Rammed earth construction is unusual, even in New Mexico, but it is definitely not a gimmick.
Do you listen to opera in the kitchen? Own a life-size R.C. Gorman? Prefer German shepherds? Mario Bellestri and Pat Bellestri-Martinez will need to know these things if they build you a custom home. Actually, they don’t care whether or not it’s opera, they just want to know if you need the kitchen wired for stereo, a wall reinforced, or a security system built in.
The fill-in-the-blank question and answer page from Pat’s well-organized workbook begins the process Mario calls “creating a relationship” with clients. Because Mario and Pat’s company, Soledad Canyon Earth Builders, builds exclusively custom rammed earth houses, they put great emphasis on exchanging information with their clients. The builders and their clients maintain duplicate workbooks that include lists of what decisions need to be made and when, a budget worksheet, a description of rammed earth construction and even a glossary of architectural terms. “We have the book completed before we ever start construction,” says Mario, adding that it is Pat who “keeps us on track.”
Mario is a bear of a man, bearded and stocky, the kind of guy capable of dealing with dirt and concrete and compressors. Yet he once was a purchasing agent a food co-op warehouse in Tucson. There he met Pat Martinez, a New Mexican who was in Tucson on business. They married in 1983 and he followed her to Las Cruces because “Pat wouldn’t move to Tucson,” he says with a grin.
Two years later, armed with what they learned at an earthen construction seminar, they built their own rammed earth home in Soledad Canyon at the base of the Organ Mountains. Their 14-sided house looks out over the Mesilla Valley and a hundred miles beyond. Although it was not their intent to go into the house building business, their premiere effort soon had would-be clients knocking at their door. In the 13 years since, they have built 30 custom homes, all but one still occupied by their original owners.
While only a handful of rammed earth builders operate in New Mexico, the construction technique is centuries-old. In the Lyons region of France, where it is known as “pise la terre” (from the Latin “to crush the earth”), rammed earth chateau’s and earthen villages still stand hundreds of years later. Modern day rammed earth construction involves using plywood forms to create hollow walls which are then filled with an earthen mixture containing earth and 3 percent cement and moisture. The mixture is then pounded, or “rammed,” using a compressor-powered tamper, to form a tightly compacted wall. Although the forms may be removed immediately, the walls will continue to cure and harden. Pat’s explanation to clients likens rammed earth to “one big compressed adobe block..”
Mario, who is president of the Las Cruces Home Builders Association, says the “earth” part of rammed earth accounts for only 8 percent of total construction costs, with labor and equipment costs bringing it in line with comparable frame homes. He credits much of their success to the fine workmanship of his construction crew. “We strive for perfection, particularly when it comes to finish work,” he says. Imperfection brings out Pat’s blue masking tape. “Everyone on the crew knows when they see something tagged with her blue tape, it needs fixing,” he says.
The couple who first met in a health food warehouse now incorporate many “healthy house” features into the homes they build. Mario explains that a healthy house is one that is smooth-surfaced, well-ventilated and is cooled by refrigerated air, all of which discourage dust and mold. Also, construction materials such as paints and plastics that contain petrochemicals are replaced with environmentally safe alternatives.
A smooth featured house doesn’t have to mean stark. That’s where Pat’s design expertise comes in, the part of home building Mario says is the “fun stuff.” Pat, who holds a master’s degree in consumer economics from New Mexico State University, makes good use of what she learned both in her design and business classes. But the best advice comes from living in her own rammed earth home. She says they named their company Soledad, which means solitude, “because solitude goes with the feeling of rammed earth. Living in a rammed earth home is a physical as well as a spiritual experience.”
Pat brings a sensibility to her work that some would call efficiency. But it is something more. Mary Tarazoff calls it compassion. Mary and her husband, Art, built their retirement home in Las Cruces last year, months before Art retired from his job in Chicago. While Art commuted back and forth, Mary watched over construction of the house. “They were wonderful,” she says of the Bellestris, “professional and patient.”
The Tarazoff’s 2,400 square foot house near the Picacho Hills golf course is a perfect match for the couple. It has all the attributes of a “healthy house” and a simple but homey atmosphere. The house has the soft sculptured lines of traditional adobe and so many Southwestern touches the Tarazoffs surely had to refer to Pat’s glossary. The living room alone is defined by peeled pine vigas, latillas, nichos, saltillo tile and a kiva fireplace.
Most of the rooms wrap around a deep-set central patio accented by a large built-in fireplace. Saltillo tile helps tie the indoor and outdoor living areas together. “I like to live in every room of my house,” says Mary, whose kitchen with its light maple cabinets and maple hardwood floors is a natural gathering place for family and friends. Every room is also her favorite. “I even like my husband’s garage” she says.
Linda Harris is the author of “Houses in Time.” The book is a history of New Mexico as told by how people built their homes beginning with Acoma Pueblo and closing with a Habitat for Humanity in Las Cruces, the house-to-house tour takes in 88 houses in 40 New Mexico Communities. One of Soledad Canyon Earth Builders solar homes is included.
This article was originally published in “Su Casa” The New Mexico Homes Magazine, Summer 1997 issue 5931 Office Blvd. N.E. Albuquerque, NM 87109