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TEG Newsletter - Issue #24

We have news for you!



John Jordan Named Chair of The Earthbuilders’ Guild


The Earthbuilders’ Guild Board of Directors would like to announce that a new Chairperson has been elected. John Jordan will take on the duties of Chair, replacing the outgoing Ben Loescher who served as TEG Chair for 7 illustrious years. Ben will continue as a member of TEG and will be participating in various Committee roles. We thank Ben deeply for his dedication to TEG and for his vision in how to move our organization professionally forward.



John has been a member of TEG since 2014 and is President of Paverde, LLC in Albuquerque.  



Please remember that any TEG member is eligible to participate in TEG Committees, and if you are interested, please contact any TEG Board member, and let them know of your interest.


 

TEG Fall Social held November 2023



Thank you to all the earthen builders, architects, designers, manufacturers, preservationists, supporters, practitioners, and enthusiasts who came out for the TEG Social last November. The event was held at the historic Gutierrez-Hubbell House in South Valley of Albuquerque. The gathering was a remarkable community of people devoted to the building arts of adobe, compressed earth block, and rammed earth. A gathering of this many, mostly New Mexico earthen folks, have not been together in many, many years. Our industry is strong and committed to growth into the future. We encourage those of you who are not members to Join Us! Easy to do online on our website. www.theearthbuildersguild.com



Pat Martinez Rutherford - TEG Board Member


 

TEG Tour – January 20, 2024



TEG’s Tour was held at the National Park Service Building in Santa Fe in January. A maximum number of members and non-members were treated to a 2+ hour tour of the historic building.  



The largest adobe office building in the United States stands on an eight-acre site in Santa Fe along with the former path of the famous Santa Fe Trail. The National Park Service Region III Headquarters, also known as the Southwest Regional Office Building blends in so well with the historic built environment of the region that the casual onlooker might never guess its construction date was 1937, well after the Spanish-Pueblo period referenced by its architecture.  


The Federal Government built the 1930s-era office complex in the Spanish-Pueblo style, a common sight in New Mexico since the early 17th century. It stands today as both a nod to this original heritage and a superb mid-20th century time capsule. It remains an NPS administrative building in near-original condition with its Spanish-style furnishings and also houses an outstanding art collection of items produced by the 1930’s Santa Fe art colony, including Pueblo pottery, Navajo rugs, paintings, and etchings.



The State of New Mexico donated the land for the project. Cecil Doty, the NPS regional architect in Oklahoma City, designed the headquarters. Aiming to create a building that looked as though it had literally grown out of the landscape itself, Doty determined that the building should be in the Spanish-Pueblo revival style and constructed of natural, local materials that people in New Mexico had built with for centuries.



Adobe bricks were an obvious choice as the main building material. Most of the bricks in the building were made of the very soil unearthed in the excavation for the headquarters’ foundation. Logs for the wooden ceiling beams (vigas) were from trees cut from the Santa Fe National Forest, and the flagstone for the floor arrived from a ranch in nearby Pecos, New Mexico. Civilian Conservation Corps workers cut and shaped the wood, formed the adobe bricks, and constructed the building, while Works Progress Administration workers instilled the mechanical systems and assisted in other ways. Doty worked closely with his construction foreman, Carlos Vierra, on the building’s overall concept and detailing. Vierra was an expert in Spanish missionary architecture in New Mexico, having studied it for the State’s exhibit in the 1915 World’s Fair. The resulting building is a reflection of the Spanish Colonial coupled with the American Indian heritage of the American Southwest.



The 24,000 square-foot building has a slightly irregular plan around a large, central patio. This inward-facing design was a configuration meant to evoke similarly planned Spanish mission compounds of the 17th and 18th centuries. The dominant portion of the building is two stories in height and features heavy, battered adobe walls and neutral-toned finishes that reflect the colors of the surrounding landscape. Inside, the main building core houses an impressive lobby, ground-level offices, and the office of the regional directorate located upstairs. Single-story wings of more offices ring the rear patio. Most of these open directly out onto the portal (veranda) that surrounds the inner courtyard, but the rooms are also accessible internally via connecting doors.



