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Solar Adobe School - Learn about Adobe Construction, Adobe Home Building, Adobe Bricks, Green Building, Rammed Earth, Pressed Block Construction, Earthen Construction, Adobe Drafting.

SWSA’s Spring 2016 Earthbuilding Classes ~

For Home Planners, Owner-coordinators, Contractors, Architects, Interior Decorators, Installers, Materials Suppliers, Craft and Trades folk and Green Builders ~

Since we started in 1978, those of us who teach at SWSA have noticed that Adobe projects continue during tough times as well as boom times. During tough times, many owners participate in the work themselves. During good times, the craft is enhanced and expanded. It’s a building method that lends itself to the native ingenuity of people worldwide. It can be straightforward and practical or artistic and elaborate. Modern codes help to make these ancient skills more green and contemporary than ever. We hope that SWSA can be your liaison towards a successful project.

Choices: We’ve set dates for three this spring- Planning, Hands-on and Drafting- all in respect to Adobe and Compressed Earth Block and with an eye to cutting costs without sacrificing home style, solidity or energy savings.

Cost: We’ve lowered the price on the drafting class and held the line on the others. If you can make it to multiple classes, we will rebate singles $35 and couples $55 cash on the morn of their next class. Questions about group discounts are welcome at

Values added: SWSA places emphasis on the need for a good set of plans. Every student receives a set for an Adobe or CEB home that’s been permitted and built. Add in our 98 page earthbuilding reference, Earthbuilders’ Encyclopedia CD and many miscellaneous handouts and plan details. After class, we welcome post-grad emails along with questions or reports about your project.



for Adobe and Compressed Earth Block (CEB)

Sat. & Sun., April 16/17, 2016
North Albuquerque, New Mexico

This class will be held at the Courtyard by Marriott (505-823-1919) in north Albuquerque. It’s mostly indoors, but with lunchtime tours that are important to the class. Once registered, SWSA will send you an e-mail confirm, followed by written confirm, local info, maps and pre-class reading materials. Registration available at the end of this class description.

Adobe production at New Mexico EarthPlanning Prologue
Day-dreaming about that special Adobe, whether elegant or humble, is a common past-time for many Southwesterners. It’s a region that puts emphasis on its indigenous, green and appropriate architecture. Adobe enthusiasts will discuss the artistry and craft that will add atmosphere and value to their thick earthen walls. Visions of special plasters, exposed beams or vigas, carved corbels, or sculptured nichos and bancos are enticing, but will challenge skill levels and pocketbooks. That corner Kiva fireplace, with its warming glow, can be like a hologram shimmering just out of reach- but could you do it yourself? What would materials cost? How much help would you need?

Planning your drafting means that nebulous ideas about space must transform into exact foot and inch increments on a set of working drawings. And the drawings must meet structural and energy codes. As you develop your plans, brain cramps may set in as material and labor costs force you to trim space or eliminate desired features. How to proceed?

Since our first class at Peralta, New Mexico in 1978, SWSA has helped folks turn unorganized dreams into defined Earthbuilding projects. We know that you’re on a learning curve when not familiar with Adobe or its cousin, Pressed Earth Block. If you turn the project over to a contractor for a “turn-key” home, you should qualify them first. And if you are a Contractor or Architect, maybe it’s time to get started and add that ‘Adobe feather’ to your design cap.

Schedule ~
Sat. April 16, 2016 - 8:00 a.m. Class begins at Courtyard (coffee on hand)

8:00am - 9:30am Making a clear decision about which earthen type to Use - Adobe vs. Compressed Earth Block (CEB). Learn the differences.

  • What they are - their physical limits.
  • How they are made, what the code says.
  • Their costs to manufacture yourself vs. buying them from a supplier.
  • Costs to transport and  cheapest way to produce.
  • Time to make them. (Slides & Samples brought in to class).
  • Their differences in appearance, workability and speed of construction.
  • Their differences in mortar material and what can/can’t go in bedding joints.

9:40am - 10:20am Planning your role in the project- which does affect how much you can save. Should I be?

- Full-blown owner builder.
A true O.B. can cut up to 50% off total home cost, but most lack the skill set to hack it. O.B.s do best on smaller homes below 1400 sq. ft. where family arrangements reduce labor costs. List of basic tools handed out for the average Adobe or CEB project.

- Owner-coordinator.
Most O.B.s become O.C.s when they realize the amount of work ahead or for skilled trade help, but they can still cut 25-35% off total cost. Figures from one permitted O.C. adobe home are handed out.

