How to Build a Sustainable Adobe House – Make It Greener

A photograph of a modern, stylish adobe house with large glass windows and a balcony. Pot plants line the front, and a green "sustainable" badge is overlain in the bottom left corner. Across the top of the image are the words "How to Build a Sustainable Adobe House - Make It Greener."

Sustainable construction is all the rage for a good reason — conventional building techniques are responsible for up to 30 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions that eventually cause global warming and climate change.

Adopting sustainable and eco-friendly building techniques like adobe is a good way to save our environment by mitigating the effects of the construction industry. So, do you know how to build a sustainable adobe house and make it even greener?

Sustainable construction encompasses building with renewable and recyclable materials while ensuring minimal waste generation and energy consumption.

You can enhance adobe’s sustainability by designing the house to maximize passive solar and incorporate water-saving techniques. Moreover, renewable energy sources like solar and wind, as well as LED lighting, can further increase the sustainability of your house.

In this article, I’ll discuss how to build a sustainable adobe house and make it greener. From the sustainable nature of adobe to its environmental benefits and design features, you’ll know how to make your abode greener. Let’s dive right in!

Adobe as a Sustainable Building Material

A photograph of stacks of adobe bricks with a drawing of a green pair of hands holding a leaf.
Adobe is a highly sustainable building material thanks to its low embodied energy, durability, and recyclability.

Before we dive into its environmental benefits and sustainable design aspects, let’s clear the air. You might be wondering, “Is adobe a sustainable building material?” The best way to answer this question is by first examining the definition of a sustainable building material.

A sustainable material is one with minimal environmental impact throughout its lifecycle.

According to Science Direct, the lifecycle of a building material incorporates its extraction, manufacturing, transportation, installation, use, maintenance, and disposal.

Adobe meets the above requirements for sustainable materials in the following ways:

  • Energy efficiency: Due to their high thermal mass, adobe bricks absorb and store heat energy for heating when the weather gets colder at night.
  • Renewable resource: Adobe is made from earth, a plentiful material that doesn’t deplete non-renewable resources.
  • Low embodied energy: The manufacturing process of adobe requires minimal energy compared to traditional building materials.
  • Recyclable: Adobe can be reused, repurposed, or recycled at the end of its lifecycle.
  • Highly durable: Adobe houses last longer if built correctly and protected from the elements. For instance, The Citadel of Bam in Iran has existed for over 2,500 years.
  • It’s low-cost: Sustainability also encompasses the economic factor. Since the raw materials for making adobe bricks (clay, sand, straw, and water) are available almost everywhere, producing adobe costs significantly less than other materials. The DIY approach will only require your time and effort.

Now that you know what makes adobe a sustainable building material, let’s look at how to build a sustainable adobe house incorporating green building materials, energy, and water efficiency designs and techniques.

How to Make an Adobe House More Energy-Efficient

Energy efficiency is one of the essential aspects of sustainable building.

The construction industry is among the leading energy consumers globally due to the use of unsustainable materials. For instance, a 2021 report by the International Energy Agency revealed that operating buildings consumes 30 percent of global energy.

Luckily, you can design your adobe house to be more energy-efficient in the following ways:

Incorporating Passive Solar Design

A photograph of an adobe building with the sun playing across its wall, revealing shadows. In the top right is a cartoon image of the sun.
The sun’s energy can be harnessed using intelligent design to keep the house warm.

This is one of the best designs to make your adobe house more energy efficient.

Passive solar design uses the sun’s solar energy to heat the living space. You can only achieve that by designing your adobe house to maximize its sun exposure throughout the year. Here’s how to do that:

Appropriate Site Selection

The construction site plays a crucial role in passive solar design.

You must select a site that allows a section of your adobe house’s south side (in the northern hemisphere) to have unobstructed sun exposure.

A south-facing design maximizes sun exposure throughout the year. This is essential as you can rely on solar energy to heat and cool your house. Consequently, this lowers the demand for auxiliary heating systems, reducing energy consumption and bills.

Appropriate window orientation

Windows acts as apertures that collect solar energy. Therefore, their orientation dictates how much heat energy they’ll absorb from the sun.

