Dirt Cheap: A Conversation with Adobe Brick Maker David Yubeta

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Interview by Valentina Andrew

David Yubeta is an adobe brick maker and conservator of earthen architecture. He spent 25 years preserving earthen resources in the arid Southwest for the National Park Service. He is the recipient of a 2019 SFA Master-Apprentice Artist Award. In March, just as shelter-in-place went into effect, Valentina Andrew interviewed Yubeta about his practice.

View a photo essay on adobe brick making here.

What are some of your earliest memories working with adobe?

I grew up in South Tucson and lived with my grandmother for a few years in an adobe home. Inherent in living in adobe homes is the need for annual maintenance. I’d watch my uncles make adobe and use hot lime to re-plaster. As kids, we would sometimes stomp the mud with our feet, and they would add straw to it, or we’d just have mud ball fights. We were never thinking that we were helping much but for us it was an annual way of life, we’d just go work on grandma’s house.

When did it become a passion for you?

I never thought that I would be making the majority of my living on adobe and so I never had that thought early on. After being laid off at the mine, I applied to the National Park Service and got hired. One of my first jobs was working on the ruins at Tumacacori. This recollection, this whole mental muscle memory came back to me about adobe and about how it was made and what we did with it. At that point something just kind of clicked in me. It was almost spiritual to me. I felt its strength, I felt it being alive, the material. I could already feel that there was a passion starting to bloom within me. I’m sure if I’d grown up in the forests of Washington or something, it probably might have been wood, but it seemed like I understood dirt. I was really drawn to it.

What is the feeling you get when people call you the adobe brick master?

I really feel like I’m not a master of anything. I would prefer they say that I work with mud, I work with dirt—that’s a lot better. I don’t ever want to over-intellectualize adobe. I think it’s a wonderful, noble material. It’s very forgiving. When they say, “You’re an expert”, I think of things I’ve done things that reveal I’m not such an expert. One time that I was making adobes for Kentucky Camp–it was a PIT project, a Passport in Time project (of the US Forest Service), I was introduced in the evening program as “World famous adobe expert David Yubeta.” The next morning, we made 300 adobes and every one of them cracked. This little old lady with a long dress and a bonnet on her head came up to me and hit me with her elbow and goes, “World famous expert, huh?” So, there it is.

I think it’s really awesome that you’ve been able to carry the knowledge. “Knowledge keeper” is a term that I like to use, especially when it comes to the older generation passing down knowledge. Why is that so important to you?

It’s important that we realize how buildings are made and built and what goes into them. Right now, a lot of people live in old adobe homes, and they want them repaired the right way, taking a lot of great care to make sure that they’re not going to hurt the adobe. If people understand the building mechanisms of how the adobes were put together and how they were laid up, then they can repair them the right way. It’s important that architects understand this is a material used primarily in the Southwest, or in arid climates. It worked out here for building without a lot of money and using what resources you have available to you.

What are your thoughts about what adobe preservation and brick making might look like for future generations?

Sometimes buildings that contributed or were significant in the making of America come under the heading of “Must Be Preserved.” A lot of ranch houses and a lot of historic adobe buildings are included in that preservation law. The future of adobe should be that the people who care for these resources know how to work with them, and how to handle their preservation and conservation. Hopefully that when we have kids make adobes or adults make adobes, it’s not so much that we want them to become preservation specialists, but more that they’re aware of the material, that they get to touch the material and feel it and know how it’s going to act and respect it as a building technique.

We know that a plain adobe block here in Tucson will not code because it’s not a reinforced masonry unit. Unless you reinforce it either with a concrete or with asphalt emulsion, it can’t be used in a dwelling. The houses that already fall underneath a grandfather clause, they should be maintained. Those 1940s and 1950s buildings have to be repaired the way they were built. Historically, there’s a lot of good sense to making sure they’re done right.

Can you share a few examples your adobe work?

