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The weather is turning cold here in southern Vermont. A friend just got chased off the Long Trail (which she was hiking from the Massachusetts to the Canadian borders) by 18 inches of snow on Killington. While the leaves are still turning here in the Connecticut River valley, it's time to start huddling up by the fire and thinking cozy thoughts.

It was with this frame of mind that I excitedly cracked open Adobe Homes for All Climates Simple, Affordable, and Earthquake-Resistant Natural Building Techniques by Lisa Schroder and Vince Ogletree. It's another well-produced addition to the library of natural building tomes offered by Chelsea Green Publishing.

Adobe Homes is filled with practical tips, gorgeous pictures, useful construction drawings, and step-by-step help for anyone looking to build adobe, whether a professional or a homeowner. There are tips on earthquake resistance for locations with seismic concerns. There is extensive guidance on the often-overlooked issue of setting up your site to mix, mold, dry, store, and build with adobe bricks. The book gets into finishes, integrating windows and doors, and a lot more.

Unfortunately for me, I wasn't looking at the book with this lens. Before I could really contemplate setting up a site for adobe production, I had to be sold on adobe for this climate. I was looking for ideas on cozy earth building in a climate with 7,500 heating degree days (many of them cloudy, for days at a time), 500 cooling degree days, and a distribution of those heating degree days throughout 12 months. And an adobe structure in this climate will be an energy hog, because, as the authors note, adobe has a very low R-value.

In short, the "for all climates" tagline, which drew me in, is a stretch. Yes, there is a suggestion to add a layer of insulation in colder climates (mentioned in the inspiring foreword by Bruce King, and in a subsequent paragraph in the book). Yes, there are nice pictures of snow-covered Rocky Mountain adobe (which may be cold--at times--but gets a lot more sun, making adobe a better choice). But building an adobe wall and adding insulation to it for this climate requires at least a whole chapter (more than the paragraph currently devoted to it), and perhaps a whole book. Here are some questions that this "missing" chapter might help answer:

  • What kind of insulation works well with an adobe structure?
  • How much is needed?  
  • Should the insulation be interior of the adobe, exterior of it, or both?
  • What are the benefits of building adobe and also a secondary insulation system? Why is it worth doing versus just using another construction system?
  • What construction and moisture details are necessary for adobe to be durable through a cold, wet, winter?
  • How does the addition of insulation affect the vapor profile of the adobe wall? Any issues to watch out for

I hope these will be considered in future editions or articles by the author. In the meantime, this looks like a great resource for natural builders in climates where adobe makes more sense--most classically, the Southwest U.S.

Correction: I realized after posting this article that Vince Ogletree passed away in 2005, well before this book was published. From the bio in the book, it sounds like he was a dedicated and generous natural builder. I had called for the "authors" to return to the points I outlined, but I feel that was insensitive to Vince's memory; I have changed this to the "author."

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Comments

1 I’m intrigued by the discussi posted by Martin Healy on 02/05/2011 at 09:47 am

I’m intrigued by the discussion about adobe buildings. I’ve always liked the concept of a log home but when I looked into them (a few years ago) I found that there were considerable hurdles to clear with financing, resale value and building codes. Lenders were concerned about the resale value if they ended up with the property and I can have to believe that with the current housing crisis, this can only be a bigger issue. When I’ve looked at buying a log home, they didn’t seem to hold their value so there seems to be some merit to that concern. Are there any building code issues that need to be addressed with this type of home?

2 Adobe is a terrific building posted by Buzz on 10/26/2010 at 11:58 am

Adobe is a terrific building material ("tried and true" would be an understatement!) And ridiculous for "all climates". Adobe works fine with cold and moisture, but it's high-mass properties mean it doesn't make sense unless there is a large diurnal range of temperature. Just like the stick-frames of New England don't make much sense in the desert Southwest.

3 Katherine, I think you sum up posted by Tristan Roberts on 10/26/2010 at 01:27 pm

Katherine, I think you sum up the points very well relative to 320 sunny days making adobe work in your climate, and the lack of that sun meaning that it doesn't work in Vermont. I just don't see it happening without insulation, and if you're going to use insulation anyway, why does adobe make sense for the exterior wall?

