The Southwest Solaradobe
February 2004

Dear Reader,
It's been quite awhile since we have generated a newsletter to our far-flung subscribers. We do appreciate your patience. Read on for coming changes that will transform the newsletter into a more comprehensive monthly.

First, we are posting a brief about Southwest Solaradobe Classes coming up: For more details, please visit our web site at If after visiting the site, you need more help in picking a class, e-mail us at or phone 505-861-2287. Starting this year, SWSA will be working with members of The Earthbuilders' Guild to compliment its instructor pool. More details about TEG in this newsletter.

- April 2/3/4
Compressed Earth Block (and Traditional Adobe) class - San Antonio, TX.
Regardless of where you plan to build with "CEB", this class will bring you up to speed about the soils, the pressing machinery and the code as well as coming code changes for Traditional Adobe. Our host is Lawrence Jetter of Advanced Earthen Construction Technologies, in San Antonio. He and Joe Tibbets of SWSA will instruct. Bring your soils for testing at class. Two days inside with lecture, slides and handouts. One day for pressing & laying block and building arches. Taught in lay language through the process, step-by-step. We've been visiting San Antonio for several years now, and our "grads" are raising walls around South Texas. Handouts and reference book. $295 single/$498 double.

- April 23/24/25
The Low-cost Earthbuilding Workshop- Albuquerque, NM area.
Dedicated to saving bucks and proving that a stout Earth home does not have to be expensive! This is a planning class for those who don't need/want all of the custom bells and whistles. Raise your Adobe, Compressed Earth Block or Rammed Earth home at reduced cost. If you are in a cold winter area, incorporate passive solar design at no extra cost (hint: passive solar has no moving parts). To help get you into gear, two 1400 sq. ft. plan sets come with the class- one for an adobe, one for a R.E. home. The objective: build it better than code on a budget of $39 per square foot or less. $295 single/$498 double. An inside class, altho' lengthened lunchtime tours are planned.

- April 30/May 1 & 2
Standard, all-around Earthbuilding class - Albuquerque, NM area.
We always do a class in May, when the weather is (usually) nice for Hands-on day. If you want a good overview of the "big three"- traditional Adobe, Compressed Earth Block and Rammed Earth, this is your class. Two days in the classroom, one day hands on with the tools, materials and machinery, as we build walls and arches. Bring your soils for testing at class, along with old clothes and a camera. Options explained for all degrees of finish from "plain Jane" to super custom. Step-by-step through the process in lay language. Stress on passive solar design for those building above 4000' elevation. $295 single/$498 double. Handouts, plan sets and reference book included.

- May 16/17/18/19/20/21/22
Hands-on "Rustic" class using Adobe, Compressed Earth Block and Rammed Earth- Bosque, NM area.
(Orientation Sunday 3 pm and then all week to-Sat. 3 pm) A mostly outside class to help you towards becoming proficient in the three main Earthbuilding methods. Adobe vault/dome hands-on included. Touring, lots of instruction, and plenty of time building with safety in mind. You are expected to participate and get dirty. Warm weather, rustic conditions. Works out to less than $80 a day; less if you split costs with a buddy. Taught to Code in lay language. Handouts and the Earthbuilders' Encyclopedia on CDROM (for Mac & PC) included. $475 single/$790 double. 10% Discount for past "grads", including those who attend one of the earlier classes above (please e-mail for details) Class limit of 15.

A New Book of Interest: Gibbs Smith Publisher in Layton, UT has just released a valuable 460 page photographic collection of vernacular architecture from around the world, titled, Built by Hand. The authors are Yoshio and Eiko Komatsu (photographer) and Bill and Athena Steen. It's available on our website and is discounted there. It's not a construction handbook, but a good photographic reference for decorators, green builders and designers. The accompanying text explains old, empirical traditions of building and usages of natural materials from Europe, Africa, Asia, the Américas, India, the Middle East and some island nations.

Are the Code Wars coming to an End? After several years of bureaucratic incompetence and political shenanigans, it appears that New Mexico may be settling down to implement the 2003 International Residential Code. The Construction Industries Commission, in Santa Fe, which makes decisions regarding NM's statewide building codes, has set a July 1, 2004 date of implementation. A "grace period", during which one can use either the old or new code will extend for 6 months from July 1. We all hope that New Mexico will get the IRC2003 code on the books this time around. It contains important "upgrades" for seismic design for Adobe and Rammed Earth as well as a beginning new code for Compressed Earth Block.

The Earthbuilders' Guild ~ Much as a result of frustration about the code matters above, the formation of TEG, or The Earthbuilders' Guild has continued to progress. As a businesspersons' league, members pay monthly dues, and have begun to a strategy that will offer regional Earthbuilders some clout on code matters, while promoting Earthbuilding in general.

