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Adobe vs Faux-dobe

By Robyn Adams for Mariposa Realty of Taos

Congratulations. You’ve made the decision to buy a house in Taos.

Now you can immerse yourself in the culture, art and architecture of the area and buy that adobe home you have always wanted. The question is, do you want a traditional adobe or a faux-dobe and yes, there is a difference.

If you already live in Taos or have spent any time here, you have no doubt been in a number of traditional adobe homes and know what that means but if you’re new to the area, you may only have an idea of what one looks like and you certainly might not know what maintaining a traditional adobe means. This can be a little, if not a lot intimidating but it need not be.

Traditional adobe houses, some dating back to the 1700’s, are built with 18” thick adobes, plastered with several layers of mud to hide and protect them and potentially, though not always, an exterior stucco in earth tone colors. The earth tone colors date back to the necessity to have your home blend in with the earth to make it less obvious to potential attacks from marauding tribes or bandits.

The interiors of traditional adobes have a mud plastered wall that is either a finely finished mud plaster, painted mud plaster or mud plaster with a hard stucco finish. It is rare to find a traditional adobe with an interior tierra blanca (white dirt) finish. This extremely fine finish is created by using very white dirt, which can still be found in Taos and in which fine mica grains are added, to give the walls a slight shimmer.

Traditional adobes will have one or more fireplaces that are called Kiva (Key vah) fireplaces. The Kiva is the second best heating source fireplace in the world next to the Rumford.

Additionally, these homes often have large pine beams in the ceilings called Vigas (vee gah) and in between the vigas, smaller round Aspen tree trunks called latillas (lah tea yahs). Latillas have been stripped of their bark, leaving a pale yellow, smooth finish. Some older adobes may have no visible beams and resemble a more traditional tile or drywall type ceiling.

The floors are usually pine wood planks or tile and in even older homes, they may be dirt floors.

The doorways in the older homes are often short, as the peoples that occupied this area for centuries were themselves not tall and oddly, even though they were getting taller, the shorter doors remained a tradition through the 1960s.

The functional use of older adobes (1960’s and older) was not typically ideal. You often have to go through a bedroom to get to another room. Newer adobes and faux-dobes usually do not have the functional utility issue.

The roofs are either, flat and covered in brai or pitched with corrugated metal or ProPanel. The flat roof homes have parapets with notches and a device to allow the water to drain called canales (canal-lays).

You might ask, is there a practical use for an adobe over a faux-dobe? The answer would be a resounding yes. Adobe plays an amazing role in regulating the home’s overall temperature and the need, or lack thereof, for air conditioning. In the winter, it absorbs the heat and helps to keep the house warm. Just feel the exterior walls around a Kiva fireplace the next morning after it was used and you will still feel the warmth radiating off of the adobes. In the summer, adobe offers a fabulous retreat from the heat outside. It naturally cools the house. Additionally, it is typically less expensive to repair adobe since it only requires dirt, water and straw.

The iconic adobe structures at the Taos Pueblo have truly stood the test of time. They have been continuously occupied for over a thousand years, so don’t be afraid if you are interested in an old traditional adobe. They are hearty structures and easier to care for, repair or modify than you might think.

The faux-dobe is a frame built home that looks like an adobe They are also called Pueblo or Adobe style homes. Because it is frame-built, the faux-dobe has a drywall interior and a stucco exterior but shares in other similarities with traditional adobe homes.

It might have viga and latilla ceilings or a combination of beams and drywall. They usually have kiva fireplaces or a combination of kivas and wood-burning stoves. The roofs are either flat with canales or pitched. The floors have any number of coverings from pine, to Saltillo tile to laminate.

Faux-dobes will have larger and taller door openings and a more functional use of the space.

An interesting note on local folklore: Locals believe that if you paint a window or doorway blue it will keep spirits away.

At this point, you might be asking what type of repairs does a traditional adobe require and can I do them or do I need to hire someone. Of course, anything structural, electrical or plumbing-wise should be addressed by a licensed general contractor but most everything else you can do yourself and it can be great fun. In fact, involve the kids or grandkids in the process. It’s like glorified mud pie making!

For simple jobs like fixing a nail hole, if it’s not too big, take a clean rag or dish sponge with a liberal amount of water and rub the surrounding wall dirt into the hole in a circular motion until the hole is gone. Once the wall dries, you won’t know the hole was there. It should be noted however, that just like a painted wall, if you use a slightly different color it might show the variation in color.

This can happen to an adobe wall because over time the wall has taken on the characteristics of time, such as sun damage and other elements such as smoke from the kitchen or fireplace. The solution to this is the same as a painted wall. Repaint the entire wall section or in this case, use the wet sponge and work all the dirt in the wall in a circular motion. When it dries, the entire wall will look the same. After it has dried, rub it lightly with a dry cloth or sponge to smooth out the circular patterns that might have been created in the repair.

For larger holes, not much bigger than a dime; just mix some water and dirt together the fix the hole. Don’t worry that it is not the same color of dirt because once it has dried; you will work the other wall dirt over the repair to get a consistent look. If you have the good fortune to find a home with tierra blanca walls, the repair would be performed in much the same manner.

If there is a hole too large to repair with a sponge or there is damage to a wall or fireplace hearth for example, then a mud and straw repair will be required. Always start with sifted dirt. For smaller jobs you could use a fine strainer to sift the dirt. For larger jobs you could use a piece of window screen. Add just enough water to the dirt until you get the consistency of a thick, sticky mud. Always use less water than you think and in small increments.

Once you get a thick mud, add a little more water and straw that has been cut into small pieces (1/4” – 1⁄2”). A good ratio of dirt, water and straw would be: three parts dirt, one part water, (maybe less) and one part straw. Add more water if needed and mix until your mud is thick, like chunky peanut butter.

Before you apply the mud, chip off any loose plaster or broken adobe in the damaged area and wet it down liberally with water in a spray bottle. Apply the plaster mixture with a trowel (preferred) or your hand. Keep your hand or the trowel slightly wet to make the repair easier. Push the plaster into the hole and then smooth it out to look as close to the wall as possible. Let it begin to dry.

Depending upon the size of the repair it could dry in as little as 2 hours or in as much as 24-32 hours. During the drying time, you may notice cracks appearing in the repair. Periodically go over the repair with a damp sponge to keep this from happening. Once it is completely dried, go over it again with a slightly wet sponge to give it a finished look.

As you can see these are just two simple repairs that you can do and are actually far more cost effective than drywall repairs.

Owning an adobe is a unique experience shared by only a small portion of the US population. It is by all accounts green in technology, easy to repair, a great conversation topic and generally just very cool.

© Robyn Adams 2019 - Robyn grew up in Taos in a grand traditional adobe with tierra blanca walls, viga and latilla ceilings and eight kiva fireplaces.

No part of this article may be reproduced in whole or in part in any manner without the permission of the copyright owner. We are happy to let you reprint it, as long as we know where it will be reprinted and that no financial gain was made from it. For permission, please email us at dee@mariposarealty.com.