There are plenty of vapor-permeable insulation materials, by the way. Open-cell foam, cellulose, etc.

4 I haven't read the book but I posted by Katherine Mortimer on 10/26/2010 at 12:51 pm

I haven't read the book but I know quite a bit about adobe homes. I designed, built and live in one in Santa Fe. The point about insulation misses the mark. Adobe's beneficial properties are it's thermal storage and, if you make them yourselves so labor is not a factor, cost. Santa Fe has 6073 heating degree days and 414 cooling degree days and Taos, to our north, is quite a bit colder and is home to the Earthships which use the thermal storage properties of adobe to create self sustaining homes. The idea is to insulate outside of the adobe's and ensure that the adobe's are placed within the sunpath through windows. Most of my adobes are on interior walls. That way they collect the winter, low sun heat during the day and re-radiate it back at night. There is a little time delay and we find that while we pile on the blankets when we go to bed, around 1 a.m. we kick them off as the head from the walls has warmed the house quite nicely by then. We use overhangs over our southern windows to keep unwanted summer sun out.

My concerns with using adobe in Vermont is how often it is overcast in the winter and the need to keep adobe's dry, Santa Fe has 320 sunny days per year, much higher than the national average. We find we have to light the woodstove if it is overcast longer than a day or two in a row. Below zero temps aren't a problem as long as the sun is out. (We don't have any conventional heating or cooling system). Adobe's are unfired so if they get wet, they will eventually return to their origial soil condition so it is critical they stay dry. Leaks are inevitable so this is an inportant maintenance issue. Also, if water gets trapped in the walls and can't evaporate out, the decomposition can continue even when a leak has been fixed. Since you need to insulate the exterior of the building, and since most insulation is closed-cell and therefore a vapor barrier, then you need to ensure that the interior of the home is not coated with a vapor barrier. Natural clay finsihes do this and are traditional in New Mexico. Alternatively, you can only use interior walls for your adobe's and then the concern is far less.

There's a great primer on passive solar design at the New Mexico Solar Energy Association website (www.NMSEA.org) and Professor Quinten WIllson at Northern New Mexico College is an expert on earthen structures worldwide. Please look further for reasource regarding adobe construction in Vermont before rejecting the idea entirely. It may be that it doesn't make sense due to lack of sun but I don't know that.

5 New Mexico has an enviable an posted by Buzz on 10/27/2010 at 08:56 am

New Mexico has an enviable and terrific unbroken tradition of earth construction. At the same time, adobe and other forms of earthen building have come a long way, and are now fully integrated with modern methods and standards. I'd like to clarify a few points from the above post.

Moisture: You can successfully use adobe in any climate. It doesn't make any difference whether it rains one day a year or 100 - rain can't leak in one of those times. And with modern construction materials and methods, it doesn't. Thus, it makes no difference whether you are using wood, earth, or straw: moisture can't leaks in, and it doesn't. The path of the sun, or even if it shines at all, has nothing to do with moisture control. Moisture must be controlled in all forms of construction, and is controlled in the same way (reliably!)

Most all adobe bricks contain around 5% cement by weight for stabilization, but that was a stopgap measure started a couple decades ago; now we just build houses better, which definitely works.

Traditional adobe certainly was (and can still be) done using entirely different principles than I just iterated. But traditional stick-framing has changed just as much. So I must note again: modern methods have totally changed how we build any kind of house, and these principles apply exactly the same no matter what the house is made of. We make the house as waterproof and airtight as we can, and then we ventilate it. If you do that, any material will work in any climate; if you don't, no material is guaranteed to work well.

Thus, the real crux of adobe or not, are simply these two questions:

1. Can you make the bricks near where you live? For this you do need sun! And the right kind of dirt. Adobe companies definitely ship their bricks, but that quickly becomes a financial, environmental, and aesthetic stretch.

