end, you may have made a friend.

John Corcoran

Friday, January 16, 2009

Anselmo Jaramillo "the last adobodero of Chimayo"


We took a little road trip to  to meet "last adobedero of Chimayo," Anselmo Jaramillo. Anselmo is an instructor at Northern New Mexico Community College (where they have a great inexpensive Adobe building program), and a man passionate about adobe . Anselmo was born in Chimayo thus born into northern New Mexico Adobe. He has traveled extensively in Mexico restoring many adobe structures. His project that he showed us in Chimayo though is inspired by the buildings of Hassan Fathy who he learned of through "his hero" Simone Swan of Adobe Alliance. Anselmo is passionate about using only the materials he can find on his 5 acres in Chimayo thus  he has employed a foundation of stone and mud mortar and the vaulted and dome roofs of Egypt. He has his on website that will  explain more of what he is up to. 

What I want to experiment with after talking to Anselmo is with making insulation from straw. I have done a little experimentation making straw clay blocks as insulation but what he talked about sounded simpler. Make a wheel barrel of clay slip and dip wedges of straw as they separate from bale, air dry and there you go. My only hesitation is mice, the philosophy of straw clay is to coat each piece of straw to make it mouse proof.