24 February 2012

Vacation Season, Part III: The Power of Dirt (and Sun)

Last month, while we were skiing in Angel Fire, New Mexico, we hopped over the mountain to have dinner with my cousin Margie, who lives in a really lovely adobe home in Taos.  I would have loved to share pictures of her home, but it was dark when we were there, so I didn't take any.  Margie was nice enough to show us around, though, and tell us about adobe construction.  It seemed clear that this mixture of sand, clay, and straw was ideally suited to New Mexico's hot, dry climate -- that's why Santa Fe is almost totally made of adobe structures like these:




Apparently there's an ordinance that all construction in the city (or some central area that seems to be pretty broad) has to be adobe.  It makes for a really unique town, quaint in its own special way.

But back to Taos.  Margie told us about a special feature of her house that also makes it well-suited to northern New Mexico winters, too.  It has a wall like this on the south side:

(picture from LX&R Design)

It's called a "Trombe wall," named after Felix Trombe, who developed the concept for use in modern homes.  It ain't pretty, but covering a thick stone/brick wall with glass (with a small air space in between) allows heat to build up in the wall and radiate into the structure over a period of several hours to keep the house warm throughout the evening (Margie's house has small wood-burning stoves, but no central heat).  Because heat radiating into your house through the walls is exactly what you don't want during the summer, Trombe walls are generally built with an overhang that shields the summer sun (which travels higher in the sky) but allows the lower winter sun to work its magic on the glass; appropriately placed deciduous bushes/trees can also be effective in blocking the summer sun but allowing the sun through the branches to the wall during the winter.

Adobe obviously predates the concept of green building, and Trombe walls date back to the 19th century (before Monsieur Trombe worked out the kinks in the 1960s), but the concept of using, essentially, dirt to defend against cold weather has been around for thousands of years.  On the way to Angel Fire, we saw an example of that at Pecos National Historic Park, the site of Pecos Pueblo and Spanish Mission ruins.


Those are the ruins of the 18th century Spanish mission church.


I don't know if this method of construction was technically adobe, but it was definitely made from what they had on hand -- red clay dirt, formed into bricks, stacked, and then covered over with a layer of...more red clay dirt.


I'm not going to claim the former residents were exactly toasty during the cold winter months, but you know they were industrious and used the most insulating wall design possible.


Yeah, those walls were THICK.


This is an underground area (don't remember what it's called) where the people would go for various rituals.


This?  Not historic at all.  It's the back porch area of the Visitor Center.  I just thought it looked cool.

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