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Subject: Leonis Adobe, History of New Mexico, Appropriate technology, Alternative natural materials, Masonry
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Renewal of the surface coating of an adobe wall in Chamisal, New Mexico

Adobe (, straw, and/or manure), usually shaped into bricks using molds and dried in the sun. Adobe buildings are similar to cob and rammed earth buildings, but cob and rammed earth are directly made into walls rather than bricks. These bricks were used to make pueblos in New Mexico. The Anasazi, Hopi, and Zuni peoples used this. The Romanian name for this material is chirpici.

For a deeper understanding of adobe, one might examine a cob building. Cob, a close cousin to adobe, contains proportioned amounts of soil, clay, water, manure, and straw. This is blended, but not formed like adobe. Cob is spread and piled over the home's frame and allowed to air dry for several months before habitation. Adobe, then, can be described as dried bricks of cob, stacked and mortared together with more adobe mixture to create a thick wall and/or roof.

Adobe structures are extremely durable, and account for some of the oldest existing buildings in the world. Compared to wooden buildings, adobe buildings offer significant advantages due to their greater thermal mass, in hot climates, but they are known to be particularly susceptible to earthquake damage.[2][3]

Buildings made of sun-dried earth are common in West Asia, North Africa, West Africa,[4] South America, southwestern North America, Spain (usually in the Mudéjar style), Eastern Europe[5] and East Anglia, particularly Norfolk, known as clay lump.[6] Adobe had been in use by indigenous peoples of the Americas in the Southwestern United States, Mesoamerica, and the Andean region of South America for several thousand years, although often substantial amounts of stone are used in the walls of Pueblo buildings.[7] (Also, the Pueblo people built their adobe structures with handfuls or basketfuls of adobe, until the Spanish introduced them to the making of bricks.) Adobe brickmaking was used in Spain starting by the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age, from the eighth century B.C. on.[8] Its wide use can be attributed to its simplicity of design and manufacture, and the economy of creating it.[9]

A distinction is sometimes made between the smaller adobes, which are about the size of ordinary baked bricks, and the larger adobines, some of which may be one to two yards (1–2 m) long.


The word adobe has existed for around 4,000 years, with relatively little change in either pronunciation or meaning. The word can be traced from the Middle Egyptian (c. 2000 BC) word dbt "mud brick." As Middle Egyptian evolved into Late Egyptian, Demotic, and finally Coptic (c. 600 BC), τωωβε dj-b-t became tobe "[mud] brick." This was borrowed into Arabic as al tob,[10] tuba,[11] or Al-ţŭb.[12] (الطّوب al "the" + ţŭb. "brick") "[mud] brick," which was assimilated into Old Spanish as adobe [aˈdobe], still with the meaning "mud brick." English borrowed the word from Spanish in the early 18th century.

Adobe style in Santa Fe, New Mexico

In more modern English usage, the term "adobe" has come to include a style of architecture popular in the desert climates of North America, especially in New Mexico. (Compare with stucco).


An adobe brick is a clay and sand. Straw is useful in binding the brick together and allowing the brick to dry evenly, thereby preventing cracking due to uneven shrinkage rates through the brick.[13] Dung offers the same advantage and is also added to repel insects. The most desirable soil texture for producing the mud of adobe is 15% clay, 10-30% silt and 55-75% fine sand.[14] Another source quotes 15-25% clay and the remainder sand and coarser particles up to cobbles 2-10 inches with no deleterious effect. Modern adobe is stabilized with either emulsified asphalt or Portland cement up to 10% by weight.

The clay content should be a mixture of no more that half expansive clays with the remainder non-expansive illite or kaolinite. Too much expansive clay results in uneven drying through the brick and cracking while too much kaolinite will make a weak brick. Typically the soils of the Southwest United States where such construction is in use, are an adequate composition.[15]

Adobe bricks

Adobe bricks near a construction site in Milyanfan, Kyrgyzstan

Bricks are made in an open frame, 25 by 36 cm (10 by 14 in) being a reasonable size, but any convenient size is acceptable. The mixture is molded into a frame, and then the frame is removed after initial setting. After drying a few hours, the bricks are turned on edge to finish drying. Slow drying in shade reduces cracking.

The same mixture used to make bricks, but without straw, is used for mortar and often for plaster on interior and exterior walls. Some ancient cultures used lime-based cement for the plaster to protect against rain damage.

The brick’s thickness is preferred partially due to its thermal characteristics, and partially due to the stability of a thicker brick versus a more standard-sized brick. Depending on the form into which the mixture is pressed, adobe can encompass nearly any shape or size, provided drying is even and the mixture includes reinforcement for larger bricks. Reinforcement can include manure, straw, New Mexico State University Extension Service recommends a mix of not more than 1/3 clay, not less than 1/2 sand, and never more than 1/3 silt.

