How Adobe Construction Works

By: Linda C. Brinson  | 

Ancient Architecture

Adobe was one of the first materials ancient humans used to create buildings, dating as far back as the eighth century B.C. The word "adobe" is Spanish, but etymologists trace its origins to an old Arabic word, al-tob or al-tub, meaning "brick."

Native Americans, who built the beautiful cliff dwellings you can see today at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, built pit houses and other structures of adobe before they began using sandstone.


Adobe construction spread throughout warm, dry climates. It was used in Spain and other Mediterranean areas, and the Spaniards who led the conquest of the Americas found Native Americans already using it. In the United States, many examples of historic adobe architecture can be found in Southern California and the southwestern states. Santa Fe, New Mexico, for example, has many adobe structures, including the Palace of the Governors, which dates to the early 17th century. The Historic Taos Inn, also in New Mexico, includes several adobe houses built in the 1800s; tourists often visit the San Francisco de Assisi Mission Church in Rancho de Taos.

The largest adobe building in the world, and probably the most famous adobe structure standing, is the Great Mosque of Djenné in central Mali, near the edge of the Sahara Desert. The Great Mosque was built in 1907 on the ruins of earlier mosques. It has walls as thick as 24 inches (61 centimeters), and arches measuring 45 feet high (13.7 meters) and covers some 62,500 square feet (5,806 square meters). Djenné was long a center of learning and trade. Wealthy merchants built elaborate houses from the mud that was plentiful along the creeks that led to the Bani River. The town was built on hills to protect it from the river's floods. Many of these houses still stand today.

How are adobe houses made, anyway? Keep reading to find out.