Question: My husband and I own 5 acres up in the Uintahs. We have been talking about building a cabin for ages, but just today, when seeing an Arizona hacienda on TV, we both jumped up and said "that's it!" Our land has an abundance of red dirt (clay?) My husband is a cement finisher, so that will help. Next step - what kind of foundation? Do the bricks need to be baked, or just air-dried? Can you refer us to some how-to books? How do you do rough-in plumbing, septic tanks, etc. Thanks.

Answer: Whew, Georgia's question is more a request for a text on homesteading! She might want to join our adobe discussion and owner/builder support group at https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/adobe/info. Might be clay. Usually the red dirts have silt in them too. Just have to make some test bricks to see if it works. Lots of times, adding sand to the soil gives a good brick. Standard concrete footing down to the frost line with a stem wall that gets 6-8 inches above the exterior finish grade. The stem wall needs to be the width of the adobe brick and the footing should be 4-8 inches wider than that. Air dried, sun cured. Adobe build it yourself, by P.G. McHenry, Jr. University of Arizona Press about $25.00. Lots of books out there on plumbing. For septic tanks, start with the state to see what the regulations are. As for etc, we are just now writing that handbook. PS Northern NM Community College here in El Rito has the Department of Southwest Construction. We are teaching homebuilders in two semesters. (one in a pinch)

Question: We have a contact in Quebec who built a home out of straw, clay, lime sand and rockwool. Blocks 4'x4'x1' are 5 lbs. Had an article in Harrowsmith April 1996. EXCITING , AND IN-EXPENSIVE (WELL, 65K , Canadian, FOR THE COMPLETED HOME OF 2000 SF) However, we are having trouble really getting some facts about the veracity and soundness of using the product. Anything similar come to mind?

Answer: (Kelly) One approach to making adobe blocks is with a Cinva Ram press, which is described on this page. I have a friend in New Mexico who used one to make a house over ten years ago that is very comfortable and durable. It cost him under $1,000 and about a year's time. There is an interview with him in the Sampler of Alternative Homes video. Many places do allow construction with adobe, and there are several books that describe how to proceed.

Question: I have been trying to find out more information on concrete homes. How practical are they, how green are they? How do they differ from adobe in durability and sustainability?

Answer: (Kelly) In general, concrete is not a very green material, for several reasons: 1) A tremendous amount of carbon dioxide (greenhouse gas) is released into the atmosphere during its manufacture. 2) A lot of transportation of materials is involved in both the manufacturing process, and then getting the cement to its final destination. 3) Concrete also must be reinforced with steel, which has its own environmental consequences.

Adobe, on the other hand, is much more environmentally benign. It is basically earth, which can often be obtained on the building site. All you need to make adobe blocks is some clay, sand, straw and water. In some instances a small amount of cement or asphalt emulsion can be added to the adobe, to "stabilize" it in circumstances where it is subject to direct weather. Generally adobe walls are protected with substantial eaves and foundations.

Question: I live in England and am about to buy a house that is in a poor state of repair. The bathroom is located under the stairs and is very cramped - if you wanted to sit in the bath away from the tap end you'd hit your head on the recess! I saw a style of bathroom I liked whilst looking at earthships. The bath was formed from what appeared to be adobe, with some sort of glaze inside it to make it smooth. Would adobe be suitable for this? Do I have to cover it with a sealant to stop it absorbing water and can you paint it after it has set? I'm looking to make a deep, round bath - that won't have to be long so I won't hit my head! Whilst I appreciate that in still owning a conventional house I'm missing the point entirely of what earthships stand for, I would still like to use natural materials. I hope this question doesn't sound too silly!

