Written by CHERYL FALLSTEAD
Photography by DONICIO MADRID
Before realtor Nina Michael had a barn built for her horses, she did her homework. She had taken a class in passive solar and was interested in a structure that would use those techniques. After research, she decided to forgo the classic metal horse barn and go with an age-old, environmentally-friendly technique: rammed earth.
She has many reasons for making this decision, first and foremost the comfort
of her horses. Nina says, “Metal is usually the product of choice in the horse industry, but it’s hot, it rattles, and horses won’t stand under it when it’s windy or raining because of the noise.”
She considered adobe, but was told it can’t be constructed during the rainy season since the forms are poured on the ground. She turned to rammed earth, which can be done any time of the year.
Another factor in her decision-making was alternate uses for the building because, as a realtor, she is always thinking about future value. “Having a rammed earth structure offers a future casita where a metal building, what would you do with that other than being a shed or a barn?” she notes. “That was a big part of my decision. The comfort of the horses was number one, then versatility.”
Horses have long been important to her. Nina says, “I have a ranching background so I’ve been connected to this agricultural lifestyle my whole life and I’ve been roping competitively since I was 19. I grew up in Grants where my dad was a rancher and a businessman. My grandparents came from Lebanon and settled in Grants in the early 1900s.”
This feeling of connection to the earth and horses made looking at rammed earth construction a natural fit for Nina. While this technique of building has not been commonly implemented in the US, rammed earth construction has been used around the world for centuries, with the earliest known structures built in China about 5000 BCE. Modern technology makes building with rammed earth much less labor intensive than in centuries past. Rather than manpower compressing the earth into forms, pneumatic power is now used.
“There is no more green-built, energy- efficient, environmentally-friendly, sustainable building material than rammed earth. It is built to last.”
The basic building process is to build form works on a concrete slab into which earth, in the case of Nina’s barn a mixture of crusher fine with three percent cement, is poured. The earth is pneumatically tamped until it is compressed about 75 percent and another layer of earth is poured on it, then again tamped until the desired wall height is reached. The finished walls are at least 18 inches thick.
The color of the structure is determined by the natural color of the crusher fine or by added pigment. When complete, the wall can be covered with a sealer which helps preserve the structure and prevents shedding of the earth if left exposed or a plaster slurry wash can be applied to emphasize the granular nature of the construction. Structures can also be finished with a veneer of plaster, stucco, or drywall like any other building.
Nina’s finished barn is 30 by 50 feet, with a 12-foot overhang over four stalls for the horses, which opens to the east, affording plenty of protection from both afternoon sun and west winds. The barn’s design also helps with hay storage. Nina says, “The opening in the wall for the barn door is 10 feet so a tractor can get in to deliver the hay. The roof is 17 feet tall at the peak, so I can stack a lot of hay in there. That’s a nice feature in a barn.”
The stalls for her horses are oversized and she is adding more special touches for their safety and comfort, saying, “I’m going to have automatic water with a warmer for the horses. Horses that drink cold water can colic.” She has plumbing in place to allow the future installation of a bathroom with toilet and sink plus a wash bay for the horses, making the space even more user-friendly.
Nina acted as her own contractor for the project, selecting talented craftspeople for each step of the project. She says, “I have nothing but top-notch quality craftsmen working on my barn. I’ve been unbelievable lucky.”
Judd Singer, a conventional builder since 1997, recently started building with rammed earth. Nina’s project was one of his first using that technology. He notes that some of the earliest rammed earth structures were built in the Santa Fe and Taos areas, with the thick walls of the earthen construction staying cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.
Judd says, “There is no more green-built, energy-efficient, environmentally-friendly, sustainable building material than rammed earth. It is built to last. You’re not going to hear the sounds of the outside world on the inside and vice versa. There’s a feeling that just cannot be replicated with conventionally-built homes that you get with rammed earth, that solid feeling you get when you walk in.”
Raul Muro and Jesus Castenada were the rammed earth craftsmen who worked with Judd on that portion of the project. Hacienda Plumbing and Ron Engardi Electric were also part of the construction team. Juan Morales poured her concrete pad and Tony Sandoval was the welder who constructed the pipe stalls, roof trusses, and installed the metal roofing. The roofing material was a gift from a friend, Steve Warren, and she says, “The metal roof is a structural metal used in commercial buildings. It’s durable and not like corrugated metal. It’s a substantial structural product that I knew wouldn’t have much movement. You can actually walk on that.”
Nina estimates that she spent about seven percent more for her barn than she would have for a metal barn with insulation. Judd explains, “We use higher-end products on certain things that you can’t skimp on. There’s more steel and there’s more concrete foundation. In rammed earth homes, for example, we use wood-framed, aluminum-clad windows, not vinyl, so they stand up to the sun and heat better. We use a heavier-gauge material. Otherwise, there’s not much difference in the price.”
Nina is happy with her barn and its potential future uses. She says, “It’s a really neat space to do all kinds of creative things, like an art studio, which wouldn’t work with a metal barn. I have no regrets. It was worth the extra expense.”