The Charm of Earthen Homes

A guide to adobe, cob and earth-sheltered homes.

| September/October 1999

Building with Earth

Once upon a time people stayed with their houses. A person was born in a house, lived a life in that house, and died in that house. Then the children went on with the house, and so on, for generations. This is the great charm Europe holds for Americans. When we walk into an old French farmhouse or Tuscan villa, the big flat earth tiles under our feet show grooves that connect us to the person who made them hundreds of years ago. Our longing for just one thing in life to be, or seem to be, permanent is answered, and most of the unsteadiness and frailty of human life is banished outside thick earthen walls.

Earthen homes, even brand new ones, are timeless. But earthen homes are not as abundant in the United States today as mass produced houses that never will endure a family heritage, never will carry the stories of many generations. Most of these homes do not breathe; they contain formaldehyde and toxic glue. Their thin walls cannot radiate heat in winter and coolness in summer. They hold in their foundations the forests that were lost, the land that was mined, the energy that was used, and the pollution that was created to manufacture the materials of which they were made. If we value our forests and land and clean air, using the abundant earth to build homes is sensible and wise. It acknowledges our responsibility to future generations of people and other living residents of the planet.

Rising from Earth

There are myriad ways of putting up earthen walls. Archeologists believe we left our caves for homes whose walls were woven of twigs and covered with mud. Even today, builders called daubers use variations on this ancient handmade method. Now we often use technology to construct rammed earth and mix in other materials to construct earth ships and straw-earth hybrids. From the simplest adobe hut to the most sophisticated contemporary designs the possibilities for earthen homes keep expanding.

Fifty percent of the world’s population lives in earth houses today.


“My grandfather used to say that the earth was full of sound. He didn’t mean cars. He meant crickets, frogs, and the echo of stars colliding in the intensity of the crowded Milky Way. How fitting, how intelligent for man to build out of that sound, that music. Adobe repels the discordant and amplifies the balanced sounds and music of life, death, rebirth.” —Orlando Romero, from Adobe; Building and Living with Earth (Houghton Mifflin, 1994)

Adobe probably originated with the very earliest civilizations. Essentially soil, adobe contains a mixture of clay and water, made into blocks mortared with mud and covered with plaster or stucco. Some adobe contains straw or other plant material. Adobe bricks need an annual period of arid weather to dry, which is why the material is so common and has such a rich historical heritage in the American Southwest and other hot arid climates.

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