• Debbie DeMarais

Adobe, Vigas, and Kiva Fireplaces: Key Features of Santa Fe Architecture

Getting up-close, front-row views to the unique architecture of Santa Fe is one of the perks of being a home stager and designer in this town. I get to work in historic homes with traditional architectural details, in new homes with modern interpretations of classic features, and in homes in varying states of preservation, renovation, and restoration.


On my Instagram and Facebook pages this year, I’ve been diving deep into a study of Santa Fe-style architecture, researching new facts and sharing what I already know about some of the key features that set Santa Fe apart from the styles of, say, San Francisco, San Antonio, or Saint Louis.


I gathered up three of the more popular posts to share with you here. Adobe, vigas, and kivas really piqued the curiosity of many of my followers. So now I’m making it official and depositing the knowledge here on my blog where it can live on indefinitely, in a form that’s way easier to access than social media. (If you’ve ever tried searching for something on Instagram, you know what I mean.)


Here’s my guide to adobe, vigas, and kivas. Enjoy!



Adobe: Natural Earthen Construction


Adobe is a form of earthen building material originating from early indigenous Pueblo communities and adopted by the Spanish as they settled in the Southwestern territories around the 1500's. It is a mixture of mud, mixed clay and/or sand, with dried plant material, straw and/or manure mixed with water, and packed in a form to dry. The resulting earthen bricks are then stacked to build a wall, with the wet mixture used as a binding agent.


Brown adobe wall with stucco and a truth window revealing adobe bricks

Above: A “truth window” frames a portion of wall without stucco to reveal the original adobe bricks that form the wall. While a wet slip mixture of adobe was also used as mortar in traditional regional buildings, this truth window reveals bricks held together by some sort of concrete mixture with river rock aggregate.



Adobe walls are often as thick as 12” or more and offer significant thermal mass which can help equalize interior temperatures even when outside temperatures fluctuate significantly over short periods. Well suited for dry climates, adobe does still benefit from a protective coating such as stucco or mud plaster.


Above: Here a clay slip of adobe and straw form a natural stucco top coat that protects the underlying adobe bricks from direct contact with the elements. The lintel for a gate can be seen in the upper left corner.



Today, adobe walls continue to be employed in building practices around Santa Fe, however additional elements are often incorporated to improve material strength and durability. Any walk around the historic districts of Santa Fe can yield examples of adobe walls, with decaying walls and truth windows allowing for easy glimpses into the history of a particular wall or building.


Above: Adobe walls are subject to decay through erosion from water and wind if left unprotected. Here, a failing layer of plaster next to the frame of a gate allows monsoon-blown rains to work against the original adobe blocks. Straw and small rocks are plainly visible within the adobe bricks.



Vigas: Wooden Support Poles for New Mexican Ceilings


Walk into any traditional adobe home and look up. Those massive round logs above you are called vigas. If you think about the construction of an adobe home, with earth and straw bricks set atop one another, it’s easy to see how the walls are made, but the roof? That’s a difficult feat for bricks to manage.


Instead, traditional building techniques called on large beams, usually cut from Ponderosa pines up in the mountains. The logs were laid atop the adobe walls with subsequent layers of bricks laid above it. Then smaller, stripped branches were set atop the vigas and a final layer of earth was set atop that to form a roof.


Above: An adobe structure from the 1930’s still demonstrates the interaction between heavier round Ponderosa vigas and a layer of branches set atop them to form the interior ceiling. An earthen roof would then traditionally be added atop the branches to seal the structure.



In an adobe structure, you’ll see the ends of the vigas protruding through the exterior walls. Sometimes they’ll be capped with metal sheeting or painted to protect them from the elements, and sometimes they are left to age naturally. In extremely old, unrestored adobe structures, you can sometimes see the hole left behind after the viga eroded away over the decades.


Above: Many modern Santa Fe homes are not constructed from adobe, but they still incorporate traditional architectural elements like kivas. Here a series of kiva beams emerges from the exterior wall of a contemporary home and are capped on the top with metal to help avoid decay from water intrusion.



Though few homes are still made with traditional adobe construction, vigas remain a common site in new adobe-style homes. While they don’t serve the same critical structural purpose as they once did, seeing vigas is still a key indicator that you’re in Santa Fe!


Above: Contemporary Santa Fe homes tend to use contemporary materials like drywall or tongue-and-groove boards to overlay the kivas, versus the traditional stripped branches (locally known as latillas).



Kiva Fireplaces: Corner Fireplaces, Not Actual Kivas


With a name deriving from the round ceremonial and meeting chambers of many Ancestral Pueblo Peoples, the “kiva” fireplace is a common feature in Northern New Mexican homes, but the reason for its co-opting of the local Pueblos’ terminology remains unclear to me. The rounded form of these corner fireplaces seem the only potential similarity to the tribal meeting spaces, although perhaps there’s some connection to the fact that tribal kivas also had a centralized fire space that was situated directly on the ground.


Above: Kiva fireplaces are corner units that traditionally had the firebox directly against the ground. Contemporary forms raise the firebox up and often surround it with a bench seat (or banco)—they are very much part of the Santa Fe experience and can be seen from hotel rooms to living rooms throughout the region.


Kiva fireplaces were traditionally made using adobe bricks covered with hand-applied plaster, although in newer home construction they can be built in a variety of manners. An arched firebox follows the organic curve of the smoothed face, and the whole form often tapers as it extends upward. These fireplaces are usually situated in the corner of a room.


During Santa Fe’s Colonial period, kitchen kivas were economical to use because they required only a few short logs standing on end for both cooking and heating a home.

The Revival period produced a variety of the styles and designs which are more common today and include fireboxes elevated off the floor with a shelf or bench seat (banco) directly in front. Kiva fireplaces can be found inside or outside a home, but those outside a home shouldn't be confused with horno baking ovens, which also have a long heritage in the area.


Above: The living room in this historic bungalow can be heated quickly using just the kiva fireplace tucked into the corner.