That said, you should position your windows to face within 30 degrees of true south. This is because, when the sun rises from the east and sets in the west, south-facing windows receive most sun from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

In the southern hemisphere the equivalent orientation would be north as this is where the most sunlight will be incident.

Moreover, ensure there are no obstacles like trees and buildings blocking your windows from the sun. Otherwise, they’ll reduce heat gain and radiant energy that would have heated your house.

Lastly, place your windows at a height that allows you to capture direct sunlight as much as possible. A good rule of thumb is to install the windows at least 60 inches (152 cm) from the floor.

A photograph of an adobe  house with six windows in a two-story wall. The windows have white wooden frames and red brick window ledges.
Windows allow the sun’s light and warmth into the building, which can reduce heating costs on cold days.

Make Use of Adobe’s High Thermal Mass

Thermal mass is a material’s ability to absorb, store, and release heat due to temperature variations. In this case, the material absorbs heat when the surrounding temperature rises and releases it when it drops.

If appropriately designed, adobe bricks have a high thermal mass that translates to high specific heat capacity and more energy saving.

According to Science Direct, designing adobe bricks for a 300 mm (12 inches) wall thickness results in a wall with a high thermal mass and specific heat capacity of 1,260 J/kgK.

A combination of high thermal mass and specific heat capacity increases the rate at which the walls absorb and store the sun’s heat during the day.

When temperatures drop at night, the thick adobe walls gradually release the stored heat, keeping your house warm.

Consequently, this reduces your home’s energy consumption since you don’t need to rely heavily on the HVAC system for heating.

The best part; due to its high thermal inertia, adobe has an excellent coefficient of heat diffusivity. Therefore, it releases heat more slowly and evenly, keeping the house warmer for longer.

Employ Solar Heat Control Mechanisms

In summer, you can shade vertical south windows using roof overhangs and other techniques to reduce heat gain.

During winter, it’s best to open your curtains during the day to allow sunlight in and close them at night to trap the heat inside.

You can also install solar window films on south-facing windows as they reflect direct sun rays off your house, further reducing summer heat gains.

To incorporate smart living, install devices like differential thermostats to monitor and control the temperature in your house. This way, you can ensure your living space maintains comfortable temperatures without increased energy consumption.

A blue wooden shutter is placed over a window in an adobe wall to shield the house from the sun.
The use of shutters in the height of the hot summer can help to reduce solar gain and improve the comfort of the house by keeping the temperature down.

Incorporate Passive Solar Heat Distribution

Distribution entails transferring the solar heat from where it’s collected and stored to the different parts of the house.

Heat is distributed through radiation, convection, and conduction in a strictly passive design. Here are some tips to help you leverage these passive heat distribution mechanisms:

  • Radiation: Install ceramic tiles to help dissipate heat from the adobe walls.
  • Convection: Ensure the house has an efficient air circulation system to facilitate the movement of heated air. You can install fans, blowers, and ducts to help distribute the heat.
  • Conduction: Create monolithic adobe walls with tightly-packed mud mortar to facilitate heat movement.

Passive Solar Design for Summer Comfort

You must build your sustainable adobe house with all seasons in mind.

While we have discussed how to maximize passive solar for heating, you also need to know how to design the house for summer comfort.

Unlike in winter, you need to minimize heat absorption in the summer as much as possible to prevent using much energy for cooling.

More often than not, most people design their homes with shutters, overhangs, and trellises. These devices block summer solar heat gain to ensure a cool indoors.

Alternatively, you can employ landscaping techniques that aid in cooling a home. Some of these techniques include:

  • Have sufficient shade on the west and south sides to minimize the hottest afternoon sun. You can get this shade by planting trees or erecting a vine-covered pergola.
  • Landscape the home’s east side with patios and evening meeting spots. The East side is usually in the shade in the evening.
  • Direct breezes to the home by planting trees along the direction of prevailing winds. You can also erect a stone wall on the opposite side to create a wind tunnel for cooling the house.

For passive solar cooling in summer, consider consulting an architect familiar with passive solar designs for the best results. Such an architect knows how to orient the house to leverage passive solar heating and cooling based on your climate zone.

Employ Smart Glazing Technology for Windows

A man applying a tinted coating to a window from a roll he holds against the window. Outside, the sun shines brightly.
Using coatings or specialized glass can help reduce the amount of solar gain while still allowing plenty of daylight into the building.

