Seeing Our Way To The Future
21st century holistic solutions



Posted 4/23/09 by Yasha Husain

According to the site,, a half of the world's approximately 6 billion people occupies buildings constructed of earth, either for work or to live.

The book, Earth Architecture, by architect, author, and assistant professor of architecture at The University of California, Berkeley, Ronald Rael, who also founded the site, describes the many types of earth architectures used around the world. The book notes that while it is still widely believed earthen buildings primarily house the poor, earthen structures include airports, museums, embassies, hospitals, and factories.

To learn of recently constructed earthen buildings, follow events related to earth architecture, or discover new books on the topic, visit,

For more on Nader Khalili's Superadobe architecture, visit:




Article - Architecture

A Call to Adopt Earth Architecture
By Yasha Husain
March 2007

Behind the sad images and stories of horrible loss associated with natural disasters, there's a reason for hope.

Well-developed architectural designs called Superadobe exist to be utilized to build homes, office buildings and schools that would minimize the scale of damage incurred when natural disasters happen.

Developed by the Iranian-American architect Nader Khalili, Superadobe earth architectures can be used to build homes for the wealthy who seek non-toxic environments, the destitute who seek safe shelter, people in need of emergency housing, and refugees of war-torn regions.

Khalili once ran a successful practice building modern, steel-frame structures until he closed his offices in Tehran and Los Angeles in 1975 to begin experimenting with earthen structures. He dreamed of building homes that would withstand strong winds, heavy rains, and powerful earthquakes, and be suitable for people worldwide, in particular, for the rural poor in his country.

"Every man and woman should be able to build a home for his or her family, using the earth under their feet, and integrating some features of modern technology to make their homes resistant to fire, flood, hurricane, earthquake and other disasters," Khalili's quoted on his Institute's webpage as saying.

In the mid-1970s, with a clear goal in mind, he set out to use only the four basic elements, earth, water, air, and fire, to empower people to build homes that could survive Earth's sometimes violent impacts.

For five years he traveled through the desert of Iran on his motorcycle, investigating old architectures and occasionally sleeping in mud huts and adobe homes, or under the stars. He discovered how kilns in the desert that had been fired during their functional lives remained standing through the centuries, and as a result soon came to combine the ancient principles behind dome-shaped adobe huts and the firing of bricks in kilns, or ceramics.

The resultant architectural form, only the first of several advanced earthen forms developed by Khalili, was coined Geltaften, it involves the firing of an adobe home in order to stabilize a structure.

By 1986 Khalili founded the California Institute of Art and Architecture, also known as Cal-Earth, which is situated in Hesperia, CA at the edge of the Mojave Desert in San Bernadino County, a county that's in the highest earthquake zone in the United States that also experiences temperatures above 100 degrees Farhenheit in the summers, freezing temperatures in the winters, strong winds, heavy rains and snow.

The pioneering architect landed here intentionally in order to have the perfect testing ground for his earthen designs. At Cal-Earth, prototypes of Superadobe buildings passed specially-designed tests performed in consultation with the International Conference of Building Officials, making them a part of the Uniform Building Code.

Khalili, and the work that he and fellow architect Iliona Outram continue to pursue at Cal-Earth, have over the years received the attention of United Nations officials in search of affordable shelters, NASA officials seeking plans for space architectures made from in-situ materials on the Moon and Mars, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the State Department, and many other local and international aide organizations.

Superadobe architectures have been featured widely in the media too, and Khalili's designs have received numerous awards and grants, among them the prestigious Aga Khan award for architecture in 2004, for the Emergency Sandbag Shelter.

And yet, even with all of this attention, Khalili's message, which is manifest in his designs, is not reaching the majority of people.

The largest of institutions and most governments have not incorporated Superadobe designs into their standard protocol for fast-action plans that respond to disaster, nor have they made Superadobe homes easily accessible.

In light of the rising need for secure and sustainable buildings, it could easily be argued that institutions and governments would be getting behind a great cause if they made Superadobe more prevalent in society through administrative supports and legislative mandates.

At present, for anyone living outside of San Bernadino County, if they're interested in building with Superadobe they must first approach local building officials to receive permits to build the structures, and, practically speaking, they can only do this after they've become educated about Superadobe architecture.

