Archived News


In Memoriam: Santos Chavez

Photo credit Sandro Canovas.The world -- and friends of Adobe Alliance -- has lost the great adobero, mud brick master, builder Santos Chavez, artisan of earth mixtures, whether clay, sand or simple soil. His was a life of constant toil and pure passion for his advanced craft. In January 2013, at age 75, Santos did not survive the winter in Ojinaga, Chih., Mexico, in his unheated cement block house.

May 2012. Simone, together with colleagues Quentin Wilson of El Rito Adobe School, and Ronald Rael, author of the seminal volume Earth Architecture, presented their work in earth architecture at the annual congress of the Architecture Institute of America in Washington, D.C. May 17th. Masters in architecture Lauran Unzueta at McGill University initiated and organized this contribution to the event.

October 2012. Closing (almost!) of the west vault. While perched on scaffolding Paul Dennehy, Fort Worth architect, slapped course after course of small roof bricks to build the vault he had begun with others. Judy Boe also gave her all. C. M. Mayo, our writer participant from Mexico City, managed to climb the scaffolding then contributed grandly her good article on Adobe Alliance at Swan House
(see C.M.Mayo, A Visit To Swan House, Cenizo Journal winter 2013).


March 2011: March 6th through 13th, 2011. Participants were introduced to the craft of building a Nubian vault using small bricks measuring 10"x7"x1.5". Hands-on teaching and theory were offered in English and Spanish by Instructor Stevan de la Rosa of Baja California. Simone Swan taught design, history and gladly discusses, in English and French, experiences in earth architecture based on her apprenticeship in Egypt with architect Hassan Fathy (1900-1989).

Photo Credit: C. Theimer Gardella

I had the joy to meet a remarkable architect, Mauricio Rocha Iturbide of Mexico DF. When we discovered our shared and profound passion for Louis I. Kahn, we promptly fell in love. Mauricio's rammed earth and adobe work is in Mexico, but he has worked in other materials in Europe. Mauricio is a few months younger than his good friend Rick Joy of Arizona, my favorite of all US architects, who has just turned 50; to my further joy I have just discovered Mauricio is the son of the revered photographer Graciela Iturbide!

In Chihuahua I was received, welcomed, sheltered, transported and spoiled by my good friends, both architects, Ana and Roberto Carvajal. For 48 hours basked in an atmosphere of optimism, charm and human warmth -- the very opposite of Santa Fe. Were Chihuahuaenses not living in an atmosphere of fear due to the unpredictable violence of the narco traffickers, I'd move!

There one appreciates the desert, the sunlight and dry air, the hills denuded of trees which blunt one's gaze. The eye rests on the freedom of vast distances.

April 2011: Trip to visit the marvels of Yemeni cities made of mud, beginning with Sanaa. While there the conference we were to attend, given by Salma Samar Damluji of the Daw'an Mudbrick Architecture Foundation, was cancelled.

September 2011. Simone was invited by Habitat for Humanity Southeast Asia in Bangkok to present her work on adobe design and the building by hand of vaulted and domed woodless roofs . The invitation was prompted by Fernando Morales, Mexican architect at H for H, who is actively promoting earth architecture in the desert regions of southeast Asia -- Australia, India -- and beyond, in central Asia.

"This large gathering, in contrast to most conferences, was spirited, optimistic, enthusiastic," Simone reports, "An energy among professionals from Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines, Malaysia indicates to me a future of sensible and sensitive solutions in the field of housing built of non-industrial materials." As a result the Adobe Alliance will work this spring 2012 near Darjeeling with the Abari Group (see link on this website) to build in West Bengal an elementary school for local children and for refugees from Nepal. Materials are mud, either in bricks or rammed, and bamboo for structural elements and protection from rains. Nripal Adhikary, alumnus from a 2005 workshop with Adobe Alliance, is the architect in charge.

October 2011. Adobe Alliance presented at the Earth USA conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, together with colleagues from around the world. The subject was social organizing of cooperative low-cost adobe housing with the theme that the roof is no longer a problem.

Download: Adobe Alliance Earth USA 2011 Presentation (PDF)


October 2010: Today we are thrilled to tell you that we are singled out in the exhibition catalogue of SMALL SCALE BIG CHANGE published by the Museum of Modern Art of NY. WE ARE IN IT HERE on page 14, after an introduction of the work of our mentor Hassan Fathy, begins a paragraph with "Activist Simone Swan..." Go see. Remarkable in our experience is that every word, every thought is exact. Mind you, the writer Andres Lepik is a scholar. Plus he is charming: We met him at his office last April 2010.

November 2010: We began Tuesday, November 16th to learn how to make a Nubian vault to roof an adobe house. The weather was perfect, the views were sublime, the silence was enhanced by the murmur of bees, the half moon echoes the form of the dome. As we built the Nubian vault with our small adobe bricks we gazed upon the 8,000 ft peaks, the Sierra Rica, across in Mexico with several lower ranges in the foreground, including a beautiful dormant volcano. To the west, toward the Chinati range, visibility was at least 40 miles.

