Adobe Localities?

Question: I am involved in the design for a passive solar home in Maryland. Are you aware of any sources of adobe bricks on the east coast, or do you suspect we would have to cast our own?

Answer: I don't know of anyone making adobe bricks in the area at the moment. A manufacturer in this area has shipped them to Washington, D.C. That is not viable unless cost is no object. Bricks were made by English immigrants in Geneva, NY, some Amish or Quakers for barns and sheds in PA, and there were two rammed earth homes in DC. So the project would be unique in this time but not without precedent.

Question: I would like to build an adobe garage for my Harley Davidson. I live in Nashville. The climate is quite wet here. Should this cause any problems? Will my garage just turn to wet mud. Yuck what a mess. Also do you think the leaking oil will cause any problems with the foundation.

Answer: Is this a prank message from my cousin Kent in Nashville, the only person I know who has a Harley that leaks oil? Nashville is a fine place for adobe. The garage should not be in a valley subject to flooding or puddling. A good foundation with a concrete or block stem wall that gets eight inches above the finished grade would be in order. Finish it off with a good pitched roof with at least twelve or sixteen inches of overhang and the walls will be fine. Cement based stucco on the exterior would be a good idea, too. The major obstacle will be making or importing adobes. About three weeks of dry, sunny weather are needed to make adobes on the ground. Walls can be built during intermittent rain as long as they are kept covered between work sessions. The final problem will be that upon completion the Harley will be living in a building that is stronger and in many other ways superior to the dwelling of its human companions. I wouldn't want it any other way for my bike, either.

Question: In Nova Scotia it is very cold and we just do not build Adobe houses, or anything Adobe, let alone Mexican for that matter. There simply aren't any professionals dedicating any time to the "real thing" here. There would be no way to build a house here unless one is prepared to pay double, or perhaps triple the price. And some of us aren't millionaires! Hence I ask myself - "What is the next best thing to achieve the Mexican look"? The fact that people do like the Mexican Adobe design style is a compliment, especially if they are trying to duplicate the style.

Answer: I am sure there are earthen homes somewhere in NS but they will indeed be few and far between. When the Pilgrims hit the beach in Massachusetts, they had no clue how to build, nor did they have tools. Their first winter was in dugout earthen structures. It took some time to develop abilities and acquire tools to build the log homes we usually think of. There are Viking sites all up and down the coast up into Labrador which were stones mortared together with mud. Many of these coastal areas had no trees that could be used for structures anywhere nearby so even more modern builders would have used some masonry until roads were available to bring in trees and lumber. There are plenty of examples of earthen homes in Ireland, England and Scotland. There is, in fact, a new blossoming of such building techniques. Time has arrived for NS to follow suit.

Question: I would like to hire a builder to design an adobe home for my family and me in Florida. Is it possible? I recently got divorced and lost a home in the process, which means that my credit is bad. What are my options?

Answer: There is almost no adobe construction in Florida. Rammed earth buildings are found in the Carolinas and there is a history of adobe homes in the Black community around Tuscaloosa, Alabama. If you build yourself and make your own bricks, adobe can save some money but not a lot. If you have someone else build and import the adobe bricks from the nearest brickmaker which could be Texas, the cost will be astronomical. There are a couple of community colleges in Florida which have courses to teach owner/builders. If you stay in Florida it will save money to go with the prevailing style and type of building.

P.S. The early near adobe material used in Florida was called tabby or "tapia." Here is a website with more information: tabby

Question: I recently bought property in north east Florida. It is on high elevation so no worry about flooding here. I was thinking about building an adobe home because I like the look and durability. So I was wondering if building an adobe home on my property would be a good choice considering it is not the most dry - it rains quite a bit there as you probably know. I would really like to know. If it is not a good idea, could you suggest another option.

Answer: There are rammed earth homes and churches in the Carolinas. An African/American community built adobe homes in the 1930's somewhere in NW Alabama. English immigrants built homes of adobe brick in Geneva, NY. If you have three weeks of sunny weather, that is enough time to make bricks. Exhausting. Then you can lay up walls in slightly less sunny weather by covering the walls should it rain. All homes, frame, block, metal, need good foundations well above ground and surface water. They all need a good roof with plenty of overhang. Florida is the home of good roofs with lots of overhang. The fact that it is adobe should not stop you. Finding support in your area might be the deal breaker. The Spanish in north Florida built with some wonderful stuff the name of which I cannot remember. The Fort at St Augustine is an example.