Why TEG? The formation of TEG comes late for Earthbuilders, who have enjoyed a good forty-year span of business, without significant competition. The "custom adobe" had already evolved over previous decades to a high degree of finish by the mid-1960's. In 1965, the typical custom adobe already incorporated good foundations and bond beams, carved wood work, custom plasters and tile, viga and latilla ceilings, nichos, bancos and more. A 2500 sq. ft. custom Adobe in a good neighborhood went for about $39,000 (Albuquerque North Valley 1965). Customers expected the bells and whistles and would pay for them. During the 1960's and into the 1980's, "custom Adobe" became the perceived norm as to what an Adobe structure was. There was no such thing as the "ordinary adobe"! Or at least, such projects went unnoticed. When contractors became good at custom work, they went "high end" for better profit margins. You can't blame them, but they often ignored customers with more humble building plans. Only a few Adobe contractors specialized in small projects. This situation is still in effect in 2004 (and presents an opportunity for the right builders). Today, that same 2500 sq. ft. custom, contractor-built adobe varies from $90 to $125 per sq. ft. in the same neighborhood.

Could one build a nice Adobe themselves at half the cost above? Yes, if you acquire the skills, the tools, the materials and good help. Prepared owner-builders and owner-coordinators are still putting up attractive homes in the $35 to $55 per sq. ft. range (not counting cost of land), if the project doesn't entail too much custom work. The big contractors will deny this, but they know it can be done. If you really talk to them- you'll discover that they too, look for the chance to try a smaller, more efficient Earth design.

Back to a little history, relating to TEG. During the period 1975-1985, a "practical, green building period" did get started. After the Arab oil embargo of '73/'74, Passive Solar became "all the rage", and many lower cost, effective designs were established. These were the years when government agencies, and professionals in the Southwest engineering and building community got down to the nitty-gritty's of how Earth walls worked, thermally speaking. During this period, Rammed Earth and Compressed Earth Block (CEB) began to join Traditional Adobe as earth-wall choices. Less emphasis went into custom extras and more into practical solutions. But after 1980, the "energy crisis" was seen as over (another perception mistake). Builders returned to the more energy-wasteful designs demanded by their clients. Bureaucrats in Santa Fe and other regional centers closed down solar information offices. Budgets to print and dispense research results to the building community were cut or dissolved. No wonder that by 1990, a new generation of builders and consumers were "missing out" on the basics of mass or solar design. By about 1995, Adobe, CEB and Rammed Earth had become just one "category" of choices along with a half-dozen allegedly 'green' options. Bale, Rastra, concrete-filled foam forms, and many "hybrid" wall systems are nationally promoted and they do compete.

Back to the future with TEG- The original TEG founders came out of the code committees for Adobe, CEB and Rammed Earth that began in the late1990's. Rather than have three separate committees, we merged into one. And the "one" became The Earthbuilders' Guild. To date, the membership represents Texas, New Mexico and Colorado. Once formation is complete, TEG will make the call for memberships from Arizona, California, Utah and elsewhere. If you would like a hard copy brochure about membership categories in TEG, write The Earthbuilders' Guild, POB 3494, Albuquerque, NM 87190 or e-mail, providing us with a snailmail address and a little about your objectives.

A change and improvement in the Newsletter is coming soon! It may not be a surprise that we have decided to move this newsletter from SWSA to TEG. In this transition, it will change from a free to a paid (on-line) electronic newsletter. TEG will also have a new website, with the address to be announced soon in SWSA's next (and last) newsletter. As a TEG member, SWSA will also contribute to the new newsletter.

Judy Miller of in Albuquerque will be TEG's electronic designer and web host. Judy has attended TEG meetings to evaluate our requirements. She has created a colorful and ergonomic format for the site and the newsletter. After several discussions, we decided on $25 a year for 12 electronic issues. We will have company news, code news, research news and individual project news in the newsletter from a variety of our members. Marcy Child of Earth Block, Inc. in Pagosa Springs, CO. will be our TEG newsletter editor.

- Adobe Builder #11 has been published by SWSA and is now available as part of Backpac #3 on our web site. It has articles on the new CEB code for NM, Mud Plasters and Underfloor Radiant Heating. A noteworthy article covers Alan McGaffin's new Compressed Earth Block home near Houston, TX., and the first of its kind in that rainy area. Alan purchased a smaller "red" machine from AECT of San Antonio and produced his stabilized block on site. He expects to finish the approximately 7000 sq. ft. home sometime this summer.

