Building an Adobe Brick House

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Learn about building an adobe brick house from the foundation up.
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Diagram 2: Plan for author's adobe brick home, Tres Fuentos Rancho, in Nuevo, California.
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Diagram 1: Plan for author's adobe brick home, Tres Fuentos Rancho, in Nuevo, California.
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Diagram 3: Plan for author's adobe brick home, Tres Fuentos Rancho, in Nuevo, California.

Learn about building an adobe brick house using this step-by-step guide.

Building an Adobe Brick House

Lick the material shortage by building an adobe brick house; adobe bricks are made of stabilized soil, it is as durable as concrete and much more interesting.

Once again, we’re pleased to roll the clock back 30 years in order to reprint another in our series of articles by Hi Sibley (see “100 Concrete Blocks Per Hour” in MOTHER NO. 45 for the first in the series).

Hi, in case you’ve never heard of his work, was living a MOTHER-type life of do-it-yourself adobe houses, organic gardening, homestead bees, and like that away back at the end of World War II. And not only living it . . . but writing about it in a great number of magazines. Unfortunately for us all, more folks back there in the late 40’s were more interested in big cars, city jobs, and new homes in the suburbs . . . than were interested in Hi’s subjects.

Now that so many of us are rediscovering Mr. Sibley’s way of life, though, we think it’s only fair to honor the man who was 30 years ahead of his time by again publishing some of his down-to-earth gems one more once. This — the first of a two-part article — originally appeared in the February 1947 issue of Mechanix Illustrated (copyright 1947 by Fawcett Publications, Inc.) and is reprinted by permission.

See the adobe home diagrams in the Image Gallery.

There are few sections in the United States where the soil does not contain clay suitable for making “adobe bricks”. In view of the fact that the bulk of this material costs you nothing, and that you can make the brick yourself, it is the ideal medium for home construction. When mixed with an asphalt emulsion stabilizer the brick is as waterproof as concrete. It is an excellent insulator against heat, cold, and sound. It is fireproof, termite-proof, and freeze-proof.

What more can you ask — atom bomb-proof?

Adobe for the old California missions was mixed with water and straw in the original excavation. The modern way is to use a mechanical mixer so as to impart a uniform quality to the brick. Formulas will be given later. In the meantime, consider the foundation. Since 12 inch wide (one story high) adobe walls weigh about 700 lbs. to the running foot, excluding the roof, a heavier footing will be required than for a frame house.

The Adobe Home Foundation. The first step is to grade the site and get the corner stakes level with a transit. Trenches for the footing are dug and flooded with water overnight. The simplest footing design is shown at A, Figure 2. This has a shallow key for mortar upon which the first course of brick is laid. In the inverted T design, B, the top is scored with a trowel to retain the mortar. This is the method used in the author’s home.

In preparing the ground remove all organic matter and roots. The slab is poured over cinders or crushed stone, spread over the entire surface to an 8 inch depth, and well tamped. This fill serves the double purpose of insulation and waterproofing. Over it place a layer of reinforced building paper and cement the joints with hot asphalt.

A 4 inch slab of concrete is then poured over the building paper. Use a 3:2 1/4:1 mix. Maximum size of the coarse aggregate should be one inch. Do not use more than six gallons of water per sack of cement including the moisture contained in the sand and gravel. Cure the concrete by sprinkling at intervals with a fine spray of water.

At A, Figure 3, is shown a type of footing suitable for a garage. The brick begins well above the floor level and thus above reach of water when hosing down the floor. To protect the outside wall, the first four courses are plastered with stucco, with the top notched into the wall, B. Foundations for wood floors over basements are shown at C and D. In all cases the bricks are trued up on the inside as in E if the interior is not to be plastered. Otherwise, true up the outside.

At outside doorways lay a beveled 2 by 4 in the concrete to which the saddle or threshold can be screwed, Figure 4. This illustration also shows the notched brick to receive the door jamb batten, which will be described later.

The Adobe Home: Making the Brick. Molds for making the adobe brick are shown in Figure 5. A 4 inch thickness is commonly used because it cures better than a thicker one. The standard size is 12 by 18 inch having a volume of 1/2 cubic feet and a face area of 1/2 square feet, although in the house shown in the photos, bricks of 16 inch length were used. For the key bricks, adjoining door, and window openings, wooden blocks are nailed inside the molds, as shown, and for rounded corners, curved pieces are installed. A mold, making several smaller bricks for fillers, will come in handy and nave splitting the standard size brick.

Soil must contain sufficient clay to bind strongly when dried after mixing with water. Heavy soils are usually too rich in clay and require blending with sand to overcome excessive cracking during drying. To obtain the general suitability of any soil, mold a 2 inch mud ball from a sample taken below the grass roots. If the ball dries hard and is not easily crushed, it may prove suitable for stabilized bricks. The strength is due to the natural bond of the clay and not to the stabilizer. If the soil is difficult to mix with water and the ball cracks on drying, additional sand or straw is required. Soils which contain alkalies should not be used.

The important ingredient of adobe bricks is a liquid stabilizer which not only renders them waterproof but increases their hardness until they are practically as durable as concrete. Stabilizer is sold under the trade name of Bitudobe manufactured by the American Bitumuls Company, San Francisco, California, and Bitumuls sold by the Standard Oil Co. of California.