Answer: I love adobe more than most anyone. However, an adobe bathtub is a very bad idea for the same reason that a stone, tile, or concrete tub is terrible. The masonry requires too much heat to warm up and robs the heat from the water. Only rich folks who don't care how much heat they waste should have such tubs. Most masonry materials have a specific heat of about 0.2 BTUS/Degree Fahrenheit/pound. Cast iron of which many tubs are made has a Sp Ht of about 0.05 and the metal shell of the tub is relatively thin so not that much heat is lost to the metal. However, think about sitting back against the back of the metal tub as the water fills on a cold day. It takes a real man or woman. Multiply that by twenty to get the heat robbing effect of adobe. But cheer up. That is why adobe is the world's number one heat storage device in passive solar homes.

Question: I would like to know where I can find affordable house plans/blueprints for having an adobe home built.

Answer: "Adobe Homes for Today, Flexible..." Laura and Alex Sanchez and "The Small Adobe House" Agnesa Reeve.

Question: This is going to be a silly question. Do you know where I might be able to purchase a miniature version of an adobe house. I ran across 1 here in Philadelphia, at a thrift shop, but I couldn't buy it - it didn't have a price tag on it. When I came back for it the next day - it was gone. If you know where I can buy 1, please let me know.

Answer: Someone was selling them through the New Mexico Magazine not long ago. They can be found in various gift and art shops in Santa Fe and Taos. Time for a visit to NM.

Question: I want to avoid the use of plastics at all costs (which rules out a polyeth barrier) and I was thinking maybe a wax coating would help as a moisture barrier.

Answer: Might work. Try it and report back. You will be the first.

Question: Hi, I'm not sure if you are the correct expert since my question is not specifically about adobe, but about the vigas which usually go with adobe homes. I live in Las Cruces, NM in an adobe home with wood vigas. These vigas have badly deteriorated due to both sun (vertical and horizontal exposures) and water (primarily the horizontal exposures). I am about to apply some sort of protectant to this wood and need advice on what product to use (the wood was previously stained) and what process to follow. I'd like to find a product with at least a 15-year guarantee.

Answer: Welcome to New Mexico, the skin cancer capitol of the USA. Cheer up, Argentina has a worse problem than us since they are close to the big ozone hole in the Southern Hemisphere. Basically, the wonderful, sunny days of Southern New Mexico carry a huge dose of ultraviolet that just boils away anything chemical. I have an interest in boats and lots of paint companies specializing in marine paints/varnishes brag how long their products hold up in the Florida sun or the Sea of Cortez. Those same paints/varnishes used on boats in NM are gone in a year or two. About the only things that hold up to the sun are metals, glass, stucco and the vertical surfaces of timbers. The best protection for wood is the wood itself as it ages. That means that about 1/4 of an inch gets eaten up but then the wood stabilizes. One-inch trim on New Mexico houses disappears while two-inch trim erodes but gets stable at about 1-1/2 inch. The problem with vigas is that most species of trees develop splits and some species twist as they age. If the splits occur on the top of the viga, then the water just moves on down into the viga and lengthwise, too. Often the water is conducted to the interior of the adobe wall or in your case elsewhere along the viga. Some very impermeable products used on wood can backfire. Once some small pinhole develops, moisture gets in and then cannot easily get out resulting in accelerated rotting or the impermeable coating falling off in chunks as its bond to the wood is broken.

Question: Some of the horizontally exposed wood is so badly deteriorated that I am applying epoxy wood rebuilder to the top (exposed) portion of the viga, which crumbled away about halfway down (this applies to only about a 3-4' section of the total 24' length because this particular section was exposed while the rest was not). These are vigas which are structural for the porch roof but where the original design left an opening for a planter and had the vigas continuing through the opening. The frame around the opening was poorly done and caused water damage to the vigas as well as poor maintenance causing sun damage. Is this okay?

Answer: It is not. If there is no visible sagging of the roof, you are probably okay but something needs to be done to stop further deterioration It's that or replace the viga. Probably not necessary, but if it comes to that, it is not always as difficult as you might imagine.

Question: Mostly, I need advice on the best product to protect all the remaining wood (vigas, wood windows, etc.) from sun damage, which will last as long as possible!

