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Building the Sonoran Bungalow: A Counstruction Document

by Scott Elgin Calhoun
 

A fourth generation Arizonan, I moved back for the desert. The smell of creosote bush after rain, the columnar saguaro, the lime green palo verde tree—this is my landscape.

After graduating from out-of-state universities, my wife Deirdre and I searched for a community in the Sonoran Desert that balanced human needs with resource conservation. Three years ago, we read an Internet story about a development called Civano and moved to Tucson to be a part of it.

We learned that the development attempts to marry sustainable design with Traditional Neighborhood Development. This means solar panels and front porches, tree-lined paths and low-e windows, narrow streets and reclaimed water, and a neo-pueblo neighborhood center. Civano is designed for people first, cars second. For our family, Civano was an eminently attractive choice.


Scott Calhoun smiles though the wounds of building his own adobe home.
Photo courtesy S. Calhoun.

We visited the site and found it stocked with salvaged plant life. Hedgehog cacti were corralled behind a fence like an army of porcupines. Rows and rows of old palo verde and mesquite trees stood in six-foot-high boxes awaiting replanting. For many months we would walk in the orchard of boxed trees in the evenings.

We put money down on a lot and Zoe, our six-year-old daughter, began attending Civano's Charter School.

I had dreamed of building a small adobe house in the Sonoran Desert for 15 years. In the spring of 1998, I began working for an adobe brick manufacturing company on the outskirts of Tucson. Through work I met adobe architects, builders and adoberos (adobe masons). I read everything I could about adobe construction. On weekends, I worked side jobs laying up adobe. I was learning a lot about adobe masonry. As part of my job, I visited elementary schools and built adobe forts, hornos (ovens), and bancos (benches). We began meeting with a young architect, Bob Lanning, to design our house.

We knew we wanted a design that was square or rectangular because this would give us the most interior square footage per square foot of exterior walls. Adobe masonry is heavy work, so limiting the square footage of the adobe walls is important to building on a budget. Bob, our architect, gave us two preliminary drawings to look at: one with a guest house on the garage, one without (below). Ultimately, we settled on the design with the guest house, which we intended to rent out.

Sketches of back of house, with and without guest house. Courtesy Scott Calhoun.Architecturally, our house is modeled after the sombrero, with a 26-gauge galvanized metal roof serving as the brim. With its adobe walls and Dutch hip roof, the home borrows from both Sonoran and Territorial styles. It also has a little bit of 1920's bungalow flavor. The design is both American and Mexican with a little bit of Far East energy.

That the house has any good energy at all is somewhat of a fluke. Several of its prominent features are in direct violation of feng shui principles. For example, the house is symmetrical and organized around a wide hallway (called a zaguan in the Southwest) that runs in a straight line from the front door to the back, right down the middle of the house. According to feng shui principles, all the chi (positive energy) will rush in one door and out the other. To make matters worse, we planned on scoring the concrete right down the middle of the house—like the centerline of a chi superhighway. To mitigate the problem, several experts suggestedusing furniture or a fountain to slow the chi down. Our architect, Bob Floor plan.  Courtesy Scott Calhoun and Lanning Architects.Lanning, was unconcerned about the chi problem. Bob believed our zaquan was good design. To him, excess chi flow was not as serious a problem as a poorly designed roof or an ugly window pop-out. In the end, we agreed. Besides, I knew that Deirdre would find a way to make me build her a fountain in the back yard regardless. With the added benefit of using a fountain as a chi speed-bump, how could I protest?


We submitted the following design priority list to our architect and builder:

The A List - Must Haves

  • Design and build for under $110K (excluding land)
  • 1,400 sq. ft. with at least 2 bedrooms and 1 & 1/2 baths
  • 4" thick adobe walls with exposed adobe interior walls
  • Exterior insulation (Civano design requirement)
  • Metal roof with overhangs
  • Concrete floors
  • Energy-efficient windows (preferably wood)
  • At least a one-car garage (Civano design requirement)
  • Vibrant exterior colors
  • Garden spot
  • Solar hot water heater (Civano design requirement)
  • Rainwater harvesting
  • Plans for guest house

The B List - Would Like to Have

  • Passive solar design
  • Industrial style spiral ductwork
  • High ceilings
  • Exposed rafter tails
  • Circular courtyard fountain
  • Gas appliances
  • CAT 5 wiring

The C List - Things We Want But Probably Can't Afford

  • Radiant floor heating
  • Built-in bookcases
  • Photovoltiac system with an inverter
  • Greywater system
  • Screened sleeping porch
  • 300 more sq. ft. (total of 1,700 sq. ft.)

