3. Planning the House

Architect and Engineer

 

When we went to our local LA County Building and Safety office in Lancaster to apply for a building permit for an adobe house they said, no way! They directed us to the Research Unit in Alhambra where we made an appointment. In the meantime we had been to Adobe Building School in New Mexico and there we learned about two essential people we would need to build our house.

 

The first was Fred Webster, civil engineer and seismic expert. Fred had decades of experience working on historic California adobes and was one of the very few engineers who understood the structural nature of adobe blocks and walls. Other engineers that we approached wanted to build a house of post and beams with adobe infill, but no, adobe has its own inherent strength and can serve on its own as the principal structural component.

 

The second was Rob Mehl of RPM Architects, an expert in alternative building materials. We visited his office and the Sanford Winery in Santa Ynez that he designed, seven huge beautiful adobe buildings.

 

Fred flew down from his home in Menlo Park and the three of us, Fred, Bruce and I, went to our meeting in Alhambra. As we sat across the table from three County building officers, they said the problem was “there’s no code for adobe.” Fred, who had been retrofitting old adobes for the past thirty years, reached for their code book on their shelf and opened to the page where the necessary code appeared in the masonry section.  The County guys, chagrined, said well okay, we won’t say no, yet – go ahead and turn in your plans and we’ll have a look. Without the team of Rob Mehl, architect, and Fred Webster, engineer, this beautiful adobe home never would have happened.

 

Rob and Fred drew up their separate plans, we submitted them in person, and we got the building permit – the first adobe building in LA County in forty years! And I doubt there has been one since, but if you are excited about building with adobe, go for it –it can be done!

 

Sadly, we recently heard of the passing of Fred Webster, engineer extraordinaire. Speakers at his memorial service recounted his brilliance, his outside-the-box thinking, and his ability to solve complex engineering problems. He was paramount in the specialized world of adobe engineering.

Architect, Rob Mehl, left, and Bruce, visiting the Sanford Winery in Santa Ynez.

Architect, Rob Mehl, left, and Bruce, visiting the Sanford Winery in Santa Ynez.

The inimitable Fred Webster, engineer extraordinaire

The inimitable Fred Webster, engineer extraordinaire

Rob Mehl designed a passive solar house, and I made an 18” foam core model to scale to observe the sun’s effects throughout the seasons. This photo was taken during the summer. As you can see the width of the eaves blocks the sun from even touching the windows on the south side. In the winter, the low sun in the south streams into the house helping to warm the interior.

Rob Mehl designed a passive solar house, and I made an 18” foam core model to scale to observe the sun’s effects throughout the seasons. This photo was taken during the summer. As you can see the width of the eaves blocks the sun from even touching the windows on the south side. In the winter, the low sun in the south streams into the house helping to warm the interior.