Material properties

Adobe walls are load bearing, i.e. they carry their own weight into the foundation rather than by another structure, hence the adobe must have sufficient compressive strength. In the United States, most building codes[17] call for a minimum compressive strength of 300 lbf/in2 for the adobe block. Adobe construction should be designed so as to avoid lateral structural loads that would cause bending loads. The building codes require the building sustain a 1 g lateral acceleration earthquake load. Such an acceleration will cause lateral loads on the walls, resulting in shear and bending and inducing tensile stresses. To withstand such loads, the codes typically call for a tensile modulus of rupture strength of at least 50 lbf/in2 for the finished block.

In addition to being an inexpensive material with a small resource cost, adobe can serve as a significant heat reservoir due to the thermal properties inherent in the massive walls typical in adobe construction. In climates typified by hot days and cool nights, the high thermal mass of adobe averages out the high and low temperatures of the day, moderating the living space temperature. The massive walls require a large and relatively long input of heat from the sun (radiation) and from the surrounding air (convection) before they warm through to the interior. After the sun sets and the temperature drops, the warm wall will then continue to transfer heat to the interior for several hours due to the time lag effect. Thus, a well-planned adobe wall of the appropriate thickness is very effective at controlling inside temperature through the wide daily fluctuations typical of desert climates, a factor which has contributed to its longevity as a building material.

Thermodynamic material properties are sparsely quoted. The thermal conductivity of adobe is quoted as having an R value of R0 = 0.41 hr*ft2*°F/(Btu*in)[18] and a conductivity of 0.57 W/(m*K) quoted from another source.[19] A third source provides the following properties: conductivity=0.30 Btu/(hr*ft*°F); heat capacity=0.24 Btu/(lbm*°F); density=106.0 lbm/ft3.[20] To determine the total R value of a wall for example, multiply R0, by the thickness of the wall. From knowledge of the adobe density, heat capacity and a diffusivity value, the conductivity is found to be k = 0.20 Btu/(hr*ft*°F) or 0.35 W/(m*K). The heat capacity is commonly quoted as cp = 0.20 Btu/(lbm*F) or 840 joules/(kg*K).[21] The density is 95 lbm/ft3 or 1520 kg/m3. The thermal diffusivity is calculated to be 0.0105 ft2/hr or 2.72x10−7 m2/s.

Adobe wall construction

When building an adobe structure, the ground should be compressed as the weight of adobe wall is significantly greater than that of a frame house, and foundation settling may cause cracking of the wall. The footing is dug and compressed once again. Footing depth is dug to below the ground frost level and depends on the region. The footing and stem wall are commonly 24 and 14 inches respectively, much greater than for a frame house due of the weight of the walls. Modern construction codes call for the use of reinforcing steel in the footing and stem wall. Adobe bricks are laid by course. Each course is laid the whole length of the wall, overlapping at the corners on a layer of adobe mortar. Adobe walls usually never rise above two stories as they are load bearing and have low structural strength. When creating window and door openings, a lintel is placed on top of the opening to support the bricks above. Atop the last courses of brick, bond beams made of reinforced concrete or heavy wood beams are laid to provide a horizontal bearing plate for the roof beams and to redistribute lateral earthquake loads to shear walls more able to carry the forces. To protect the interior and exterior adobe wall, finishes can be applied, such as mud plaster, whitewash or stucco. These finishes protect the adobe wall from water damage, but need to be reapplied periodically, or the walls can be finished with other nontraditional plasters providing longer protection. Bricks made with stabilized adobe generally do not need protection of plasters.

Adobe roof

The traditional adobe roof has been constructed using a mixture of soil/clay, water, sand, and organic materials. The mixture was then formed and pressed into wood forms, producing rows of dried earth bricks that would then be laid across a support structure of wood and plastered into place with more adobe.

Roof materials

Depending on the materials available, a roof may be assembled using wood or metal beams to create a framework to begin layering adobe bricks. Depending on the thickness of the adobe bricks, the framework has been preformed using a steel framing and a layering of a metal fencing or wiring over the framework to allow an even load as masses of adobe are spread across the metal fencing like cob and allowed to air dry accordingly. This method was demonstrated with an adobe blend heavily impregnated with cement to allow even drying and prevent cracking.

Traditional adobe roof

The more traditional flat adobe roofs are functional only in dry climates that are not exposed to snow loads which would call for a steepled roof. Cement may be introduced into the adobe mixture to stabilize and strengthen the composite of mud and organic matter. The heaviest wooden beams are called Vigas attach to the wall bond beam. Atop the vigas smaller members called latias[22] are laid and upon those brush is then laid. Finally, atop that, the adobe layer is applied.

Raising a traditional adobe roof

To construct a flat adobe roof, beams of wood or metal should be assembled and span the extent of the building. The ends of the beams are attach to the tops of the walls. Taking into account the material from which the beams and walls are made, choosing the attachments may prove difficult. A combination of the bricks and adobe mortar that are laid across the beams creates an even load-bearing pressure that can last for many years depending on attrition.

Once the vigas, latias and brush are laid, adobe bricks are placed. An adobe roof is often laid with bricks slightly larger in width to ensure a greater expanse is covered when placing the bricks onto the roof. Following each individual brick should be a layer of adobe mortar, recommended to be at least an inch thick to make certain there is ample strength between the brick’s edges and also to provide a relative moisture barrier during rain.


