Construction 4 : Things

                                                                    December 1, 2014

Things we didn’t used to need to know

Got a minute? Here are three quizzes.

Quiz  # 1:     Consider the following 6 items:


    a.       cow poop                            b.      horse poop                                      c.       sheep poop

    d.      donkey poop                        e.       mule poop                                        f.       camel dung

Now, assuming you are thinking of building a house in Santa Cruz Etla, rank these six items in terms of potential usefulness. Hint: the least useful category may be a three-way tie.


Quiz # 2:     Consider the following 6 items and, if you are not too pooped to continue thinking of building a house in Santa Cruz Etla, rank them in terms of potential usefulness:

            a. Pine tree resin

            b. fermented prickly pear cactus paddles

            c. egg whites

            d. mashed guava skins

            e. sheep excrement

            f. elmer’s glue (you may substitute library paste)

Quiz # 3:      What classic sitcom is inextricably linked to quizzes 1 and 2?


The winners will be announced in due course.


Way back when we started this project, Linda and I agreed that we wanted to have at least part of our casa built from adobe, and that we wanted the adobe to be made from our dirt on this property. In long talks with Cynthia, the architect, and Lalo, the chief contractor, we learned a number of things that we never imagined that we would ever need to know.


            That adobe is a wonderful aislante, or insulating material, that will keep a house warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer than just about any other building material.

            That adobe is not impervious to wind and rain and, if exposed to the elements, over time will fray and crumble.

            That when adobe dries it tends to shrink a little bit, so when you are calculating heights and volumes ...

            That you can pound a nail into a wall of concrete, or brick, or cinder block, or adobe, but it will probably hold least well in adobe.

            That of those four materials in this day and age, adobe is the most expensive, largely because of the cost of the labor to make it.

            That formulas for adobe vary, that every master adobe maker thinks he has the perfect one, and that every formula at some time doesn’t work.

            That “dust thou art and to dust returnest” was originally written about adobe houses.


OK, then, so we won’t build the whole house out of adobe, maybe just a decorative symbolic part. And maybe a wise choice would be an internal wall, say in the sala (living room) or a recámara (bedroom), someplace far from the elements. After more conferring with Lalo and Cynthia, we decide on just one wall in the living room. Well, and maybe a fireplace.

Lalo contracts with two local adoberos, Socorro and Pedro, veterans of many campaigns of making adobe. Socorro, tall, scruffy, cigarette smoking, rides to work on a horse and brings with him a donkey (his) and two more horses (his nephew’s), which he day-pastures in a field across the street. He also brings two dogs that mostly sleep on our Casita porch and drink water from our garden pails. Pedro, at fifty a few years older than Socorro, is shorter, mild-mannered, and has a very engaging smile. Neither has been to the States. Of all the Mexicans I talk with regularly, here on the work site and around the village, Socorro has an aggressive sense of humor that comes closest to the US “put on.” When I ask him something, a technical question about

adobe making or anything having to do with local custom, his answer is likely to be exaggerated, or slightly off base, or completely outrageous, as if he were testing the limits of my credulousness. The two men work as a team, and are always together, but Socorro does all the talking, even when I direct a question to Pedro.  

The house-site is at the top of the property, and the adobe factory is at the bottom, closest to the paved road. As I write we are about six weeks into the adobe making process. The first step was for Socorro and Pedro to clear off a patio, which means leveling a large piece of ground, removing all the large stones, the small stones, the gravel, the pea-sized impedimenta, and in fact anything that might mar the surface of the adobe. It takes, as Socorro patiently explains to Linda, three or four days, and involves—in order of usage—a pick, a shovel, a rake, a hand trowel, and a broom.


 The next step is to assemble the basic ingredients. We have dirt everywhere, but Socorro and Pedro think the large pile that the retro has mounded up alongside the entrance road is best. The men set up a large screen and begin sifting. The dirt is filled with bits of crumbly caliche, pebbles, and a number of other things that will not do for the adobe. The pile of sifted dirt grows, and the throwaways are mounded to one side.

While Socorro shovels and sifts, Pedro chops nopal paddles into fist-sized bits. Nopal, that folks up north call prickly pear, is Mexico’s all-purpose cactus staple. Planted in tight rows it makes a dandy fence. The juicy red fruits can be eaten raw, pressed for drinking, frozen and shaved to make raspas (ices that are a favorite snack in the Zócalo), or made into ice cream or popsicles. It thrives in the wet season and the dry. The eggs that parasitic bugs lay on the paddles produce wo

rms that manufacture an acid that will stain fabric a fade-resistant scarlet red. It’s called cochineal. The paddles, scraped of their thorns, cut into strips, and lightly fried or boiled, are a delicious, nutrient-rich vegetable; and are good in salads, too. If paddles are coarsely chopped and soaked for several days in vats of water, they decompose and get all slimy and stinky; this liquid, called baba de nopal, when it has been strained out and mixed into the adobe mud, is a wonderful binder. (Aha! The answer to quiz #2.)