The building is still in use by the National Park Service – though the regional headquarters is now the Intermountain Regional Office in Denver, Colorado. The building remains in remarkable condition with a high degree of historic integrity and only minor changes in recent decades to accommodate basic repairs, better insulation, fire safety systems and wheelchair accessibility.



Information source: NPS website



Pat Martinez Rutherford - TEG Board Member


 

Site of TEG's Next Tour



The Earthbuilders’ Guild’s next tour will take place in Albuquerque on Saturday, March 30th at 1:30pm. Albuquerque Joinery will be hosting a jobsite tour of their latest project in the Los Griegos neighborhood of the North Valley. The project consists of two adobe buildings – a 1,750 sq ft house, and an 800 sq ft workshop – situated on a small, agricultural lot.



Work began last summer, and will continue into the spring and summer of 2024. Throughout the project, we’ve welcomed adobe enthusiasts onto our jobsite such as Adobe in Action, the Santa Fe Community College Adobe Construction Program, and in November The Masonry Society (TMS). TMS is an educational, scientific, and technical society dedicated to the advancement of scientific, engineering, architectural, and construction knowledge of masonry, and the authors of commonly used standards governing masonry construction. The Masonry Society toured our project as part of their annual meeting, which just happened to be in Albuquerque. For many of these masonry experts, this was their first time seeing adobe construction in person, and proved educational for all who attended. The tour was also a helpful complement to fellow TEG member Ben Loescher’s code efforts on the TMS Modular Unfired Clay Standards Committee.


 


Throughout the winter, the Albuquerque Joinery crew (Kenny DeLapp, Nathan Demar, and Erik Navarro) have been building the roof structures. Both buildings have pitched roofs, but each has a different assembly– the workshop has a cathedral ceiling with an unvented warm roof, while the house has a flat ceiling with an attic above. Exposed rafter tails, finished spruce soffit decking, and passive solar eyebrow roofs all added complexity to the project, but also some fine finished details.



Esther Fredrickson – TEG Board Member, Albuquerque Joinery


 

El Santuario de los Pobladores, Conejos, Colorado




In the town of Conejos, Colorado community members have worked over the past 16 years to build an enormous adobe labyrinth that is a tribute to the early inhabitants of Conejos following the Mexican-American war and serves as a sacred space for embarking on a journey of internal reflection. The labyrinth, called El Santuario de los Pobladores, was completed in 2023 in connection with members of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe parish in Conejos, which is the oldest parish of any denomination in the State of Colorado, and the Labyrinth is adjacent to the church in the Plaza de Conejos.



The project began when a late parishioner bequeathed a portion of her estate to the church to be used to create an outdoor prayer garden. The parishioners called upon local designer Ronald Rael and his studio to help them create a vision for something special. They appreciated the act of walking and prayer as it is part of regional culture found in the pilgrimages at the Santuario de Chimayo in Chimayo, New Mexico, and the Stations of the Cross in San Luis, Colorado. Because the plot of land donated for this project was small, Rael and his team envisioned an internal journey, a labyrinth, which has been used historically as a form of architecture that allows for introspection through walking and the vision for the design grew out of a book Rael read by Rebecca Solnit entitled, Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Because there was no ability to take an outward journey, as they do at the Oratorio in San Luis, or to the Santuario in Chimayo, or the Vatican or Mecca, a labyrinth offers an inward journey, both geographically and mentally.



Unlike a maze, a labyrinth is not meant to get lost but is a singular path that leads one to a particular destination. While a visitor may get lost in meditation, they will not get lost in the labyrinth’s 5-foot tall walls. The journey takes one through 20 chapels in four sections. Each section contains 5 chapels that represent the story of the life of Jesus Christ that are prayed in the rosary in Catholic traditions and depicted by bronze bas-relief retablos by local artists.