Answer: I am working on a photo essay on the evolution of canales in and around Taos where the animal has gone through the most change. When that is done, I will start a photo essay on the evolution of exposed vigas. There are two solutions that work. One is to cut off exposed vigas, chisel out the first inch or so into the wall and then stucco over the hole. I have done this myself on several houses. In an extreme case, the School for the Deaf in Santa Fe, steel pipes of different diameters with welded on hatchet marks on the ends were welded to plates which were then bolted to the wall where the wood vigas had been. You can see them if you visit Santa Fe. The other solution is to build a metal cap over the top half of the vigas. They are galvanized metal, vinyl coated metal such as Pro Panel, or in the most wonderful form, copper. Copper in about 26 to 31 gauge thickness is not too expensive and you can work it yourself including soldering on a flange where the viga meets the wall to form a vertical flashing. These caps can be seen in Santa Fe and all over Taos where they have risen to high art with lacy cutouts and other decorations along their lower edges. The important thing about the caps is that they should be nailed or screwed to the vigas on the sides, not on top and the fit should be less than snug without the application of caulk or roof tar. This allows air to circulate and moisture an opportunity to leave when it does sneak in. That is just as important to the metal as it is to the viga so the former won't rust while the latter doesn't rot. Properly detailed, this will give you a 22-year fix. It should work also for your vigas in the planter opening.

Question: I am searching for home plans for a large family. We hope to build with adobe, passive solar. We live in Arizona and feel sure it would be criminal to deny the sun an opportunity to serve our home. We are not wealthy, and cannot afford to custom design with an architect. We need at least 5 bedrooms. Is there anyone out there selling stock plans of this size? Any information you have would be greatly appreciated.

Answer: Laura and Alex Sanchez have a book, Adobe Homes for Today. It costs about $25 and has plans for a number of adobe homes, most with a solar feature. From the book you can order plans on a CD at again about $25 per design. With AutoCad you can modify the plans before printing them. Some of the plans allow for future expansion and many allow trimming the house out in three styles. How you are going to handle the solar aspect is highly dependent on your location in AZ as a house that would do well in Flagstaff will bomb out in Yuma.

Question: I plan on building a small (+/- 1800 sf) home in Glenwood, NM in the next couple of years. It's in the early planning stages now. I am considering an adobe home. Have you seen any cost comparisons of adobe construction vs. stick framed construction.

Answer: The best information on cost comparisons is from Vishu Magee at Archetype Design: http://www.archetype-design.com/. Usually a good frame builder can get a building up more cheaply than an adobe building. But the cost difference should not be too great insofar as the cost of walls is usually only 7 to 11% of the total construction budget. What usually runs the cost of an adobe home up is all the other choices that owners make for premium items in the other budget line items. Often, for instance, the cost of interior plaster is equal to or greater than the cost of the adobe walls. The solution is to omit plaster and have exposed or lightly mud washed walls which can easily be painted. The list goes on.

Question: I currently live in an adobe brick home that has mold and mildew growing on the inside walls. Can this be successfully and completely removed? How? There is no active heating system in the house presently, the roof leaks (soon to be fixed), and there is plaster for the ceilings which also have mold. My concern is can this be stopped and completely eliminated? Will the process pose a danger to the structure? The bricks are painted white inside, natural outside. I am unsure of the type of paint used.

Answer: Sounds as if you have a major case of moisture incursion into the home, probably from the roof leak. If the house is not heated, that further favors the mold and mildew. Hopefully the house is on a proper foundation that rises six- or eight-inches above the outside ground level. Sometimes moisture can creep up a foundation through capillary action and into the adobe walls. A moisture barrier on top of the foundation would have stopped this. If no barrier, and moisture does move up from the foundation, it rarely goes much higher than a foot in an adobe wall since adobe does not support capillary action as well as concrete. If you can get the house dried out mold and mildew go away. I myself don't worry about M and M nearly as much as modern alarmists do. In some cases M and M is a reason to call in the environmental remediation squads to deal with it. I don't know if you should believe them or me. I spent years crawling around in, on and under houses and I survived most likely out of pure ignorance of any danger.