Adobe wall with doorway and window during construction. Photo by S. Calhoun.Our goal was to build the house for under $70 a square foot. This was going to be tough seeing that the going rate around Tucson for adobe is well over $100 per square foot.

Further complicating the project, to meet Civano's strict energy standards, we had to prove that the home would be 50 percent more energy efficient than current new construction. Our strategy was to use thermal mass to moderate temperature extremes. The walls of the house alone have 230,000 lbs. of adobe mass that can store heat and coolth (yes, this is a word). Theoretically, the home should stay between 62 and 82 degrees year around without the use of mechanical heating or cooling. But just in case, we included hydronic radiant heat that circulates hot water through pipes imbedded in the concrete floor to heat the house in winter.

For cooling, we planned on sleeping with the windows open at night to cool the mass walls down for the daylight hours. For the part of the year that is too hot to sleep with the windows open, an ultra-efficient, water-cooled air conditioner is used.

Since we built the house the American way (with a bank construction loan) we needed a general contractor. We found a local green builder, David Stewart. David, who has an Arizona vanity plate on his Chevy Truck that says ZEN, likes to cook Greek food and listen to Jethro Tull: "It's a band, not a guy," he'd remind me.

We struck an agreement that left him supervising parts of the job and me doing a lot of the other work. This agreement, which was never clearly articulated, became defined by me doing most of the work that David did not want to do. In a strange paradox that I still haven't figured out, David was working for me but it often felt like I was working for David.

Calhoun house under construction.
Installing the home's radiant floor heating.
Photo by S. Calhoun.

We began building in March with an informal ground-breaking ceremony. My wife Deirdre, my now eight-year-old daughter Zoe, Bob Lanning, Duane and Pam Bateman (our crack finish carpenter and Zoe's teacher, respectively), and David Stewart, stood on our lot as the sun came up over the nearby Rincon Mountains. As part of the ceremony, Zoe cracked a confetti-filled egg (a cascarone) over David's head like she was christening a ship. Later in the project, I would want to crack something on David's head significantly harder than a confetti-filled egg.

But on that morning, with the smell of ammonia still wafting off the blueprints, it appeared that the chaos of the design and budget process was over. The plans, with their City stamp of approval, were finally done and now the process just involved following instructions.

By the time we started laying the adobe, it was mid-May and over 100 degrees every day. The 10x4x14-inch adobe blocks weighed 40 pounds each and stocking (stacking the adobe bricks inside the building's perimeter foundation in preparation for laying the adobe) was brutal. To my amazement, with the adoberos I hired, we had all the adobe walls up in just over a week. The crew was a family of four brothers originally from Chihuahua, Mexico. I worked with them from 5:30 a.m. to 3:00 in the afternoon and surprised myself at how hardy I was in the heat. At the end of the job, I bought a twelve-pack of Tecate and some limes and we sat together, one last time, under a mesquite tree drinking beer and waiting for the relative cool of the evening.

As the project continued, it became obvious that I had a better handle on many aspects of adobe construction than did our contractor. Most Friday afternoons, David would pull up in the ZEN truck and walk around the house looking at the progress. David's standard uniform was a golf shirt, Sperry top-sider deck shoes, and Southwest Gas Co. hat with his ponytail trailing out the back. While I was up a ladder performing some onerous task, he would ask me various questions while sipping a Miller Lite out of one of the new wide-mouth brown plastic bottles. At one time during the building process, our last set of City-approved plans blew off the tailgate of David's ZEN truck and were lost forever.

Since I was often on the job more than David, I got to know many of the subcontractors. The stucco contractor called David the "drive-by general."

To be fair, I should mention that David bailed me out at least 100 times. To be fair to myself, I should say that I bailed out David at least 200 times.

But what the hell—David was excited about our project. Although he was building 6 or 7 $500K homes at the same time he was building ours, he had disproportionate enthusiasm for our adobe bungalow and his price couldn't be beat.

Calhoun house under construction.
Workers lay up adobe in the construction of the Calhoun's Civano home.
Photo by S. Calhoun.

When it came time to stucco the house, we used a product made from recycled newspaper that David imported from Hermosillo, Mexico. The product is both insulation and stucco and when it was applied to a Ford Motor Company plant in Hermosillo, it reduced its heating and cooling bills by 30 percent. After the product was sprayed on, it turned a bright white. David referred to it as the white shit from Mexico.

