Taos Unlimited: The Historic Adobe Architectures of Taos, New Mexico

All About Adobe: The Building Blocks of the Southwest

Adobe has long been the traditional building material of the Southwest. Structures made from it are undulating and sculptural in nature, yet their mass gives them a sense of permanence and timelessness. The word adobe originated in the Arabic language and was brought to America by Spanish colonists at the end of the 15th century. It is used to refer to the earth from which structures are built, the structures themselves, and the unbaked clay bricks made from the earth.

Workers making thousands of adobe bricks for use in modern-day house in Northen New Mexico. Adobe, with its properties of natural heating and cooling, is still one of the most desired forms of construction in the Taos area.
In New Mexico, archaeologists have discovered remnants of adobe walls built by Pueblo Indians that date back to 1200 A.D., 400 years before the arrival of the Spanish. From that time through the 15th century there is evidence of two types of earthen walls. One was coarse adobe, which started with a stiff mixture of mud and was blended with anything from stones to pot shards. The mud was applied by the handful, layer on top of layer, until the desired wall height had been reached. A more sophisticated method made use of hand-formed, unbaked clay bricks. When the bricks were dry, mud mortar was used to hold the bricks in place on the wall.

The Spanish colonists not only brought the word adobe with them, they also brought a new method of making the bricks. Wooden forms the size of the needed adobe were made, with a handle on each end. They could generally hold from one to eight bricks. These forms were set on the ground and mud mixed with straw was shoveled in. The straw was added to aid in drying by conducting moisture from the center of the adobe and to keep the bricks from cracking as they dried. The excess mud was scraped off the top. When the bricks were dry enough not to sag, the forms were lifted up, moved to a new spot and filled again.

These were the two primary methods of building with adobe until the coming of the railroad in the 1880s, which almost eliminated the use of adobe for several decades. American settlers brought new technology as well as prejudice against the long established culture of the native populations. Red fired brick, board and batten, concrete block and frame stucco are just a few of the newer construction materials that came to the Southwest landscape. The coming of the railroad also had tremendous impact on the already existing architecture. Elaborate ornamentation and new roof lines gave the simple, flat-roofed buildings a radical, and sometimes unwelcome, facelift.

Not until after World War I was there any significant reemergence of adobe architecture. An awareness of decreasing natural resources in the area turned the eyes of builders and architects back toward adobe, a building material of infinite supply, which also has excellent passive solar properties. Adobe has the ability, when properly oriented to the sun, to retain its temperature for long periods of time. In the modern age of higher and higher utility bills, this is an extremely attractive feature.

A new adobe house under construction in Arroyo Seco, a small community just outside Taos, New Mexico. When it comes to authentic adobe-style, the building method and materials have changed very little in the last 200 years.
With the reemergence of adobe came commercial adobe yards, which are now producing a stabilized adobe block. As the word implies, a stabilizer is an additive, such as an asphalt emulsion, that when mixed with mud produces an unbaked clay brick that resists moisture penetration, since moisture is adobe’s worst enemy.

Building adobe structures with brick is only one method of construction. Pise’ de terre, better known as rammed earth, is a process developed in France during the 16th century. Wooden wall forms are set in place and filled with a blend of moist soils. The soil is compressed with a hand or pneumatic tamper. The forms are then moved to another section of wall and filled again.

Unfortunately, in these modern times, the amount of labor required in adobe construction often makes it too expensive for the average home buyer, although its use by owner-builders is steadily increasing. Solutions are slowly being found. Recently architects and builders have been looking for more innovative methods that will increase productivity and decrease the dollar margin between adobe and conventional building materials.

But in the meantime, nothing can take the place of the feeling you get when you enter an old, well-maintained adobe structure. In the summer, it’s akin to walking into a cool, refreshing cave; and in the winter, there is nothing more delightfully cozy than sitting in front of an authentic kiva fireplace. Ultimately, it’s a big part of the process of truly being in touch with the wondrous and sacred land that is America’s Great Southwest.


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