The labyrinth is constructed of approximately 40,000 traditional hand-made adobe bricks, made by local community members throughout several summers and guided by community elder Alfonzo Abeyta, who oversaw the construction of the project. Rael assisted by teaching adobe making and wall construction to the team of young builders who were part of Abeyta’s team, who quickly mastered the craft and made and stacked the thousands of adobes needed for the project. The adobes are traditional and have no added chemicals or stabilizers and use only local soil mixed with wheat straw grown on local farms and set in an adobe mortar. El Santuario de los Pobladores is open to the public.



Ronald Rael


 

Caves & Adobe


“I think it’s some primal instinct. The desire to get back to the cave,”


This was the response of a friend and, at the time, electrician on an adobe house we were building. The answer was to the question of “Why would some rich people from Dallas want to move to New Mexico and build an adobe house?” The question of why to move to New Mexico may seem obvious to those of us with a desire for to be surrounded by beauty, space, and purity, but to go so far as to spend as much on a mud dwelling as a real house, well that takes some consideration.


First of all, a real house is just like what you have lived in all of your life, and it has obviously served you well enough because you are all still alive. It provides shelter and accommodations since your childhood. The wood framed house has been established for centuries and you can get anyone to build anywhere. In fact, it’s usually the only thing available. Everybody builds them and fixes them. They are easy to construct, readily remodeled, and an entire industry is devoted to making them your home. A customer of moderate means can choose a custom floor plan and modify it to fit their precise needs. Technology and modern materials have combined to make it possible to build almost any configuration of structure to suit the wiles and whims of any individual.


Never before in the history of mankind has there been a more remarkable range of choice in one's home. Then why in the he** would someone want to build a house made of dirt?

The very nature of the primary structural material establishes boundaries on how and to what extent it can be used. The sheer weight of the substance defines most of the parameters by which it can be used. Whether adobe, rammed earth, or pressed block, you are talking about moving and forming tons of material as opposed to the few pounds associated with framing products. This results in a simple wall that could be built with common studs to become a massive barrier in comparison. Rather than a lightly framed wall that can be assembled on a flat surface and then stood up to define the exterior of the house, in very rapid succession, adobe blocks are unforgiving in the methodical requirement for stacking in order. There are no shortcuts here. It’s one block at a time, just like building a castle. A monotonous repetition of labor to create a barrier to whatever lies on the other side. A thick, heavy, impenetrable barrier that divides the interior of the house from whatever nature throws at it. The wall divides the outside environment away from those trapped in its interior. No “being one with your environment” here. You can do that in a tent or even an old Airstream.


Do you want to feel the change of seasons? Live in a trailer house. You won’t need a thermometer to tell winter is coming. It’s just as miserable as summer but in a different way. It’s like living inside a mood ring. Framed houses weren’t much better for decades, until folks made improvements like insulation, heaters, and — with the availability of cheap fuel, high-tech gadgets, and the miracle of modern plastics, almost any cracker box house can be made habitable. Sometimes almost as habitable as well-designed earthen structure. Almost, but not.


The caves of our distant ancestors inhabited had the uncanny ability of maintaining a very narrow range of temperature. The sheer mass of the surrounding earth resisted changes in the interior environments. If it was cold in the winter, it was average in the interior. It was the same for summer. Before about the 1950s, average was a good temperature, and today it still is. In a typical house, the average temperature during the height of summer or depth of winter can vary 20-30 without some form of air conditioning or heat. In an earthen house, the range is closer to 2-3 degrees. The mass of the walls and floor resist change to a far greater extent than the insubstantial walls of a typical frame house.


A little heat or cooling can go a long way. The desert of the Southwest is one of the greatest examples of rapid environmental fluctuation. During the fall and spring, a temperature change of 40 degrees during a 24-hour period is not unusual, especially at higher altitudes. This is the sort of fluctuation that works the devil out of mechanical systems and makes power company stockholders giggle with delight. Heater running overnight, A/C kicks on in the mid-morning.