Desert Acacia - Photo credit: Dave Pobst

Simone Swan was in New York City renewing friendships from April 25 to May 2nd, 2010. From May 3rd on she is finishing her book on adventures in designing and building with mud, no title yet (but quite a few tentative.)

PLASTER! March 12-19, 2010. With lime expert Pat Taylor of Cornerstones fame, restorer of adobe  cathedrals and missions, we explored plastering and waterproofing the house in Presidio with a mix of lime, clay, sand, straw, cactus juice.  We are proud of our earth plaster without lime since it has held eight years until damaged by tornado winds in September 2009; now, reinforced with lime, we count on even more wind and rain-resistant plaster.

NUBIAN VAULT! (same dates as above) Participants were introduced to the craft of building a Nubian vault using small bricks measuring 10x7x1.5". Stevan de la Rosa taught the engineering technique. He also directed crew and participants. Simone Swan taught theory in earth architecture design, and was also a student in the intricacies of lime plaster. Kurt Gardella (from April 8 to 15) worked on the Nubian vault begun at the October symposium.


October 16th, 2009 at 9 a.m. we began forming the first course for the Nubian vault under the skilled tutoring of alumnus Stevan de la Rosa of Baja California. We were Gina Papanikola, architect and experienced builder from Athens, Greece; Deborah Suppes, real estate developer from the Bay area, Eugenia Magann, architect living in Boston, Leanne Wagener from the University of Oregon at Eugene architecture school, Sandro Canovas, volunteer adobero for the last three years; Shannon Stoney, writing an article for Cite, the magazine of the Rice (U) Design Alliance -- also generous cook for over a week. Brian Bragason, from Toronto, was attending his third workshop at Adobe Alliance.  He brought us the books by Samar Damluji on The Architecture of Yemen. Living in her tent was intern Kaye Wolfe from Georgia who beyond working on scaffolding turned into an expert housekeeper and handler of indoor desert dust. All labored on the Nubian vault, then, with mud to the armpits, learned from Santos Chavez across the river in Ojinaga, Mexico, the fashioning of adobe bricks.  With Stevan all learned to mix clay, sand, straw and prickly pear juice -- also to mix and apply several types of exterior plaster. Hands on work continues on the vault during the March 2010 workshop and completed in April by volunteers Kurt Gardella and Sandro Canovas.

March 27th, 2009.  Adobe walls were built for an addition to the house at the west patio. A one-foot cement bond beam, like a ribbon around the structure, was poured at a height of 7 feet to later support the 6 foot high Nubian vault commence the following October. Participants mixed the mud mortar, lay bricks with mortar and keyed the bricks at the corners. We took precise measurements for the placement of fenestration: two French doors and one window onto the patio. Efren Rodriguez, maestro in adobe building and plastering from across the Rio Grande in Ojinaga, Mexico, lead us while Sandro Canovas, apprentice and fisherman, conducted the workshop in English and Spanish. Students free to collaborate, learn and labor for the entire two weeks earned priority and, by the end, were reluctant to leave.


The foundation for the projected addition was built on October 26th, 2008. It has to dry for 3-4 weeks. No walls will be built or vault either. This fall 2008 workshop was concentrated on replastering the entire house. Our last earth plaster of straw, prickly pear juice, clay and horse manure lasted eight years with relatively little damage until the inordinate rains of October 2008.

On September 23rd, 2008 at the Central Public Library of Santa Fe, New Mexico, Simone Swan gave a presentation on earth architecture entitled "From The Nile To The Rio Grande". She spoke about studying in Egypt with Hassan Fathy and her adobe work in the Chihuahuan desert when she created the Adobe Alliance in Presidio, Texas

For the March 14-17, 2008, workshop we built a small demonstration vault against an existing wall. It is the beginning that is tricky, how to place the first half-brick at the correct angle, and how to use an appropriate amount of mortar. Everyone participated in handling the adobes and placing them. By the end of Sunday afternoon the vault was completed, then removed.

Simone gave a power point presentation and actually built, with high school students, a small Nubian vault at the Sonoma Valley (CA) Museum of Art. To an enthusiastic and large audience on January 18th, she presented the work of Adobe Alliance and met adobe enthusiasts who are enrolling in future workshops. This event was organized at the invitation of board member Stanley Abercrombie in conjunction with his exquisite installation of Butabu, the superb exhibition of photos of mud architecture in Djenne, Mali, by James Morris of Wales.

Simone and Santa Fe architect Beverley Spears attended in Bamako, capital of Mali, the 5-day Getty conference on the conservation and new building of earth architecture. They toured the towns of Segou, Mopti and Djenne where the finest adobe structures in the south Sahara are to be found.


The Adobe Alliance workshop for November 1-4, 2007 was held at the Swan House & Lab in Presidio, Texas, but lasted until November 30th. Actual building instruction and experience took place across the Rio Grande in Ojinaga, Chihuahua, Mexico, population about 20,000. Participants were from Japan, Corsica, Iran, Mexico, England, Arizona and 2 from Texas. For past information please see the workshops page, download the workshop poster or the workshop notes information packet.

