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Arts & Culture

Adobe revival beckons as builders return to the mud

Photo: Photos by Greg Harman, License: N/A

Photos by Greg Harman

Rick Roel and Michael Ramírez finish out a compressed earth block machine at AECT's San Antonio office.

Photo: , License: N/A

"You know how the good Lord wasn't popular in his hometown? That's kind of the way it is with us." So says Lawrence Jetter from his Southside earth-building compound about the near complete absence of adobe buildings in San Antonio. But if you detect the ring of suggested salvation in there, too... Well, you wouldn't be wrong.

"Civilizations," Jetter says, "come full circle."

Now, says the builder of adobe-block machines suddenly being shipped around the world, is the time for mud.

More correctly, the variety of adobe brick that Jetter's machines churn out — machines perfected about a dozen years ago that have grown tremendously popular both with the U.S. military and civilian builders as far away as Saudi Arabia and South Africa — are called compressed earth block. It's not so unlike the stuff that built most of early San Antonio back in the day (though we threw in a lot of sticks for our jacales).

And, yet, there is value in reviving this most traditional of building styles. As the city looks to reign in its energy use, it's worth noting that most of the wasted energy in San Antonio blows out of poorly insulated housing stock, according to a recent analysis commissioned by the city. That leaves people like local architect and green-building champion Steven Colley asking why we left adobe in the first place. The retreat started out of changing demographics and fashion. "It wasn't really any problem of materials, but the German influence kind of came in and said, 'No. We do it this way now,'" Colley said. This coincided with the mass production of nails, which was followed by mass production of nearly everything else following World War II. Adobe was left in the metaphorical dust.

While adobe structures today cost slightly more than traditional wood-frame housing in San Antonio (probably because so few are trained to do it), there's one major caveat that could aid a resurgence, says Colley, who begins leading a course in compressed earth construction at Palo Alto College next month [(210) 486-3409 for more information]. "Adobe is a good material for stabilizing temperature. It absorbs moisture in the night, and during the day when it evaporates it requires heat to do that," Colley said. One study found temperatures inside an adobe home lower at 3 p.m. than they had been at 10 in the morning — without AC.

"So your air conditioning costs a lot less.

"The savings comes in the maintenance and utilities, it quickly becomes much less than traditional [building]."

For now, however, the interest locally is modest. Jetter nearly sold his Advanced Earthen Construction Technologies several times out of frustration over poor sales. But with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan came the need for military training centers simulating rural Middle Eastern communities, soon followed by civilian interest around the world from communities that had never stopped building the old-fashioned way. But even in San Antonio, sadly, bullet-proof walls don't hurt either, and Colley expects to embark on an earthen residential complex before year's end.

Historic San Antonio mud buildings


Spanish Governor's Palace
One adobe wall from the original 1722 building remains. The other walls are additions added on in rock in 1749. A 1930 city restoration completed the work.
105 Military Plaza
(210) 224-0601


Casa Navarro Historic Site
A few blocks away from the Governor's Palace you'll find three adobe (and compressed earth) buildings in their original state that date back to the mid-1800s.
228 S Laredo
(210) 226-4801

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