- Turn-key customer.
You may have a larger project that requires more engineering and custom effects. Your builder or architect must be familiar with Adobe or CEB and willing to show examples of their work. We explain which features will drive costs up for any style of Adobe.

10:25am - 11:30am Identifying a good site or where to build on your chosen site. Homes should be site specific, that is, tailored to the site environment, but also positioned to use the sun and generate energy.

- Solar access and orientation.
Don’t expect a heavily timbered site on the north side of a mountain to be a good solar site - you’ll freeze all winter. Because NM lays out good Passive Solar guidelines for orienting your structure, we look at those along with our own list of cautions and suggestions.

- Other site challenges:
We go explain code required geophysical reports, Radon, flood plain rules, road building and delivery considerations.

11:30am - 1:30pm Lunch with Adobe yard/native materials tour

1:30am - 5:00pm Preparing your working drawings:

Plans are one of the major hurdles to getting started. Without a set of plans, you won’t have a building permit. Our class coming up on May28/29 goes into drafting in detail and is for those needing the nitty-gritty’s of how to draft Adobe and CEB plans from pencil to software, but we do cover the basic drafting scenarios in this Planning Class, along with their costs and cautions. Here are a few examples along with an expansion note:

SWSA's Plan 1310- I can already draft, so I’ll do my own and save a bunch. That’s great and you will save a bunch, but what is required on a set of plans for an Adobe or CEB home? How are Adobe and CEB different when it comes to drafting them?

- My nephew just graduated from AutoCAD class, and he will draft for me at very low cost. Sounds great, but what do you think the cautions will be here?

- My architect will design and draft my home. Again, sounds good. Your architectural firm should be willing to show examples of drafting for Adobe or CEB homes they have permitted. Architects generally offer more services for their fees, but what if your adobe is their “first”? We offer a few suggestions.

- Planning for Expansion. Drafting a structure that will be expanded a few years down the road requires different drafted details and notation. But first, you need to know how expansions are done- then you’ll know how to draft them. We go over what preparations need to happen- on paper and at the site.

Schedule ~
Sun. April 17, 2016
- 8:00 a.m. Class begins (coffee on hand)

8:00am - 11:45am Sun and Adobe Work Together. Planning for Energy Savings and Energy Generation.

(10 minute Mid-morning break about 10:00 a.m.)

This is a category of know-how that you will need before drafting your plans. They are at the heart of a successful project. Slides, Handouts, Show n’ Tell.

  • Clarifying your green material choices. Looking at Energy code tests and rebates, such as HERS and other energy programs.
  • Solar design points for hot, low-desert climates below 3500’ elevation.
  • Solar design points for mid-desert climates between 3500’ and 4500’ elevation.
  • Solar design points for high-desert and cold plateau climates between 4500’ and 7500’.
  • Designs that will not work and designs that work well.
  • Setting up the home for future PV (electricity). What codes now require and tips on housing components in or around your home.

11:45am - 1:45pm Lunch & adobe structure tour

1:45pm- 5:00pm Planning the Stages & Cost Alternatives.

We will review the key stages as laid out below. We’ll look at cost, giving you an idea of high-end solutions (that cost more) and alternative solutions (that cost less).

  • Foundations & Rough Plumbing
  • Rough Bucks and timber framing for Doors and Solar Windows
  • Laying Adobes and CEBs.
  • Electrical concerns- ( in-the-wall method vs.“gouge” method )
  • Window Rough Bucks
  • Bond Beams and their attachments
  • Roof Construction- most popular choices
  • Finish Work.

5:00pm Class ends

Cost: $255 one person, $433 for two registering together (web site adds state tax to these figures).
Class capacity: 14 students
Class Handouts: Complete plan set for a 1300-1500 sq. ft. solar-adobe home, 98 p. SWSA reference manual, the Earthbuilders’ Encyclopedia CD, miscellaneous handouts and isometric drawings.

Register for a solar adobe class  


for Adobe and Compressed Earth Block (CEB)

Sat. & Sun., May 14/15, 2016
Bosque, New Mexico

(note: Mother's Day is May 8)

Making 14 x 4 x 14" adobesThis class devotes the weekend to preparing Adobe and CEB earthen materials, using tools of the trade and working on real walls. The idea is to teach you important basics and give you a sense of heft for the tools and materials. Please note that Saturday’s class will go to 5:30 pm and Sunday's class to 4:30 pm*. Both days start at 8 a.m.

