Green Home Building - April 4, 2011
Adobe Homes for All Climates: a Review
Published in 2010, Adobe Homes for All Climates: Simple, Affordable, and Earthquake-Resistant Natural Building Techniques, by Lisa Schroder and Vince Ogletree presents a comprehensive look at how one might go about building with adobe. It is based on many years of experience by the authors building residences, mainly in New Zealand. They evolved very specific techniques for every aspect of the building process, from fabricating the adobe blocks to erecting and plastering the walls.
Since the authors were involved in the business of adobe construction, they were motivated to find the most efficient, durable, and pleasing ways of building they could. For this reason, they rely completely on cement-stabilized materials, which cure rapidly enough to be handled within a day and can be trusted to endure virtually any kind of weather once the walls are in place. This practice departs from traditional unstabilized adobe construction, which may require more maintenance over time, but perhaps would be a "greener" choice, because of the lower embodied energy.
One of the more unique aspects of their system is the use of specialized molds for fabricating the blocks. The main difference with some of the molds they recommend is that they provide large holes in the center that can be used to route not only water and electric utilities, but also conceal concrete and steel reinforcement. With this method it is relatively easy to create a structure that would be acceptable to the most stringent codes for seismic reinforcement.
Another novel part of their system is that special holes can be provided at specified intervals that can be used to insert temporary pipes as support for scaffolding, a very handy way to avoid the cost and hassle of erecting conventional scaffolding. Eventually these holes are filled in and become invisible.
While there is a thorough discussion of the desired properties of soil that is suitable for an adobe mix, the authors caution that you should employ a soil engineer to make any final judgment about this. They are also cautious about their advice on foundation requirements, saying that an engineer should be involved in the design. I think that this caution is at least partially a matter of not wanting to be libel for any mistakes that an owner/builder might make, since they really give you enough information to figure all of this out yourself.
The chapters that deal with plaster are some of the most detailed and complete that I have seen anywhere. They really explain the whole process of making and applying stabilized earthen plasters, from beginning to end.
Since this book originated in New Zealand, some of the terminology is unique to that region and may not be familiar to all English speakers. One can generally figure out the intended meaning, however, through the context or the glossary at the end of the book.
With "for all climates" as part of the title, I expected a much more thorough discussion of how one would go about insulating an adobe wall. Instead, there are really just a couple of paragraphs that explain that in less temperate regions one might want to either make the wall thicker than the standard one foot, add some form of insulation to the exterior of the walls (especially on the north side in the northern hemisphere), or create an air gap cavity between two adjacent adobe walls. The book is beautifully illustrated with color pictures or diagrams on practically every page, but none of these show an insulated wall.
On the whole, I would recommend this book to anyone who might consider building with adobe, whether you employ their system or not, since there is a wealth of information that will be useful regardless. I commend the authors and publisher (Chelsea Green) for a job very well done!
Read the original review.
MCEER Journal - March 1, 2011
New Publications: Earthquake Engineering & Disaster Mitigation
Adobe bricks make the ideal building blocks for eco-friendly structures. They provide an easy, forgiving, and cost-effective means for building solid masonry-wall systems. This monograph describes the Adobe Building Systems' patented reinforcement and scaffolding systems and shows readers how to construct adobe homes easily and safely, and with superior strength, durability, structural integrity, and aesthetic appeal. The system described in this book entails use of rebar-reinforced concrete channels through the walls connecting the structure's footing to bond beams. Bond beams lock the tops of each wall and strengthen the connections between the walls. The addition of reinforcing channels and anchorage to the bond beam are more than sufficient to make a wall that easily passes strict code requirements in earthquake-prone regions, from New Zealand to California.
by Tristan Roberts
Adobe Homes is filled with practical tips, gorgeous pictures, useful construction drawings, and step-by-step help for anyone looking to build adobe, whether a professional or a homeowner. There are tips on earthquake resistance for locations with seismic concerns. There is extensive guidance on the often-overlooked issue of setting up your site to mix, mold, dry, store, and build with adobe bricks. The book gets into finishes, integrating windows and doors, and a lot more.
Unfortunately for me, I wasn’t looking at the book with this lens. Before I could really contemplate setting up a site for adobe production, I had to be sold on adobe for this climate. I was looking for ideas on cozy earth building in a climate with 7,500 heating degree days (many of them cloudy, for days at a time), 500 cooling degree days, and a distribution of those heating degree days throughout 12 months. And an adobe structure in this climate will be an energy hog, because, as the authors note, adobe has a very low R-value.
