ADOBE HOUSES FOR TODAY
Flexible Plans for Your Adobe Home, New and Revised
Down through the centuries earth-walled structures have housed more people than all other building materials combined. Today, though, only a small percentage of new homes are built of adobe. Why are we using this superb material at less than its full potential?
Our best guess is that adobe became trapped in its own mystique like an actor who once played Hamlet so splendidly that, afterwards, he was offered only Shakespearean roles. In the United States adobe houses have become typecast as expensive, high-maintenance, poorly-insulated, romantic relics of the past.
In truth, adobe is an amazingly versatile material. As we shall see in Chapter 1, for hundreds of years it dominated construction in the American Southwest and it can be used economically in a full range of structures. In recent years modern building techniques have further increased adobe's flexibility. A close look at adobe today dissolves most of the outdated myths that limit the material's use.
Myth #1: "Adobe requires too much maintenance. I remember visiting my grandfather's adobe house. Problems all the time! Every year we had to fix leaky roofs and replaster walls."
Adobe maintenance headaches were real and frequent-a hundred years ago. Today there's no reason to suffer such inconvenience unless your goal is replicating historical building techniques. In Chapter 2 we will look at adobe's physical qualities and the contemporary building techniques that complement them:
Stabilized adobe bricks
Roofs built with adequate drainage slope
Cement exterior stucco
Myth #2: "Adobe walls don't have any insulating value so adobe houses are difficult to heat and cool."
In reality, adobe houses with double-glazed windows and modern roof insulation maintain a far more comfortable year-around temperature than frame houses. A 10" adobe wall with rigid 2" foam exterior insulation is all you need in a temperate climate. Chapter 3 digs into current myths about energy use and looks in detail at one of adobe's most desirable qualities-how well it works in solar homes.
In some quarters the perception persists that a solar-heated adobe house is an expensive hassle. It's true that the early days of solar technology produced some ridiculously complicated systems. However, the house designs shown in this book obtain a large portion of their heating from sunlight without the expense, complexity, and echo of exotic self-sacrifice once associated with solar-adobe homes.
Myth #3: "Personally, I'm not that crazy about the 'adobe look' with those tree trunk posts and viga ends sticking out everywhere."
Actually, we're not crazy about leaving the ends of vigas (roof beams made of tree trunks) exposed either. If not protected from rain, they rot. But more to the point, there is no single "adobe look." Pueblo Revival, or Santa Fe Style, originated early in the twentieth century in New Mexico and became typecast as the way adobes look, but it is only one of many adobe styles in the southwestern United States alone. The houses illustrated in this book are based on Pueblo and Mountain styles, but they can be finished to suit a variety of tastes as the following illustrations suggest.
Myth #4: "Adobe construction is just too expensive. Doesn't an adobe house cost twice as much per square foot as a frame one?"
Not unless you want it to. It is true that huge, elaborately detailed adobe houses sitting on prime real estate cost a bundle but most of that expense results from the house's size, finish material, detailing and site-related costs rather than from using adobe.
Walls make up between 8% and 10% of a house's construction cost and about 5% of the total selling price of a house and lot. The cost difference between adobe walls and frame walls is even smaller.
We set out to make the houses featured in this book as flexible as possible. A major aspect of that flexibility is adjusting to a wide range of budgets. As we all know, it's much easier to increase the cost of a building project than to rein it in. We've done much of that hard work for you by distilling the twelve "Basic Houses" shown
in this book into essential living spaces for an individual or small family. You can customize not only the layout, orientation and finish
materials but also the size. The Basic Houses can grow to fit your changing needs.
The housing market today encourages us to buy far larger houses than we often want or need with the rational that someday in the future all that extra space might come in handy. In the meantime, these residential monsters can lead to unnecessarily huge mortgage payments and endless maintenance. The Basic Houses are designed for expansion so you can add space when you want or need it. Because the additions are planned from the beginning, they don't wreck the houses' looks, circulation and solar gain.
Adobe itself is an extremely versatile building material. But the designs sometimes imposed on it, along with outdated building techniques, can make it appear limited. In the following chapters we take a closer look at adobe myths and put together a "toolkit" of design guidelines, specific plans and construction processes that update and expand the possibilities of adobe houses.