The nearest town with a plentiful choice of motels and restaurants is Belén, located 8 miles north of the Hands-on site off a paved highway. Belén is 32 miles south of Albuquerque on Interstate 25. Local directions, maps and list of accommodations when you register. Weather in mid-May is warm (shade on site) with pleasant evenings. This is a rustic class in the rural countryside. Dust, mud, wind, thorns and insects may exist. Old clothes are best, along with hat, gloves, sunscreen, polarized sunglasses and good foot protection (please, no sandals or bare toes).

You may 'brownbag' your lunch at the hands-on site or drive into Belén for lunch. Coffee, water, fresh fruit and fruit juice are free on-site each day. SWSA will provide tools and materials. If you drive to class, we encourage you to bring samples of your soil for testing (two 5 gallon buckets are ideal). Bring your notebook and camera. Safety will be stressed: SWSA will ask you to sign a work safety release at the beginning of class.

*travel time from the Bosque Hands-on site to the Albuquerque airport is about 50 minutes. From Hands-on site to Belén is about 15 minutes.

Schedule ~
Sat. May 14, 2016

8:00am - 9:30am Tools and Safety
Earthbuilders’ Encyclopedia CD distributed along with today’s handouts. Safety is discussed as we review both common or unusual tools used with Adobe and Pressed Block. Earthen materials identified around the site. When weather permits, folding chairs set up in shade. Rather than call specific breaks, students can short-break as needed during hands-on periods.

9:30am - 12:00 noon First Hands-on period.
Instructors will direct students in setting up leads, preparing adobe & CEB mortars, and laying adobes and compressed earth block to the string. Learn aspects of wall construction as we go along- speed leads, placing adobes, code reqd. overlaps, cutting and shaping of blocks, finishing joints, rough bucks and their attachments, electrical circuits, box attachment, in-wall reinforcement and more.

Testing soils with Larry Elkins12:00 noon - 1:15 pm Lunch Break
Brown bag on site or drive to Belén (8 miles). Cold drinks and water on site.

1:15 pm - 5:30pm Second Hands-on period.
Continue wall construction from morning period. At mid-afternoon, change to building a Roman arch (arco de medio punto), nicho arches and adobe making, including adobes for vaults and hornos. Make 3 different types of adobes using forms on site). Learn how stabilizers are proportioned and mixed. Clean up tools and wheelbarrows starting at 5:20 p.m.

5:30pm Class ends for the day

Schedule ~
Sunday May 15, 2016

8:15am - 12:30pm Third Hands-on Period.
The morning is dedicated to Compressed Earth Block. Larry Elkins of Adobe International will demonstrate one of his compressed earth block machines (we test your soil and press it on site). Students mix and blend soils and press different blocks with Cinva-Ram hand press and Adobe International Hydraulic Press. Discussion/show & Tell about providing space for in-wall steel reinforcement and electrical circuits in compressed earth blocks. Discussion about use of bamboo as green replacement for steel in some wall systems.

12:30pm - 1:45pm Lunch Break
Brown bag on site or drive to Belén.

1:45pm - 4:00pm Bond Beam Construction- fourth Hands-on period.
Instructor points out specifics of required bond beam construction and how vigas (exposed beams) are set in place. Explained are kinds of forming, tie wire, spreaders and form clips, steel layout, holey adobes, FHA straps for viga attachment and other standard bond beam components. An actual size bond beam dummy set up on the ground for you to photograph.

Clean-up of tools and loading of students’ test blocks (those driving) starts at 4:15pm.

4:30pm Note: if truly bad weather occurs on either day, class may be moved indoors to teach the scheduled topics in the classroom.

Cost: $255 one person, $433 for two registering together (web site adds state tax to these figures).
Class capacity: 16 students
Class Handouts: Earthbuilders' Encyclopedia CD, various hard copy handouts and complete plan set for a 1300-1500 sq. ft. solar-adobe home, and 98 p. SWSA Reference Manual.

Register for a solar adobe class  

Class 3. SWSA’s 2 days of Drafting Know-how
for Adobe & Compressed Earth Block

Sat. & Sun., May 28/29, 2016
Albuquerque, New Mexico

(note: Memorials Day is May 30)

Our class will be held in the Taos Room, Courtyard by Marriott in North Albuquerque, New Mexico (505-823-1919). When you register, we will send you a written confirm, initial reading material, a local facilities list, maps and Albuquerque info.

Building a scale model - Prologue to Drafting Class - where do I fit in?
Limited to ten students, this is a drafting work class for those who want to kick-start the drafting for their Adobe or CEB home. It is ideal for those who have started their floor plan sketches.