Windows are essential to the building design since they allow natural light to penetrate the living space.

Smart glazing helps capture solar heat in cold seasons and reduces its entry during hot seasons to lower reliance on heating and cooling.

Smart-glazed windows are designed to increase thermal and optical performance. Manufacturers achieve these requirements using different types of tints, fittings, multi-paned glasses, and low-emissivity coatings.

If you opt for smart glazing, consider window glazing materials with relatively high visible transmittance and a moderate-to-low shading coefficient. These features come in handy for maximizing daylighting, especially in large buildings.

Smart glazing technology helps reduce a building’s energy needs by approximately 20 percent.

Installing Smart Lighting Systems

In addition to using LED bulbs, smart lighting systems help conserve energy by automatically turning off lights in rooms with no activity.

Some smart lighting systems include smart bulbs, smart light switches, dimmers, and smart plugs.

These systems help enhance energy efficiency by up to 40 percent in different ways, including:

  • Motion sensing: Smart sensors sense when people are in the room to keep the lights on. The system turns off the lights when no motion is detected within the set period.
  • Daylight sensing: Daylight sensors help detect the amount of natural light entering the house. The system reduces artificial lighting where there is sufficient natural light in the room to save energy.
  • Timing and scheduling: You can schedule your smart lighting system to turn lights on and off at specific times. Therefore, the lights will not be on overnight or when no one is using them.

How to Incorporate Green Building Materials Into an Adobe House

Green building materials comprise renewable resources with little to no adverse environmental impacts.

Besides making a house more sustainable, green building materials are essential for the following reasons:

  • They aid in conserving energy.
  • They ensure improved occupant health and productivity.
  • They reduce maintenance costs over the building’s lifetime.

You can make your adobe house more sustainable by incorporating green building materials in the following ways:

Insulation

One of the downsides of adobe is that it’s not an insulator. Therefore, you risk losing a lot of heat, especially in the cold season, through uninsulated adobe walls.

While there are many insulations like fiberglass and spray foam, your concern is to make the home as sustainable and green as possible. Therefore, green insulation materials come in handy.

The best approach is to insulate your adobe walls by adding green insulators like straw bales, cork, cellulose, and sheep’s wool.

When insulating the exterior of adobe walls, remember to render the insulation with clay, lime, or any other permeable plaster to protect against the elements. You want to ensure the adobe bricks can breathe to prevent moisture accumulation that can affect their structural integrity and weaken the house.

Roofing

Roofing provides another excellent opportunity to incorporate green building materials into your adobe house.

Here are the best green roofing options for an adobe home:

Bamboo roofing
A woven bamboo roof with thick bamboo culms serving as roof joists.
Bamboo roofs can be a good eco-friendly solution for making an adobe house greener.

Bamboo roofs are an eco-friendly approach that contributes immensely towards green building.

These roofs are cooler in the sun and quieter in the rain.

The most common bamboo roofing options include;

  • Thatch
  • Split bamboo
  • Terracotta
  • Flattened bamboo
  • Copper bamboo roofing

It’s worth mentioning that although bamboo has a natural silica layer that aids in waterproofing, you need to design the roof in a way that enhances its resistance to water. Some techniques for this include:

  • Pitch the roofs at an angle of more than 20 degrees if you’re in the tropics or any other zone with heavy rainfall.
  • Layer the bamboo trusses with rubber tree oil to make them water-repellent.
  • Add at least one-foot-wide overhangs to keep rainwater off the walls.
Shingles

Shingle roofs made from recycled materials like plastic, rubber, and wood fiber make an excellent addition to an adobe house.

Despite being green, recycled shingle roofs are affordable and ideal for those who can’t afford slate roofs. They’re also durable and can last over 50 years.

Green Roof

You can plant a green roof on your adobe home to cleanse the air and moderate the heat effect.

Green roofs help conserve energy by providing more insulation. Moreover, their natural beauty comes in handy to supplement the appearance of an adobe house.

Flooring

Installing sustainable flooring options like bamboo, recycled plastic, and reclaimed wood can significantly reduce your home’s environmental impact.

