Encounters with Adobe Nazis
I recently received an email from a reader who took exception to my criticism of the earth-building industry as being, in large part, advocated by the "touchy, feely fringe." She was accurate in noting ruthless disparagement for fractious loyalties to mud, straw, pumice and the other "alternatives."
My opinion derives from decades in both the for-profit and the not-for-profit sectors of the building trades as they relate to earthen architecture. During that time I have watched hundreds of people get excited about earth building, only to approach it by attempting to re-invent, massage or tweak systems that have an ancient, venerable and successful history that is extraordinarily well documented. If only they would bother to access it, the bibliographies on tools and techniques, methods, regional variances, materials, functional and decorative plasters and friezes, seismic elements and cultural significance are prodigious.
I have also seen, particularly in the last 20 years, a flurry of earth- and natural-building workshops, schools and scams here and abroad. Some of them are quite good, technically; many are not. Some are practical; most are swathed in idealism. Almost all of them cater to devotees who want to make earth or natural building their own in an "I discovered it" sort of way. That's fine if they get over it and move on, but I know quite a few who have become so obsessed that should I suggest, for example, that a frame/stucco building is more economical in an affordable housing context, the response is that I am an enemy of nature. Those are the Adobe Nazis, and they are not uncommon.
I sincerely appreciate the criticism I received because it gave me a topic for this month's column. Sarcasm aside, and I do not suspect my communicant of being a National Socialist or anything of the kind; her points about individuals seeking to get off the grid makes for great Independence Day discussions. Essentially, it begs the question about individual responsibility in a country that grants premier status to individual rights.
I have no problem at all with folks who do their own thing, and have written admiringly of that. But individual adventures in new mud construction do not advance the credibility or acceptability of the industry in a larger context, which is one of my goals. In this rubric everything I do (outside of historic preservation) begins with the question, "can this be taken to scale; practically, economically, socially?" I invite others to ask themselves the same question; if the answer is no, that's fine, but I don't particularly want to hear about it.
So, I stand firmly in the position that individual epiphanies about earth building, based largely in a romantic sense of the past and an ardent desire to find the silver environmental bullet, does nothing to advance the trade. It is advanced when committed people bring intelligent conversation to the table of public policy.
I am happy to report that earthen architecture is gaining ground in that realm, exemplified by the State of New Mexico and the City of Santa Fe (and others) recently adopting extremely significant codes pertaining to the construction of new earthen buildings, and the conservation of older ones.
The Adobe Nazis didn't do that. Idealists didn't contribute a mud farthing. This was accomplished by calm thinkers who admire the technology for what it is: Successful.