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Adobe domes rising

A texas builder Works to gain acceptance for adobe as a timeless, low-cost building material.

By David HolmstromStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 1, 2000

To Simone Swan adobe is a timeless material.

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Her mentor, famed Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy, saw it as beautifully utilitarian, pulled from the earth by many hands and shaped into adobe bricks for solid, low-cost homes built by the people who would live in them.

From her adobe home outside of the small border town of Presidio, Texas, near the Rio Grande, Ms. Swan notes that following Mr. Fathy's footsteps has not been easy. "Because he served the poor, and not the vested interests, he was treated with great hostility in his country," she says.

Today a few Western architects see him as well ahead of his time in advocating methods appropriate to local materials and technology.

Swan has slowly gained respect for championing Fathy's ideas and concepts in lectures, workshops, and writing.

She pauses in explaining her work, searches for a summary, and then says with an edge in her in voice, "I want to vanquish the trailer."

For Swan, trailers and mobile homes are symbols of wasted energy and industrialized mass production. She insists they are not improvements over low-cost folk architecture such as simple adobe homes.

In this part of the Southwest, where low-cost housing is needed, Swan is a persistent advocate for self-made adobe homes. If families build adobes using the ancient technique of vaulted and domed roofs, as Fathy encouraged, then wood is not needed for construction, natural insulation helps ward off the heat, and convection moves air through the courtyards, she says. And the costs can be lowered when the owner's hands build the house.

Such adobe architecture, in ancient Egypt and Africa, has lasted for centuries with regular maintenance. The difference in Swan's effort is the use of adobe domes and vaulted roofs, both uncommon and unfamiliar in US desert communities. Acceptance of such architectural innovation by local building-code officials varies greatly, and sometimes depends on whether the construction is outside city limits or not.

"Some people think I am enamored by the style," says Swan, "but our research has shown that the domes and vaults are the least expensive in deserts when you use adobe. We also do not want to contribute to the devastation of forests."

Swan has designed two adobe homes and several smaller buildings for clients. Her own home is a 1,700-square-foot prototype built in 1995 in this solitary part of the Chihuahuan desert.

The second house, built in Ojinaga, Chihuahua, Mexico, is a 550-square-foot adobe built by its owner-dweller, Daniel Camacho. Both houses have been visited by architects, professors, and students from the US and other countries, all people interested in Fathy's ideas.

"Acceptance has been an uphill battle," Swan says. "Some low-income residents have shown interest, but without even small loans, they can't afford to build." She had hoped for approval of her structures as low-income housing by the Department of Housin and Urban Development so homeowners could apply for loans.

"Despite encouragement, HUD says, 'You do have structural engineering certification, don't you?' I've talked with the Department of Agriculture's rural-development people, too, and they tell me, 'You need certification to go forward,' " she says.

Rueben Carrasco, a new code-enforcement officer for Presidio, says Swan was able to build her house in l995 because she is "in the extra-territorial jurisdiction" some six miles outside Presidio. "They told me I didn't need a permit," says Swan, "but they wouldn't allow me to include a composting toilet."

From the dirt road that runs by Swan's home, a traveler sees an H-shaped, tawny-colored adobe structure with four Nubian-style catenary vaults and two courtyards. To the left of the house is an attractive domed adobe guest room detached from the house. Using solar power, Swan pumps water from a well and also provides electricity for the house.

It is the Nubian-style vaults and domes that please the eye with their graceful smoothness and startling presence in a land where adobe buildings usually come with a flat roof, sloped slightly to shed rainwater.

"If you take a global perspective," says Stephen Colley, an architect from San Antonio who recently took an adobe workshop from Swan, "the US is one of the few countries in the world that does not build primarily with earthen materials. We build residentially with lumber, with stick material, and having vaulted domes is extremely revolutionary for us."