I was very fortunate. A good crew will make you or break you, but I was always blessed with great people. With the Park Service, we were a traveling crew that went to parks and helped them bring their earthen resources up to standard. That to me a was the most fun, because we got to go to Joshua Tree, to Mojave, to Fort Davis. We got to go all over the Southwest working on adobes for about 10 years. There was a lot of training involved and multi-agencies, with the Forest Service, the BLM, and the State Parks. One of the things we’d always asked for was representatives from each place or park to help us, so they could learn how to take care of their resources.

One of the programs that was started in 1998 within the National Park Service was the Vanishing Treasures Program. The average age of the historic preservation worker in the National Park Service was 55 years old. There was no second generation being groomed to take over the nation’s treasures in an agency charged with the care of the nation’s treasures. For Vanishing Treasures out here, specific to 88 parks in the Intermountain area, what it showed us was that only about 100 people actually touched resources, actually laid hands on resources, on historic and prehistoric buildings. There weren’t very many trained craftspeople. They called it “a crisis in care.” So they set about to add more people to parks. But there was nobody in what I call the “historic preservation stores” to go buy or to use. Nobody was around that could go into these parks. It didn’t take very long for a couple of guys from Mesa Verde and Pecos to retire, which brought the age up just a little bit higher. As I got towards the end of my career with the National Park Service, it became very evident that Vanishing Treasure was not so much the building resource, but the human resource. I thought, You are now the Vanishing Treasure. I had never figured out whether I had replicated myself enough times to handle the future. I was left with a feeling of lacking.

A lot of folks have high respect for you. What you have been able to do for the community has been phenomenal. You’re sharing knowledge. What does your work with young people look like?

I’m glad to see national parks regularly bringing in fourth graders as a part of their school programming. I don’t know of any kids in the Tucson area who have not made an adobe. It’s such a popular thing to do, have these kids playing in mud. They’re naturals. If one out of every hundred kids that touches the mud all of a sudden feels an affinity towards it and becomes a preservation specialist, I think that’s well worth the effort. I think the future of the craft is getting young people brought into parks and into systems where they can actually help out and have some longevity. Play with it. The materials are dirt cheap.

I hadn’t realized all the different types of materials that can be used in adobe bricks. Can you talk a little bit about the materials?

Adobes have a portion of clay and sand. A lot of times when they dry, the clay will shrink and when it does, it’s a crack. In 1912 and 1913, people started adding straw as a binder to hold it all together. They also used manure. We found some adobes in the churches in Mexico and Tumacacori that have horsehair as a binder. My family had beer cans and cigars as a binder. It’s hard to have a crew not sift the dirt, take the big rocks out. True adobes actually have large rocks in them and have binders of sticks and rocks and grass to keep the brick together.

What is one of your favorite projects that you’ve worked on?

Every time I work with adobe it’s my favorite project, it seems. I was very fortunate working in historic preservation–whether it was adobe or wood or whatever–when you work on a structure to repair it, at the end of the project, you had a product that you could be really proud of. You did something to give it 50, 60, 70 more years of life. That to me was a source of satisfaction. It felt good.

You’ve also helped homeowners with adobe homes. What do those relationships look like when you’re working in the community?

When somebody buys an old adobe or wants to restore or build a new home around an old adobe home, sometimes they’ll give me a call. They’ll want to do it the right way. I feel like I’m closer to those people because they want to do it the right way. So they can learn exactly how to preserve that building, but they can also preserve it within their own family dynamic, as it were.

What are you currently working on?

Right now I’m at Canoa Ranch where they’re converting one of the buildings to a visitor center. I’m involved in the masonry part of it, where they’re putting plaster over the adobe. I’m also on the preservation board at Valley of the Moon in Tucson. We rehabbed a 1936 adobe there that is now being used; it’s a great space for people to change costumes and to use as a social outlet. It’s fantastic. It was a completely win-win situation there. I’ve been retired from the Park Service for 10 years, but it seems like I’ve been on a lot of different boards that keep me busy. I’m presently on the Vail preservation board trying to get the old post office preserved and used.