The fiber in foliage is another essential adobe ingredient, and, this being the tropics, there is no shortage of foliage. But, Socorro explains, only a certain kind of grass stem will do. Piles of the stuff appear in some fashion—I never see them delivered—and against a board the two men patiently chop them into the appropriate lengths with their machetes. They spread the stemlet
s on a plastic tarp, and stir them intermittently for a couple of days to insure that they dry evenly.

The fourth key ingredient of adobe is organically processed foliage. It seems to be the essential catalyst that makes the other ingredients adhere to each other. While any number of quadrupeds process foliage, the Equus asinus is by far the best, and fortunately Socorro has a number of the stubborn little beasts at his house, so that his pack horses can bring us sacks and sacks of sun-dried donkey poop (and the answer to quiz #1). The two adoberos take turns shoveling donkey poop onto the sifting screen and massaging it through the mesh to make pile of finely particularized adobe binder.


 When all the ingredients have been assembled and prepped, it is time to mix the dough. The sifted dirt is wet down with water and fermented nopal juice until it takes the consistency of glutinous mud. Pedro sprinkles pailsful of the donkey poop onto the mud and mixes it in with a shovel. Then he does the same with the chopped grass. Then comes the serious mixing.

Since Lucy and Ethel are not available (Quiz #3), it is Pedro who mixes the adobe dough in the classic style, stomping barefoot round and round the mud pile, his toes searching out every reticent pocket of unmixed dirt/baba/grass/poop until the mud is of the homogenous appropriate consistency to be molded into bricks. This takes longer than I would have stamina for, but it looks like fun.




Socorro is the master molder. The mold is a rectangular hardwood frame, open at both the top and bottom. It is late morning, and he and Pedro have been working since dawn, laying out the fresh adobes in precise geometric rows. Socorro places the frame in the next position on the row, and one of them shovels a precise amount of mud into the frame. Socorro, with his bare hands, squishes it into the corners. His fingers are the equivalent of Pedro’s talented toes. The new adobe can have no inconsistencies of texture that might invite a fracture, no treacherous air pockets that might harbor a weakness that causes the adobe to bubble and break. Any extra mud is carefully troweled away and returned the ur-mound. Any shortfall is rectified spoonful by spoonful. When Socorro is confident that the adobe sits perfect and serene in the frame, he carefully lifts the frame and hands it to Pedro to be washed, leaving the newly formed wet brick to dry in its place in the row. Pedro hands back the washed frame, Socorro places it in the next position down the row, and they begin again.


As they dry, a few adobes from the first batch develop cracks. For this initial batch Lalo and Cynthia had insisted that Socorro add a little sand to the mudpile, as one does when mixing concrete, believing that it would give the bricks extra strength. Socorro did as instructed—el jefe es el jefe—but he was unhappy about it. He thought it impugned his expertise. Moreover, for no reason that Lalo ever articulated to Socorro, he didn’t like the color of the bricks. So Socorro and Pedro stack those first adobes to one side—(“You can always use them for something,” he says to me. “Maybe a wall for the garden ...”)—and start a new batch, using sifted dirt from further up the hill that was lighter in color. All agreed: this time no sand. And a week later, examining the dried pudding of this batch of bricks, all agreed that it proved perfect.


We run into another problem: dogs. As I learn from talking with Socorro, if there is one thing that Mexican dogs like better than bacon or freshly killed chickens, it is wet adobe. They like to piss on it. Make tracks in it. Crumble the edges and the corners with their paws. Out of curiosity, perhaps, or sheer cussedness. Our large property is fenced all the way around, but somehow the dogs are getting in. Our immediate neighbors, among them, have at least a dozen dogs, and we don’t have to go much further afield to tally a couple of dozen more. I walk the peripheral fence, find a hole dug under the malla behind the latrine, and stop it with a hunk of board buttressed with a cinderblock. Socorro stops up the gaps on the side of the entrance gate. I plug the entrances and exits to the irrigation ditch with a leftover piece of closet shelving (and try to remember to remove the plugs when water is flowing). But the dogs still get in. Socorro covers the freshest adobe each night with a tarp. I find and plug another hole up by the storage shed. They still get in. Like it or not, we resolve to tolerate a bit of loss.


Over the weeks the brick lines grow. After several days of drying, Pedro and Socorro turn the adobes over. When they are sufficiently dry on both sides, they turn them on end. When they are completely dry, they stack them in the traditional way that minimizes pressure on them and lets them dry further. When the first patio is filled, Socorro and Pedro prepare another one on the other side of the entrance road. Soon it, too, is nearly full. They tell me they are nearly done, another day or two at most.

            And then, in a few days, those well-dried, dog-piss-impervious adobes will be lugged 30 meters north to their permanent home in the west wall of the living room of our Casa. And maybe the fireplace.