Not that this is very hard. Cal-Earth offers apprenticeships and day tours, and has instructional materials available on its website. In emergency situations, Cal-Earth also sends a team of experienced builders to provide on-site assistance and training. However, having to seek permissions is not as easy as having permissions already in place.

For more than three decades the charismatic architect and born leader, Nader Khalili, has continued to work with the same basic principles, addressing audiences large and small, offering people a reason for hope. While many have expressed interest in his work and begun building Superadobe structures in their neighborhoods and around the world, Superadobe is not yet being utilized on a mass scale, or even regularly, in response to disaster. This could be a mistake humankind will one day regret.

Below are 10 reasons to begin building Superadobe homes, offices, and schools now:


The cost to build an emergency shelter can be as low as $40, and a handful of people can build a shelter in a days' time. In short order, a 1000 people working side by side can erect enough shelters to house a village.

Superadobe can be installed in an emergency situation in a variety of ways.

Emergency shelters can, for example, be constructed with Superadobe by adjoining dome structures called Eco-Domes with vaults and arches, along the periphery of an attractive courtyard. This results in a harmonious village infrastructure.

On open plains or in the desert, Superadobe homes can be arranged in rows set neatly against the horizon, or interspaced at angles, to create not only permanent and comfortable places to live, but attractive skylines.

As well, either permanent or temporary shelters can be built on private lands where homes once stood, but have been destroyed.

Whether shelters serve as temporary or permanent homes depends on preference, but also on whether or not builders have access to a limited amount of lime, cement, or asphalt emulsion, materials used as stabilizing agents. Dampened, raw earth can be used on its own for temporary shelters.


Superadobe buildings are built using more than 90 percent earth, and only a small amount of water and cement, lime, or asphalt emulsion to stabilize the earth mix. So, if used on a mass scale they could contribute greatly to the reduction of the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that flow into our atmosphere every day from smokestacks, tailpipes, and as a result of deforestation.

When ready, the earth mix is packed inside Superadobe fabric tubing, and the builder winds up with a sandbag of some predetermined length. One after another, sandbags are packed and laid in concentric circles to form domes, or, one on top of another to build the verticle walls of vaulted structures. Ultimately, they become the foundation, walls and roof of a home, school or office building. In shorter lengths, the bags are used to form tresses, apses, arches, and other curvatures.

Between the compressed bags pieces of barbed wire help hold layers firmly together, and as the building grows in height, windows and doorways are cut out and cut pipe is inserted until construction's completed.

Earth mix is again used to provide a covering or insulating layer over the Superadobe walls. Finally, an attractive lime plaster is applied in place of more traditional paints.

The interior design of the building includes benches, shelves, and bars that are made from the same earthen materials that were used to build the shell.

Ultimately, no trees are cut down in the building process, and very little steel and concrete is used.


The purpose of a Superadobe building is that it stands in harmony with nature, its design is in many ways energy-efficient by default.

The earthen walls of Superadobe absorb heat during the day that is released into the interior of the structure at night when there is a general cooling in temperature outside, so by three a.m. or so your home is essentially being heated by the sunshine it received the day before. At midday the thick walls absorb and hold the heat so that the shaded interior remains cool, and a flow of energy persists cyclically day in and day out.

Built-in wind scoops help to vent and adjust room temperatures.

Since regular pumps and equipment are normally installed in Superadobe buildings, it's easy to combine the built-in heating and cooling system with a more conventional furnace unit.

Homeowners also have the option to build earthen, vertical walls that block the sun, which can be used in place of, or as a supplement to, a refrigerator freezer unit.


Iran, like California, is built along fault lines that give rise to periodic earthquakes, a good number of which reach high enough on the Richter scale to cause serious damage to homes not built to withstand Earth's tremblers.

When an earthquake in 1978 toppled Tabar, Iran and killed 25,000 people, Khalili was one of a handful of experts sent to survey the damage, and he was the only one of those sent who believed it would be unwise to hurriedly put up modern, steel-frame structures in response to the disaster. He could see that it was many of the steel-frame buildings in the city that had not survived the quake.

Instead, Khalili foresaw the advancement of more traditional forms of Persian architectures that would be enhanced by modern technologies.

At Cal-Earth in the mid-1990's, seismic tests, which included static and dynamic load testing, were conducted with consultation from the International Conference of Building Officials on prototypes of Superadobe earth architectures.