Before mankind was able to dominate their environment through sheer force of will, they were compelled to use more accessible, mundane means. Means that stepped forth from the simple world in which they lived. Means that echoed the earliest instinctive imprints of comfort and security. At some point, people ran out of natural caves, so they sat out to build their own. And we do this every day, out of the same earth.


Rob Taylor - TEG Board Member, General Contractor, Ruidoso, NM


 

Seeking Adobe Bricks


Do you design, build or repair structures covered by New Mexico’s Earthen Building Materials Building Code? The Earthbuilders’ Guild’s Code Committee invites you to respond to a brief survey on your experiences to help guide future improvements to building regulation in New Mexico. A summary of the survey’s findings will be published in a future TEG newsletter. 



Ben Loescher - TEG Board Member


 

Santa Fe Community College Adobe Program Updates




The spring 2024 semester at SFCC has begun with two online classes - Roof Design and Construction & Floor Design and Construction. Two blended-learning classes Finish Practices & Preservation Practices - both led by instructor Issac Logsdon - will be starting up in mid-March and still have a few open spots. The current SFCC Adobe Construction class schedule can be found at:





Kurt Gardella - TEG Board Member, SFCC Adjunct Faculty


 

An Update on Recent Activities at Adobe in Action


Twenty two students are working their way through Adobe in Action's first online class of 2024 - Passive Solar Adobe Design. The students just finished drafting floor plans for their homes and are now working through a heat gain / heat loss calculation process to improve performance of their designs.



Adobe in Action is celebrating its 13th year of offering online classes in 2024 and still has a few spots available in the upcoming spring online classes:





In early March, Adobe in Action will be offering another workshop on the ground in Tucson, Arizona taught by former student and Adobe in Action graduate Jason Martinez. Register here:





Kurt Gardella - TEG Board Member, Adobe in Action Executive Director & Instructor


 

Earthen Legends


TEG has begun a project of compiling bios/stories of those people who have contributed to our industry over the years.  We are interested in receiving bios from anyone who can add to our library of knowledge in a salute to those who make up the history of earthen construction. Send your submissions to theearthbuildersguild@gmail.com.



Criteria for submissions to Earthen Legends:

  1. One whose profession was in the field of earthen construction – building homes, commercial buildings, adobe making, rammed earth, compressed earth blocks, scebs and manufacturing of materials and products used in earthen construction.

  2. In the field of education – teaching earthen construction

  3. Authors on the subject of earthen buildings/materials/architecture.

  4. Architects, engineers, and designers of earthen construction.



 

Intriguing Discovery of Amazing Clay


As users, aficionados, practitioners, and creators of clay-based materials, specifically earthen construction products, we know that the one immutable ingredient in any earthen product is clay. It is the essential ingredient necessary to have well-performing earthen construction products in that it provides the binder for the earthen mixture that is used in adobes, cob, compressed earth blocks, rammed earth, and even wattle and daub. Without clay, you end up with concrete or some other construction material that doesn’t breathe, has little or no beneficial thermal properties, and requires moderate to exorbitant amounts of energy to produce. It is, as many of us say, the magic ingredient.

The problem, however, is that clay comes in many forms, is found in many places, some obscure and hard to reach, and is challenging to master in terms of preparing the harvested raw clay into an operationally usable form. The majority of clay sources are companies that specialize in various forms of mining and processing and, when producing clay that is suitable for use by other entities, have to carefully ensure that their clay materials do not have inherent problems such as mineral or toxicological contaminants. This adds both time and money costs to the clay production, which ultimately must be borne by the users and consumers of the final earthen products. If a company that produces earthen products embarks on their own clay production, this can become an extremely cumbersome piece of their business, sometimes to the point of being a make-or-break decision within their business model.

What if there were an unheralded source of large amounts of pristine clay? This is what I found when I, through interested contacts, made inquiries regarding the potential for clay that has been harvested as part of the operations of an entirely dissimilar effort.

