Adobe… A Timeless Solution

Adobe house built in Bosque Farms, New Mexico, during the 1930s as part of a government home-building program. Today, “government agencies more typically create roadblocks to the use of earth for building, and are reluctant to provide funding for such a supposedly 'poor' material.”
Adobe house built in Bosque Farms, New Mexico, during the 1930s as part of a government home-building program. Today, “government agencies more typically create roadblocks to the use of earth for building, and are reluctant to provide funding for such a supposedly 'poor' material.”

“The building of homes with adobe is a centuries-old tradition in the state of New Mexico, long preceding the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores. The indigenous peoples of New Mexico had used earth for their dwellings for centuries, and the later Spanish arrivals were quick to adapt the indigenous earth-building techniques to their own purposes. Looking back at New Mexico’s building history, adobe was the obvious choice in rural areas and in smaller communities where people did not have the more substantial budgets of the larger cities. Partly because of this very availability, adobe is considered by many to be a poverty material that will wash away with the first rain. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It is often forgotten that when the United States was dealing with the economic depression of the 1930’s, the federal government sponsored adobe home-building project in several locations across the country. One outstanding example was at Bosque Farms, a small farming community a few miles south of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The community was established to help relocate farm families devastated by the droughts that created the “Great Dust Bowl” of northern New Mexico, west Texas and Oklahoma.

A portion of a 28,000-acre tract of land, originally part of the holdings of Don Soloman Luna (Los Lunas, NM), was divided into 43 tracts of 40 to 80 acres each. On May 2, 1935, a public drawing was held, and the tracts were sold to the winners of the drawing for $140 per acre. The purchasers had 40 years to pay the government back for their land. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) then cleared the land and built homes for the new land-owners. These homes were first leased and later sold to the occupants. Few details are available on how the construction was actually accomplished, but it is likely that local people, and probably many of the future occupants themselves, were hired to construct the houses of Bosque Farms.”

Architect Paul G. (Buzz) McHenry has more than 30 years of professional experience working with adobe and has published several well-known books on adobe construction.
Source text and image: Arid Lands Newsletter

25 thoughts on “Adobe… A Timeless Solution”

  1. Humans built their own homes for tens of thousands of years and now everyone is so afraid that the codes dept will shut them down. We need to DEMAND our right to build inexpensive, non-toxic housing for ourselves. Most of the codes approved materials are poisonous to the occupants. Indoor air pollution is worse than outdoor air pollution for most Americans. Earth is as non-toxic as you can get and dirt cheap!

    • I agree Morgan, but some codes do have a place. California is a good example. Look at earthquake damage in California vs parts of the world where they have no codes. Mexico, South America, Europe and Asia have all had tremendous loss of life because of building collapse.

      • I agree Morgan, but some codes do have a place. California is a good example. Look at earthquake damage in California vs parts of the world where they have no codes. Mexico, South America, Europe and Asia have all had tremendous loss of life because of building collapse.

        Earthquake-proofing is expensive in conventional buildings. Everybody pointing out that codes might have made the destroyed houses more earthquake-resistant needs to understand that they also would have put the prices out of reach of many people in the poor areas we’re talking about here.

        Nothing is free in this world. By mandating compliance, inspections, pricier materials, and more elaborate constructions methods, codes chop out the inexpensive part of the market, forcing people to buy expensive houses because the cheap ones have been regulated out of existence. I think people are smart enough to decide these things for themselves rather than the government imposing a one-size-fits-all solution on everyone.

        Besides, have you seen the kind of houses that meet code? I live in the SF bay area and drive by neighborhoods of doublewides that are all code-approved. How well do you think they’ll fare in an earthquake? All this talk of building codes usually seems to wander from the reality that they’re a sad joke if the goal is to produce sturdy and long-lasting buildings. They’re just a revenue stream for local governments and an indirect subsidy to construction companies.