In short, the “for all climates” tagline, which drew me in, is a stretch. Yes, there is a suggestion to add a layer of insulation in colder climates (mentioned in the inspiring foreword by Bruce King, and in a subsequent paragraph in the book). Yes, there are nice pictures of snow-covered Rocky Mountain adobe (which may be cold–at times–but gets a lot more sun, making adobe a better choice). But building an adobe wall and adding insulation to it for this climate requires at least a whole chapter (more than the paragraph currently devoted to it), and perhaps a whole book. Here are some questions that this “missing” chapter might help answer:
- What kind of insulation works well with an adobe structure?
- How much is needed?
- Should the insulation be interior of the adobe, exterior of it, or both?
- What are the benefits of building adobe and also a secondary insulation system? Why is it worth doing versus just using another construction system?
- What construction and moisture details are necessary for adobe to be durable through a cold, wet, winter?
- How does the addition of insulation affect the vapor profile of the adobe wall? Any issues to watch out for
I hope these will be considered in future editions or articles by the author. In the meantime, this looks like a great resource for natural builders in climates where adobe makes more sense–most classically, the Southwest U.S.
Read the full, original review at BuildingGreen.com.
See Lisa Schroder's response to this review!
Su Casa Magazine
Autumn 2010 issue
New Mexicans are so possessive about adobe construction, you’d think we invented it here. The truth is, as authors Lisa Schroder and Vince Ogletree point out, people around the world have built with mud bricks for more than 5,000 years, and earthen material for 10,000—remember Jericho? Today, they claim, half the people in the world occupy an earthen home, and with good reason. Adobe is cheap, dirt is plentiful, and building with bricks lends itself to construction by beginners—which also lures many first-time owner-builders to start laying their own walls. Further, Schroder and Ogletree contend, adobe isn’t just for arid climates, as the book’s examples in New Zealand and England attest.
Adobe Homes for All Climates aims to be an instructional manual for novices, owner-builders, and experienced builders switching to adobe or seeking to learn new techniques. Hoping to encourage and inspire, the authors include fairly detailed chapters about making and laying adobe bricks, installing lintels and making arches, putting in conduits and pipes, installing windows and doors, attaching top plates and putting on bond beams, and applying plasters and other finishes.
New Mexican adoberos, who might rightly claim to have experience with the material second to none, will find a few challenging—or at least different—approaches on these pages. The authors don’t typically insulate their adobe walls, while most New Mexicans now insulate the exterior. Schroder and Ogletree advocate an 11 ¼-inch by 11 ¼-inch by 4 ¾-inch brick versus the typical New Mexican brick of 10 by 14 by 3 ½, the thickness of which accommodates making them in a frame with standard 2×4s (which aren’t really 4 inches). Furthermore, the authors use a sand/clay mix augmented by 5 to 7 percent cement, and they only occasionally add aggregate or fiber like straw. Their bricks, however, will cure even when it’s raining—can’t do that with a pure mud/clay mix—and weather much better in a wet climate.
Maybe the most dramatic difference, though, is Schroder and Ogletree’s patented “Adobe Madre” reinforcement and scaffolding system. They mold their bricks into a variety of shapes, each based on the basic square brick but with cutout holes and channels. Some look like a U, some like a square doughnut, some like a squared C. When stacked appropriately, these shapes accommodate a reinforcing steel bar, plumbing, or electric wiring run vertically through the wall. A channeled brick works with scaffold pipes, allowing you to build up removable scaffolding as you work higher up the wall. When you’re done, you slide out the pipes and fill the holes. Way cool.
If you’re in the target audience—curious newbie or open-minded professional—you’ll want to add this to your reading alongside the other classic adobe books. You’ll find these on most mud-heads’ shelves: Adobe: Build It Yourself by Albuquerque builder Paul Graham McHenry Jr. (University of Arizona Press), which was the bible for a generation of new-to-adobe builders in the 1970s; the classic plan book Adobe Architecture, by Myrtle and Wilfred Stedman (Sunstone Press); Passive Solar House Basics by alternative energy pioneer Peter van Dresser (Gibbs Smith, Publisher); and the more recent Adobe Houses for Today, by Su Casa contributors and home designers Laura and Alex Sanchez (Sunstone Press).