Background on the origin of this clay

The Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority (ABCWUA), Albuquerque’s provider of potable water as well as waste treatment operations, several years back in the mid-1990’s became part of a large-scale operation to harvest surface water from the Rio Grande River as it flows through Albuquerque. This was deemed necessary to augment the city’s water usage that was coming exclusively from the aquafer underlying the city. Research showed that the drawdown of the aquafer was unsustainable and that disastrous consequences would result if there wasn’t some alternative to this approach. Various stakeholders came together to propose a solution that would pull river water, treat it to make it potable, and use this water to augment the aquafer water. Part of the technical aspects of this solution meant the creation of a transfer aqueduct that would allow for water in the San Juan River, located in southern Colorado, to be shunted into the Chama River in northern New Mexico, which would then ultimately join the Rio Grande River north of Albuquerque. This solution was carried out in the early 2000’s and now Albuquerque is using large amounts of this river water as part of its water consumption. However, this water, due to its origins, must be treated and cleaned in accordance with regulations so that it does not present problems to the city water systems. The Water Utility surface water treatment system was created and is successfully carrying out this mission.

The surface water treatment system consists, in a simplified explanation, of a surface water draw point, an initial cleaning plant that removes debris such as organic matter and other materials such as large sand and rocks, a pumping station that moves this water uphill to the actual treatment plant where this water is allowed to remain in two large settling ponds for enough time to let the finest materials settle out as much as possible prior to the final treatment before being introduced to the city’s water supply. Fairly straightforward, but with many challenges due to the scale of the operation. The image below is of the final settling ponds, each of which are approximately 7 acres in size, and are 22 feet deep and lined with a thick plastic waterproof liner to prevent seepage. These ponds have been in continuous operation since the beginning of the treatment operations circa mid-2000’s.




The result is that the settled minerals have reached a built-up depth of approximately 8 feet in both ponds. This has dramatically lowered the efficiency of the settling ponds since the water cannot stay resident in the ponds as long as needed to allow for efficient settling. The Water Utility made the decision to clear these ponds to restore efficiency by employing a dredging operation which will suck the material up and move it away for final transport to an off-site location. Initial estimates are that there is between 150,000 and 185,000 cubic yards of this material that must be removed. How best to remove and transport this material is where I came in.

I reached out to the Water Utility engineer who is heading up this project and proceeded to learn more about both the purpose and the scope of this project. Initial discovery actions taken by the Water Utility included removing small amounts of the settled solids and conducting mineralogical and chemical tests and analyses on it to determine its mineral makeup as well as a toxicological screening to ensure that any needed safety precautions are implemented in its handling. The results of these tests are arguably conclusive in demonstrating that this material is essentially pristinely clean in terms of contaminants and adulterants. Additionally, the tests show that this material is of an extremely high clay content with a very low silt fraction, with an extremely consistent makeup regardless of where the test specimens were harvested from within the ponds. Essentially this indicates that this entire amount is, for all intents and purposes, a homogenous mix of clay minerals, comprised of the different types of clay that exist within the watersheds. This uniformity is a result of “natural mining” of an area anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 square miles of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, based on the Rio Grande and San Juan River watersheds that span this area. Of particular note is the fact that there are essentially no upstream heavy industrial activities nor are there any large urban population centers north of Albuquerque within these watersheds. What this indicates is that this material is perhaps the most pure and pristine accumulation of water-borne clay anywhere in the southwest USA.

The potential value of this removed material hinges on a specific action that may be part of the removal process. In order to handle this type of semi-fluidic material, basically a very wet clay mix, one way to make it easier is to add a polymeric material that acts as a flocculating binder which clumps the material and renders it less fluidic, making it both easier to handle and easier to de-water. What this process does is essentially render the removed solids into a polymer-mineral amalgam that is inseparable and therefore no longer the same raw material that settled out in the lagoons. It will also no longer have the binding properties that we need in clay to create earthen construction products. Effectively, this flocculated material is useless as clay as we know it and need it.

Potential Solutions and Opportunities

The Water Utility project is going to move forward with adding the polymeric binder to the vast majority of the clay that is going to be dredged from the settling ponds. They decided this due to the need to move ahead quickly with the physical operation of this since they have to get the settling ponds back in working order as quickly as possible. They believe that adding the flocculant will allow the transport part of the operations to proceed much faster than moving the unadulterated clay slurry. So, that’s a done deal.