Pressing Machine for Sale
A Compressed Earth Block Machine by A.E.C.T. of San Antonio,Texas. Model series 5000,also commonly known as the "brown" machine. This is the premier compressed soil block machine built by A.E.C.T. The machine is in excellent working condition. The block counter on the machine reads around 15,000 blocks made. The hour meter on the diesel power plant reads around 100 hours run time. These are very low numbers, and this is reflected in the great shape the machine is in. Selling price is $67,000.00. For additional information contact owner; R. Davis Garrett at (512) 407-9924 or mobile at (512) 228-0521.

Thoughts about the Bam Earthquake in Iran and Pre-code buildings-
One can only lament the loss of life and property resulting from the recent 7.0 earthquakes at the ancient city of Bam, Iran. But it is likely that some people knew the danger- an ancient city built before seismic codes. The Industry term for this situation is "pre-code". That means a structure that was built before the application of modern building codes, especially in respect to seismic design.

Newscasters, ignorant about earthen construction, were heard to say, "Well, they were just mud buildings." But the earth walls were not the real cause, although many of them were built too high in ratio to their thickness. Most of the structures in Bam had no unifying foundations or bond beams as required today in U.S. and other codes. Roofing timbers were not tied down to resist uplift forces. In many cases, walls fell outwards and heavy roofs came down on occupants. There is also something to be said about the intensity of such quakes, another example being the1978 quake in China, estimated at 8.0 on the Richter scale. In that shake, people were killed by being thrown upwards against their ceilings. Any sort of construction suffers in a quake of such intensity.

But properly designed earth walls can survive large quakes. The design philosophy is to build the structure with the idea of saving lives first- that is, build it so that occupants can exit, because doors do not jam or walls and ceilings do not collapse. The Peruvian government has been a leader in such low-cost, seismic reinforcement for ordinary adobe structures, using green materials such as cane and bamboo for in-wall reinforcement, and other low-cost attachment systems that villagers can afford. Perhaps TEG can eventually follow with some research in this important area.

Today, in the U.S. Southwest and many other world areas, there are still plenty of pre-code earthen structures around. A few are historic structures that have been seismically retrofitted. Their importance justifies the cost. Many structures built before 1950 had only packed stone foundations and no bond beams. The romantic idea of purchasing and "fixing up" any old masonry structure- adobe or otherwise, should be viewed through the clear lens of whether it has a sound, reinforced foundation and reinforced bond beam and good attachment systems. Keep in mind that it will usually be more expensive to retrofit a pre-code adobe seismically, than to build a new one to code.

SWSA can recommend a seismic engineer who can design a safe earthen structure or help you to retrofit an old one, if you are in an active seismic zone. He is Dr. Fred Webster, P.E. of Menlo Park, California. Fred specializes in seismic design for Adobe and Rammed Earth, and is one of the leading world authorities in this specialty. To communicate, e-mail him at or ring 650-321-6939 in California.

- A good book for Cold Weather builders: How about efficiencies of 85-90% from a wood-burning masonry stove? Enter the manual Russian Fireplace Demonstrations and Workshops by Jay S. Jarpe, research engineer, May 1981. This approximately 90 pp. manual ( 8 1/2" x 11") covers the design, construction, and thermal performance of European masonry stoves known in Russia as Grubkas. In 1980, an innovative New Mexico mason, Robert Proctor, constructed eight of these stoves in Community and Senior Citizens' Centers at Taos, Nageezi, Santa Fe, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Willard, Roswell and Silver City, New Mexico. Elevations ranged from 7000' to 3500'. Efficiencies ranged form a low of 86% at Silver City to a high of 89% at Willard. These are much higher efficiencies than can be attained by the most metal stoves available on the market today.

Today, readers are familiar with these stoves as advertised in the back of magazines such as Fine Homebuilding or This Old House. They are often imported and they aren't cheap. The shortfall is that it's not easy to find anyone that knows how to build one, or to find a set of plans to build one. With this manual, you'll find all of the thermal documentation as well as the plans. Moreover, there are figures plotting temperature changes over time in all eight stoves constructed. The text gives the builder plenty of direction about placement of rebar, type and strength of masonry mixes and pitfalls to watch out for.

Sections and elevations are provided at ½" = 1' 0" and cover 25 pages. These include details of foundations, steel placement, damper assemblies and the design of the front door (3/16" hot rolled steel) and the important air inlet ports. 12 pages are dedicated to graphs plotting heat flow through the stoves over time. The text is straightforward and informative.

SWSA will sell the manual in a 3-ring notebook for $26 at our website The price includes priority mail to the buyer.

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