The product was approved by the city for experimental use in Tucson. During a particularly stormy monsoon month, David and a two-man Mexican crew pulled up in David's truck towing a modified stucco mixer and pump. Our house was the first real-world test for this contraption and the job began in fits and starts. As it turned out, a large tapered-curved-stainless-steel pipe known as the walrus dick was the Achilles heel (pardon the mixed metaphor) of the mixer. Several times during the application, the walrus dick clogged up and had to be removed for cleaning. Once, David rushed the walrus dick into town for professional attention. In the end the machine was refitted with a new walrus dick that did an elegant job of spewing the white pudding-like plaster onto the wall. The finished product was a velvety smooth, hand-troweled finish applied by the Mexican crew.

Just as the project was gaining momentum, we had another setback. David Stewart, our General Contractor, and D.B. Taggett, another General Contractor scheduled to install our radiant heat, solar collector, and staircase, had a falling out. According to David, Taggett stole a high-profile project from him in one of Tucson's historic barrios. According to Taggett, David lost the job because he was as incompetent as "a one-eyed dog chasing a pork chop on a fishing pole." Feeling somewhat like of a one-eyed dog myself, I did my best to remain neutral.

Taggett is a prima donna who is fond of reminding you that he has "over 30 years of commercial" experience. That said, he is an impeccable craftsman. He built two state-of-the-art solar powered homes near the University of Arizona that landed him engineering awards. His office is an immaculate garage that contains a restored 50s era Willy's Jeep and a super-efficient Bang & Ollofsen designed Scandinavian fridge filled with all manner of domestic and Mexican beer. When Taggett looked at my plans, he spread them out on a saw horse and lit a Lucky Strike. When I asked the cost of the water filtration system he proposed, he said, "That'll cost you two bottles of the good stuff." The good stuff, as it turned out, was Dewar's scotch and the recycling bin in Taggett's garage overflowed with empty quart bottles. Quarts of Dewar's became a kind of currency.

The finished Calhoun house.Taggett liked to tell me, "Sometime during this project I'm going to be a prick."

One morning David and Taggett were both at my job site. Taggett, who often chided David about being afraid to get dirty, noticed that David had dirt on the paunch of his golf shirt. "What happened," Taggett asked, "did you fall on your belly?"

After Taggett started on David's barrio job, the two were not on speaking terms. Like a child of divorced parents, I became the intermediary. The upshot of the dispute was that I would have to help Taggett erect our steel stairway and attach our solar panel.

We eased the landing and stairway into place using a 1952 Ford flat bed truck that Taggett called Peanut. Peanut had a crane attachment that we used to lift the landing into place. Taggett backed up Peanut while I steadied the pendulum-like landing and controlled the crane.

One Sunday night in September, I sat in the dark middle of my partially completed house looking around. The moon was shining through the transom windows illuminating the scored concrete floor. My entire weekend was spent mixing adobe mortar and filling a void around the bond beam. I hadn't spent any meaningful time with Zoe in almost month. Our apartment—filled with toilets, ceiling fans, sinks, lights—was a place of unrest. Paying a burgeoning construction loan, along with our apartment rent, was beginning to seriously strain our budget. The bill for quarts of Dewar's was also adding up. Deirdre was barely speaking to me.

Although the home was nearly complete, a move-in date seemed distant. My life had become a punch list of tasks dictated by the home. I had every reason to resent this house, but I didn't. This night, sitting alone on my living room floor surrounded by 230,000 pounds of adobe block that I had helped make and lay-up, I felt a strange and profound sense of peace. The window casing that Duane Bateman and I made while listening to the Rolling Stones was well done. The moon shadow from palo verde branches made a pattern on the floor. There in the dark, I was proud of my project—blemishes and all. For a moment, it didn't seem to matter if I ever got to live in the house. Its design and construction pleased me. Like the plans blowing off the tailgate of David's ZEN truck, what was meant to be would be. I was in the center of something I created, surrounded by positive energy. Sitting there in the middle of the zaguan, I could almost feel the chi rushing up my back and through my hair like a wave.

The finished Calhoun house.We moved in, on questionable legal grounds, on the first day of December. Our apartment lease was up. Our only financial option was to move into our partially completed house. On our first night we slept on the floor in sleeping bags. First the new silence, then the coyotes, kept us up most of the night.
There was no hot water or heat. Southwest Gas would not turn the gas on without a Final Inspection from the city. We had called for the Final Inspection, but failed on several items.

We had a leak in one of the still non-functioning water-heaters. I called Taggett on my cell phone in the utility room to see if he could come out and fix it. "Just tighten it," he said. "Tighten what?" I said feeling around the water heater frantically for the loose connection. "The supply line! Just tighten the goddamn supply line! I told you I was going to be a prick before this project was done."

Taggett had made good on his promise. This was his day of prickiness.

