Adobe gets new start as energy saver

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Centuries ago, Southwestern Indians employed elements of solar design and orientation in their soil-and-stone dwellings. Today, with a new name and some refinement in materials and technology, the earth and sum are making a comeback in contemporary "solaradobe" structures.

Sun merges with soil and water to produce adobe. It is only natural, then, that solar heating and cooling are combining with adobe in a time of skyrocketing material and construction costs in a nation that now at last is beginning to confront its energy limitations.

Solaradobe structures affect the environment minimally in the making and upkeep.

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The term solaradobem was coined by Adobe Today, and its possibilities have been explored in the New Mexico magazine for the past six years. The publication began with Joe Tibbets's desire to improve communication between individuals who were interested in adobe.

"People right around the corner from each other didn't know each other," he asserts. "I saw a chance to come in with a publication that would bring them together and strengthen them."

Mr. Tibbets aimed to discourage adobe's demise and the aesthetic loss to the landscape and artistic community. As a landscape painter, he was acutely aware of the adobe house as part of New Mexico's pastoral landscape. Returning to the state in 1965 after military service, he was concerned by the advent of the house trailer. Adobe was 'treading water.'

"I saw the landscape changing for the worse. People didn't seem to realize the alternatives they had.

"Adobe was seen as a poverty symbol -- something to get out of."

Yet the newer forms of housing, Mr. Tibbets maintains, are not necessarily better. Too many conventional houses have poor insulating qualities, they're often susceptible to termites, and they're an obtrusion on the landscape.

"Adobe moderates outside temperature extremes," reports Mr. Tibbets."That's probably the most important thing about it."

Massive masonry walls are the key. Soundproof, rotproof, and fireproof, adobe appreciates in value with age.

Additional reasons for his devotion to solaradobe are its necessity for local labor and the boost to the local economy, its nonuse of fuel that must be imported, and the avoidance of such high-technology products as plastics, which pollute the locations where they are manufactured.

"Adobe is such an honest statement on the landscape," he declares.

Perceiving a need for more direct communication of solaradobe concepts than Adobe Today could provide, Mr. tibbets founded the Southwest Solaradobe School, where a practical understanding of adobe construction solar desing, wiring, and plumbing are taught in a week-long course.

Students attend classes, muddy their hands making bricks, participate in adobe construction, tour homes and talk with the owners, and receive advice on individual projects.

Classes are conducted in New Mexico and Arizona.

A recent session here in Glenwood included an Oklahoma drugstore clerk who will build a house with her husband, a Colorado advocate for the poor who is having a house built, and a Texas architect.

A New Mexico builder in the class said that after observing nine homes on tour day: "I don't think I'll ever feel good about building another frame building. My heart just won't be in it."

New Mexico leads the Southwest in energy-efficient building and research. High utility bills and low per capital income have generated strong grass-roots interest. The indians' early use of solar design was recognized by architect William Lumpkins and solar pioneer Peter van Dresser, both of Santa Fe.

The Southwest Solaradobe School was inspired by Abiquiu, New Mexico's Ghost Ranch Conference Center. There, Quentin Wilson, Mark Chalom, and Aubrey Owen were instrumental in developing the solar housing construction training program.

New Mexican participants chosen by manpower centers were trained in adobe construction and passive solar systems.

Solaradobe to some presents a conflict between adobe tradition and modern solar design. Joe Vaughan, an architect with the Southwest Solaradobe School, disagrees. Speaking of adhering strictly to tradition or breaking entirely from it, Mr. Vaughan says: "I think both positions are limited. We're constantly in a state of change."

Solaradobe simply presents new variations on a very ancient theme. Being sensitive to what the Indians have done, to what the Spanish missionaries brought to the area, to energy uses, and to new technology, "allows us to go back to the beginning, to let the material speak to us, to let new ideas work on us," according to Mr. Vaughan.

Then the architect adds: "Another way of building will come that is Today,m but that honors the past and learns from it."

The next Southwest Solaradobe School is sceduled for Mesa, Ariz., in late winter. Information about it or future schools may be obtained by writing to PO box 1178, Belen, N.M. 87002.

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