Drafting Software and Adobe – looking for options

wheelbarrowThis spring Southwest Solaradobe School has initiated an effort to discover what DRAFTING software is available for financially challenged students and would-be owner-builders who can’t afford the big bucks leased software. SWSA maintains that people ought to be able to draft their own plans inexpensively, either by hand or machine and have them run off on the local repro shop plotter. Most folks are willing to take on a learning curve towards drawing skills IF the program is affordable.

At SWSA, we know that folks are looking for ways to cut their building costs. If they can do their own plans, they can knock 5-10K off the tab- or more for larger homes. What the students tell us is that they often cannot afford an architect or a draftsperson to draft their plans. Since they themselves do not know how, they are stumped – and some jobs never begin or are delayed. And often, the architect or draftsperson knows nothing about Adobe, just frame or concrete. Most see drafting services as a big hurdle to clear in getting their home constructed. They know that without plans, they can’t get permitted. Southwest Solaradobe is committed to busting this deadlock.

Know of drafting software that’s cheap and doesn’t require a big cash outlay to use? We’re not including academic discounts, pirated software or older, unsupported software versions in this quest. It also has to be able to be scaleable and accepted by repro shops, which will usually ask for a PDF. So far, we’ve found AutoCAD and Sketchup as overly expensive for that owner-builder who is willing to take on the learning curve.

Yep, it’s all in prep for a drafting class that SWSA is planning to hold over three days in Spring 2015. The title: Low-cost drafting and design for earthen structures to obtain a permit. It won’t be posted until December, but we’re happy to put you on the Most likely to stay interested list.

Our first class this spring is full, but the May 24/25 weekend for Adobe and Rammed Earth is still open. If you’d like to get your hands into the mud mix and test your readiness, check us out at www.adobebuilder.com. Spot the brown buttons on the left side of your screen. Pick the 4th one down and go to Class Descriptions. Discounts for couples.

Building with Adobe and Costs per Square Foot, Continued

In my last post, I misqwindowandvigasuoted one of our contractors regarding cost to build a very basic adobe (depending on location). Rather than $160 per sq. ft., the corrected figure is $120 per sq. ft. An additional quote to build a more custom adobe near Ruidoso, NM came in at around $135 per sq. ft. from another licensed contractor, but could end up being more due to a few extra features the client is likely to add. So if you’re planning to build and trying to keep sq. footage costs down to a basic level, what are some things to avoid?

An easy one is to keep floor levels the same height throughout the house. Every step up or down means more foundation work, leveling and rechecking. Another is to reduce the number of corners and turns in the home. Every time you turn a corner, masons must slow down, check their leads and reset their lines. Another easy one is to ask yourself is if adjacent living spaces need to be separated by a door. If not, an arch will do, look good and raise the attractiveness of the home. Plus, passive solar heating and cooling are aided by open floor plans.

Still another is to run the tops of most window and door roughbucks up to the underside of the bond beam that by code must be installed on every earthen home. Using standard window heights, the builder can save the cost of lintels by using the bond beam as the lintel above most doors and other openings.

One saver that most don’t realize is that an exposed, fully stabilized adobe or pressed block wall is cheaper to build than an unstabilized or semi-stabilized wall of the same materials that is covered with plaster or stucco. Plastering is not cheap. Plan your smooth plasters to go where they are traditional, such as around kitchens and bathrooms or areas that will be cleaned or tiled. Darker adobe walls can be painted with slurry of light colored dry wall compounds or mud slips to lighten up a room (don’t use vinyl-based paints). Keep in mind that electrical in exposed adobe walls must be run within the coursing- no gouging or channeling is advised, as aesthetics are important with exposed work.

My next post will continue on the theme of Expanding the Starter Home.  Stay tuned.