The structures were so sturdy they caused the tools used for testing to begin to break under the pressure, while the buildings held strong. As a result of the buildings far surpassing some of the world's toughest building code standards, a precedent was set for earthen architectures, which were now accepted under the Uniform Building Code (a code dictated by the set standards of the ICBO).

They proved to be as reliable, if not more so, than traditional steel-frame and concrete buildings, which have a tendency to crack and break under pressure and shrink over time. Because of their design, they're also expected to last for 1000's of years.

The prototype structures have stood the test of time, surviving a major quake in the highest earthquake zone in the United States, tremblers, and extreme weather patterns.

Essentially the buildings sit like a bowl turned upside down on bare earth and have the flexibility to move with the Earth as it shakes, making them more resilient. The materials used in construction also make them less vulnerable to Earth's movements over time.

(Khalili's accounts of the earthquake of 1978 in Tabar, Iran, along with the story of his search for innovative solutions for housing the rural poor in his country, are documented in Racing Alone , a beautifully-communicated biography.)



Iran and California are not especially known for their rains, except for those few times a year (or, perhaps once or twice a year) when hard rains tumble down on rooftops for days or weeks at a time.

In Iran, Khalili saw how the heavy rains caused otherwise stable adobe homes to crumble. High winds and accumulating snow could also cause adobe structures to cave under added weight and pressure.

Building with Superadobe in rural regions of Iran could translate to families no longer having to suffer as great of losses, and families would no longer need to rebuild anew after a powerful storm rolls through their neighborhood.

In Los Angeles, strong rains mostly cause mudslides along the coast, at which time homes built atop cliffs occasionally slide or collapse as the cliffs below them give way.

A system of supports for cliffsides was devised by Khalili using Superadobe bags. Though it has yet to be tested, in theory it supposes that Superadobe walls built to fortress oceanside cliffs would likely lessen, if not eliminate, damage done to homes from mudslides.

Similar supports have been tested and used to preserve eroding shorelines of lakes and small bodies of water.

When wildfires occur in southern California

, a small number of homes are usually swept up in the flames. Because Superadobe is fire-resistant, if Superadobe buildings were to stand in the place of wood buildings, homes lost to wildfires would no longer be such a common occurrence.

At a time when demand for increasingly safe buildings is likely to rise, Superadobe, which is not only earthquake-resistant, but able to withstand heavy rains, high winds, floods, accumulating snowfall, and fire, could just be the answer people seek.


Khalili's Superadobe designs for homebuilding include the Earth One vaulted house and the Eco-Dome.

Vaulted houses, meant for larger families, are on the one hand similar to an all-American, three-bedroom house with a two-car garage, but their features are also starkly different.

The differences are the result of deliberate efforts by the designer to create a home that is fluid and comfortable.

In a vaulted house, the meshing of light and shadow, with the arches of the interior space, and windows situated where angles meet, adds an artistic, aesthetic quality. Depending on where a person stands in the house, they can feel a gentle breeze from the wind scoop.

The offset vaults make interior spaces seem larger than they are, while also adding a sense of intimacy, since as a result of the vaults no hallways are required for people to move from space to space.

As the years pass, additional vaults, domes, and niches can be added to enlarge a home or enhance its interior space.

Eco-Domes are composed of a main dome and four small niches. If meant for one or two people, the main dome is usually used as the living area or living room, the kitchen and bathroom take up two of the niches, and the third and fourth niche can be turned into a bedroom and reading room or office.

The domes can be used to house singles, young couples, small families, those who seek a minimalist lifestyle, or, they can serve as guesthouses. Two or more adjoined domes can easily house families, and if multiplied again in number, a cluster of Eco-Domes can serve a retirement community, or as a suite of office buildings.


People today are looking for peace and quiet in non-toxic environments and Superadobe structures not only afford people a soothing place to be, but also a sound environment in which to live and work.

The lime plaster finish used on Superadobe serves as an all natural paint or covering atop of a building that's constructed from more than 90 percent earthen materials. The effect is that people most often feel at one with the Earth when at home, or inside a Superadobe building.

Because of the building's windows, wind scoop, built-in heating and cooling systems, and, if installed, renewable heating technologies like solar or geothermal units, there's little if any need to use artificial ventilation.

