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    Understanding Adobe

Architectural Conservation  
2019 Galisteo Street, Suite N-10 A  
Santa Fe, New Mexico 87505  
505/ 982.2448  •  877/ 982.2448  

Pliny the Elder Endorses Mud
20th century Brits take a lesson from antiquity
Ed Crocker

"The country is faced by a dilemma probably graver and more poignant than any with which it has hitherto had to deal. It needs, and needs at once, a million new houses, and it has not only utterly inadequate stores of material with which to build them, but has not even the plant by which that material can be rapidly created." This commentary appears in the introduction to a book on earthen architecture written and published in the United Kingdom in 1919. The cause for the shortage in materials was, the authors note, directly related to hardships in manufacturing and labor shortages caused by World War I.

The book, Building in Cob, Pise and Stabilized Earth, was intended as a handbook for post war construction using earth. It was popular enough that it went into a second printing in 1920. What exactly the impact of the book's didacticism was is hard to say; England certainly has an immense inventory of earthen buildings, particularly in Cornwall and Devon that date back centuries. Whether that inventory was increased as a result of this book I cannot tell. But, interestingly, the book entered a third printing -- this time in 1947 and again in a post-war setting. The authors revised the text somewhat based on new research, but left the introduction to stand as written 28 years earlier. The implication is that demand called for the reprint and demand must, in some degree, have been based on the validity of the book's premise. Though lucidly written, I doubt the reprint occurred because of a clamor to revisit its timeless prose.

I am always heartened to come across a book like this. (A colleague who documents adobe houses in upstate New York was kind enough to send me a copy. Adobe in upstate New York? Oh, yes, standing proof of my oft-stated contention that earth can be and is successful in any climate where soil exists and that exempts only the Arctic.) The idea that earth is the best answer to converting natural resources into building stock is not a new one. In fact, just for the adventure in literature and history, let me take you back to the first century of the common era and cite the Natural History of Pliny the Elder:  "Have we not in Africa and in Spain walls of earth, known as 'formocean' walls? From the fact that they are moulded, rather than built, by enclosing earth within a frame of boards, constructed on either side. These walls will last for centuries, are proof against rain, wind and fire, and are superior in solidity to any cement. Even to this day Spain still holds watch-towers that were erected by Hannibal."

Right on, Pliny! And the English authors could go into a fourth printing with just a few technical revisions to the text. The premise is still valid; that being that earth is ubiquitous, easy to build with, eminently successful as a construction material, comfortable to live in, pleasant to the eye and clearly the only real answer to the question of renewable resources.

Crocker Ltd
2019 Galisteo Street, Suite N-10 A  •  Santa Fe, New Mexico 87505
tel 505/ 982.2448  •  fax 505/ 995.9877
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