On a visit to Tucson in 2003, an old high school friend of mine, Daniel Snyder of Westwind Solar Electric, introduced me to the designer and builder Tom Wuelpern. As the award winning owner of Rammed Earth Development, Wuelpern has built many an adobe house in the Tucson area.
Wuelpern lives and works in the Barrio Santa Rosa district of central Tucson and the 800 block of Meyer Avenue has been a principle focus of his creativity. Here he’s built homes that complement the vintage adobes of that historic district. When he first arrived there wasn’t a single house left on that stretch of Meyer Avenue so Wuelpern had to live out of a trailer while building his first home. He says the neighborhood was “a little rough” and that occasionally he’d sit out in front of the trailer “with a gun over my knees.”
Things have changed since those early days when people said that Wuelpern was crazy to build in a “slum.” Now the original residents share the Barrio Santa Rosa with, artists, architects, symphony musicians, and many other creative types attracted by the rustic character of the adobe house.
Adobe construction was first brought to the southwest by the early Spanish settlers who were originally introduced to it by the Moors from North Africa.
One old adobe after another crowds the Barrio’s dusty avenues, many of them painted in vibrant colors which scintillate in the desert heat. The Barrio Santa Rosa really has the feel of a traditional Mexican town.
I, being a “creative type”, was enchanted by all of this and when Wuelpern offered me the opportunity to have some input on the adobe house that he was about to build, I had to say “yes.”
And it has been a treat to get to know the pleasures of a small Green adobe house.
The walls are 18 inches thick and the floor is poured concrete with a radiant heating system embedded in it. I chose recycled blue jeans insulation which is as effective as fiberglass for temperature but even better for sound, and more green and ecological so that it will never present any hazard to the environment or to anyone’s health.
I get a snug feeling just thinking about my adobe abode.
The paint on the interior walls is uniquely appropriate because it is a non-toxic clay paint composed of earth pigments sourced from the desert landscape itself. All other interior paints are Non-VOC, so they do not pollute the interior space of the house. I am always struck by the yucky smell of toxic chemicals emanating from the paint, carpeting, and other components of newly built or remodeled conventional buildings. It’s the first thing I notice and there is none of that in this Green Living, ecological, adobe house.
In addition to benefiting our health by not out gassing toxins the natural paint allows the thick adobe walls to breathe because it doesn’t form an impermeable skin between the interior air and the walls. These walls can then act as a temperature and humidity reservoir for the house which stabilizes the in door climate through out the day.
Adobe is not a very efficient insulating material so an adobe house is not the best choice for regions with harsh winters but it is an excellent choice for the desert where it gets very hot during the day and can be very cold at night. This is because adobe has a good “thermal mass,” which means that as the suns heat is absorbed by the exterior walls it gradually penetrates through the wall to warm the interior during the night. By the next morning the cold night air has cooled the wall contributing, in turn, to cooler interior temperatures during the day. This allows me to cut back on the air conditioning and the heating.
Since adobe is essentially an inert material, the “toxic” content of the structure is hugely reduced. This makes adobe construction, when feasible, a very attractive Green Living alternative. Adobe construction is a reasonable way to achieve sustainable living spaces appropriate for us and the environment.
This is a very comfortable Green Living and ecological adobe house. It is a beautiful residence which places no demand or burden upon its occupants; it feels neutral and enriches the spirit with its light and benevolent character.