However, I proposed, and the Water Utility accepted, that they set aside 3,000 wet tons (about 2400 yards dried) of this material without adding the flocculant. They are going to make a physical set-aside area on their property located just east of the treatment plant so that our material can be kept free from contamination. I also asked, and they said yes, to harvesting our material first so that there would be less chance of contamination, which I believe they will follow through on.

I also had to come up with a plan, which I did and which they accepted, to demonstrate the economic viability of this material and it needed to be completed within 5 years, which is when they plan on the next dredging of the ponds, so they need the property mentioned above (which also will be holding the flocculated material) cleared and ready to receive the next material from their next dredging. I do think the 2400 yards we have asked for should not prove to be a problem since there will be time to remove it and clear the property for the next dredging operation.

ABCWUA’s massive, accumulated, homogenous, pristine clay material represents an almost unheard-of source of clay minerals that could represent a potential industry-changing approach to clay usage. This is the epitome of the old saying that “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

To get an understanding of the monetary value of this material, it is important to look at the various types of products that are either directly or indirectly manufactured centered around clay. These New Mexico based companies and organizations have voiced an economic and commercial interest in this material depending on its viability and availability:

Kinney Brick Co., Albuquerque, Product: clay fired bricks.

American Clay Enterprises LLC, Albuquerque, Product: clay-based plasters and surface treatments.

New Mexico Clay, Albuquerque, Product: packaged pottery clay and supporting materials.

Paverde LLC, Albuquerque, Product: compressed stabilized earth blocks.

New Mexico Earth Adobes, Albuquerque, Product: traditional adobe bricks.

NeoTerra LLC, Albuquerque, Product: low-cost dwellings constructed using compressed earth blocks.

PG Enterprises, Albuquerque, Product: mineral harvesting, transport, and resale.

EarthTek LLC, San Ysidro, Product: fabricated compressed earthen block machines.

The Earthbuilders’ Guild, Interest: ongoing support of the earthen construction industry.

In discussions with each of these entities, the initial findings of the lab testing conducted by Water Utility staff were described to them and some of the actual harvested clay was given to those who wanted to try small-scale proof-of-concept tests. Each of the entities is willing to commit to being part of this group, with the goal of determining whether or not this material could be used in their particular business operations.

Each of the entities that would use this material in their operations realize that there would be enormous hurdles to the efficient use of this material, including moving, storing, processing, distributing, etc. However, each also agreed that the first steps would include a somewhat more thorough analysis of the material to determine with a high degree of certainty that this material can be used in their processes. The most demanding uses are where this material will be used in high-heat applications, specifically fired clay bricks and pottery clay, although the use as a low-cost plaster is also technically challenging. The use of the material in the earthen blocks is less challenging, while the remaining entities are more interested in the use of the material to strengthen the earthen construction market and the minerals processing markets. The amount of available clay from the initial ABCWUA testing as well as the lab test results, useful though they are for ABCWUA purposes, are not sufficient to allow these entities to make a valid assessment of the economic value of this material, leading to the request to set aside sufficient material to perform more rigorous assessments.

At this point in time, late October of 2023, the Rio Grande River in Albuquerque is effectively dry. The Water Utility is using this as an opportunity to dry out the ponds and inspect them. The following pictures are of the ponds in this dry state.




To get an idea of the size of the ponds, this picture shows two of the Water Utility technicians walking on the surface of the material.

The future of this effort

We are going to embark on a 5-year project to assess and understand what this material presents in terms of an economically beneficial resource. If we can prove to the Water Utility that there is sufficient benefit to keeping it unadulterated during the removal process scheduled for 5 years from now, we may be able to utilize much, much more of this almost unbelievable resource for the earthen construction industry. I look forward to providing updated information and data on this project and welcome you to reach out to me if you have any questions regarding this project.


 

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