2. Do you have a large diurnal range of temperature? Adobe is super-high mass, which is a total waste of money if you can't take advantage of it, when all that is needed is high R-Factors. Indirectly, moisture actually does matter here, because low humidity means high diurnal range.

In summary, earthen construction is done in arid climates, not due to concerns about moisture leaking in, but because you need clear skies to make the blocks and raise the temp in the day and drop it at night. (And because there are no trees :-)

6 Adobe is least problematic on posted by Katherine Mortimer on 10/27/2010 at 07:05 am

Adobe is least problematic on interior walls but can be used on exteior walls that are in the sun path. Since the sun moves east to west, through a southern window it will hit west, north and east walls within the home, some of which will likely be exterior walls. We also use clerestory windows to get sun to the north side of our house so most of our walls are adobe, both interior and exterior. We have closed-cell insullation on the outside of our adobe's to ensure the hear re-radiates in and not both in and out and to precent conduction of heat out of the building.

While open-cell insulation does allow vapor transmition out of adobes, it also allows moisture vapor into the adobes which results in their deterioration. Since you need to ensure that the adobes stay dry, you need some kind of vapor barrier on the outside whether its with the insulation or other material. (We are currently grappling with the issue of embedded greenhouse gases in petro-chemical insulation materials which can off-set gains made by reducing the operaing energy of green-built homes but that's another topic entirely). That's why we've come to the conclusion that adobe homes need to breath to the inside.

Earthen structures are used successfully all across the world, traditionally they've been used where other building materials aren't readily available. The northeast has always had plenty of lumber readily available so stick frame contruction (originally post and beam) was just easiest. If you really want to consider earthen construction, adobe or otherwise, it may still make sence in Vermont, you just need to determine if it makes sense. You may need more back up heat than in New Mexico but it still may make sense. There are great resources to help you do the calculations. One of the people who put together the Passive Solar Primer for NM Solar Energy Association is now a physics professer in Vermont at Lyndon State College, Ben Luce. This might be a good question for him to pose to some of his students. I'll send him the link to this discussion. You might want to follow up with him.

7 Hello Everyone, First of all, posted by Lisa Schroder on 11/02/2010 at 09:53 am

Hello Everyone,

First of all, I want to thank you for an interesting discussion. The topic of how to improve the insulation qualities of earthen walls has been in review for the past few years. My personal experience with adobe has been in areas where the sun does shine, even if just for an hour a day in the winter. We often made bricks in the rain and covered them tightly with plastic to dry. Adobe bricks don't necessarily need the sun, but they do need to be protected from moisture and allowed to dry out. However, when building an adobe home in colder, cloudy regions, insulation is often needed to make a comfortable home that uses the minimal amount of additional heating.

One great adobe mentor of mine is Quentin Wilson of the Adobe Association of the Southwest in New Mexico. He states that "strange things will happen if you add insulation to the adobe. The wall will perform better than the sum of the two R-values." He calls it phantom R's. This is because the adobe is not an insulator but a capacitor and conductor that mimics insulation in certain situations. When you couple capacity with resistance you get more resistance than expected in a non-steady state situation. Electrical engineers understand this as capacitive reactance or a band pass filter.

Considerable research has been done in many parts of the world on this topic and I am happy to share with you some of the conclusions. Most importantly, the use of passive solar design is essential to utilize the sun's energy to heat the home in the winter. This may require reducing the eaves to allow the winter sun to enter the home.

Secondly, it is suggested that home owners insulate their adobe walls at least on the side facing away from the sun; this would be the north facing walls in the Northern Hemisphere or the south facing walls in the Southern Hemisphere. One recommendation would be to attach 2" battens, insulating with wool or another natural, breathable material, and cladding. Many people also use 2" of polystyrene with plaster over to increase insulation. Dow Styrofoam Utilityfix xps is a closed cell foam and will not loose its R-value to moisture uptake.

Another good option would be to use conventional timber frame construction with insulation and cladding for the exterior walls and interior adobe brick walls for thermal mass. These homes make use of all the good qualities of earth, such as regulating humidity levels and neutralizing airborne toxins. The exterior walls do not require large overhangs, thus are suited for passive solar design.

