Old-new adobe walls conserve energy in Texas

Tired of the hot summer sun, cold winter winds, and his high energy bills, Guy Hamblen of Canyon decided to do something about them. Now, two years later, he no longer hears the shrieking wind or feels the sting of soaring temperatures, and his energy bill is cut in half. It's all the result of a new home Mr. Hamblen built from the oldest construction material known -- mud.

Many people are rediscovering homemade, sun-dried adobe brick. It is fire resistant, verminproof, sound deadening, and inexpensive. And since earth is an excellent insulator, houses made of mud are great energy savers, too. Not only that, they're attractive. Adobe has a natural earth-tone beauty all its own.

The use of adobe as a building material goes back to the dawn of civilization.Many references to "bricks" are made in the Bible and in other ancient documents. But excavations at King Solomon's mines and other historical sites have shown that these early "bricks" were adobe rather than the masonry type we think of today.

Adobe is traditionally a mixture of dirt, sand, and water with a small quantity of straw or grass added for strength. Today, adobe brick makers often add a bit of asphalt or tar as well to give the bricks added resistance to rain and snow.

Modern-day adobe structures in this country represent a blending of three cultures: Indian, Spanish, and American. Indians were using a variety of mud-construction methods long before Europeans arrived. Casa Grande, a prehistoric ruin in Arizona, was built with mud "bricks" that were molded in baskets, then stacked to create a golden-brown, multistoried city.

Spanish colonists then brought their knowledge of adobe construction, which they'd learned from the Moors, adding the use of attractive arches and the idea of building around an interior courtyard. When American settlers came along, they added the use of sawn beams, boards and nails for trim, and glass for windowpanes. Americans also added a coat of line plaster or stucco to protect mud structures from the wearing forces of nature.

In his battle against nature's forces, Mr. Hamblen armed himself with books on adobe, found an architect from New Mexico to help with design, and set to work making a home from mud. It became a family project when his two teenage daughters pitched in to help make the brick.

They spent a summer stockpiling the bricks which they had poured into wooden forms and left in the sun to dry. When the next summer rolled around, Mr. Hamblen was ready to begin construction.

"The more adobe you use, the more energy efficient the home will be -- interior walls and all," he says. The new home is more tight and sound than any he's ever been in, Mr. Hamblen says. And it's quieter.

Roof sky lids, with louvres that open for sun and close in its absence, complement the energy efficiency of the adobe home. "We occasionally turn on the heat in the early morning," Mr. Hamblen says. "But only in the coldest weather. So long as the sun is shining, we're comfortable in here, no matter how cold it is outside."

The best feature of the Hamblen home may be its promise of durability. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, stands the oldest house (except prehistoric Indian dwellings) in the United States. The house, still in good condition, is nearly 800 years old. It, too, was made of mud.

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