Adobe domes rising

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

To Simone Swan adobe is a timeless material.

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.

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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."

Swan, who was raised in Europe and Africa by American parents, first heard of Fathy in 1973. She then read his book, "Architecture for the Poor," and wrote him a letter, which drew a gracious response.

Eventually she took a leave of absence as director of the philanthropic Menil Foundation in Houston and, at Fathy's invitation, spent a month in Cairo with him learning his architectural philosophy and techniques.

Swan's prior experience, working with architects Louis Kahn and Charles Moore, paved the way for her close friendship with Fathy until his death in 1989.

It was his concern for improving the living conditions of the poor that distinguished him from his generation of architects in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East.

His professional career stretched from the 1930s until 1989. "The client I am interested in," Fathy once said, "is represented by the statistic which reported that there were 800 million ... people of the third world doomed to die prematurely because of the bad conditions of their housing. This is the client the architect ought to serve, but architects are not interested in these poor. It's like the barefoot doctors in China; they need barefoot architects, too."

Fathy designed and built a large mosque and school on a plateau in New Mexico. This was his only US project. Commissioned in 1981 by Muslims born in the US, the project was to have included individual homes. But building codes at the time mandated concrete plastering on the surface of the adobe bricks. This increased the cost and the weight, which prevented the adobe homes from being built.

Swan says she recently found the engineering papers for the project that certified and approved the various structures, including the vaults and domes. "Now that we have these papers," she says, "I'm taking them to Texas A&M University, and their structural engineering department will test them." One hurdle will be crossed if Swan gains engineering approval of the structures, thus proving that the vaults and domes meet building codes.

Swan acknowledges that her accounting of building costs also needs to be more exact. "When we built my house, we experimented with plasters and other materials, and even added prickly pear juice at one point to the adobe at an engineer's recommendation," she says, "but it didn't work. The end result is that the house probably cost between $40 and $80 a square foot."

In Mexico, the cost of Daniel Comacho's home was $9.24 a square foot or around $5,000. "The minimum wage here is four times what it is in Mexico," says Swan, "and if you buy used windows and doors here, the cost of a home could probably be around $45 a square foot." Swan was charged 40 cents for each brick. In Mexico adobe bricks were 20 cents apiece.

Swan's most recent projects for local clients are two dome-shaped structures; one a 12-by-12-foot office and the other a 10-by-10-foot guesthouse. She has also been contacted about a possible adobe apartment building for people who are "chemically sensitive" and want to avoid living with the toxins and chemicals used in mainstream building materials. In early March, she traveled to Sonora and gave a workshop on adobe to Mexican women.

"The first thing I did when I came to this area," says Swan, "is ask the local people, 'How do you make your adobe?' In some countries they put in straw with the dirt and clay. Other places add goat hair, or straw and cow manure." What she learned from Gilbert Velasco, a local adobemaker and worker at a state park, is that good dirt is the key ingredient.

"It's a mixture of good dirt with a little bit of clay and sand," he says, "and wheat straw to bind it together. And water, too. What you do is mix it three days before you start the work, and soak it in a pit. Then you mix it up with your feet. That's the trick, doing it with your feet."

Swan admits to being impatient with her progress, but welcomes the help of interns and other supporters. "She needs time to get everything going," says Mr. Velasco. "She wants to do it all in one year, but I told her it's time to educate the people and let them see that it all works together."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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