Santa Fe Style: Ersatz Adobe and a Vanishing Heritage
Earthen buildings more than any other physical aspect distinguish New Mexico's unique cultural adaptation to place. The tradition began with modified rock shelters, evolved through pit-houses to the high architectural style of Chaco Canyon, and was modified centuries later by the introduction and evolution of adobe bricks from the time of European contact. But New Mexico's earthen architectural heritage is at risk. Three forces working inadvertently in concert threaten the continuance of our earthen building tradition.
The first dynamic is the loss over time of local knowledge that tells how to manipulate available materials into structural components. Earthen building techniques began to be lost in a serious way in New Mexico after the Second World War. Veterans returning home took advantage of the GI Bill, got their education and went on to higher-paying jobs outside of their rural setting. As communities aged earthen materials were replaced, over the course of two or three generations, with commercially available products. Simultaneously, earth began to be perceived as the building material of the poor in rural areas, while paradoxically, it became the material of choice for the more well to do. Though the latter appreciated the forms inherent in earthen buildings, the low walls, rounded corners and desert colors that have come to be known as "Santa Fe Style," they seem to have harbored a distrust of the materials.
This second factor, the distrust of earthen materials, has led to their replacement, either totally or through modification with harder, supposedly more durable substances. A new "adobe" house in New Mexico can most often no longer be defined as "earthen." The norm among "adobe" building contractors is to use stabilized earth blocks (containing between six and twelve percent asphalt emulsion), laid up in Portland cement mortar, with a concrete bond-beam, the whole structure being encased in blown-on polyurethane foam and finished off with an acrylic or elastomeric plaster. None of these materials or combinations conforms to even a loose definition of traditional New Mexican (or any other) earthen technology; and in no way are these houses a reflection of our heritage. At least not a heritage prior World War II.
The distrust of materials has even become codified, and that is the third strike against earth. New Mexico's building and energy codes both work within a tradition that is centuries old and, by any standard, successful. The building code, as well as the majority of code-enforcement officials (and, sad to say, engineers) encourage the use of Portland cement as mortar, plaster and in bond beams despite the clearly demonstrable incompatibility of soft and hard materials; simultaneously, local codes advocate against the use of mud or lime plasters which have been clearly shown as superior in protecting earthen substrates.
The energy code judges adobe to have a very low R-value and so requires that the exterior walls be insulated. The code fails to acknowledge that the mass-enhanced R-value (ability to retain heat) is very impressive and argues for an exception to the rule. The energy code also fails to recognize the remarkable energy efficiency of a double-wythe earthen cavity wall.
As if insult were required in the face of injury, there is also a loss of appreciation for the skills and technologies, developed over centuries, pertaining to earthen architecture. Among these are the use of wooden lacing in earthen walls to provide structural ties at corners and in gable ends; the manipulation of aggregates in mud plasters to provide longevity comparable to that of cement stuccos; the near total loss of lime technologies, including lime as a mortar for stone and a plaster for adobe; and the almost complete loss of understanding that buildings are systems that in order to function as intended must be built of compatible materials.
At best, Santa Fe Style is ersatz; at worst it is a masquerade of modern manufactured goods hastily assembled in disheartening mimicry of a vanishing heritage.