Giving it Our Best Shot, Part One
Updated: Sep 3, 2022
Well, well, well, it has been a while since last we wrote. Are you considering a green building project? Have you shaken your head reading about any projects that dragged on for years? Have you ever thought you'd be able to avoid those pitfalls and figure out a cheap and (relatively) easy way to build a home in a few months? That's where we were three years ago.
Yes, we did imagine being housed within a year. Yes, we did move here three years ago. Yes, we are still living in a pop-up camper with 20 square feet of floor space!
We have sometimes gotten challenged by weather or snagged by permit requirements or held up waiting for materials or stymied by unfamiliar tasks or caught up designing and redesigning as things arose. We have sometimes chased our tails starting a task only to realize it depends on another task which depends on the season, and we've done quite a bit of start and stop and reprioritizing.
But we have accomplished a few things in the year since last writing!
A key focus was getting everything closed up, to have a protected place before winter (2021, that is. Spoiler alert: we didn't make that deadline).
The huge job of plastering the walls inside and out has been hanging over us since the tires were placed -- plastering is a job that neither of us have any experience with, and we've been surprised to find that even in New Mexico plastering with earth is pretty unusual these days -- most adobe-style homes here are covered in cement stucco.
This shows the tire bale structure we were looking to fully seal with an earthen mixture, to complete the barrier between the interior and exterior of our house. We hadn't even started building the upper triangle walls yet; they would come later. We were "just" focused on filling in the bales below the concrete bond beam.
With the tire bale buttresses we have 4200 square feet of wall space for our 1000 square foot house... that is, if you consider each wall to be a flat rectangle. The bulging bales with huge gaps and holes add uncountable surface area.
Per engineering plans, we stapled overlapping wire mesh to completely enclose and connect the tire bales, and to provide a surface for the exterior finish to bite into. You can see some of the huge gaps we would have to fill. We do have lots of reasons for various delays, but have to admit that one reason is being utterly daunted by a task completely unfamiliar to us, and with very few references to guide us. Sometimes we just don't know how to take the next step...
Our walls would require more than 40 tons of material, most of which we were hoping to source on site. We did mud tests over and over, year after year, starting even before we moved out here. We tested mesa dirt and arroyo sand, figuring that in this ancestral puebloan area, we must have decent adobe materials, right?
Our tests seemed to tell us that our soil is too sandy. Most resources we find say you use local dirt ("clay") and add sand -- We thought maybe with our dirt we are in the opposite boat and might need to add clay. We didn't have much success with added clay either, and we also just don't have the experience to feel confident judging our mixes. Then when COVID hit, earth building workshops and volunteer opportunities we had hoped to learn from had dried up. We were spinning circles without feeling like we were getting any closer to figuring out the earthworks.
Meanwhile, Chip's mom was feeling our pain and urging us to consider hiring folks with her help, to get the house closed up sooner. Thanks, Mom!! We had some traditional stucco guys come out to look it over... "traditional" in that they hand throw the stucco, and they were highly recommended, as they do beautiful work in our area. But they only work with cement stucco and would not consider using earth-based materials or lime stucco. They were also booked out for months, and our very unusual job was going to take months for them to complete by hand.
This did not make us feel any better about our prospects for being able to do the work ourselves by hand, with on-site materials that seemed like they wouldn't work, and with zero experience! We finally decided that if we were going to make the compromise and enclose the tires in concrete, we would go with shotcrete and just get it done. Most of the tire bale houses we had heard of had been covered in shotcrete, and we knew it would be a solid enclosure.
Gary, owner of Sunwest Gunite Co. in Albuquerque, brought his crew Jonathan, Johnson, and Jaythan out, and they sealed up the outside of those bales in one day! It was amazing to watch them work. Of course it was an unusual job for them as well, but everything worked out, and those rubber bales are now solid as a rock.
Sheesh, we could have done that 8 months earlier and saved ourselves a lot of consternation. I fully admit that I was the one holding out hope for filling those tires with dirt. Our compromise was that we would seal the outside with concrete, and use earthen plasters on the interior and maybe lime plasters on the flatter exterior walls... and one day, post-occupancy-permit, we could always add a lime or earth plaster layer over the shotcrete, if we were so motivated!
By late 2021 some adobe workshops were starting to pop up again. We volunteered to spend a day making adobes for a great organization called Cornerstones. In their own words, Cornerstones has always been dedicated to preserving the architectural heritage and cultural traditions of New Mexico and the greater Southwest, using a hands-on approach to teach and reinforce these methods to both adults and youth.
This project was in Chimayó, a quaint and quirky village northeast of Santa Fe, known for its weaving, chile, lowriders, and its pilgrimage site. One thing that is rarely mentioned in tourist guides is that Chimayó also has the most complete Spanish colonial-era fortified town square in New Mexico. The buildings on the square are individually owned, and are in various stages of deterioration. Cornerstones usually works on restoring publicly owned adobe structures, but they have made exceptions and have worked on at least two private houses in Chimayó square.
The photos below, with the melting wall and open window frame, trees growing inside and missing roof, is the house for which we were making adobes.
Isaac is the adobero who led the project. He coached us through the process of making adobes and shared information about the square, and about Cornerstones in general. We were impressed with his energy, dedication, knowledge, and generosity. We appreciated the history of the place and were grateful to get our hands in the dirt with some guidance, feeling productive.
Over lunch Isaac looked over our dirt samples and plaster samples. I had a bit of a sinking feeling as he rubbed the dirt through his fingers thoughtfully but silently. My concerns were confirmed when he explained that our dirt had too much silt... not only was the clay content insufficient, but the sand was also too fine to provide the integrity needed for plaster or adobe!
So it's back to the clay & sand drawing board...
but at least our bales are sealed!