by Keith Whelpley Ventanas del Valle Volume 1, Number 1 2000
Pat and Mario Bellestri have always sought an alternative.In fact, when they met in the early 1980s, she was the general manager of a natural foods co-op and he was a food buyer for a natural food warehouse in Tucson.They married in 1983.And true to form, when it came to their home, they sought an alternative to traditional frame and lumber construction.Though Mario had always worked with home remodeling, it wasn’t until they attended a seminar on rammed earth construction that they found what they were looking for.Now their 14 sided, rammed earth home appears like a sculpture pressed against the blue sky of Soledad Canyon in east Las Cruces.
Building homes for others wasn’t in the Bellestris’ life plans until their house went up and brought out interested buyers.Soledad Canyon Earth Builders was born.For the past 15 years the two have built more than 30 custom rammed earth homes throughout the Las Cruces area.Mario takes pride in knowing that all but a few of the homes are occupied by their original owner.But that may be more the function of the Bellestris’ attention to detail and creating a long-standing relationship with clients.
“Our whole thing has been custom design,”Mario says.”Taking a customer from design to finish.”The process includes a nine page questionnaire that helps in coming up with the perfect design for the customer.By the time the home is finished, they not only have their home but also a lot of information on rammed earth homes.
“I think the thing that surprises most people is just how “free form” it can be.You can do any form with it,” Mario says.
Because of that, often times a Bellestri home looks as much like a piece of artwork as it does a house.One side of the home may have a curved wall, while another sports a squared-off finish.The profile is multi-tiered to allow for varying ceiling heights.Inside the homes are characteristically Southwestern, with large wooden vigas, posts and corbels.Details include indirect lighting, nichos and bancos.
Construction of the homes involves using plywood forms which are hollow in the center.Workers dump earth and 5-6% cement mixture into the center of the form up to the designated level.Using a pneumatic tamper, the earth mixture is compacted and the next layer is started.The forms are removed within a day of compaction.Because of the flexibility of the forms, walls can have rounded or square corners.
While Mario oversees the five man construction crew, Pat is busy making sure all interior details are taken care of.Although many people build rammed earth homes for energy efficiency, they often overlook the importance of appropriate windows.The wrong window coverings can cause a house to lose a lot of energy, Pat says.
Advising clients about window coverings in earthen homes led to Desert Shades, Pat’s companion business which specializes in custom window coverings designed for energy efficiency.But it likely wasn’t energy efficiency that led to the development of the centuries old building process of rammed earth construction.
More than two hundred years before Christ, people developed a different way of building structures.It would eliminate the need for large mud pits for making blocks, and for mud blocks themselves.Perhaps most importantly, it would eliminate the need for dry seasons, during which to cure the blocks.
Instead, builders would simply tamp or pound mud or adobe into forms they desired and the earth would cure, for instance, while in the walls.
The Romans used this method as well.Perhaps they saw the need to construct buildings quickly as their empire spread across Europe.The French Celts used it and evidence shows most every European culture has used rammed earth construction at some point in the past.
German immigrants helped establish rammed earth buildings in the American colonies in the late 1700’s along the eastern seaboard.The French and English introduced it in the South.Thomas Jefferson, who built his home, Monticello, with rammed earth, was a staunch proponent of the technique and talked it up whenever given an opportunity.
Though obscure during some points in US history, rammed earth has been with us all along.At one time the United States government even considered rammed earth housing for rural use and built model homes in Mt. Olivet, Alabama.Although it has remained at the edge of mainstream building, the technique has taken on a level of credibility with the increased interest in conserving natural resources.
The cost of building a rammed earth home is comparable to building a custom frame home, Mario points out, but the advantages include its awesome energy efficiency.
Another advantage to rammed earth is the capability for thicker walls and traditional rounded edges.Also, because rammed earth can have a pleasing earthen look, owners may choose not to cover certain walls with stucco, leaving an exposed rammed earth wall.
Today, Mario and Pat have their offices at 949 S. Melendres Street.While she works on the details for each home, Mario is busy managing his crew.In his office he talks about different alternatives.He seems to take pride in looking at all options for a project, including using rammed earth for only exterior walls.He brings up a home he currently is working on that will have rammed earth, wood framing and cement wall systems.
It’s clear that the Bellestris remain true to concepts associated with the industry that brought them together — natural products.
They have successfully carried over the sustainable economics into their building in the form of relationships with their customers, many of whom remain their friends.
“There are some builders who won’t even listen to their clients.But you have to listen and know what they want.”