Two series of tests should be made to determine the suitability of the soil and the amount of stabilizer required. The first series uses water and soil, for the second series add the stabilizer. If the soil is heavy clay or adobe, mix straight soil for the first brick; for No. 2, use three parts soil and one of sand; for No. 3, two and one-half parts soil, one and one-half parts sand; No. 4, two parts soil and two parts sand; No. 5, one and one-half parts soil, two and one-half parts sand; No. 6, one part soil, three parts of sand. Mold a jell size brick in each case. Too much clay produces cracking; too much sand decreases strength and resistance to erosion. Place the mold on level ground and force the mud into the corners with the hands. Remove excess mud with a straightedge across the top and lift off the form immediately. In about two days turn on edge. After drying in the sun two weeks or more, examine for cracking and strength, This test determines whether additional blending is advisable. Small center cracks are not harmful.

Using the soil mixture that has shown satisfactory strength and the least cracking in the previous series, make up a new batch and divide into four parts, each enough for a standard size brick, 4 by 12 by 18 inch To No. 1 add two pounds or one quart of stabilizer; two and one-half pounds to No. 2; three pounds to No. 3; three and one-half pounds to No. 4. Thus each brick will contain approximately 4, 5, 6, and 7% of stabilizer respectively by weight of the 50-pound brick. Mix each portion thoroughly and mold in the brick form, saving enough from each for a pat about 1/2 by 4 inch in diameter. Allow the bricks to dry in the sun, but hasten the drying of the pats by placing in a slow oven (150 — 200 degrees Fahrenheit). When the pats are cool, immerse in cold water for 24 hours.

Adobe Home Materials List

Adobe Home: Walls

3200 adobe brick 4 by 12 by 16 inch outside walls
750 adobe brick 4 by 8 by 16 inch partitions
6 cubic yards adobe, 150 gallon stabilizer for mortar

Adobe Home: Foundation

30 cubic yards concrete
140 square yards double strength tar paper lumber for forms

Adobe Home: Windows and Doors

354 lineal feet 2 by 8 inch redwood, frames
56 lineal feet 2 by 14 inch redwood, sills
820 lineal feet stops
190 square feet 2 inch redwood for doors
15 pieces pine 3 by 12 by 48 inch headers, windows, outside doors
7 pieces pine 3 by 8 by 48 inch headers, inside doors
1 piece pine 9 by 12 by 14 feet headers, view window
1 piece pine 6 by 8 by 8 feet headers, living-dining doorway
9 steel sash, 37-1/2 by 51 1/2 inch, B lights
3 steel sash, 37-1/2 by 37 1/2 inch, b lights

Adobe Home: Bond Beam

3 cubic yards concrete form lumber
1 roll barbed wire

Adobe Home: Plate

178 lineal feet 2 by 12 inch pine outside walls
84 lineal feet 2 by 8 inch pine partitions
54 anchor bolts 1/2 by 7 inch

Adobe Home: Ceilings

5 solid redwood beams 6 by 6 inch by 18 feet
2 solid redwood beams 3 by 6 inch by 18 feet for ends
26 pine joists 2 by 6 inch by 12 feet
12 pine joists 2 by 6 inch by 14 feet
6 pine joists 2 by 6 inch by 18 feet
512 board feet random width 1 inch redwood, living room
754 board feet 1 by 12 inch knotty pine, for other ceilings

Adobe Bathroom Plastering

3 bags hardwall plaster
1 bag stucco
1/2 ton sand

Adobe Home: Home Roof

70 pieces 2 by 4 inch by 16 feet rafters
18 pieces 2 by 4 inch by 9 feet rafters
30 pieces 2 by 4 inch by 12 feet tie beams
1800 board feet 1 by 8 inch pine sheathing
100 bundles No. 1 cedar shingles
40 pounds No. 4 galvanized shingle nails
10 pounds No. 3 galvanized shingle nails
2 root vents, plumbing, bath and kitchen
1 roof jack, 3 inch for water heater
2 roof jacks, 6 inch for space heater
216 feet 2 by 4’s for ratter bracing plus flashing tin for valleys and chimney

Adobe Home: Gables

70 lineal feet 2 by 4’s
200 board feet 1 by 12 inch pine siding
2 louvres, 24 by 30 inch
1 louvre, 18 by 24 inch

Adobe Home: Cupboards and Bookshelves

360 board feet knotty pine

Adobe Home Fireplace

125 firebrick
40 red brick, raised hearth
1 damper, 36 inch
4 sections oval flue tile, 13 by 17 inch
1 angle bar, 1/4 by 6 by 44 inch

Adobe Home: Interior Cornice and Baseboard

276 lineal feet 1 by 6 inch redwood
276 lineal feet 1 by 5 inch oak

Adobe Home Plumbing

1 Kohler bathtub Complete
1 Kohler close-coupled toilet
1 Kohler vitreous china lavatory
1 20 gallon water heater
1 Kohler double sink
1 single laundry tray
Plus fittings, pipe lines, sill cocks, etc.

Adobe Home: Linoleum

24 yards No. 1 grade, for bath and kitchen

Adobe Home: Paint

15 gallons Kemtone, ivory
2 gallons stain for gables
2 gallons linseed oil

Adobe Home: Miscellaneous

20 square feet tile bathroom
1296 square feet ceiling insulation
Hardware, nails, etc.

This has been the first of a two-part article that was originally published in Mechanix Illustrated in February of 1947. The second half of the piece (which originally appeared in the March 191,7 Mechanix Illustrated ) will be printed in MOTHER NO. 47.

Read more articles about building with adobe:
Build a Home From Adobe
Building an Affordable Home From Earthen Materials
Making Adobe Bricks
Putting Up Adobe Walls
Adobe Mud: Building With Earth