An old joke in construction asks if there’s a guarantee on concrete cracks. The answer is yes, it’s guaranteed to crack.

Cracks me up.

Cracking is what Santa Fe homes do. Slabs crack, tiles crack, beams and vigas crack, but the most worrisome cracks, especially for newcomers, are stucco cracks. And you can be guaranteed you’ll get them.

Arriving in Santa Fe 34 years ago, we were struck by the brown cubes of adobe homes nestled in the hills on Santa Fe’s north side. It was an image reminiscent of the holy land. It didn’t take long for a curious carpenter to realize the adobe-ness was an illusion. They were covered in brown material, but few were made from adobe or covered in mud.

Sorry to disappoint romantics, but virtually every home built since the postwar building boom of the 1950s is constructed with framing and sheathing methods no different than anywhere in America.

What’s different are flat roofs and cementitious stucco.

Flat roofs should have been abandoned 130 years ago when railroads brought in dimensional lumber and steel roofing. In sensible Northern New Mexico, that’s exactly what locals did, creating the iconic Northern New Mexico style, which successfully capped and sheltered real adobe walls.

Cement-based stucco can be death to adobe walls. When water gets behind the stucco and can’t get out, it dissolves the bricks. An adobe remodeling project a few years back revealed roof and vigas held up by cement stucco and interior plaster. The foot-thick cavity was empty for a span of 10 feet. The towering Siberian elm growing out of the parapet should have tipped us off.

But for wood-framed Santa Fe homes, cement stucco is genius.

In many parts of America, “stucco” is something quite different. As is done here, it’s troweled on in two layers, but the first is a thin bed slathered over rigid foam with no metal wire. Instead, mats of plastic screening are embedded in the base coat. That’s covered with an equally thin schmear of bumpy colored stuff poured from a bucket.

That kind of stucco is horrible and not what we do in Santa Fe.

In Santa Fe, because of stringent energy codes, sheets of rigid foam are typically nailed over plywood to prevent thermal transfer through studs. That typically is covered by a double layer of rolled building paper installed from the bottom up and overlapped with each successive row. Stucco wire and metal lathe goes over that, which gets covered by a thick bed of tumbler-mixed, sand-added gray stucco.

The paper is what protects the house from moisture and why stucco cracks are almost always cosmetic problems and not leaking problems, although there are exceptions. The stucco is there to protect the paper.

The reason for the double layer of paper is a curious one. The exterior layer is the “sacrificial” layer. The troweled-on wet stucco makes that layer wrinkle, thus creating channels for moisture to wick down between the paper layers, thereby keeping moisture away from the plywood. It works.

The exceptions are our parapets, a consequence of our silly flat roofs. Stucco is not good on horizontal surfaces, like tops of parapets. When they crack, and they do, often from too-thin a bed of stucco and improper wire reinforcement, the building paper below is exposed. It can degrade and fail. Now water is behind the paper and running down the wood. That’s bad.

Minor cracks too thin to slip a dime into might be cracking you up, but they’re probably not much to worry about. Although, you might want to check your parapets. And always call a licensed and insured professional when the time comes.

Kim Shanahan is a longtime Santa Fe builder and former executive officer of the Santa Fe Area Home Builders Association. Contact him at

(3) comments

Steve Spraitz

Shanahan is correct

You do get what you pay for, and tgebleguts gave a license, worker’s compensation, commercial liability insurance , will really warranty their work

The others you get the ‘tail light warranty’ as they drive down the driveway.

Kathy Fish

This article does little to empower the average homeowner. Call a licensed professional? Ok, where do I start? This town is notorious for shoddy, scheming contracting, and those who are truly vetted are typically too costly for the average homeowner to afford. How about some advice about how to fix the problems ourselves, mitigate the issues before they become too big to deal with, or even build our own stucco blocks from the dirt in our very arroyos? Just because adobe isn't as popular anymore doesn't mean it's a thing of the past. This article deserves at least an acknowledgment of what that time-honored process looks like now. Meanwhile, I'd say the developers have blood on their hands here, cramming houses into tiny lots in neighborhoods like Rancho Viejo and relying on untrained laborers, like Habitat for Humanity, to construct those homes.

Kathy, your comments are so outrageous and ill-informed I don't even know where to start. But you ask where should you start. Start with hiring licensed and insured and members of the Santa Fe Area Home Builders Association. They are truly vetted. If you hire someone on the cheap you'll find the shoddy and the scheming. Sorry, stucco repair is not a DIY project and not even seasoned contractors would attempt such work on their own homes. Adobe is not a thing of the past, but because of labor costs it has gone from the cheapest way to build to the most expensive in the past 100 years. Not sure what a stucco block is, but arroyo sand is not suitable for making adobes. And Rancho Viejo lots and other modern subdivisions are less dense than most of the precious South Capitol area that was developed around 100 years ago. Also Habitat doesn't build any homes for other developers and the homes they build are some of the best built little homes in Santa Fe.

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