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Rock and Block Tour - Day Three - New Mexico

This morning we woke to an inch of frozen snow on the ground outside our room at the Sacred Canyon Lodge, inside the boundaries of the Canyon de Chelly National Monument, deep in the heart of sacred Navajo lands. The snow and the absence of other tourists made it easier to hear the quiet and feel the stillness that makes this country special to the Navajo. The old sepia photos on the walls in the lobby and the visitor’s center communicate a pastoral life along the river that meanders through the bottom of the canyon.

After an inedible breakfast prepared by Cordon Blue-trained Navajo cooks, we jumped once more into our truck and headed out to the ten-mile long south rim drive, featuring five overlooks to the canyon floor. Tourists are not allowed into the canyon without a certified Navajo guide.

Alone on the snowy road at 8:00 am, the overlooks were like windows into the past. I’d seen hundreds of photos of cliff dwellings, but I never had the sense that people really lived in and around them. When you see them in scale, they’re more like small apartment houses surrounded by countryside. Most of the canyon floor, 99.9% of it, is farm and open ranch land. Forty Navajo families still live there. The river is slow, narrow, and lined with willow trees.

Leaving the south rim road and the park, we barreled east, out of Navajo Country and into Zuni, Hopi, and Acoma lands. Four hours later, after yet another failed attempt to find edible food we arrived in Belen New Mexico, and the plant and showroom of New Mexico Travertine, one of the largest stone processing plants on the Colorado Plateau.


Jim Lardner is one of five brothers in the stone business, started by their father in 1962. Jim was tall, friendly, and with the big strong hands of (I thought) a lifetime stone mason, although I found out later he is an accountant. The plant sits in the middle of five acres of flat bare land, five miles west of I-25 and twenty miles east of the three quarries where they get their travertine blocks.

The plant was housed in a 10,000 square foot metal building with four different types of saws, all water cooled. The biggest one, costing a million dollars (Jim always used the term “today’s dollars”) had forty parallel reciprocating blades and could cut up to forty 1” slabs at a time from a solid block of stone. It takes roughly six hours to cut through a 4’ x 8’ block. The saw was powered by a 30 hp electric motor. 

They sell rough slabs from 1” to 4” thick: finished slabs from a horizontal polishing machine, finished floor tiles cut, squared, polished, and packaged, and split rough veneer stone. Jim said his challenge in making money was that they had too many different products and too many different sizes. If I could just make all 12”x 12” tiles or 16” x 24” pavers I could make some money”. Tiles sell for $8 to $10 per square foot.

Most of his product goes out of state, a lot of it to California. 

Here’s the interesting thing: he doesn’t just process his own travertine from just twenty miles west of the plant, but brings in blocks of granite, limestone, and sandstone from Indiana, Texas, Utah, and other quarries in the mid west. His rough cut stone veneer looked better than Culture stone and yet sells for less, probably because of transportation costs, but the slabs and stone tile can’t be duplicated with manufacturing (yet) and so command the higher prices.

On our way out back to look at the debris piles, Jim opened a side door to show us the filters where they clean the water from the “sawdust”. The result is what he calls his calcium carbonate - a mountain of moist pond cake, and admittedly his problem pile. 


Way out back were the mountains of cut offs and millings. He let’s guys load their pick up trucks with as much as they can carry for forty dollars a day. Someone else from Albuquerque comes in once a year and hauls off truckloads to crush and sell as gravel paving. We talked about the Watershed model of setting up next to a debris pile like this and converting it to premium building products. He thought the idea would work; best of all (to him), it would clean up his mess. 

He said his challenges aren’t in getting rock or in processing and finishing it, but in sales and distribution. Most of his sales are through his distribution network. Architects don’t often come to the showroom in Belen, (and they would almost never go to a quarry twenty miles away).

As we were wrapping up we returned to the discussion of “green building products”, LEEDs points, and sustainability. Jim was convinced that taking natural stone and processing it into finished building products had a drastically smaller carbon footprint than making cement and pouring concrete products. When pressed, he couldn’t cite figures, but said the Stone Association was conducting a study.