Moreover, for the purpose of creating soulful environments, Superadobe, as well as other stable, earth architectures developed by Khalili, can be built into landscapes to provide restive places to sit and talk, eat or think. Courtyards, terraces, benches, water fountains, as well as recreational dome structures for meditation and other uses, can be built along the ocean, on a beachfront, in the desert, in urban areas, or on open prairies.

Superadobe rooftops are also sturdy enough to handle human visitors and can be an excellent vantage point from which to peer up at the stars at night.


When building a Superadobe home, school or office building, people get a chance to work in a team and get their hands in the mud, and feel the earth on their skin.

With a small group working together, people learn what it's like to build their own shelter without having to rely on contractors to build the foundation, walls, and roof of their home, or big companies to provide the lumber and steel supports.

Some day there may be contractors who will build Superadobe homes or buildings, but for now the designer's intent is that people build for themselves and gain from the experience.

While not necessary, the best way to learn how to build with Superadobe is probably to spend a bit of time at Cal-Earth. Apprenticeship programs and scheduled tours guided by experienced builders and architects are available at the site. People can also purchase instructional videos, books by Nader Khalili on building, and blueprints from Cal-Earth.

As a rule of thumb, Khalili recommends that if the goal is to build a larger, vaulted house, it's best to get started by building an Eco-Dome, because of its simpler design. The Eco-Dome can serve as a guest house, perhaps, or as a small house for someone else in the community who's looking to build.

No matter where it takes place, the organic nature of the work associated with building Superadobe structures in teams seems not only to be enjoyable to those who participate, but gratifying.

It can also be a springboard for other activities that involve members of a group working together to accomplish a particular goal.


Kids love to build, question, and play with dirt, and for years Khalili has both entertained and educated children who visit Cal-Earth as part of school trips or other groups.

One of the first things children may learn on their visit is that, as Khalili puts it, "earth is not dirt, it is gold."

They'll likely learn next about the inherent strengths of the circle, exhibited in the building of domes, arches, and vaults.

The notion that building with earth helps the environment doesn't seem to be lost on kids during a visit to Cal-Earth, where they can see first-hand a different kind of house and hear how the house's value stems in part from what it doesn't use, such as, precious trees.

Kids generally learn quickly to play in and around the structures, to the point that the structures become an integral part of their play and learning environment. They learn about the Superadobe earth mix too, and even practice constructing small arches using bricks. The arches are supported by a wooden lift that's carefully removed once the arch is complete, at which point the arch should remain standing. (Adults who visit Cal-Earth early on learn how to do this too.)

The basic principles from which Khalili conceived his ideas, the unifying forces of Earth's four basic elements, earth, fire, wind, and water, are also taught to the children during their stay.

A visit to Cal-Earth then, cultivates an amazing educational experience for kids. However, dissemination of the knowledge associated with Superadobe architecture can foster greater educational opportunities of the same kind for young people all over the world, including at times of crises ( e.g. after a natural disaster).


In all countries, including those at the forefront of the green movement and those that lag behind, societies still have a way to go before they've adopted the level of sustainable and eco-friendly lifestyles needed in order to halt global warming.

Superadobe looks to be one of a number of largely unrealized opportunities for creating affordable, sustainable lifestyles to meet the demands of tomorrow.

In the United States, a completed Eco-Dome costs about $10,000, and for nearly twice that amount it's possible to have either adjoining Eco-Domes or an Earth One vaulted house with several bedrooms and a two-car garage.

Being more than 90 percent built from the ground beneath your feet, Superadobe homes are also very sustainable, with energy-efficiency built-in.

As well, as a result of a design that incorporates old and new technologies to create buildings that are in harmony with the Earth as well as the persons living or working within them, there's a level of comfort that one experiences with Superadobe that's difficult to come by in other buildings.

Finally, a feeling that the setting one's in is serene may in effect promote greater smart growth and green building by nurturing perpetual and increased conservation efforts.

To view pictures of the architectures, learn about the building process, read Nader Khalili's message, or sign up for an apprenticeship or tour, log on







The Science Debates


To read descriptions of completed, soon-to-be published, works click here.







Yasha Husain. Copyright 2009-2012. All Rights Reserved.  HomeBlogContact