Adobe Transformation: Renovating Two Old, Ugly Houses

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Photography By Athena and Bill Steen
Athena and Bill’s property in 1984.

What happens when the property you fall in love with (after an exhaustive search) has two old, awful-looking adobe buildings that total 3,500 square feet? And what if these buildings are in such bad condition that zero value has been placed on them? That’s exactly the problem we faced when we bought our Arizona acreage two decades ago. Our first thought was to tear the buildings down; restoring them seemed absurd. But life is full of surprises.

The cheapest demolition estimate we received was $20,000, and the houses were located so that it was impossible to divide the property and sell them. Our only option, it seemed, was to fix them up just enough to make them livable until we could build a “real” or more serious house. Then, about halfway through the initial remodeling–as we realized the process was costing more than anticipated–it became apparent that we would be confined to these old buildings for some time. And so began a journey that has shaped our lives.

Twenty years later we’re still living in those old buildings, and it would be accurate to say that our lives have been “built” around them. Had we initially accepted what had been given to us, the early years might have been easier, but we were constantly preoccupied with thoughts of all the ways we wished things were. To begin with, the houses were much larger than we needed, and they were extremely hard to heat during cold winter nights. In addition, they were poorly sited, making adequate solar gain difficult.

Some of those problems still linger, but as we’ve come to know these buildings, this place, and the history of those who lived here before us, we’ve come to treasure what we once fought so desperately. Looking back, we can honestly say that life has given us exactly what we needed. We’ve learned a lot about trust, acceptance, and the struggle that can happen when one’s images about “how life oughta be” conflict with what life has given.

Building appreciation

A deeper look into the old dwellings revealed they were built mostly of adobe and that with a little vision, they could be quite decent and attractive. The old walls had a lot of history, and as we learned the stories of how they had been built, we became increasingly appreciative. Our land had originally been a Mexican homestead growing the traditional Southwestern crops of corn, squash, melons, and beans, supplemented by an orchard of apples, pears, and quince. When the ownership changed in the 1930s to an alternative-minded couple from northern California, the property became a retreat for their friends, including celebrated Zen writer Alan Watts. We started with a lot of basic improvements to make the buildings livable: adding a room to the main house, replacing and changing locations of doors and windows, altering traffic patterns, repairing the roofs, upgrading wiring, unifying plaster and paint surfaces, and tiling the kitchen and bathrooms.

As we became more knowledgeable about building performance, we took on the smaller guesthouse, which now serves as a bed and breakfast. We added considerable insulation to the walls and roof, upgraded to thermal-pane windows, and installed a solar heating system. Our biggest challenge has been heating the main house during the three coldest months of the year, an issue we’ve gradually been resolving–with full knowledge that it will take time to bring it to the level we’d like.

We were also concerned that the buildings offer much more living room than we really need, until we decided we could use that space to accommodate small groups of people. Our life has largely been structured to suit the buildings and property ever since. Without them, we probably wouldn’t have created The Canelo Project, a nonprofit organization that connects people, culture, and nature.

Essentially our compound has become a hybrid between a home for our family (currently three children at home) and a place that periodically hosts small groups for various events. We run workshops on straw bale construction, courses on clay and lime plastering as well as digital imaging, and small gatherings for friends and local musicians for a day’s worth of live music. As inspiration or need arises, we bring groups together for discussions on topics that we share in common. We’ve also inched ourselves into a small bed-and-breakfast operation.

The old buildings that we once found so objectionable have been crucial to all these endeavors, a major source of inspiration and creativity. In addition, the work they’ve required has been an ongoing process of exploration and learning. We’ve relied largely on materials and methods that we could either collect or make: local clays, rock, reeds, fibers, and straw to create a variety of plasters, paints, clay ovens, and built-in furniture. The changes brought about by these materials were what really seemed to make the place come alive. They added color, texture, and definitive shapes to wall surfaces and ceilings.

There are still days when we wish for something simpler. Yet we always manage to remember all that this place has given to us–and to the many others who have passed through. These old adobe buildings have led us to become much more than what we would have been without them. They’re a constant reminder about the importance of acceptance and how the opposite of what one had hoped for can be a source of transformation.