If you’re lucky enough to be close to the manufacturer or supplier, you can source these flooring materials locally and sustainably to eliminate the need for transportation and carbon emissions. This plays a vital role in achieving a sustainable home.

How to Use Water-Saving Techniques in an Adobe House

Although about 71% of the earth’s surface is covered by water, only 3% is freshwater safe for human use.

Unfortunately, most of the 3% is locked in glaciers and ice. Due to this water scarcity, it’s essential to save water in our residences.

Some ways to use water-saving techniques in your adobe home include:

  • Reusing greywater: You can reduce your demand for freshwater by reusing greywater from sinks, washing machines, dishwashers, showers, and baths. Greywater can be treated and reused for irrigation, laundry, and toilet flushing.
  • Conserve water in dishwashing: According to the Water Research Foundation, dishwashers are responsible for about one percent of an individual’s daily water consumption. This translates to 10 to 15 water gallons (37.85 to 56.78 liters) per cycle. Therefore, you can save water and get value for your money by only running full-load dishwashing cycles. This way, you’ll run fewer cycles, saving more water.
  • Soften hard water: Hard water makes it hard to wash off soap from fabrics. Moreover, it causes stubborn salt stains on dishes, meaning you’ll use more water for cleaning. The best solution is to soften the water by boiling it, using an ion exchange filter or a water conditioner like sodium bicarbonate in washing machines.
  • Fix plumbing leaks: Household leakages can account for almost 10,000 gallons (38,000 liters) of water wastage annually. Therefore, you should inspect your plumbing regularly and ensure there are no leaks. If you find any, fix them immediately.
  • Leverage drip irrigation: Unlike sprinkler irrigation, drip irrigation uses low pressure and delivers the water directly to the roots of plants. Therefore, it eliminates unnecessary water wastage to parts like leaves.
  • Install water-saving appliances: Prioritize low-flow fixtures such as showerheads, faucets, and ultra-low flush toilets. A good rule of thumb to recognize a water-saving device is to check for a WaterSense label. The presence of this label means the appliance uses 20 percent less water.

The Environmental Benefits of Adobe Construction

A photograph of rows of adobe bricks laid out on the ground to dry. A green circular economy "recycling arrows" icon is overlain.
Adobe bricks do not produce waste at the end of their life because they can be recycled easily for use in gardening or landscaping.

The following are the environmental benefits of adobe construction:

  • Reduced waste: Construction and demolition activities account for about 30% of the world’s annual solid waste. Adobe construction helps mitigate this problem because it generates minimal waste. Moreover, any waste from adobe is easily recycled for other uses like gardening and landscaping.
  • Energy efficiency: Due to its high thermal mass, adobe helps reduce the need for auxiliary heating and cooling in areas with large diurnal fluctuations in temperature. Consequently, this lowers the demand for energy, much of which is generated from non-renewable resources like coal. Furthermore, producing adobe requires little energy compared to concrete and steel.
  • Low embodied carbon: While concrete has an embodied carbon of 0.159 CO2/kg, adobe has an embodied carbon between 0.0017 and 0.0129 CO2/kg. Thus, adobe is more eco-friendly as it helps reduce carbon emissions.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are Adobe House Environmentally Friendly?

Abobe houses are environmentally friendly because they help reduce waste generation, are long-lasting, and have a high thermal mass and energy efficiency. Moreover, since adobe has low embodied carbon, it aids in reducing global warming.

Is Adobe a Sustainable Building Material?

Adobe is a sustainable building material due to its ease of availability, high thermal mass, energy efficiency, and low embodied energy. These features make it ideal for eco-conscious builders.

Final Thoughts On How to Build a Sustainable Adobe House

Building a sustainable adobe house doesn’t have to be complicated. Your focus should be on ensuring the home is energy and water efficient and uses green materials with minimal environmental impact.

Since house design plays a vital role, especially in passive heating, it’s advisable to consult an experienced architect for the best results.

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One Comment

  1. These articles provide an excellent entre into assessing, planning, siting and initial designing of a sustainable structure, though water harvesting and storage, and wildfire mitigation in desert climates may require the use of less sustainable materials. I am excited and motivated to move forward with plans for sustainable housing, gardening, husbandry and outbuilding designs for housing that further reduces my carbon footprint. Thank you for your thoughtful analyses and insights.

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