Green building. Renewable materials. Ancient tradition. Adobe blocks have been a New Mexico tradition for hundreds of years, but it is in recent decades that they have found a home with commercial manufacturers. These manufacturers have turned adobe from a poor man’s alternative and a rich man’s luxury into an accessible building material for anyone wanting a home.
Adobe’s journey is far from over. While the blocks have long been an important part of New Mexico’s culture, modern manufacturers are helping to make adobe mainstream by promoting a characteristic especially suited to building today: sustainability.
The Rise and Fall of Adobe
The 1970s and 1980s saw a boom in New Mexico’s commercial adobe manufacture. Yards large and small started up, making adobes from backyards and ditch banks and multi-acre factories. According to the study Adobe, Pressed-Earth, and Rammed-Earth Industries of New Mexico by Smith and Austin of the NM Bureau of Mines (1996), in 1982 there were over 40 yards in the state, producing among them some four million adobe blocks. Fuel and labor were cheap, contractors wanted adobe, and buildings were shooting up.
By 1995, the number of manufacturers in the state had dropped to 13. The burdens put on businesses had risen, from labor costs to government regulations. The manufacture of adobe blocks has always been hard work. “Once people realize how much work is involved and what it entails, there’s very few people that continue on that path,” said Mel Medina, owner of The Adobe Factory in Alcalde.
Importantly, in the 1990s many of the contractors with adobe experience closed shop. According to Richard Levine, founder of New Mexico Earth Industries (NME) in Albuquerque, the drivers of the industry were people like architect-contractor Nat Kaplan: “As the years went by you’d find contractors at other jobs who got their start from Nat Kaplan. It was like half a dozen others, possibly even more, were contractors who had gotten their start in construction with Nat Kaplan and others who, if they weren’t contractors, had learned to build with Nat Kaplan. So there was no need to educate anyone. They were all already educated! Now, I’m not sure if there are many people out there who feel that at home building with adobe.” The lack of builders familiar with adobe curtailed much of the demand for blocks.
In 2008, the recession brought adobe sales to an all-time low. Mule Creek Adobe, near Silver City, shut down its yard for four years. Many other manufacturers closed permanently. NME and the Adobe Factory scaled back and struggled through.
Mudslingers: Adobe Manufacturers Keep on Fighting
In 2012 the recession waned and new-home construction increased. With Mule Creek Adobe having restarted production, there are now four large-scale manufacturers in New Mexico. The industry is starting to pick up again, and manufacturers are hopeful. Helen Levine, VP and co-owner of NME, says, “I definitely see an upward trend. Inquiries are up, sales are up, new-home construction is up, production is up. I anticipate that we will have made as many adobes by the end of August as we made in the entire year of 2012.”
Mel Medina, owner of The Adobe Factory, has also seen sales increase. “I think there’s no end to it [the adobe industry]. I think it’s just gonna have to deal with the roller-coaster that we’re on. We’ve never been faced with the dilemma that we’ve been facing the last four years, meaning that there’s no money available. We’ve never had that before, but I think it’s coming back, and I think it’ll always be there. I think it’s just a matter of running the roller-coaster up and down and eventually it’ll level off and we’ll continue back to where we were four years ago.”
Building the Future
Adobe manufacture is still hard work, a labor-intensive and time-consuming process. “You have to have a passion for mud and for sustainable building and artisan construction; otherwise, why in the world would you do it, it’s crazy,” says Susan Jerome, owner of Mule Creek Adobe. But manufacturers are confident that it can become mainstream. The Adobe Factory, Mule Creek Adobe and NME are working with members of The Earth Builders’ Guild to educate builders and homeowners and to provide adobe certification for contractors. They are spreading the word that a traditional technology is one of the best hopes for a sustainable New Mexico. Ms. Levine says: “Surprisingly, in this trend toward ‘green building,’ adobe has escaped notice. It seems so logical to me, because adobe is very sustainable, it ties in so well with energy conservation and sustainability and renewable resources; but contractors and designers and architects tend to look outside at what’s up and coming, instead of at what’s been around for centuries and is still relevant today.” Adobe takes little energy to make: it is a house built of earth, with mud dried by direct solar power. The raw materials are renewable and reusable. Once in a home, adobe used for passive solar reduces energy costs.
Meanwhile, mud is mixing, molds are being filled, and adobes are being shipped throughout the state. Commercial manufacturers are forging ahead.
“The reason I’m doing this is that I do not want to see the tradition die,” says Jerome. “It’s an avocation; it’s something that I want to see succeed, and I definitely don’t want to lose the adobe tradition in New Mexico.”
Sarah Rowe is the granddaughter of New Mexico Earth founder Richard Levine. She writes about environment and culture in New Mexico.