Kevin: Welcome to the Preservation Technology Podcast–the show that brings you the people and projects that are advancing the future of America’s heritage. I’m Kevin Ammons with the National Park Service’s National Center for Preservation Technology and Training. Today we join NCPTT’s Miriam Tworek-Hofstetter as she speaks with Jake Barrow, Program Director at Cornerstones Community Partnerships, about organizing communities to preserve adobe architecture.
Miriam: Hi Jake, thanks for joining us today.
Jake: Well Thanks for having me, we really appreciate the support of the National Center here at Cornerstones and so I’m glad to be able to participate.
Miriam: To begin, can you describe Cornerstones and the work that you guys do there.
Jake: Yeah, sure. Cornerstones was founded in 1986 here in Santa Fe. We’re a non-profit, community organization and our mission is community and heritage, and it’s focused on communities and the preservation of their heritage. The reason that Cornerstones got started was because in northern New Mexico there’s a lot of little villages–very historic little villages–predominantly built of adobe vernacular architecture and the center of the village in these communities was the little church–the mission church usually–and often times these things are 200 years old or older, and these churches were disappearing and becoming challenged in their preservation and so a group of very interested individuals in Santa Fe got together and formed Cornerstones to help those communities try to save their churches and that’s what we’ve been at ever since day one.
Miriam: Can you briefly explain the process of adobe construction and its significance?
Jake: The historical of significance of adobe or earthen architecture is pretty broad and I’ll start with that because it sets the context for something about the preservation of earthen architecture. And I’ll use the word “earthen architecture” in the broader sense since adobe is one methodology or one technique within the whole framework of earthen architecture. Earthen architecture is one of the oldest forms of architecture known to mankind and it’s fairly ubiquitous throughout the world–predominantly in the equatorial regions–but almost every country has a tradition of earthen architecture and it’s generally believed that 50% of people in the world live in earthen architecture structures, so there’s a big broad history–international history.
And when we look at America we mostly look in the southwest–although it’s not completely true there’s sod houses in other states and we find adobe architecture in New York State–but predominantly in the southwest. Of course it’s a Native American tradition before the Spanish ever came to this region in the 17th c. and you can see examples of that–I think the predominant one that everyone knows so much about is the Casa Grande ruins in Coolidge Arizona which is like a 12th-13th c. puddled earth structure–multi-story–that survived all those centuries and is now a national monument. And so the native American population used earthen architecture in a major way: all of their structures were built of earth or earth and stone. When the Spanish came we have a historical context there where different aspects were introduced particularly the adobe block. And so then we had some changes in the 17th c. coming to the southwest New Mexico primarily and later Arizona southern California Texas and in a state like New Mexico you could say that until the 20th c. the predominant architecture was earthen so we have that context here.
Then as a result we have a challenge of preserving that architecture and like anything else–like any other kind of preservation–it depends upon a extensive knowledge of material, how it’s used, and the history of it. So that’s what we’re involved in. And earthen architecture like all architecture has the characteristic of preservation maintenance being a factor–like a wooden building might be painted and the painting might be the sacrificial coat to preserve the wood, for example. In earthen architecture it’s often been the protective skin which predominantly has been a mud plaster and so the preservation of these buildings is similar to other buildings in that you want a roof that doesn’t leak and a skin that’s compatible with building material and works with it and preserves it. And you want good drainage around the building so that water doesn’t get retained. So it kind of follows the same precepts of other building preservation but it’s just a different material and has its own characteristics that have to be paid attention to.
Miriam: Is there anything you see as the greatest challenge to conserving earthen architecture in the United States?
Jake: Well that’s an interesting question. There’s several challenges. One is the modern industrial material such as, let’s say, Portland cement. That’s one of the dominant ones that’s a modern material that has seen widespread use in the 20th c. in all kinds of ways. This material’s not particularly sympathetic with earthen architecture, and so a lot of old historic earthen architecture buildings have been coated with cement stucco and this has not been really positive treatment for earthen architecture buildings, basically because any moisture that gets in the walls of those buildings gets trapped in that cement skin and doesn’t allow it to evaporate out. You get a lot of subsurface deterioration on a historic earthen architecture building when it’s been cement coated. This is one factor and a real challenge for preserving earthen architecture.
Another factor is the building codes and we’re fortunate in New Mexico to have a historic earthen architecture building code which allows historic buildings to avoid being subjected to the contemporary earthen architecture building code so we’re lucky here. I can’t say that same thing is true in Arizona and some other states that don’t recognize earthen architecture, or have a much more rigorous building code for modern earthen architecture and they apply that to the historic buildings. It really has unsympathetic results, so struggling with building code is an issue throughout the southwest for preserving earthen architecture in addition to incompatible materials.
The third thing I would say is that there’s been a lack of a continuation of traditional knowledge and traditional ability and skill level to maintain earthen architecture which was very well known in the villages in the past–in the 19th c. and 18th c. But in the 20th c., with these new materials those traditional methods have been lost and people have forgotten how to do it so that’s where we come in with Cornerstones and so we really, really make an effort to help preserve the traditional methods of earthen architecture preservation and try to help those people in some way maintain a traditional knowledge that they need to preserve earthen architecture.
Miriam: Great. Can you tell us a bit about the people who volunteer for you and what skills they gain when they’re volunteering?