- About stock plans
Plans can be purchased readily for stick-built homes, but the custom and private nature of Adobe means that documents are less available. Stock plans for smaller adobes are available through a few sources. They are less expensive, but invite change. People will say, “I’d like to enlarge this room here and shrink that one there”. Before long, the inexpensive stock plan has become a custom drafting project.

- When you are the drafter
Two scenarios often develop when design services are out of reach. The first assumes that you are the drafter, but will acquire the know-how about adobe codes and construction methods. If you already know how to draft, whether by hand or machine, you have an advantage. However, the learning curve for Adobe drafting is not difficult.

When you are not the drafter- Qualifying a draftsperson
The other scenario assumes that you will not be the drafter, but will learn code and construction so that you can direct a drafter. By working with SWSA on your idea, you’ll learn enough to qualify that drafting service before hiring them. A variation on this is to bring your draftsperson to class, taking advantage of our 30% discount for any companion who registers with you.

Schedule ~
Sat. May 28, 2016

8:00am - 11:30am and 1pm - 5pm Identify and learn critical construction points (all day) 

11:30am - 1:00pm Lunch Tour

You’ll receive a set of plans for an Adobe home (also works for CEB) to keep and use in class. On your Floor Plan and other sheets will be printed 12 circles, each designated by letter, such as “A” or “B”. The 12 circles are located over the critical construction points on your plan. As examples, the fireplace will be circled and an arched entryway. The instructor will teach the class how each feature is built using sketches, illustrated handouts, PowerPoint and show-and-tell. Handouts will be keyed to correlate with the circled construction points on the plan.  

Schedule ~
Sun. May 29, 2016

8:00am - 10:00am When to use Code References and where to find them.

When you draw a feature on your plan, for example a fireplace, we teach you to reference code rules that cover that fireplace. The Plans Examiner is reminded that your drawn feature is allowed and it saves him having to look it up. Referencing the code on your drawings can also document an exemption. For example, in some Energy Conservation Codes, wood burning masonry fireplaces are required to have gasketed (sealed) doors. But if you design a home that exceeds the minimum energy code by at least 20% (typical with solar-adobe designs) the door requirement is waived. (Note of interest: Many Adobe fireplaces are sculptured or rounded into corners, so that flat, gasketed doors will not seal.)

On your plan set, the 12 circled construction topics correspond with code reference numbers in the plan margins. We show you where to find the code references that relate to Adobe construction. Many of these are from the IBC (International Building Code), or its sister book, the IRC (International Residential Code).They may be important if you will build in an area unfamiliar with Adobe construction.

10:10am - 11:30am Adobe and CEB Drafting Practices
Don’t underestimate the value of a good set of plans.

Ernest AragonKeep your drawings interesting and easy to visualize. Use both 2D and 3D drawings so that the viewer can grasp the concept of what you want to build.

The drafter is responsible for a good layout and dimensions that are clear and consistent. Yes, it is possible to have too many dimensions on a plan, leading to troubles on the building site. If all trades on a job can read your plans without confusion and keep the job moving on schedule, then you have become a valuable draftsperson. We’ll start with the Floor Plan before lunch break: 

1. Floor Plan
The instructor will provide a floor plan outline to each student and the class will work together to dimension it. A few mistakes will be set up on purpose so that you can see how they can happen- we will then correct them. We continue with Foundation Plan after lunch.  

11:30am - 1:00pm Lunch Tour

1:00pm - 4:30pm Continuation from Morning

2. Foundation Plan and Foundation Sections
3. Elevations
4. Sections for Wall, Whole House and Fireplace.
5. Roof Framing Plan including trusses
6. Electrical Plan.
7. Energy Calcs. 8. Plot Plan.  

(Mid-afternoon 10 min. break about 2:45)

4:30pm - 5:00pm Software and other Options

Instructors Epler, Ortega and Tibbets discuss craft-drafting and softwares, pointing out the pros/cons about them. Do options exist for drafting your project without breaking the bank or violating a software license requirement? Expensive software isn’t an option for one-time drafters building one home. We review a few methods to keep software and repro costs low.  

5:00pm End of Class

Cost: $268 single/ $455 for two registering together (web site adds state tax to these figures).
Class Capacity: 10 students
Included materials:

  • The Earthbuilders' Encyclopedia CD (save the $43 on-line price)
  • 98 page reference manual which includes the NM Earthen Building Materials Code for Adobe and Compressed Earth Block.
  • Samples of AutoCAD, Visio and Sketchup adobe draftings.
  • Complete plan set for a 1300-1500 sq. ft. solar-adobe home.
  • Hard copy of the NM Residential Applications Manual (this class only) for class work.
Register for a solar adobe class  
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