Question: We want to build an adobe house and cabin here in N.W. Montana and have spent many hours trying to find someone with experience in building in this area but without success. We live in a dry valley (10-12" of precip./year) with temps that can go as low as 30 below (but very rarely). Is the reason for the lack of adobe construction here that it is impractical in light of the above climate?

Answer: Adobe would be a perfect material to use in your area. Elongate the house east and west and put extra glass on the south and very little on the north, modest amounts on the east and west. The house will do nicely in that climate unless you are in that part of Montana where it tends to be cloudy during the day and clear at night. Here in NM, the heart of adobe country we experience similar very cold nighttime temperatures in the winter. It usually warms up 30 degrees in the daytime. To meet the NM Energy Conservation Code, we apply exterior insulation. It is usually rigid polystyrene or polyurethane nailed or sprayed on the walls. Standard cement/lime based stucco goes over that.

Question: My wife and I love the Adobe look and would love to own an Adobe home. However, we live in southwest Missouri and it does not appear to be a common local building ingredient. Can I use local material to make adobe? If so, what do I look for in the ingredients? Also, because we do not experience long sunny dry spells, is there a different method of drying? By making smaller bricks would I shorten the drying time?

Answer: I don't know about Missouri's adobe history but if you get extremely southwest in the state you are into Oklahoma which has extensive use of adobe, particularly in the Great Depression Era. Missouri is probably just one giant adobe brick waiting to be formed into smaller, easily handled units. You need about 30% clay and silt and the rest sand to make a good adobe brick. Straw helps when there is too much clay to keep the bricks from cracking as they dry. PG McHenry's book Adobe Build it Yourself published by the University of Arizona Press is the best book to get started.

Question: I have a lot for a house in Lee County (Lehigh Acres), FL -Gulf Side- and I'm interested in building a Spanish style home on it. The land is uncleared (bushes and trees) and I'm wondering how well Adobe-built homes would fare in the hurricane-prone, damp climate of southwest Florida?

Answer: Adobe will work just fine. As it turns out earthen building materials are actually just a little bit stronger in lab tests at higher humidities than here in the arid Southwest. (60% ambient humidity is the peak strength.) It needs a concrete foundation that gets six-inches above the finished exterior grade and four-inches above the finished floor level or any potential standing water. The foundation should have a moisture barrier on top of it to stop capillary action which might move moisture upward. A good roof with overhanging eaves would be highly recommended. In the Southwest, many adobe homes have parapet walls and flat roofs but up in the high country where there is more rain and lots of snow, the steeply pitched mountain village architecture predominates. In short, adobe requires no more or less protection from moisture than wood or steel framed structures.

The big problem to solve will be making adobes. Two men after a little conditioning can make 300 adobes per day and if they are brutes, 500. A modest sized home, 1800 sq ft, can be built with 5000 to 7000 adobes of the slightly odd 10x14x4 New Mexico Standard Size. At the 300/day rate it would take 23 days of production to make the 7000 bricks so a four-week window of mostly sunny weather is needed.

There are some machines that can make bricks on site quickly. The ones that rely on ferocious hydraulic pressure to create bricks should be viewed with caution. Moisture for sure, and high humidity perhaps can cause them to "blossom" a kind word to describe expanding and losing their strength. That won't happen to regular cast-on-the-ground, sun-dried-bricks. Also, it is better to find someone who will roll on to your site to make bricks than for you to acquire the machinery yourself. Even if you resell it, you take a big hit in depreciation. Bricks can be purchased in NM or Texas production yards and trucked to FL. Transportation costs will be about double the cost of the bricks themselves.

There are famous and successful churches in the Carolinas built of rammed earth. Church of the Holy Cross in Sumpter South Carolina first comes to mind. A famous rammed earth structure, Hilltop House at 1500 Rhode Island Ave NE, was built in Washington DC. Built before the Stone House in Georgetown, it would be the oldest house in the area except it got torn down in the 1950's for urban renewal! A doctor with the USDA built a home not far from the Capitol Area in the 1930's. It still existed as of 1996. The DC area was essentially a swamp and is still probably as wet as Lee County.

Question: I live in central Wisconsin, and am wondering if adobe would work in this area; How would that work with freezing cold winters.....Are there any areas that adobe would NOT be advantageous?