One morning just after we moved in, I entered the bathroom to find my wife in the tub. She was washing her hair under a cold spigot. When we went camping, Deirdre never wanted to be far from a real toilet and real showers. Always the prissiest girl in her family, the way she had worked and scrounged to build this house surprised me. And here she was roughing it in a cold tub without complaint. A deep feeling of love and respect for my wife came over me. I started to say something but she interrupted, "Don't," she said, "Don't talk to me now." It appeared that our relationship would ebb until the hot water flowed.

Without heat, the house was just a little shy of being comfortable. It was probably perfectly comfortable to a Swede. I put a little digital thermometer on the tile countertop. The indoor temperature of the unheated house was remarkably consistent. Even on nights when the mercury fell below freezing, the indoor temperature varied only 1 or 2 degrees between the daytime and night time. The house was 64.7 degrees Fahrenheit in the evening and 63.4 degrees Fahrenheit in the morning. The home would maintain this temperature range almost indefinitely. This was good and bad. It is a fine temperature for sleeping under, say, a down comforter, yet uncomfortable for sitting around in anything less than sweats.

The passive solar heating aspect of our house is a limited success. The two South-facing bedrooms are noticeably warmer than the North-facing kitchen/dining/living room. During the design phase, we were unable to optimize the solar orientation of the home because of the small size and irregular shape of our lot. Ideally, passive solar homes are built with the long axis running East-West. In our home the long axis runs North-South. This means that we had to fudge. We created a "solar canopy" on the second story guest house. This canopy, or awning, is actually a solar panel for heating domestic hot water for the main and guest house.

We had temporarily attached this solar panel to the second story canopy frame early in the project. After one of the steel clamps securing the panel was stolen, the whole 4-by-8-foot panel blew off the frame in a severe thunderstorm. The storm had to have been spectacularly violent. When I found the panel, its twisted carcass was sitting in the middle of the street surrounded by a glitter of tempered glass. The shards looked a little like stardust. I gave the broken panel to a guy from Phoenix who wanted to rehabilitate it to heat his pool.

Soon, I'll be humping another solar panel up the stairs. Even so, the prospect of hot water from the sun is delicious.

The finished Calhoun house.Sometime in the near future our house will be finished. A high adobe wall will surround the backyard. Queen's wreath will climb the steel stairway and Indian Fig will grow under the Mesquite and Acacia trees. Deirdre and I will talk again in that peaceful way married people sometimes talk. The day-to-day events of our lives will descend from chaos to normalcy.

When our lives settle into this stillness, I believe that my satisfaction will be tinged with sadness. The process of building my own house was filled with adventure. Surely, there were compromises. Certainly, there were mistakes. But more often than not, we held on to the vision of this Sonoran bungalow with a vengeance. Standing back and looking at a three-quarter moon reflecting off my corrugated steel roof, I'm almost proud.

Epilogue

Three days before Christmas, we passed our final inspection and got the gas turned on. We fired up our radiant floor heat and hot water heater. To get the radiant heat running, I banged on the check valves with a block of wood until the copper supply pipe got hot. As the floor warmed, we crawled all over the house on our hands and knees grinning like idiots. We all took hot showers that afternoon.

The postpartum sadness I had anticipated on completion of the house never settled in. Now we are designing a garden enclosed by adobe walls. It will contain roses, steel trellises, and yes, a circular fountain. Deirdre and I are reading gardening books together in the evening. Often, we talk in the peaceful way married people sometimes do.
 

The Finished Product
  • 1,580 sq. ft. main house, 3 bedrooms, 2 baths
  • 350 sq. ft. guest house
  • 14-inch-thick adobe walls on main house
  • 26-guage metal corrugated roof
  • Designed and built for $78 per sq. ft.
  • Wood low-e windows
  • Solar hot water heater
  • Radian floor heat
  • CAT 5 wiring
  • Greywater system (partially installed)
  • Rainwater harvesting (partially installed)
  • Built-in bookcases
  • Exposed rafter ends
  • High ceilings

  

A self-described “desert plant fiend,” Scott Calhoun enjoys exploring the deserts of Arizona and Mexico seeking interesting plants, gardens, and transcendent fish tacos. He gets much of his design inspiration from badlands and taco stands, a style which Sunset magazine dubbed “Taqueria Chic.” Scott writes, lectures, and designs gardens in Tucson, Arizona. His first book, Yard Full of Sun: The Story of a Gardener's Obsession that Got a Little Out of Hand, has been awarded the 2006 American Horticultural Society Book Award. His newest book is Chasing Wildflowers: A Mad Search for Wild Gardens. Catch up with Scott at www.zonagardens.com.
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