There are a lot of different ways I’d like to spend a long weekend away from work. Sleeping. Snowboarding. Cooking. Starting seedlings for this year’s garden. Sleeping.
Instead, when I recently stole an extra day, I flew to Arizona, rented a car, drove out to the kind of rural town where broken-down machinery is thought of as sculpture and my iPhone is only useful as a small cheese board, and paid someone hundreds of dollars so that I could do days of back-breaking labor for him.
The Tom Sawyer in this case is Quentin Branch of Rammed Earth Solar Homes, Inc. In exchange for labor and cash, he’s willing to share a bit of the knowledge and technique he’s picked up in decades of working with rammed earth.
I plan to build a modest house in the coming year and I’ve settled on rammed earth as the best method for my particular needs. Although it’s become a bit trendy (and expensive!) in recent years, with the increasing fame of architects like Rick Joy and Eddie Jones, rammed earth remains a basic building technique—one that’s been around at least since Pliny was spying on Hannibal. If it’s good enough for the Great Wall of China, it’s good enough for me.
In order to make the process affordable, I’ll have to do a fair portion of the work myself, so I decided to book the workshop-cum-labor-camp in Arizona. As much as I looked forward to learning about rammed earth, I was not happy to be hurrying off to Arizona. Locavorism was on my mind as we readied this year’s Devour. I’ve become increasingly intolerant of generic food that arrives on the plate from unknown sources and, if you think it’s still hard in Santa Fe to find out where your food was sourced, try rural Arizona.
But the workshop turned out to be a lesson in local. Not in terms of food, but in terms of construction. Rammed-earth walls, like adobe, can often be made from earth and aggregate found on or near the construction site. In contrast to materials that are produced thousands of miles away and transported to the job site, the local benefit and the overall energy savings are obvious. People in Santa Fe are used to complaining about the high labor cost of building with adobe (and the same is true of rammed earth). But we gloss over the hidden energy costs—and their effect on more than our individual bottom lines—of low-cost labor materials like lumber. Spending money on labor increases community wealth. Spending money on imported materials does not.
What I hadn’t really thought about is how much the evolution of construction materials in Western industrialized nations mirrors the evolution of food systems in those same countries. We’ve gone from building with primarily local materials—in some cases timber and in other cases earth or brick or stone—to building with outsourced materials that appear, as if by magic, at the big-box store down the street or on the back of a hulking delivery truck.
As with food, Americans have been seduced into believing that centralized sources away from our communities are more safe and efficient than relying on a balanced use of local resources and simple networks of regional commerce. There are some efficiencies in such systems, but there are many inefficiencies and hidden costs as well. In Santa Fe, one of the hidden costs has been the integrity of our preservation ethic. We allow homes to be built and modified in our historic districts that mimic the use of local, traditional materials, but that are in fact charlatans. When food is called organic, it must be certified according to a rigid process, not just its appearance. Why are homes held to a lesser standard?
When we consider the moving target of affordable housing, it’s clear that access to safe, reasonable shelter has been subjugated to a maze of regulations and budget calculations that are being driven by industry and government, rather than by a common-sense approach to using what’s in front of us to ensure that people are housed.
Of course it’s not only local construction materials that are forgotten, ignored or discarded when we look beyond our borders for building, it’s the knowledge of how to work them, especially in local conditions. Adobe is the northern New Mexico material with the most tradition and, obviously, one can still seek out master adobe makers and builders, although in dwindling numbers. Rammed earth has never been a hugely popular or traditional technique here—but it’s one that fits the local landscape and available materials remarkably well. So it was distressing to have to go to Arizona in order to find a rammed-earth maestro.
But, you know, if anyone wants to pay to work on my house, I’ll be happy to pass on what I learned.
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