Answer: Adobe will work just fine in central Wisconsin. Probably very few people have built there with adobe but there are surprises all around the country. English immigrants built simple cottages and stately homes in the Fingerlakes region of New York. There are at least thirteen known structures and three of them are on the market. They were built from 1840 to 1860 for the most part.

Washington, DC has two known adobes built in the 1930's and a huge palatial home, the Hilltop House at 1600 Rhode Island Avenue, NW survived from 1774 until the late 1950's when it was razed for low-income housing. There are famous churches in North Carolina and homestead buildings in Alaska. Mennonites built adobe homes in and around Hillsboro, Kansas.

Adobe's cousin sod, was built all over the plains and probably the SW corner of Wisconsin. Wherever there is an area with few trees when the first immigrants arrived, there is a good chance that they built with adobe, rammed earth or sod up until the time the railroads arrived.

Lots of Irish cottages with thatched roofs are built of adobe. Scandinavians used various forms of earthen construction especially earth as the infill for half-timbered houses. Germans, French, English, Bali Hai. Manitoba recently. Adobe was found all over the USA during the Great and Grand Depression. East Germans used it widely while The Berlin Wall and Iron Curtain were up. Slovakia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Ditto. The list goes on.

All you need is a good foundation that gets 8-inches above the ground level and a good roof with generous overhangs. Wisconsin is not the place for the round, warm, brown, Santa-Fe style adobe home. New Mexico adobe homes in the higher elevations where we get a lot of snow have pitched roofs with good overhang. This is just the type of construction details needed for any type of wall in Wisconsin, not just adobe.

Now, the one problem you do face is whether there is a three-week window of mostly sunny weather in the summer so you can make adobes and have them dry out enough to stack off to the side with a cover when the rain comes. You need soil with 70%sand and 30% clay or less. If there is too much clay in your topsoil, adobes will crack. Dig deeper and you will find strata of sand somewhere under the topsoil. There will also be layers of clay and gravel thanks to convenient glacier activity a few years back.

Building walls is not such a problem. You can cover them if rain threatens and they survive a certain amount of rain with little damage. Be prepared to move on with roof construction as soon as the walls are up and get the building dried in. Wood frame, and other builders do the same. For your climate, a scheme to apply insulation to the exterior of the adobe walls will pay off with much reduced heating costs. Just as it took until the mid-1950's for builders to figure out that frame houses should be insulated, it took until the 1970's for us to see the advantage and in your climate, necessity, really, to insulating. Put lots of glass on the south and you will have the best possible passive solar home. If you think it will not work, look around your neighborhood. If there are photo-voltaic panels at work producing electricity from the sun, then there is enough energy coming in for passive solar heat. Cloudy days hold in the heat so even if you do not have the input we have here in NM, you don't have the loss, either.

Call me when you are done and I will help you select interior wall colors. Adobe paints nicely with oil or latex paints.

Question: I live in Laos, in Southeast Asia and run an international humanitarian development organization (Village Focus International). My wife, who is Lao, and I have just bought a beautiful piece of land on the Mekong River and will build a house there in the next 5 or so years. We hope to build a big (2 story, 3 and half to 4000 square feet) home. Can this be done with Adobe (or strawbale or other alternatives). Is adobe appropriate for this hot, wet climate? Labor is cheap, and clay, sand and gravel is readily available. Any thoughts?

Answer: Germans have built millions of earthen structures in Central Germany. English Immigrants built adobe homes in Geneva, NY and various parts of Canada. Brazilians have built adobe buildings several stories high along the Amazon in that city with the famous old opera house. Adobe homes are built in parts of India and Bangladesh where the moisture is so severe, they get washed away almost annually. You can build some form of earthen structure in Laos whether it's sun-cured adobe bricks, compressed earth blocks, rammed earth, or monolithic adobe which is called cob in some places. You need a foundation that gets the adobe above the ground level and a good roof. That is the same requirement for any type of house which will last over time. There is some evidence that adobe is less prone to mildew and mold than certain other building materials.

C1: Having spent a year only a couple of hundred miles from central Laos, I strongly suspect that adobe would not be suitable. South East Asia monsoons are a memorable experience - 30-45-60 days of non stop downpour was my experience through two monsoon seasons. Regular stick and stone structures even took a beating. The rain in the monsoon season makes the California rains seem like spring showers. After the first 30 days of the monsoon season- every piece of my clothing and gear had mold of various colors - everywhere. I recall one thunderstorm lasting 18 hours non-stop - it was an amazing experience. I also recall that most structures - even large 5 bedroom bungalows were built on stilts. I visited many isolated villages and all the small homes were on stilts made of bamboo sticks and bamboo leaves. The rain knocked the leaves off - the villagers put new ones back. I do not recall ever seeing a home made of mud - except for some earthen plaster on some.

