Adobe Houses A Defining Face of New Mexico

November 04,2015

ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO— As the largest city in New Mexico, Albuquerque is one of the fastest-growing high-tech centers in the U.S. Yet you rarely see skyscrapers here. Instead you will find small, dirt-walled houses everywhere.

With flat roofs — often with projecting beams — stepped levels and round-edged walls, they are called adobe houses, and they are one of Albuquerque’s defining characteristics.

Quentin Wilson, director of the Adobe Construction Program at Northern New Mexico College, said that "in the desert parts of the world, adobe is the wonderful material that everyone wants to choose. Because of the big thick walls, they work very well with the desert climate. It will store coolness, or they will store heat.”

Adobe means a building material mix of earth and straw. American Indians started building houses with adobe in the 1400s. Spanish elements were added when the Spanish conquered the region in the 1600s. Northern Europeans took over later. Yet, Wilson said, all three groups of people saw the beauty of adobe.

“Everybody embraced it and saw it as a valuable material, and they didn’t come in and tear it down and try some other kind of construction,” he said.

The massive walls are important in New Mexico’s desert climate. During the summer, people open the doors at night to let the walls store coolness and close the doors during daytime. That keeps the indoor temperature cool, as if the rooms were air-conditioned.

Kris Linton bought three of the houses and turned them into adobe-style, short-term rental houses. Her goal is to let people see what a house was like in the city’s early days.

“The feeling of it coming together and giving it a whole new life is exciting," she said. "We have not repurposed them. We have kept what they were here for, [which] is to live in.”

And adobe houses are still being built. Alan and Joyce Weitzel live in a contemporary version.

“I do like the quiet of the adobe structure," Alan said. "It is solid. It’s very quiet — kind of leaves a very soothing, calm feeling in the house.”

One down side is that the thick adobe walls can weaken cellphone signals. But this is a compromise the Weitzels are willing to make. They also need to keep an eye on the adobe walls, applying mud finish every other year to keep them dry and in shape.

In spite of such shortcomings, with committed fans like Linton and the Weitzels, adobe architecture will be preserved and remain a symbol of New Mexico.