Lastly, you can make adobe bricks with improved insulation values for exterior walls. These bricks include light aggregates, such as untreated sawdust and paper pulp, and when combined with earth increase the insulation value. The exterior side of these bricks walls require 3 coats of plaster for added protection against moisture.

Ultimately, what makes adobe homes suitable for colder climates is when they are designed for the sun. The excellent thermal mass qualities allow the walls to slowly retain the heat and slowly release the heat into the home. As for all green building products, some are more suitable to certain regions, and it may be difficult to acquire and produce the necessary adobe bricks in some places. But studies show that adobe bricks made on site have the lowest carbon footprint of all building materials, and this should be considered with evaluating our building products.

I like the idea of including an additional chapter on insulating adobe where this topic can be discussed in depth with details and examples of the ideas mentioned above. Hopefully this information has shed some light on alternative ways to improve the insulation qualities of adobe brick homes. I do believe that adobe brick homes can be suitable for all climates, when the appropriate design is applied. Again, thank you for this lively and interesting discussion.

Lisa Schroder Co-author of Adobe Homes for all Climates

8 Great discussion of an intrig posted by Jackson Coleman on 11/16/2010 at 06:57 am

Great discussion of an intriguing subject. If any Compressed Earth Block (CEB) proponents or mfrs can join in, their comments would add light. CEB does not require sunlight for the drying of bricks, and I believe a number of homes utilize it in Colorado, and probably other northern climes.

9 There are earthen-walled home posted by Mark Piepkorn on 11/17/2010 at 06:31 am

There are earthen-walled homes in cold and cloudy north country; here's some photos of ones built in the 1800s in the Finger Lakes area of New York, still going strong, that I took in 2004 - http://www.potkettleblack.com/potkettleblog/crypt04/000167.html

Richard Pieper of Jan Hird Pokorny did terrific sleuthing into these places some years ago -http://www.eartharchitecture.org/uploads/EuropeanTraditionsinEarthenCons...

I'd build with earth in this part of the world (two towns north of the BuildingGreen offices in Vermont)... but it would have a full envelope of insulation on the outside.

10 I live in a traditional bunga posted by eleanor on 01/24/2012 at 12:17 pm

I live in a traditional bungalow with vinyl siding and dry wall interior. I was thinking of replacing the dry wall interior with adobe bricks, and let those be my walls instead. I was also thinking of adobe flooring.

I'm in need of new siding, and it was recommended that I insulate prior to installing the new siding. Would it be possible to insulate with earth, let's say, use adobe bricks as insulation before applying the siding? I live way up in Northern Ontario, where I doubt the structure could be adobe and work. I want to work WITH what I have. Would love your insight.

11 Eleanor, You can use adobe br posted by Robert Riversong on 01/24/2012 at 06:13 pm

Eleanor, You can use adobe bricks for thermal mass interiors of the exterior walls, but you'll also need an interior air/vapor barrier to meet Canadian codes and to protect your structure from moisture damage, so you'll probably have to place the adobe inside of a drywall surface.

But what you need most in your climate is lots of insulation and an air-tight building. Earth is a miserably-poor insulation. I would recommend insulating within the wooden frame and adding additional exterior insulation under the new siding. I would look for a competent builder who understands the mechanics of heat and vapor movement.

12 I agree with Tristan that a p posted by Robert Riversong on 01/24/2012 at 06:27 pm

I agree with Tristan that a poorly-insulated high-mass house is not appropriate for a cold, wet, cloudy New England climate; and trying to augment a traditional building material to make it work in a dramatically different environment from those it was customary to, is a fools errand as it will alter the hygro-thermal dynamics in potentially unpredictable ways.

What is needed in this climate is a tight weather shell, lots of insulation and just enough thermal mass to balance daily solar gains and moderate indoor temperatures. If it can also buffer indoor humidity, that's a further benefit. Too much mass in a cold climate creates thermal inertia and can made a cold house very difficult to re-warm, and a too-warm house refuse to cool down.