The Adobe Alliance has been retained to design a student union at the Buddhist center of Diamond Mountain in Bowie, east Arizona. Co-designer introduced to the project is Estevan Trujillo of e3designlab in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The client has opted for rammed earth walls to be roofed by adobe brick vaults which Alliance workers and interns will build by hand.

The book "Simone Swan: Adobe Building" is now available. Written by Dennis Dollens, 2005 graduate of an Adobe Alliance workshop, it was published in April 2006 by Lumen Books and is readily available from Amazon, together with a review. Here's a direct link to the book.
Johnnye Montgomery has posted an article and photos about the Adobe Alliance to the web. The Adobe Association of the Southwest held its AdobeUsa2007 conference in May 2007 in El Rito, New Mexico, near Santa Fe. It was attended by scholars and builders from Mexico and South America as well as experts from the US. The board, which includes Simone, is preparing for an enthusiastic 2008. For information consult


The November 2006 workshop counted five architects, one architecture student from Texas A&M university and her mother, two civil engineers from San Luis Potosi, Mexico, four alumni, and enthusiastic students in earth building from all over the map. Interns during preparations were Stevan de la Rosa from Mexico and Scott Rhodes from Austin, Texas; interns for two weeks of building after the workshop were architect Jesus Robles from Arizona and his friend Will McCormick from New Mexico.

A 14'x12' adobe brick vaulted roof was completed to shelter a large plastic water tank. An 8ft wide arched doorway permits eventual removal of the tank and on the opposite wall facing south is a 2ft wide entrance. The structure is so beautiful it deserves an appreciative human occupant but for the moment this is our best solution to hide the ugly tank.


November 4-6, 2005, workshop in Presidio on the art and technique of building a Nubian vaulted roof by hand, was, again, a huge success and attracted lively people of all ages (hardworking 10-year-old to my age) from places like Patagonia, AZ, Iran, Bulgaria, Oregon, students from UT Architecture, Corsica -- all a treat to be with. We have photos in the gallery section!

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November 11-15, 2005, Simone presented her work to colleagues from Africa and South America at the University of Santa Clara, Cuba, and at the Centro Universitario Echeverria near Havana. The conferences in Cuba were of immense interest and high quality. The first was on earth building and included Gernot Minke whom I grew to like and admire enormously. Speakers from Ecuador (on preventive seismic damage to foundations of rammed earth buildings), Cuba (community cooperative construction of schools,) Seychelles, Namibia and more were thorough, passionate and provided clear illustrations. The second was in Santa Clara on Eco-Materials. Presenters came from Kenya, Switzerland, Turkey, Argentina, Brasil, Cuba of course, and appeared to me far ahead in research, application and thoroughness from the little I have witnessed here in the US. Both conferences were super-efficiently organized by Paul Moreno of Quito. I have the emails of participants and shall be receiving more information.

November 20, 2005 the Proyecto de Alimentos y Semillas in Guatemala will query Simone on adobe building and the appropriate roofing in that climate.

September 23 to October 7, 2005, Jesusita Jimenez and Simone Swan were invited by architect Marcela Perez of San Luis Potosi to teach campesinos -- subsistence farmers -- the construction of adobe roofs by hand.

In May 2005 The Adobe Association of the Southwest awarded the Adobe Alliance with their annual prize, this one for design excellence in mud architecture. On May 20, 2005, Quentin Wilson, founder of the AASW in El Rito, NM, presented Simone with a small roof adobe on a carved wood mount at the group's third annual conference.

The annual conferences at the association are not to be missed. Speakers come from afar, and simpatico attendees offer a vast amount of information and experiences to share, all in the peaceful and charming environment of the campus of the Northern New Mexico College.

In March, 2005 Simone Swan gave a presentation entitled From The Nile To The Rio Grande, in Austin, Texas, at Women And Their Work Gallery, sponsored by The Texas Folklife Resources. Thirty chairs were installed but 150 people came. Next she spoke at Project Row Houses in Houston and on KPFT, the Pacifica station in Houston.

The February 18-21, 2005 workshop was a huge success and accounts can be read in The Desert Candle of March 15, '05, in my piece entitled The Merry Pranks of Scholarly Mud Freaks. Twenty-five interesting people -- permaculturalists, a biologist, environmental historian, engineer, tile-maker, five young architects -- convened and got very muddy.

In November 2004 A small dome was built in Santa Fe for Cristel Blomquist.

In 2002 and 2003 the Adobe Alliance invited adobe builders, daubers and sundry enthusiasts to learn how to mix clay and straw with water, plus highly glutinous prickly pear cactus juice and horse manure  (we now suspect the manure attracts termites) for malleability. This was followed by instruction from Jesusita Jimenez and Joaquin Valenzuela on plastering walls and roofs by hand or with trowel.

In the spring of 2001 Ms. Jimenez and Simone were invited by Athena and Bill Steen to demonstrate the building of mud roofs made by hand in the configuration of vaults and domes to village women in the Mexican state of Sonora at Xochitl near Obregon. The skill was adopted with real success, the women having an affinity with the material and form rather than with metal roofing.