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From rainy-day adobes to hybrid houses to backyard farms, this season’s titles explore new frontiers in home making. Plus, a new book about UNM will warm an alumnus’ heart.

This article first appeared in Autumn 2010 Su Casa

Adobe Homes for All Climates: Simple, Affordable, and Earthquake-Resistant Natural Building Techniques, by Lisa Schroder and Vince Ogletree, Chelsea Green Publishing, paperback, $34.95.

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New Mexicans are so possessive about adobe construction, you’d think we invented it here. The truth is, as authors Lisa Schroder and Vince Ogletree point out, people around the world have built with mud bricks for more than 5,000 years, and earthen material for 10,000—remember Jericho? Today, they claim, half the people in the world occupy an earthen home, and with good reason. Adobe is cheap, dirt is plentiful, and building with bricks lends itself to construction by beginners—which also lures many first-time owner-builders to start laying their own walls. Further, Schroder and Ogletree contend, adobe isn’t just for arid climates, as the book’s examples in New Zealand and England attest.

Adobe Homes for All Climates aims to be an instructional manual for novices, owner-builders, and experienced builders switching to adobe or seeking to learn new techniques. Hoping to encourage and inspire, the authors include fairly detailed chapters about making and laying adobe bricks, installing lintels and making arches, putting in conduits and pipes, installing windows and doors, attaching top plates and putting on bond beams, and applying plasters and other finishes.

New Mexican adoberos, who might rightly claim to have experience with the material second to none, will find a few challenging—or at least different—approaches on these pages. The authors don’t typically insulate their adobe walls, while most New Mexicans now insulate the exterior. Schroder and Ogletree advocate an 11 ¼-inch by 11 ¼-inch by 4 ¾-inch brick versus the typical New Mexican brick of 10 by 14 by 3 ½, the thickness of which accommodates making them in a frame with standard 2x4s (which aren’t really 4 inches). Furthermore, the authors use a sand/clay mix augmented by 5 to 7 percent cement, and they only occasionally add aggregate or fiber like straw. Their bricks, however, will cure even when it’s raining—can’t do that with a pure mud/clay mix—and weather much better in a wet climate.

Maybe the most dramatic difference, though, is Schroder and Ogletree’s patented “Adobe Madre” reinforcement and scaffolding system. They mold their bricks into a variety of shapes, each based on the basic square brick but with cutout holes and channels. Some look like a U, some like a square doughnut, some like a squared C. When stacked appropriately, these shapes accommodate a reinforcing steel bar, plumbing, or electric wiring run vertically through the wall. A channeled brick works with scaffold pipes, allowing you to build up removable scaffolding as you work higher up the wall. When you’re done, you slide out the pipes and fill the holes. Way cool.

If you’re in the target audience—curious newbie or open-minded professional—you’ll want to add this to your reading alongside the other classic adobe books. You’ll find these on most mud-heads’ shelves: Adobe: Build It Yourself by Albuquerque builder Paul Graham McHenry Jr. (University of Arizona Press), which was the bible for a generation of new-to-adobe builders in the 1970s; the classic plan book Adobe Architecture, by Myrtle and Wilfred Stedman (Sunstone Press); Passive Solar House Basics by alternative energy pioneer Peter van Dresser (Gibbs Smith, Publisher); and the more recent Adobe Houses for Today, by Su Casa contributors and home designers Laura and Alex Sanchez (Sunstone Press).

The Hybrid House: Designing with Sun, Wind, Water, and Earth, by Catherine Wanek, Gibbs Smith, Publisher, paperback, $24.99.

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Drawing an analogy to hybrid cars that reduce fuel consumption and emissions by drawing power from gasoline and electricity and increasing efficiency, author Catherine Wanek applies the term “hybrid house” to extreme green dwellings. In this book, a dozen case studies focus on reduced energy consumption; home-generated power; local, durable, and renewable materials; and energy-smart design and construction. They have healthy, nontoxic interiors and respond to and integrate with their environmental settings. With those criteria in mind, Wanek picked out homes from around the U.S. and Europe. One house, Ted Owens’ delightful Corrales, New Mexico, strawbale casita, will be familiar to Su Casa readers, as will the design touch of architect Paula Baker-Laporte in a home in Tesuque.

Wanek has long-standing ties to the owner-builder strawbale community, so straw homes are well-represented in this book. In some of the homes, a particular strawbale aesthetic prevails that leans toward rough natural materials, unmilled lumber, coarse plaster, and freeform sculpturing of these often malleable materials. For readers who don’t care for that post-hippie look, Wanek includes several highly polished, neatly finished urban and suburban homes that don’t flout convention or flaunt their natural-building credentials. One Louisiana home shows wonderful painted wood trim and buffed floors, fashion-forward wall colors, and a regionally apt, modestly sized vernacular Acadian style exterior. But get this: the walls, floors, and ceilings are insulated with rice hulls. Brilliant. A Maryland home sports a strawbale addition that turns a conventional clapboard face to the street—albeit painted in rainbow colors—while strutting its strawbale-style charm, complete with plaster walls and raw timber woodwork, in back.

The European homes go another way altogether, in a style befitting their Austrian, Italian, and Swiss settings. The Swiss hut in the Alps uses jumbo strawbales to achieve a stunning claimed R-113. That’s good enough to maintain interior comfort when the outside temp drops way below zero. Heat for the house comes from passive solar energy and the occasional, mostly atmospheric fire in the woodstove.

