Taos Mesa Day Dream #2

The first installment of this brief side exploration into small adobe homes was about twice as big as this 500 square foot design. The usable living space is actually 393 square feet when you take the wall thickness into account.

Floor Plan

The house has one main room with a kitchen and living space. On the west side of the house is a tiny bedroom. Closet space in the bedroom would be provided by tall armoires that flank the sides of the bed. Beside the kitchen is a bathroom with a normal toilet and tub. Off the front porch is a small utility room for a water heater. I imagine the solar system and batteries being located in the garage/studio/workshop.

The main entry patio faces south east and would get a lot of sun. This would help to melt the snow out there in the winter, but may be too hot for relaxing outside in the summer. Another patio on the north side of the house would be cooler in the summer.

The garage/studio/workshop has a large window on the north side of the building and a small window on the west. North light is better for most art studios because it helps make colors look true.

Lot Layout

I’m using the Taos Mesa area for this fictitious design exercise. There is inexpensive land to the west side of the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge where many people have built frugal homes in this high desert – including Earthships.

There are a few challenges to building in this area, for example most people haul their water in from a shared community well and collect as much rainwater as they can. It rains about 13-inches a year on average.

The other big challenge is waste water treatment. I’ve read that Taos County doesn’t typically approve conventional septic systems on lots smaller than a 3/4 acre. I don’t know if there are approved alternative systems (like self-contained composting systems) that the county allows on smaller quarter acre lots.

In any case, a house like this should ideally be plumbed with a greywater system to reuse the sink and shower drains and run the kitchen sink and toilet to the blackwater septic system. Earthships have a clever feature where the greywater is filtered and used to flush toilets – so adapting that to work in a house like this seems like a good idea too.

Raven’s eye view showing solar panels and 9000 gallons of rainwater storage.

I’m showing 9000 gallons of water storage, which is a bit more water than could be collected on the 800 square feet of roof. The solar system would be sized to accommodate the occupant’s needs. Next to the garage I show a propane tank for radiant floor heating and hot water. A wood stove could provide auxiliary heat.

Small Bedroom – 8.5′ x 10.5′
Living Room from Front Door
Kitchen from Living Room
Entry Patio
North Patio

Solar Exposure

I chose to inset the windows on the south side 3-feet to shade them in the summer and allow the sun to enter in the winter. The two images below show how this works.

Noon on the Summer Solstice
Noon on the Winter Solstice

Why Adobe?

While adobe is common in the Southwest, it could be used in many other places too. Here are some of the reasons people choose this building material.

Thermal Mass – The other main reason people build with adobes is the thermal mass they provide. They are like energy batteries, soaking in the sun during the day while the interior of the home stays temperate and releasing the warmth at night.

Readily Available Material – Adobe is dirt, ideally with 30% clay and 70% sand. You might already have this building material under your feet. To test it, scoop some up, put it in a glass jar, mix it with water throughly and wait for it to settle. The organics, clay and sand will separate forming layers with the sand on the bottom and clay above that. Once everything has settled and the water has cleared, measure the thicknesses of the layers to determine if your dirt has the right stuff.

Easy to Make & Use – Adobe blocks start as mud that’s placed into wood forms and allowed to dry in the sun. The clay and sand content is what holds the block together and makes it strong. Straw is often added to help hold things together better and asphalt emission is optionally added to make the blocks more weather resistant. Mud mortar is used to lay up the blocks. The blocks cut easily by scoring and splitting apart.

Cost – To make your own blocks is very labor intensive, but virtually free if your dirt passed the test. Buying adobe blocks (standard size is 10″x14″x4″) is still fairly inexpensive at about $1.84 a block (prices fluctuate regionally and seasonally). But cost is only one reason you’d want to build with dirt.

Quiet Interiors – The inside of an adobe home is incredibly quiet and peaceful. The earthen walls can soak up sounds and keep separate rooms silent and private.

Natural Material – With the exception of the asphalt emulsion – which is common in commercially made blocks – adobe blocks are all-natural and contain no chemicals. If you have chemical sensitivities this is a great material to build with especially if you get unstabilized blocks without asphalt in it.

Long Lasting – As you might imagine, water and adobe blocks don’t mix since they disintegrate when exposed to water for long durations; but there are many adobe buildings that are hundreds of years old. Taos Pueblo is made of adobe blocks and it’s the longest continuously inhabited community in North America – people have live there for about 1000 years. So if adobe is maintained and protected from the weather and flooding, it can last for many lifetimes.

Wrapping Up

I think this house would make a good small home for an individual or couple. It would also make a good small vacation rental or guest house. It’s lacking a place for laundry machines – although those could be located in the garage.

I’ll get back to tiny house on wheels soon, but would love any feedback you want to share.


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