What all competent passive solar designers understand is the need to carefully balance solar glazing with direct-gain thermal mass (floors are often better than walls) and to limit the mass thickness to 4"-6" so that a diurnal cycle can be maintained. All cold-climate mass, however, must be thermally isolated from the exterior environment, and exposed to the interior.

Those interested in better understanding the alchemy of air, moisture and energy flows in a house, are invited to register for my March 10-11, 2012 Hygro-Thermal Engineering class at Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Warren Vermont. http://www.yestermorrow.org/workshops/detail/hygro-thermal-engineering-m...?

13 Greetings, You may call posted by Gerald Small, Jr. on 08/03/2014 at 10:50 pm

Greetings,
You may call me Jae Jae, I am a United States Marine Corps Veteran and an enrolled Chippewa Cree Tribal member of the Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation. Our housing is very limited and to obtain a house here there is a waiting list to get a home; it has been since February 2002 that I submitted an application for a house, it is now August 3rd, 2014 with no home to call our own for my family and I.
The employment rate is very low, I recently got hired by my Tribe on May 28th, 2014 making $13.00 per hour as a timber cruiser where I G.P.S old, new, and future Timber leases and sales. I also upgrade old or eroded dirt roads in the mountains for hunting and logging companies. it is a seasonal Job which makes it harder for me to get any kind of home loan; being a Veteran, it makes it that much harder for me to obtain a V.A. Home loan; which is why I am interested in building either an adobe or straw bale home, I have gone through the proper paper work that I need to build a home on my land assignment the B.I.A. requires me to have to build on my desired home sight.The view I have is very beautiful.I don't have any building experience, nor do I understand "R-Value".

Any kind of assistance I can get is very much appreciated. I do believe if I get the help required to build my family a home it would be beneficial to hold a workshop for my people and rural communities around the reservation to get a hands on experience on building an adobe or straw bale home. if money is a requirement, I am sure that there is a way for low income assistance agencies will help pay to build a foundation for this kind of workshop. I am more than willing to help in any kind of way.

It gets very cold during the winters,and warm during the summer. my question: which would be good for living in this varying weather condition?straw bale or adobe home?

If I choose to build with adobe where would I go to see if the soil I use will be good for the construction of my home? the soil is dark brown, I don't see any kind of sand in the dark brown soil. when the soil is dry it is a light hue brown and crumbles easily.

Thank you for your valuable time,

Jae Jae Small

14 Many building systems can succeed (and fail) posted by Derek Roff on 08/04/2014 at 03:13 pm

Hi, Jae Jae,

Thank you for posting your message. It's sad to hear that you have been waiting 12 years for a response on your housing request, without success. A high need for housing and a high need for employment seem like a perfect fit for sustainable jobs that help meet the housing needs. Others have thought of this, and perhaps you can help make it happen in your area.

In your climate, as in most, the heat and cold make insulation essential in any building. While people have lived in un-insulated houses for millennia, we now want better performance from our houses, and we need to keep energy consumption and costs low.

Adobe is a wonderful building method. It will need an additional insulation material added to the exterior. This is often done with polystyrene foam. Strawbales are inherently insulating. Wood frame construction is widely understood and practiced, and can be insulated in various ways, including cellulose, which is effective and fairly "green".

All of these wall systems can work, but all must be done in a careful way, to avoid building problems, or even failures. As I'm sure you know, there is a learning curve to everything. I'll offer two facts that many people are unaware of. 1) the wall system (adobe, strawbale, frame, etc) often represents only 10-20 percent of the total cost of a house. The time needed to build the wall system is probably a smaller percentage of the total labor time needed for the complete home construction. Budget a majority of your time and money for everything else that goes into a building a house.

2) A fairly simple house may take more than 2000 hours of labor to construct. That's more than a year's work for a person working alone. Budgeting time accurately is very hard, but it's useful to recognize the large amount of time and effort needed to build a house.

There are organizations dedicated to helping build with as many natural building materials as possible. Red Feather Development Group is one of them. https://www.redfeather.org (I have no connection with Red Feather, other than respecting their work.)

I wish you success in this courageous venture.


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