Wanek does a good job showing the range of possibilities at the fringy edge of green building, a zone where smart, individualistic innovators are testing solutions that might one day direct the current of the mainstream. Time will tell. Meanwhile, check out The Hybrid House for a few ideas to shape your next addition or future home.

Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on ¼ Acre, by Brett L. Markham, Skyhorse Publishing, paperback, $16.95.

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Backyard farming, urban homesteading, and intensive gardening seem to be gaining popularity across our culture. The options range from growing food in flowerpots to intensively farming suburban lots to cooperatively managing rooftop community gardens in major cities. We see it around here. Some of our friends share their fresh eggs with my wife and me. Another friend is building a greenhouse to hydroponically grow strawberries as a cash crop. Down the road, a fellow shocked a softhearted neighbor by butchering his steers in plain sight of passersby—not a rare sight in this old rural village where I live. And besides, it’s still OK to eat meat, right?

We’ve all got our own comfort level with farming, whether it’s an issue of squeamishness or spare time. Some folks want a few tomatoes and fresh basil but can’t be bothered with weeding a riotous kitchen garden. Others want eggs but can’t bear the thought of oven-roasting the Little Red Hen when she’s too old to lay. Maybe you need an armchair introduction to the possibilities of growing your food, maybe you’re ready to start turning dirt, or maybe you’re thinking about elevating your game to include a produce booth at the local grower’s market. For anyone short of Old MacDonald, Brett Markham’s Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on ¼ Acre offers useful, wide-ranging advice and inspiration. An experienced backyard farmer himself—with a 9-to-5 day job in computers—Markham knows what you need to know about preparing your plots, selecting plants, composting, irrigating, harvesting, and preserving veggies, fruits, and nuts. He devotes two chapters to chickens, one about eggs and the other about meat. He also explains how to make a convenient hand-operated tool for plucking chickens. Elsewhere he provides helpful information about rigging up a thresher from designs found in the public domain.

Markham is serious about that “self-sufficiency” phrase in the book’s subtitle, but not wackily so. He asserts that if you get serious, you can grow the “core food needs” for your family on 1,000 square feet—assuming you buy whole grains and flour, plus meat if you’re not a vegetarian. (If you want proof it can be done, check out the unrelated Path to Freedom website at urbanhomestead.org, which documents a Pasadena family’s stunning urban homestead.) You’ll work to achieve that level, but what work could be more satisfying?

The University of New Mexico, by V. B. Price, photography by Robert Reck, produced by Van Dorn Hooker, University of New Mexico Press, hardcover, $34.95.

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Partway through reading The University of New Mexico, I made a note to myself that the book was “redolent of season.” It’s filled with lush, immaculate photography by Robert Reck showing the lovely campus in vibrant spring bloom, full summer sun, fading autumn glory, even a fresh coating of snow. Not three days later I chanced to bump into Reck at Whole Foods. After we’d caught up—it’s been awhile since I worked with him on a Su Casa assignment (see Green Home in Su Casa’s Spring 2009 issue)—I told him how much I loved his photos in this new title. He mentioned that one early concept for the book had been “UNM through the seasons,” a notion later abandoned as an organizing principle but not before Reck had deliberately shot many seasonal images. Thus that theme, explicit or not, asserts itself, deepening the sense of place captured herein.

It’s a delightful book. The introductory text by V. B. Price—an alumnus like Reck and someone who could rewrite the phone book into an intriguing prose poem—fulfills its duty by breezily covering the history of the place and many of its fascinating characters, extending and backfilling the implied narrative of Reck’s photography. What emerges is a place defined by its own evolution, from the venerable Hodgin Hall (older than, well, anyone around and renovated to Pueblo style in 1908) to the startlingly and assertively modern George Pearl Hall of the School of Architecture and Planning.

Price’s essay covers the highlights of UNM’s curriculum vitae, as it were, lingering on its symbiosis with the physical and cultural landscape of New Mexico. While most universities inspire loyalty among alums, he suggests that UNM transcends that prosaic passion—“it embodies the love of place,” the Spanish notion of querencia, more like the bond with a homeland. Partly that arises from the architecture, with its powerful Spanish/Pueblo Revival style buildings—best seen at Zimmerman Library and Scholes Hall—designed by John Gaw Meem, one of the prime architects of Santa Fe style. (For more about Meem, see “Restoring a family treasure,” page 39.) Thus the campus visually relates to the residential architecture of our region and therefore to our homes, a connection that subliminally welcomes New Mexicans into this sheltered city within a city.

I don’t think I could pick a favorite photo, but I love the shot across yellowing autumn trees toward Scholes Hall with Downtown in the near distance, the West Mesa and “volcano cliffs” escarpment next, and a brooding Mount Taylor holding the far horizon. Moody interiors include the reading room in Zimmerman Library, with its stunning Meem detailing that includes deep-set soaring windows and a ceiling of closely spaced, rhythmically repeating carved corbels and vigas that give your eyes a welcome break from whatever you’re there to study. Other treats include the newly renovated and transformed Student Union, the period-correct Hodgin Hall, and the Pit in a photo complete with an imminent dunk. Go Lobos!