Adobe/Thermal Mass Building – Eliminating The Need For Air Conditioning.


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As most of you guys already know, we recently moved to Taos, NM and are renting an old adobe home near the center of town. Growing up on the east coast and then living in California, I have never lived in an adobe house before – walls 18 inches thick made from bricks of dirt and sand and straw, ledges inside every window (great for the cat), vigas holding up the ceiling and 8 inch wide wooden plank floors – it’s quite an incredible way to build. Once you are inside the house and the windows are shut, pretty much every noise outside is shut out and it is even hard to hear my wife at the other end of the house! But what could be the best part is that in the middle of summer, on 85-degree days, we have absolutely no need for air conditioning. Outside the sun is beating down on the house, but inside it’s a very comfortable 70-something. Just like our place in California, there isn’t even an option of turning on the air conditioning – you don’t even have it installed! Except that was at the beach and the temperature rarely went into the 80’s, whereas here at 7,000 feet the sun is really strong and it does get warm. But not in the house!

I wrote about our stay in an earthship here in Taos earlier this year when we were out looking for a house to rent, and those houses are made from tires filled with rammed earth – talk about energy efficient! They barely even need heat in the middle of winter, as they tend to stay at 65+ degrees even when it is 10 degrees outside. They are not even connected to the grid, as there is no need for AC or central heat at all! While I think they might be the most energy efficient houses available today, I would imagine that adobe could come in a close second. With walls this thick to either keep the heat out or keep the heat in, depending on the season, shouldn’t more houses be built this way? The majority of houses in this country are built out of sticks and fiberglass insulation, which is not exactly a recipe for retaining heat in the winter or keeping it out in the summer! There is no thermal mass to store the heat from the sun, so you must run the heater all winter. And in the summer, the heat from the sun comes right through the paper-thin walls made of paper board, so you have to run the AC just to cool it down. Wouldn’t it make more sense for all houses to be built to use way less energy in the first place?

I think as time goes on, and energy costs go up, people will start to build in a more efficient way. This weekend I was out at the earthship visitor center asking some questions, and there were about 10 other cars there from Texas, California, Colorado and even Oklahoma! Seems that people everywhere are looking for alternative ways to build so they can actually afford to live in their homes and not work 10 extra hours a week just to pay their utility bills. I was talking to two women who were interested in building one of the houses in Texas, as they could no longer afford to run the AC at their “regular” home! Something has to be done, as this coming winter is going to be brutal for those using oil to heat their homes. I read somewhere that while last winter was expensive for oil heat, this winter the cost could be 5X what last winter was – how are people supposed to afford that? Just another reason we will be looking at well-insulated, thermal-mass type housing when it comes time to buy. If I am buying a house that I plan on living in for a while, I want to know I can afford to heat it in 10-15 years as energy prices skyrocket. It’s too bad that we didn’t start building like this 20 years ago instead of continuing with the stick-built idea – we all could be saving a lot on our utility costs and our country could be using a lot less energy to keep us comfortable!

Photo by vlasta2

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  1. Very cool! (no pun intended, LOL). Our house stays cool in the summer because we have a lot of trees around it, but it’s not quite as efficient in the winter. I wish more houses were built this way too, but it just isn’t “conventional.” Maybe that’s the problem.

  2. I just watched “Garbage Warrior”, and I was soooo impressed!

    What do you think it would take to get Earthships built in Canada?

  3. Audra – initial cost would be relative – can you make the adobe bricks or harvest wood from your own land? Most people cannot, and I would imagine that the price would be equivalent to stick-built housing…the savings would be in heating and cooling costs. As for the wood floors and beams, considering most houses are built entirely out of wood, the small amount going into the floors and ceiling joists don’t bother me too much.

    Finding a builder is easy where I live, but I imagine in the coastal NW it would be more difficult – I wonder if you could contract out a crew from the SW to build a house like that? Of course, the mud bricks would probably have to be shipped up there, unless there is quality mud nearby. As for rain, it should be fine – it has rained here every day and we have big winter storms.

    The above all being said, you could always build an earthship – old tires, bottles, mud, some wood and some glass!

  4. David,

    I’ve stayed in adobe houses before and they are great. But what I’m wondering is what is the difference in initial cost of resources to build an adobe house versus a conventional one? It seems that those lovely old solid wood floors and the beams for the ceiling would be pretty pricey materials. And how hard would it be to find a builder with any knowledge of the techniques used in this kind of building? Also, how suitable is this type of structure for other climates, such as the Coastal North West with all it’s rain?

  5. Rene – I can only imagine what most places would say if you showed up with a pile of old tires. I want to build one just so my family thinks I have lost even more of my mind!

  6. Oh I really love all of the adobes in New Mexico. Adobe, earthship, straw bale. They’re all supreme building methods, and we want to build our next home using these models.

    But, can you just see how uptight planning and zoning people in places like Colorado Springs or Palo Alto would react if people wanted to build like this? I really hope that the powers that be get on board, NOW, so that the masses can join in. Until that happens, it’s just going to be a fringe element idea.

    Meanwhile we’ll take our piece of land somewhere and just go for it.I love being part of the fringe!

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