        • I agree. Use the built-in search engine on this blog and read previous blog posts about the housing “ripoff” or housing scam. The shoddily constructed trailer houses, etc. meet code! Obviously they’re nothing but junk in comparison to earthbag houses, but they’ve manipulated the codes and the whole approval process to let big business make billions while cutting out low cost, sensible solutions at the same time. And people fall for it or at least go along with it.

          And let’s keep in mind that housing is a basic human right that no one can take away. Every major international body agrees with this, look it up. Your right to housing is the same as your right to free speech, freedom of religion, freedom to choose what is healthy to eat and so on.

          • Certainly housing is a basic right. But shouldn’t it be safe housing? Seriously I am not in disagreement with most of what has been posted. Advocating no codes is going to the extreme in the opposite direction. One is no better then the other. As it stands today in the US, your not going to get a policy change allowing owner builders to build what ever they want. There will always be some kind of oversight and fees. all the complaining in the world isn’t going to change that. The best approach for those of us wanting to build earth friendly homes is to work within the system to make alternative building more main stream.

        • As a resident of the Bay area, I would suggest you look at the earthquake damage in other parts of the world with no codes and what SF has experienced in the last 35 years. You will see a stark difference in the damage and life lost.

          Is earthquake proofing a home really all that expensive when your considering the lives of your loved ones? Are you willing to put a dollar price on their safety?

          Certainly codes and building departments have went over board. They discovered long ago that permits were revenue generating devices. You also have the cooperation between product manufactures and municipalities on code revisions. The requirement of hardware and certain appliances/fixtures to building codes add immensely to the cost of a house. This collaboration is criminal in my opinion. But as a person with over 40 years in the building industry, I have have witnessed structural failures due to inadequate knowledge of building/poor workmanship. That is where codes come in. They are supposed to prevent sloppy workmanship and inadequate knowledge of building. Most owner builders do not want or have the time to learn proper construction techniques. Plus there are always going to be people (owners or builders) who want to take short cuts. They either want to save a buck on material or find a procedure too difficult or time consuming. To say all codes are worthless is like throwing the baby out with the bath water.

          As for doublewides surviving an earthquake, they actually might fare pretty well. Boxes that bounce around and are not attached to the ground sometimes do better then the structures that are attached. Now tornadoes and hurricanes are a different matter. Different forces at work. With earthquakes it all depends on the type of wave, the depth , the strength, the proximity and how long it shakes.

  2. New Mexico, and i believe Arizona, have an easy to understand earth building code, and getting a permit for an adobe or rammed earth house is no more remarkable than getting a permit for a stick & stucco house, which means you don’t have to jump through any hoops to convince a skeptical building official. Check out NM’s code for example. Pretty common sense, and minimal. Scroll down to the rammed earth section, which is what earthbag is classified as in NM.

    In addition, while building codes are mandated state wide in NM, some of the smaller counties don’t have a building code inspector, assuming the contractors will build to state code – if you build yourself, that obviously means on a practical level that you can build what you want without hassle.

    • AZ is much more strict then NM. They have earthquake codes. While a lot of people build alternatively in NM, many do so without a permit. Even in Taos, there is concern by some, that the local government many get around to enforcing codes. Such a move would be costly to some owner/builders.

      Adobe codes from what I read and from what Owen has discussed really don’t apply to earthbags. What really needs to happen is to have a set of universal standards by which all owner built homes regardless of materials have to comply by. Sort of a quality of design and construction approach rather then an inordinate amount of specifics.

      The entire reason of building codes was to prevent shoddy workmanship or design. While obviously no one would intentionally build themselves a house that would fall down, many people lack the knowledge, skill or the willingness to learn to build safe. Codes were enacted to prevent a person from building an unsafe/poor designed structure and then selling it to an unsuspecting buyer. Not all regulation is unjustified.