Building With Adobe and Per Square Foot Costs

openwindowA recent meeting of The Earthbuilders’ Guild revealed a topic of some controversy. I broached the following query to four licensed members, all in New Mexico. Two are adobe homebuilders, one builds both adobe and compressed earth block homes and one builds with rammed earth. The question: their cost per square foot to build a turn-key home; not a fancy, super custom one, just an ordinary house without a lot of bells and whistles. This is a sensitive discussion area for most contractors and some will not discuss “ball park figures”, afraid that they will be categorized into a price range they feel is inaccurate. “Every project is so different”, they are apt to say.

One of the adobe contractors felt that he could indeed break the $100 per square foot ceiling and come in somewhere in the 90’s. He is a man of many years experience, and will tell you how quickly his good crew can lay up adobe walls. He has apprenticed under some of the Albuquerque North Valley builders of renown, such as Nat Kaplan.

One rammed earth contractor also builds with frame. He too is an experienced tradesman of many years, coming up “through the ranks” before finding his favorite medium in rammed earth. He felt that somewhere around $135 per sq. foot would be his minimum figure to build a basic home for you, that is, without the frills.

The contractor who builds with both compressed earth block and adobe has a solid background in frame and has branched out to adobe and CEB in recent years. He builds over a larger, statewide territory and must coordinate a lot of supply and labor in his jobs. He felt that to make a dime, he would be looking in the $160 per sq. ft. range, as a minimum.

The fourth member has found a kind of niche for her rammed earth projects. She does not quote or stress per square foot costs, but looks at the total figure the client has available to build “what they think they want” in the home. She then customizes the project within that figure both in terms of square footage and any special features. Her team has designed some very low cost rammed earth homes (one for Habitat for Humanity) as well as the fanciest possible, all in the Las Cruces, NM area.

My next few blogs will list the factors that drive per sq. foot costs up or down for these unique homes- whether you live in Santa Barbara, Scottsdale or Santa Fe. Use them as tools to help in your design process.

See you here!

Planning an Expansion From an Adobe “Starter Core”

My blog takes you along for a ride on the Adobe building trail here in New Mexico- a place where climate, traditions and practical solar applications keep Earthen construction at the top of Green Building, Southwestern style. If you’re a fan of ADOBE BUILDER On-Line, or curious about what we’re up to with our design, drafting and classes at www.adobebuilder.com , welcome aboard!

Right now, we just finished a presentation for our April 20/21 class in Albuquerque where emphasis is on how to plan the expansion of an Adobe (or compressed earth block) “Starter Core”. The assumption is made that the Starter is about 1000 sq. ft. and will expand by 600 sq. ft. in from two to five years.


One begins with decisions about what kinds of spaces the “Starter Core” should contain. Typically, those would be spaces for sleeping, bathing, kitchen, living and utility/ storage. Popular space choices for the future expansion would include a second Bedroom, second Bath and perhaps a Laundry or special use room. Sometimes, the transition between the Starter Core and the expansion can be a Solarium or Covered Patio. This is handy when two separate buildings need to be joined with a minimum of alterations to their walls.

When plans are drafted for the Starter Core, the Expansion Plan foundation should also be shown. That’s because one good way to keep costs down on the future expansion is to pour the expansion foundations at the same time as the Starter Core. Concrete is not going to get cheaper.

You will also have to show a few detail drawings on where junction boxes for the expansion electrical circuits and pipe for plumbing needs will be stubbed out. Remember that the main breaker panel that you install on the Starter Core will have to be big enough to handle the extra circuits that will be activated when the expansion is added. The Building/Inspection Dept. will want to see what you are intending to build down the road and how you will protect portions of the work that will tie into the future expansion. A scaled Elevation drawing that shows how the expansion will look when tied to the Starter Core will help at permitting time. Aesthetics have to be planned so that the site will look attractive during the years between the when Starter Core is built and the expansion is added. This means doing a few unusual things, such as bending steel rebar back against a building (and hiding it) or stair stepping an Adobe wall off the Starter Core, which will become part of the expansion structure later on.

Next Post- Planning the Expansion Doorway