Jake: Yeah, we are predominantly a volunteer organization. We have several other outreach venues: we have interns, we conduct training workshops–but primarily we help communities organize volunteers to get out there and do work. We really have no skill set requirements. Typically what happens is that a village is working on a building and we’ll come in to help them with tools, equipment, and perhaps some leadership and organize workdays and get everybody started and usually we have a very standard process where we look at materials–of course we look at the problem and identify the issues and establish what the work elements are going to be: wall repair or mud plaster or what have you. And then what we like to do is to set up an adobe making workshop where we take really unskilled people, all ages, and make adobe bricks. We go through the process of selecting material and mixing materials the process of forming the bricks, drying the bricks, evaluating the bricks and that kind of thing.
Then the same thing with the walls: we’ll prepare walls and look for structural issues on walls and how to stitch and make those structural repairs. Cracks may be issues or erosion that’s happened in the wall. Often times we’re taking cement off. Then we’re evaluating the walls and we’ll go into a process of material selection and mud plastering and how to do that. And we really, really will find out over a period of a couple days who of the volunteers are picking it up and we try to get leadership going in that way to identify individuals who may know something about it or may have a natural talent for that kind of work and we encourage them to take leadership and we begin backing out, we begin disengaging as the community can take over. Our whole thing at Cornerstones is getting the community empowered to do the work and us kind of disappearing. The ideal situation is when the project gets going good we may not be there really hardly at all and then at the end we might come in and pick up our tools and equipment and scaffolding and demobilize and look at the work and give it a stamp of approval and pat the community on the back and make a plan for another workshop next year.
So that’s the ideal setting and we have volunteers from all over. I mean we certainly like to have volunteers from the community, but we’re a nationally recognized organization so we’ll get inquiries from people coming to the southwest who want to participate in some way, they’re on vacation usually or they’re a university crowd that may be doing a class in the southwest for a semester and they want to do some service learning in a community and we’ll connect them up. So a lot of times the workshops that are going on in the communities will be a mix of the community people and half the people will be coming from other environments. For instance this week we’re starting with a class from Castleton College in Vermont that are down here for a semester and they want to do a service learning project in the community so we’re participating with them in one of our communities to give those students a chance to experience the hands-on adobe but also the history of New Mexico in a tangible way so it’s really great–it’s a great process.
Miriam: Well that’s great and community involvement is so important for preservation generally. Now you mentioned moisture as being an issue with earthen architecture, and I know that Cornerstones worked with the community of Hatch, New Mexico when it was devastated by a flooding event. What does a person–who has a building constructed with earthen architecture–what do they do in the event of a flood?
Jake: Yeah, you know it’s a very tough question. I know the national center supported Cornerstones in putting out a little booklet called “How to Save Your Adobe Home in the Event of a Flood Disaster.” And for anyone that is interested we still have a number of copies of that to distribute to anyone on request.
Just in a nutshell, just to talk a little bit about that the process and everything, since adobe architecture is made of earth, water is one of the predominant causes for deterioration of an adobe building, and so in a flood incident, it can be catastrophic. I think just a rule of thumb would be that if there’s an anticipated flood coming then the idea is going to be to begin mitigation as soon as possible so the impact of the water on the building needs to be minimized in every way possible. Depending on the landscape around the building there could be some berming put in, some sand bag and berming help spread the water away from the building. Then secondarily, when floodwaters come, there’s a lot of groundwater there and it may have gotten into the building.
So the second mode of defense is to get the water out as quickly as possible with drainage and pumps as soon as the flood has subsided if you don’t want any standing water in the building. [Draining] would get it out of there as quickly as possible and once the flood has passed, an evaluation of a base of the substructure’s going to be required. Typically what is done is a visual evaluation, but if the building is cement-stuccoed it’s going to be important to cut windows, small 12 inches by 12 inches windows in various locations and see if the wall has gotten wet inside. For how wet is the wall, the concern is if the base of the wall gets totally saturated and stays saturated for a period of time it and can’t dry out, the likelihood of a structural slumping is very high and so the building owner has got to be prepared to shore the roof of the building as quickly as possible. And so once that evaluation is made to determine if the basal part of the wall is saturated with water or even got saturated and began to dry but is still wet–it’s very subject to settlement and so our suggestion is to go ahead and shore the roof structure so that if there is any settlement the roof is not going to collapse. And then piece by piece there’s a procedure of going in and making those strategic repairs to the base of the wall–basal stabilization we call it– to give integrity back to the basic wall structure.
Anything like introduction of concrete around it or anything like that are really very negative treatments and do more harm than good. Essentially what has to happen is that a structural system of going in and underpinning that deteriorated area with solid new adobe is what really is required. There’s a system for doing that and it’s described in our little handbook so I would encourage people to contact us and get a copy of the handbook–it’s free and we’ll send it out to them and it’d be helpful in terms of planning for that kind of event.
Miriam: Well thank you for talking to us today Jake.
Jake: Yeah, it’s great and any time and we’re so appreciative of the recent grant that the NCPTT gave to us for the curriculum we’ve been working on and we’re excited about that, it’s going into the community college this year it looks like and so we feel that the opportunities to train young people through curriculum development gives us another way to reach out to the larger community for the purpose of extending the traditional methodology for preserving earthen architecture, so thanks again to you too.
For more information on Cornerstones Community Partnerships, please visit their webpage .