We interviewed you in the early stages of the shelter-in-place measures in Southern Arizona. How are you doing, personally?

I’m doing well and keeping up with board meetings via Zoom. I am becoming more comfortable Zooming during this time.

Lastly, is there anything you’ve learned in adobe work and preservation that might offer helpful teachings in this time of uncertainty?

For me, preservation and conservation of historic adobe buildings has taught me patience. Preservation is not an immediate gratification type of work. Treatment interventions are planned, discussed, and implemented. I see during this pandemic cycle the need to be patient while best methods are brought forward to help everyone adjust to the new normal. 

9 thoughts on “Dirt Cheap: A Conversation with Adobe Brick Maker David Yubeta”

  1. Thank you, this is a wonderful piece about our beautiful Southwest.
    I am happy to make a contribution to Borderlore because the world needs you, and I need you!

    Reply
  2. Great interview. It is important to preserve these buildings and the knowledge of how to work with adobe. This is material that has been used throughout arid climates across the world, it is our memory. As a city /region we should embrace this building method again and be able to build with the materials that are local , sustainable, to create buildings that are affordable able energy efficient…and with our own hands, building community as well…

    Reply
  3. Thanks for the inspiring interview.

    For those of us who live in “unstabilized” adobe houses (with lime plaster), but are having trouble keeping up with the maintenance, can you recommend any conscientious contractors in the Tucson area?

    Thanks again.

    Reply
  4. David is right, the old guard is passing and there are few coming up who have a deep understanding of the craft of earthen construction. I’m currently restoring an adobe house that had been “repaired” a mere 15 years ago by a contractor who didn’t understand the intricacies of adobe construction. His work was leading to an early demise of the house. It’s rewarding to save a grand house like that.
    After 35 years of building adobe, rammed earth and cob homes, I still enjoy the timeless and “connected” feeling one derives when walking into a well built earthen home.

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  5. Thank you for recording this important history. I worked in the conservation corps and was lucky to build adobe with Mr. David Yubeta. It was an honor I will not soon forget.

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  6. Years ago I came across a paper where some office at New Mexico State University had experimented with making adobes, using various proportions of sand, silt, and clay in order to determine the ideal proportions of each (these are size classes, not different materials) that would result in adobe bricks of uniform strength that did not have cracks. They presented their findings in what is called a trilinear chart, on which each side (sand. silt, and clay) is scaled from 0 to 100 percent. Within the chart they had a small area circled that showed the limited range of proportions to make the ideal adobe bricks. You pretty much have to be an engineer to understand what is being shown on a chart like this, which may be why this approach never gained an audience. I found it to be highly creditable. They demonstrated that the folk explanations of needing to add straw, horsehair, doghair, etc. as so-called “binders” was mostly just foklore as these helped to promote what the use of the ideal proportions would allow you to achieve without these additions , which was uniform drying with accompanying cohesion and no cracking. I had occasion to use his only once, in my article “Why the Fort Fell Down” in a back number of the Papers of the Archaeological Society of New Mexico. The adobe structures at Fort Fillmore, New Mexico, effectively dissolved because the ‘adobes’ were actually just silt blocks that fell apart when the roofs were off of the buildings and rainwater went to work on the unsheltered wal]s. John Wilson

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  7. Great Interview! I met David 2 years ago while spending time with my sister and her husband at the Steam Pump Ranch in Oro Valley. He and I are Vietnam Veterans and he gave me great insight as I made my first adobe brick with David’s unique instructions while repairing the “‘Chicken Coups” at the ranch. I prize my adobe brick that I have at my home here in Racine, Wisconsin.

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  8. Gracias Señor Yubeta. I have been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to restore the old “El Rapido” building there on the northeast corner of Washington St. & Meyer Ave. If you ever want to see it inside, just let me know! Saludos cordiales, Alex Kouvel

    Reply

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