Depending on the materials, adobe roofs can be inherently fire-proof. The construction of a chimney can greatly influence the construction of the roof supports, creating an extra need for care in choosing the materials. The builders can make an adobe chimney by stacking simple adobe bricks in a similar fashion as the surrounding walls.

Adobe around the world

The largest structure ever made from adobe (bricks) was the Bam Citadel, which suffered serious damage (up to 80%) by an earthquake on 26 December 2003. Other large adobe structures are the Huaca del Sol in Peru, with 100 million signed bricks, the ciudellas of Chan Chan and Tambo Colorado, both in Peru (in South America).

The citadel of Bam, or Arg-é Bam, in Kerman province of Iran: The world's largest adobe structure, dating to at least 500 BCE

See also


  1. ^ definition of adobe from Oxford Dictionaries Online. Retrieved 25 December 2010.
  2. ^ Short documentary about adobe preparation and 2010 Chile earthquake, FICh, retrieved 5 March 2014
  3. ^ Collyns, Dan (15 August 2009). "Peru rebuilds two years on from quake". Archived from the original on 15 August 2009. Retrieved 24 August 2009.  Cases where adobe structures were widely damaged during earthquakes include the 1976 Guatemala earthquake and the 2003 Bam earthquake.
  4. ^ Marchand, Trevor. The Masons of Djenne. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2009
  5. ^ Museum of Lithuanian life Rumsiskes Lithuania (2011)
  6. ^ . Retrieved 19-2-2011.
  7. ^ Beck, Roger B.; Linda Black, Larry S. Krieger, Phillip C. Naylor, Dahia Ibo Shabaka, (1999). World History: Patterns of Interaction. Evanston, IL: McDougal Littell.  
  8. ^ de Chazelles-Gazzal, Claire-Anne (1997). Les maisons en terre de la Gaule méridionale. Montagnac, France: Éditions Monique Mergoil. pp. 49–57. 
  9. ^ Rose, William I.; Julian J. Bommer (2004). Natural hazards in El Salvador. Geological Society of America. p. 299.  
  10. ^ "adobe" Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM (v. 4.0) © Oxford University Press 2009
  11. ^ Spanish Word Histories and Mysteries: English Words that Come from Spanish Houghton Mifflin Co. 2007 p.5
  12. ^ "Adobe Moulding" Auroville Earth Institute
  13. ^ Vargas, J.; J. Bariola; M. Blondet (1986). "Seismic Strength of Adobe Masonry". Materials and Structures 9: 253–256.  
  14. ^ Garrison, James. "Adobe-The Material, Its Deterioration, Its Coatings". pp. 5–16. Retrieved 27 February 2013. 
  15. ^ Austin, George. "Adobe as a building material". New Mexico Geology, November 1984. New Mexico Bureau of Mines and Mineral Resources. p. 70. Retrieved 27 February 2013. 
  16. ^ Technical Information Online. "Mud Plasters and Renders - Technical Information Online - Practical Answers". Retrieved 9 November 2010. 
  17. ^ "14.7.4 NMAC" (PDF). Retrieved 25 June 2013. 
  18. ^ "2009 New Mexico Energy Conservation Code: Residential Applications Manual". Retrieved 21 July 2013. 
  19. ^ Chávez-Galán, Jesus; Almanza, Rafael; Rodríguez, Neftali. "Experimental Measurments of Thermal Properties for Mexican Building Materials to Simulate Thermal Behavior to Save Energy". Spriner. Retrieved 25 November 2014. 
  20. ^ "HVAC Systems AE-390". Drexel University. Retrieved 25 November 2014. 
  21. ^ "Mass and insulation with adobe". Green Home Building. Retrieved 25 June 2013. 
  22. ^ "Preservation of Historic Adobe Buildings". Dawson Lupul. Retrieved 30 January 2014. 

External links

  • Building With Awareness A detailed how-to DVD video that shows adobe wall construction and their use as thermal mass walls
  • Cal-Earth (The California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture) has developed a patented system called Superadobe, in which bags filled with stabilized earth are layered with strands of barbed wire to form a structure strong enough to withstand earthquakes, fire and flood.
  • Earth Architecture - A website whose focus is contemporary issues in earth architecture.
  • Earth Architecture and Conservation in East Anglia - British organisation that focuses on the proper maintenance and conservation of earth buildings in a region of the UK that has a long history of building with mud.
  • - A website on earthen architecture researches stabilized with gypsum.
  • Kleiwerks - International organization recognized for their unique contribution to modern earthen and natural building techniques throughout the world, their focus is on education through hands on experience. Very experienced experts are contactable and there are regular demonstrations in the area.
  • Valle de Sensaciones - Artistic construction with adobe, Experimental ground and theme park for creative living close to nature
  • World Monuments Fund - Adobe Missions of New Mexico - Description of a project of the World Monuments Fund for the preservation of adobe churches in New Mexico, in the United States.
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