To make a bad pun - I don't mean to rain on Rick's parade - but I just don't see how it would work. If Rick can find any local structures built in the area with adobe like blocks - then by all means get the mud formula and history of the buildings. As far as I know most all S.E.A. experiences the monsoon season. I also recall that when building office buildings - 5 or 6 stories high - instead of digging a basement foundation the engineers built the basement above ground - then diverted streams of water into the foundation around the building - then over several weeks managed a controlled sinking of the basement into the mud to the first floor level. Wow! I could be wrong - but I would check with a lot of locals first - who have experience there.

C2: "Mudbrick and Earth Building the Chinese Way" is an excellent book. It is written by Ron Edwards and Lin Wei-Ho - ISBN 0 909901 34 1. The dust jacket says Lin Wei-Ho lives in Kunming, China which is just over the border from you. It goes on to say his research indicates that 95% of the buildings in the countryside around Kunming are of earth construction. A sketch on page 32 describes some farm buildings in nearby Leshan, Sichuan Province. A metre and a half of rains falls here annually, that's about 49 inches. These buildings have wide eaves. I would think that Quentin's suggestion of the wide eaves (a veranda even) and dry foundations is very sensible. An earth building that caters for sufficient air flow should avoid humidity problems such as damp on the walls and provide for a very livable dwelling. Ron Edwards lives in a mudbrick house in Kuranda, tropical Nth. Queensland where the average annual rainfall is approximately 2 metres or 79 inches.

C3: Below: Excerpts from several references found relative to building materials used in Laos (over time). Evidently Laos is not southern China. I was thinking Quentin should incorporate the Laotian mortar recipe (below) into an adobe mix - a type of adobe aroma therapy built into the blocks. HA!

Laotian mortar recipe: 'Two stone-masons, aged 75 and 85, provided the recipe for traditional Laotian mortar: stew buffalo-hide for nine hours, add crushed yang bong bark, tamarind seeds, chopped rice straw (soaked in water for two days), some markfen leaves, khi bi resin, and a measure of sugar-cane juice. Pour them all together into a mix of lime and Mekong sand, and stir.'

French Colonial Architecture in Laos: As pre-colonial non-religious structures were built with wood, no secular buildings still exist from those periods. When the French first came to Luang Prabang in 1864, they used the fired brick and ceramic roof tile previously reserved for the wats (Buddhist Temple / Monastery) to build their homes and administration buildings. The result was an array of white-washed colonial style edifices: houses with wrought iron balconies, hotels with large verandas, schools and administration buildings with black shutters and high ceilings. With many buildings refurbished as hotels and restaurants, even a bank, Luang Prabang has appropriated colonial architecture, maintaining an air of its recent past.

The Characteristic Buddhist Temple buildings of Laos are all Wooden construction, on wooden pillars, with long, steep, stepped-out roofs. Flamboyant finials mark the up curved ends of the ridgepoles and the eaves extend to cover wide verandas. The Vat Pbraphra Kheo, Vientiane. Rebuilt in the nineteenth century Faint echoes of Khmer style are here incorporated into a characteristic local type of wooden building.

'External finishes to the building are concrete, masonry, rendered and painted with long wearing coatings as commonly used in Laos.'

Kleiwerks an international grassroots natural building organization is pioneering earthen house building in Laos. They work with permaculture principles and appropriate design, incorporating materials such as clay, sand, straw, bamboo, stone, wood, rice husk, urbanite, glass bottles, and whatever else is re-usable or local to the particular areas we are building in. The techniques they have incorporated include: adobe; wattle and daub; cob; strawclay/slipstraw; timber-frame; strawbale; earthen plasters, paints and floors; living and thatch roofs; drystack stone and earth bag foundations; decorative and structural bamboo; and other innovations.

Question: Is central South Carolina a good place for an adobe house? I notice that you thought Nashville would be o.k. We have similar weather--not quite as cold.

Answer: There is the famous Church of the Holy Cross in Sumpter, SC. You should get "Adobe Build it Yourself" by PG Mc Henry, Jr. from the University of Arizona Press. About $25. Another of his books, "Adobe and Rammed Earth Buildings" has the photo of the church.