What Is Adobe

The Shape of Adobe

The front of the Ranchos de Taos Church is covered with adobe
The front of the Ranchos de Taos Church is covered with adobe | Source

Mud and Straw

Before there was the internet and modern computers, adobe was simply a mixture of mud, water and straw commonly used as a building material in the southwestern portion of the United States. Since the arrival of the Spanish, the most prevalent method of building with these natural materials has been the making of sun-dried adobe bricks. Most commonly the bricks are made from a mud and straw mixture that is poured into a 10" by 14" wood form. When the brick is dry, the form is removed and the hard object is used in the same way as kiln dried bricks. In this case mortar is made from a fresh mixture of mud, straw and water.

In pre-Columbian times mud mixtures for building structures consisted of mud, sticks and stones that weren't sun-baked before construction. Many times the buildings were relatively small, though some of the old Pueblo communities contained large multi-family buildings.

Practical Adobe

Outdoor ovens can be made from adobe mud and straw
Outdoor ovens can be made from adobe mud and straw | Source

A Horno

Adobe is not limited to use as a building material, for It can be used in other ways, One popular outdoor item made from adobe is the cooking oven, common in many areas of New Mexico and the Southwest. The Spanish word for this structure is "horno", which simply means oven. A horno is prepped for cooking by building a wood fire inside the enclosure. However, the cooking does not begin until the fire has burned out. Heat stored in the walls actually cooks the bread that is placed inside the oven.

Roofs On Adobe Buildings

Many adobe buildings have flat roofs
Many adobe buildings have flat roofs | Source

Construction Methods

Modern adobe buildings are constructed with sun-baked bricks set on a stone or cement foundation. Walls are built up from the ground, allowing for windows and doors whenever necessary. Each opening gets a large timber on top, which serves as wooden header. The roof is characteristically built from de-barked tree trunks, called vigas. These function the same way that ceiling joists do in a flat-roofed wooden structure. On top of the layer of vigas is placed a thick carpet of mud to shed water and snow. Sometimes adobe bricks are placed at the bottom of the mud layer. Most adobe buildings are characterized by the ends of the viga poles that stick out and away from the building. Due to an arid climate, where adobe construction occurs, and the high pitch content of the wood that is used, vigas can last for a very long time.

Cement Adobe

An example of an exterior cement stucco that is painted to look like traditional adobe
An example of an exterior cement stucco that is painted to look like traditional adobe | Source

Modern Cement Adobe

Today, many buildings in the Southwest are covered with a cement mixture and painted with an earthen color to resemble the traditional mud and straw adobe. These materials weather the elements better than the traditional materials, but may lack the aesthetic beauty of real adobe.

Two Story Adobe House (in decay)

Adobe can be used for building single family houses
Adobe can be used for building single family houses | Source

Advantages of Adobe

The biggest advantage of adobe is its availability (in arid places) and economic feasibility. Although the natural material is durable to bad weather, a new surface coating of mud, water and straw needs to be applied every 5 to 10 years to keep the building waterproof. Another added feature is the natural cooling and heating ability of a home made from adobe. The mass of mud and straw acts as a heat collector during the hot summers and then slowly releases its stored heat as winter rolls in. This natural thermodynamic property has enhanced the popularity of these kinds of buildings, especially in hot places, like the American Southwest.

The Sculptural Nature of Adobe Buildings

The back side of the Ranchos de Taos Mission Church has no windows
The back side of the Ranchos de Taos Mission Church has no windows | Source

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