      After almost a lifetime in construction, I have seen both sides of the code argument. While some codes go way above and beyond what is necessary, the lack of codes can cause more problems. Fireplaces that don’t draw, plumbing that doesn’t flow, doors that bind maybe nuisances to the person that lives there. When one looks at structural integrity the consequences of poor workmanship/design can be disastrous.

      A universal set of standards and modest/no building fees would go along way to promoting what today are considered alternative building methods /materials. Such a set of standards should be set forth by experts in the natural building fields, not bureaucratic municipalities or material suppliers.

      As an interesting note, my father following WWII went thru union carpenter apprentice school in NM. At that time adobe use was still wide spread with vigas and latillas. As an apprentice my father was required to peel the logs with draw knives for the roof structure. Power tools were nonexistent. Hand saws, knives and brace/ bits were used. Most every job had one man who spent most of his time sharpening tools.

      • I like the part about hand tools and one guy sharpening tools all day. Man, times have really changed just in one lifetime.

        The codes are so crazy, so screwed up that’s it’s hard for me to comment. I live where there are no codes and everything is just fine. The houses are better than the US for the most part. Builders who do shoddy work would not be hired in the future. Owner-builders should definitely have a right to build their own home the way they want just like freedom of speech or freedom to eat whatever they want. They would have to disclose the fact it was owner-built if they ever try to sell it. That would likely drop the value and reduce the pool of potential buyers, but let the market speak instead of endless codes trying to control everything. Trying to write codes for all the natural building materials and options is almost impossible. There are too many methods and materials. There is an effort to create an international earth building code to cover popular types of building with earth.

      • “Builders who do shoddy work would not be hired in the future”.

        I am all for the market deciding, but here is the problem. Most developers in this country build more then one house at a time. Often it can be 20 or more. Say that guy does a crappy job and takes all kinds of shortcuts. Sure he may not sell many houses again in that area, but there are 20 families with houses needing extensive repairs. He can move on to a different locality and do it all again. Name changes are common in the building industry.
        There was an outfit in SoCal that during the mid to late 70s that were building thousands of houses a year. Even with codes in place, the workmanship was so bad that the state of California stepped in. The state basically shut the outfit down until all of their customer complaints were fixed. The company left the state and started all over again under a different name. Because the US is so big, unscrupulous builders can escape for years.

        What I had in mind was not so much a specific set of codes, but a general set of standards or design features. Take for instance conventional wall framing. Standard practice is to use one bottom plate and two top plates. It is all constructed with 16d nails. This is common construction across the US. Now each separate municipality may require additional items, but the basic design/construction technique is fundamental. A set of fundamentals for each alternative construction method would go along way to promote natural building. I don’t see earthbag, cob strawbale or any of the other construction methods becoming mainstream until some sort of uniform standards are written. Only until that time, will building authorities become more accepting and more conventional builders change.

        The whole tree post is a good example. Not many building authorities would allow that type of construction. Mostly because they have no guidelines for it. Even if they were willing to allow it, engineering would be required along with wood grading. Anything they are unfamiliar with will get more scrutiny.

        While it would be nice if owner builders could build what ever they want, wishing it so wont make it happen. There is already too much bureaucracy in place and money to be made. The best we can hope for is the adoption of acceptable/proven building methods that allow the natural building movement to become mainstream. Of course if and when that happens, it will no longer be so inexpensive. Think about just the cost increase of polybags since you started this website!

        • “…the workmanship was so bad that the state of California stepped in.” I think you’ve made a pretty good case that demonstrates the system is not working correctly and needs overhauling. This happened with all the extensive codes and inspections that builders have to go through. And similar things will likely keep happening even if more and more and more codes are created. What happened here goes beyond codes. This is blatant fraud and corruption and should probably be settled in the courts.

          • Obviously there were lawsuits. Much of the problems resulted in the large amount and quickness of the building. Demand was at an all time high. Building departments couldn’t keep up. The fact remains that the US isn’t Thailand. The building system that works there, probably wouldn’t work here. Demand and the financial structure, as well as property values are different. So long as there is tremendous amounts of money to be made, not only by builders, but municipalities as well, changing the system is not likely to happen.

