Adobe Homes: Their History and Current Application

Rich in its history, adobe has evolved from an ancient building material into a staple of desert and Arizona architecture. Because adobe is a dried mud/clay brick, it is a low-impact and sustainable building material that is durable, biodegradable, and provides excellent thermal insulation, thus making adobe homes ideal for hotter climates.

It is a popular choice for southwest-style homes, mountain homes, and our partner architect Lee Hutchinson’s signature style: Organic Pueblo. 

Beyond that, adobe provides excellent energy efficiency. In the summer, its unique properties allow it to heat up slowly, meaning it holds the night’s chill longer. It also acts as a natural insulator and easily maintains whatever heat or chill is inside the home. 

Adobe homes are also naturally fire-resistant, offer low sound transmission levels through the adobe walls, and provide a feeling of solidity and security.

Unlike many building materials, adobe bricks have not changed much over the years either. While they have become more sophisticated in their design and placement, the core of the material has stayed largely the same. Let’s take a look at the history of abode homes. 

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History of Adobe Homes

Adobe is one of the earliest building materials known to mankind. Thought to be Spanish in origin, adobe actually comes from the Middle Egyptian word “dbt,” which means “mud brick.” As Middle Egyptian eventually evolved into Coptic several centuries later, the word became “tobe.” This was taken into the Arabian “al-tub” or “tuba”, which was later adapted into Old Spanish “adobe.”

Building-wise, it is an ancient technique common in the Americas and the Middle East. The oldest known adobe structural ruins date back to 8300 BC! Back then, the bricks were a mixture of clay, soil, sand, water, and sometimes straw. The mixture was poured into a mold or was hydraulically pressed to form a brick, and was then air-dried or dried under the sun. This technique is still used to this day (though highly modernized for most homes)!

Famous Adobe Structures 

Adobe construction was used in Spain and other Mediterranean areas, and by Native Americans. In the United States, many examples of historic adobe architecture can be found in Southern California and the southwestern states. Santa Fe, New Mexico, for example, has many adobe structures, including the Palace of the Governors, which dates to the early 17th century. 

“Adobe” is a signature of Santa Fe New Mexico’s architecture and is beautifully preserved in many historic buildings such as the De Vargas Street House (aka Oldest House in the USA).   Built-in 1200 CE, the original adobe home sits on the partial foundation of an ancient Indian Pueblo.

However, possibly the most well-known adobe building in the world is The Great Mosque at Djenné in central Mali, near the edge of the Sahara Desert. It is relatively new compared to other adobe structures — it was built in 1907 on top of the ruins of earlier mosques — and covers 62,500 square feet. Some of its walls are 2 feet thick, and many of its arches stand at 45 feet tall. 

The largest structure ever made from adobe is the Arg-é Bam built by the Achaemenid Empire in Kerman Province, Iran. It dates back to at least 500 BC.

Current Applications of Adobe

Adobe is still widely used today. It is one of the most sustainable building materials on the market and is popular in both style and efficiency. 

Italy and Spain are 3D printing adobe structures and those in the space industry are looking into the possibility of using it as a building material on Mars because the clay on the planet’s surface is widely available. 

A little closer to home in the Phoenix Valley, it’s nearly impossible to go through a neighborhood and not see an adobe home. That’s because Phoenix residential architects understand how the desert heat works — it’s lazy when it comes to adobe. Heat doesn’t like to go through clay homes, but once it does get inside, it doesn’t want to escape, thus creating an efficient heating system in the winter, while keeping the house as cool as possible in the summer. 

When properly constructed, adobe homes take full advantage of the sun in either active or passive solar systems and are extremely energy efficient in Arizona. 

They also blend into the natural beauty of the desert landscape so homeowners can enjoy the view to its fullest. 

If you’re looking into building a new home or want to explore your options with adobe, contact Urban Design Associates. Their professional architects will be happy to assist you with your new home construction or renovation needs.