Mud Walls = Mighty Fine Living (Part II)

Continued from Part I.

The east side of the backroom saved us from the complexity of the laundry nook, but had it’s own deep set of challenges. Namely, the exterior wall is farther below grade and sustained a lot of damage from water saturation. Adobe walls need to breathe, allowing air to ‘move’ within and around the natural material so that moisture can escape. If built right, earthen structures can survive thousands of years. There’s some great information about capillary rise in adobe walls in the book, Adobe Conservation: A Preservation Handbook, a source we could not do without on this project.

In this part of the room that will be a convertible office/bedroom, it was important to address the root cause of the water damage so that we didn’t have any of the same failures as before. That meant digging around the outside perimeter of the house to remove any dirt on the wall above the foundation, and also creating a drainage trench for a curtain/french drain that moved any water running off the roof away from the house. (Another intervention would be to extend the eaves on the roof overhang or install gutters, which still might happen later on.)

We’ll be coming back to the drainage system outside in a future post, so here we’ll show the process of taking off all the old finishes and making repairs on the inside. Again, we had layers of old paneling to take off on the walls and ceiling and some disintegrating cement-based stucco to remove. Bat insulation was added to the interior wall for soundproofing under the new drywall.

Only the strong survive renovation
Termite palace?
Had to work some light electrical to put the boxes inside the wall
One side up, one more to go!
Unceremoniously taking off the ceiling tiles as I go
This short little door will be replaced with new framing
Before scaling
After scaling

The floorboards were much more badly damaged on this side from butting up against the wet wall for so many years.

Does anyone else wear work slippers?
Continuing the rural engineering tradition… Cobbling new boards to reinforce the joists
Puzzle pieces fun with old salvaged boards!

With all this out of the way, it was time to get busy with the mud-slinging! Some attention had to be given to the corners where the interior drywall met up with the adobe, so metal lath helped to fill in the gap as a matrix to hold the new mud plaster. It’s important to fill the gaps with mud entirely so that there are no air pockets to make a solid and sound form. I did my best, but I’m not ruling out cracking later on.

Metal lathe was also used on wood window frame as a ‘key’ for new mud plaster
Not dog food, I put my sand in the tough bag
Standard recipe of screened native clay dirt, play sand, chopped straw, and water
First layer of mud thrown by hand with a satisfying ‘thwap’
No trowels here yet, just old-fashioned hand work
This first coat will start to level things out on the uneven brick surface

In moving ahead with the adobe repair and plaster work, we encountered a significant salitre or a ‘salt attack’ that brought out the natural minerals from the earthen material, leaving a white scale at the base of the walls. Because there was so much moisture locked in the adobe for so long, we had to give some time to allow the natural process of letting these crystals leach out of the mud to move ahead in finishing the plaster work. (A special word of sincere appreciation goes out to Pat Taylor for the phone consultation to talk us through this discovery.)

Salts are starting to recede
Getting closer to a final finish

Taking advantage of Ben’s time off, I was able to sneak in the ceiling work in between the last of the drying mud layers. I am so grateful to have the help when he’s here. Putting up drywall by myself is one thing, but working overhead on the ceiling would’ve been damn near impossible solo.

Not perfect, but it’s better than it was
Ready for paint

As for all the doors in this room (and the rest of the house), we hired a handyman to build custom jambs for the rough openings and hang the new slabs we stained. I’m so happy with the way they all turned out, especially because we were able to repurpose a few of the original exterior doors. This job also reinforced the fact there are absolutely no straight lines in this old house!

This used to be the old kitchen door and it took some real finagling to fit it in the crooked wall

At this point, we have no choice but to finish out all the trim, fixtures, and livable details before our company arrived. All the natural brown adobe walls still need a finishing coat of white alize (recipes in Clay Culture: Plasters, Paints, and Preservation by Carol Crews) and we still have a Murphy bed and shelving unit to build before we can call this job done. That being said, this room is head-and-shoulders above what it was and I feel very grateful for being able to do the bulk of the work myself. Plus, it’s always fun to uncover relics from the past and give them new life at Casablanca.

East side after
West side after
Does this look like fun to you?