          • What I talk about is not limited to one country.

            And I agree that changing the codes in any significant way is unlikely. (But if this is your passion then go for it.)

      • There was an outfit in SoCal that during the mid to late 70s that were building thousands of houses a year. Even with codes in place, the workmanship was so bad that the state of California stepped in.

        I think you just made our point for us :) If the codes didn’t stop such blatant fraud, why keep them around? I understand the purpose behind the codes, but madness lies down the road of having the government try to prevent bad things before they happen. Government works much better when it’s punishing wrongdoers rather than regulating the minutiae of peoples’ lives in the hopes of preventing them from becoming wrongdoers to begin with.

        • Exactly! That’s what I’ve been trying to say. This example demonstrates the limited effectiveness of building codes. Even more worrisome, is the current effort to extend the codes into even more aspects of our lives. That’s the topic of an upcoming blog post.

          • But punishing a builder after a house has collapsed and killed some one isn’t going to bring that person back. It’s like shutting the barn door after the horse got out. Obviously there are limits to the effectiveness of all human endeavors. Does that mean we shouldn’t at least attempt to prevent catastrophe before it happens?

            I hate regulation as much as anybody on this blog, maybe more so because I know what works and what doesn’t. But so long as we have people who are willing to risk other people’s lives to make a quick buck, some codes and inspections, as flawed as they maybe are better then nothing.

          • This topic has been covered in detail on the blog post Counties With Few or No Building Codes. It’s getting tiresome editing comments that go over and over the same thing.

  3. Why doesn’t the government have programs like this today? There’s lots of land out west. They could modify the codes for owner-built projects and help countless people obtain affordable housing. The government gives handouts to banks and big corporations all the time. Why not help average people? It wouldn’t have to be a financial handout — just remove some of the bureaucratic red tape and open up some of the millions of acres of federal land for housing.

    • Because it terrifies urbanites. They have no conception of life outside the cities (deeming the remaining 99% of the USA “flyover country”) and try to impose their preferred urban “solutions” on everybody else out of ignorance and soft bigotry. It’s hard for them to imagine a world that’s not impersonal and crowded, so they can’t comprehend how the trade-offs and restrictions they impose are just not a part of life in other places. Even worse, with their numbers, they electorally dominate the more rural areas.

      If you want to see real political change, the electoral impact of urban areas beyond their own city limits needs to be blunted.

      • So true about the gridders and urbanites. They have no real concept of how to live off grid or even be a true “low impact” gridder.

        We started with our infactructure first: septic, well, solar and wind. Now in our 3rd year, we’ll be building a post and beam, modified in-fill straw bale house with natural adobe for the interior and exterior walls – 100 % energy efficient using trombe walls, solar room, etc.

        My citified friends do not understand the concept of taking YEARS to perfect your homesite and final home. They cringe at the idea of storing water in barrels, and hauling it inside for bathing and washing. They think bucket flushing a toilet and incinerating the toilet paper is appalling.

        They’d prefer a quick, expensive build using too much concrete, too much wood, etc. to a wonderfully healthful, asthestically pleasing house using alternative materials and concepts to the standard wood box house.

        I agree that these would be the same people, who if they lived in our remote areas, would start contacting building officials to up the code restrictions, which would result in about 99% of my immediately populated area to be in violation of the same.

        We are using recycled, repurposed materials in ways that most people would think to be “garbage”. I am so thankful that at this time, our residents are not threatened by such uninformed people.

        Course, I grew up in a time when my grandpa still wacked the heads of chickens so grannie could pluck and cook them for dinner, yet here I am on my laptop, in the middle of nowhere, connected to the internet.

        Who says you can’t have the best of both worlds?

        • Sounds like you’ve found the perfect spot and have a good plan. Let’s hope ignorant people don’t start moving in.


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