Adobe and other earthen buildings were common in San Antonio in the 1700s and might be making a comeback thanks to a unanimous vote on June 21 by the City Council.
The council approved the latest international building and fire codes, which helps determine how architects, engineers, builders, and code enforcers can work together to safely design, permit and build all buildings, including earthen structures. City Councilman and architect Roberto Trevino said the codes were not so clear in the past, causing most involved in the building process to avoid using those construction techniques at all.
Trevino backed amendments to the codes proposed by the local non-profit organization Earthen Construction Initiative.
ECI President Stephen Colley says using earthen materials is good for the environment.
“You can’t get any more of a greener material because it’s locally sourced and once it’s finished being used, it can just go back into the ground,” he said. “It can last in terms of centuries, rather just decades. Extremely durable, resilient and it can withstand a lot of natural disasters.”
ECI primarily promotes compressed earth block and rammed earth construction techniques.
Compressed earth block is machine made, while rammed earth is tapped into place using wood and other forms.
Colley said traditional building techniques remain cheaper per square foot than earthen construction in the short term, but savings do add up with time.
“In earthen construction, because of the maintenance and the savings in heating and air conditioning and in indoor quality — those sort of issues — we believe that in the long term that earthen construction is at least as comparable if not less expensive,” he said.
ECI Vice President Lauran Drown said there are a few modern earthen structures in San Antonio, including the Clay Cooperative at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center and an apartment building in the 3000 block of Eisenhauer Road.
She said one of San Antonio’s best known residents, country singer George Strait, chose earthen construction for a home here.
“It was designed by Bill Tull, who was a famous designer, sculptor and artist from Arizona, and George Strait brought him out to Texas to build an 8,000 square foot adobe mansion on a 12-acre site in the Dominion and had a blend of Moorish and Puebla influences,” she said. “It was built in the 1990s.”
Colley said he hopes more earthen construction is in the city’s future after the related code clarifications, and it would not be crazy to think San Antonio could have an all adobe home subdivision within five years.
ECI plays host to meetings the first Tuesday of every month at the Southwest School of Art, which has a building on its campus made of rammed earth. For more information their website is earthenci.org
Brian Kirkpatrick can be reached at tpr.org