Once the moisture source is found and stopped, you can go over walls and ceilings with a solution of one Clorox in ten water. A stiff cleaning brush or sponge should do the trick. A second pass with a solution of one pound 20-Mule Team Borax in two quarts water painted on the wall will soak in a bit if the paint is not too thick and suppress future spore development. If there is a cavity above the ceiling, there may be more M and M there to deal with and there could be damaged insulation.The Clorox/Borax process will not harm the structure but it might not be thorough enough to please a thorough-going remediationist. The problem is not the fault of the adobe walls. When there is moisture and cool conditions, most any wall becomes a haven for M and M.

Question: Any suggestions on sealants, preferably local, for brick floors and exposed adobe walls? Albuquerque area.

Answer: Boiled linseed oil for floors. Okon W-1 or W-2 for walls can be gotten from Wellborn, now Dunn Edwards Paints. The counter men in Santa Fe, at least, can tell you the right choice between 1 and 2 (888-337-2468). Exposed walls can be washed with a terrycloth or sheepskin to consolidate and soften the surface well enough so that no chemicals are needed. Even painted Sheetrock walls will dust after several years.

Question: I have just replaced a 265-foot adobe brick wall and have all the whole bricks neatly stacked on pallets to prove it! I live in Las Cruces, NM in a rammed-earth house 12 years old same as the now dismantled adobe wall. Is there any value to these bricks I should be aware of? Can I build small walls, bancos and end up with a smooth hard-plastered surface suitable for sitting on?

Answer: Bricks should be worth between 50 and 60 cents each sitting on the pallet. They can be used to build anything normally built of adobe. I built several houses of salvaged adobes. They recycle nicely and can certainly be plastered smooth and hard for interior or exterior use. Outside they need a good foundation.

Question: I am looking to build an outdoor patio area in SW Texas, including a fire pit, BBQ, and wood-fired brick oven, all finished or made from adobe. I want to also build simple adobe walls to enclose the area on 3 sides for some privacy. Can you provide me with some reference materials for such a project, particularly the fire pit, BBQ, and brick oven adobe structures? There are countless books on building houses, but I can't find material for outdoor living structures.

Answer: PG McHenry's books are the best references. "Adobe Build It Yourself", and "Adobe and Rammed Earth Buildings. "Sunset Magazine" once had a series of books on outdoor structures. None was for adobe in particular, but several were for masonry in general. There is an adobe brick oven monograph somewhere out there on the Internet.

Question: My husband and I are buying an owner built Adobe home with brick flooring in southern Arizona. The few things that I know about the home are: the brick flooring has radiant heat, the inside adobe walls have been painted white, there is a membrane roof on the structure. We know nothing about Adobe. How do we know if we are getting a quality well made adobe home? How do we find an inspector that knows Adobe?

Answer: Arizona has seen significant adobe construction in the past couple of decades. There should be some very knowledgeable home inspectors in Southern Arizona who understand adobe. If banks or real estate folks can't give you a referral, try Bob Barnes at Old Pueblo Adobe in Tucson. He should know people.

Question: We are installing an adobe floor on a house in Huntington VT and are wondering about green products used for sealing adobe floors?

Answer: Boiled linseed oil is my choice. Put on one or two coats without thinning to load up the pores. After 20 minutes wipe up any oil on the surface or it will become gummy. A day between coats is good. Thin the following coat or two 50% or less with turpentine or citric oil thinner to help make sure that the linseed oil hardens. It's an oxidation reaction. Again, mop up any residue on the surface after 20 minutes. Linseed is the hero of all the firefighter training movies because it combusts spontaneously better than anything else. So put any rags in a sealed container or in a bucket of water.