From the production of pit-fired pottery to handwoven baskets, there’s an expansive range of ancestral knowledge present in local creative pursuits. Much remains largely unchanged from the artistry that was employed thousands of years ago. That said, artisanal techniques also extend into the creation and application of regional construction materials.
Dating back nearly 3,000 years, adobe is one of the first methods of building used by ancient civilisations. It’s estimated that roughly 30% of global structures are made with earth. The largest concentrations are found in the developing world. While adobe is still common in Mexico – particularly in rural areas – the early 20th century saw a spike in the popularity of cement. With this, the number of brickmakers and traditional builders gradually dwindled. Given these shortages, the cost of building with adobe has risen, and experts within this realm are highly specialised.
Hulda García López learned the process of handmade brickmaking as a child. Before having her own family, she worked in retail and as a cleaner. In time, she decided to return to her roots, as it allowed her the opportunity to work from home and care for her babies.
Typically, she’s up at 5am to get her kids off to school, then works until around 3pm. She and her family produce an average of 1,500 bricks a week. The main focus is on red brick, which they mix and form on-site with wooden moulds. They also produce adobe bricks from clay, horse dung and water by special order. Fibrous materials like dung and recycled agave act as binding agents that prevent uneven drying and shrinkage and also minimise cracking. Their red bricks are sent to another community to be fired, as conservation laws in her pueblo of San Andrés Huayapam don’t allow for the use of kilns to prevent air contamination.
Clad in long sleeves, leggings and a hat to shield her from the scorching sun, she shovels a small mountain of processed clay into sawdust for her red bricks. García López talks about her love for this work and her desire to share these traditions with her children. “I encourage them to learn everything they can because knowledge is the basis of life,” she says.
Production season is confined to the spring when there is minimal to no rain. Adobe bricks require approximately three weeks to cure in the sun; red bricks only need a couple of days before they’re kiln-fired. To prepare for the rainy season, her family stores a surplus of pieces for future sales.
Adobe bricks are organically harvested and non-toxic. They don’t create harmful waste, unlike the cement industry, which is the third largest source of industrial air pollution. They’re also fire resistant, energy efficient and naturally sustainable. In choosing adobe, one is supporting trades that offer a range of economic, cultural and environmental benefits. Still, there are considerations regarding this material. Adobe doesn’t do well in cold, wet environments, and regular material check-ups need to be done.
“Every type of construction requires maintenance,” notes master builder Florencio Nieva Fierro. It’s a sunny morning, and we’re looking over his active construction site – a fortified blend of adobe and red brick, rebar and cement. With over fifty years of building experience throughout Mexico, Nieva Fierro stresses the need for effective design and construction techniques – skills he’s largely learned on-site throughout his extensive career.
When building with adobe, the mud plaster must comprise the same elements as the brick. Once it’s laid, any holes are filled with this same mud to deter insects and birds from burrowing in and to keep humidity from getting trapped. Base foundations are generally made from stone or red brick so that groundwater doesn’t seep up into the walls.
Once this particular build is complete, Nieva Fierro and his team will treat the structure with a natural coating of water, lime, clay, and boiled nopal, which helps repel moisture and seal the adobe while still allowing it to breathe. His team advises that this treatment should be reapplied every five years in order to maintain the integrity of the materials. With proper reinforcement, plus regular maintenance of the foundation, roof and walls, an expertly built adobe structure can last for centuries – even in seismic zones like Oaxaca.
This region is blessed with a diverse offering of natural materials, along with master creatives like García López and Nieva Fierro, who impart their cultural knowledge in practical ways that are crucial to the preservation of these traditions. Their cumulative experiences and pragmatic outlooks are evident in the adobe structures they help bring to life. The walls of these buildings serve as housing but also as testaments to the pride, diligence and dedication of the Oaxacan people.