Neder Khalili (1936 to 2008) was an Iranian-born architect whose vision of sustainable building for the relief of the poor has been realized in communities around the world.
Like the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy before him, Khalili built homes of earth with thick walls, curves instead of straight lines, and consideration for the needs imposed on residents by their climate. But where Fathy’s system proved unsustainable over the decades, Khalili’s technology seems likely to endure.
Khalili escaped Iran as a young man and established his office in California, where he was licensed as an architect in 1970. He taught his theories around the world, reaping recognition and awards for his work.
At the request of NASA in 1984, Khalili developed a technology that could be used to build on Mars and the moon. Eventually it became known as SuperAdobe, a form of architecture using dirt-filled sandbags, barbed wire, plaster, and very little else. Although it first remained a theory, NASA published the plans, which were awarded the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2004. We reported more on Khalili’s works and awards, here.
In practice, SuperAdobe has been used to create homes, community centers, playgrounds and more, in 49 countries and counting. The projects built in the States pass global safety requirements and earthquake code tests in California.
The Los Angeles Times reported, ““The city (of Hesperia) conducted tests, under the supervision of the International conference of Building Officials, and found that SuperAdobe stood up to twice the amount of weight that would crush a pitched-roof house.”
In 1991 Khalili founded the California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture (Cal-Earth), a non-profit school where he taught the SuperAdobe building technique with the aim of showing ordinary people – not only students of architecture – how to build their own homes from filled sandbags. His daughter and son now run the organization and train teams in theory and practice.
How SuperAdobe works is explained on the Cal-Earth site:
“Long or short sandbags are filled with moistened earth and arranged in layers or long coils. Strands of barbed wire are placed between each layer of sandbag to act as both mortar and reinforcement. Stabilizers such as cement, lime, or asphalt emulsion may be added. Similar to how a potter stacks coils of clay to make a vessel, builders stack coils of earth to make a structure.
The structural design uses modern engineering concepts like base-isolation and post-tensioning. The long coils of sandbag provide compression (vertical) strength. While the barbed wire adds tensile (horizontal) strength. In addition, the sandbags add flood resistance. The earth itself provides insulation and fire-proofing.”
Supplies needed to build SuperAdobe structures are synthetic, UV resistant degradable sand bags, four-point, two strand, galvanized barbed wire, shovels, tampers, dirt and water.
This beautiful domed village was created on the island of Hormuz, in Iran, by the architectural firm Zav Architects, based in Teheran. The residents have traditionally been involved in illegal activities, but the hope is that, having been trained in SuperAdobe construction, they will turn to more acceptable ways of making a living. This is similar to the vision of Hassan Fathy, whose New Gourna village was created to house residents of the original Gourna and guide them to farming and construction trades.
Until the Covid pandemic appeared, Cal-Earth offered courses, hands-on workshops, youth programs, field trips and lectures. All possible classes have been moved online and are available as videos or Zoom sessions now. Visit Caltech for details.
What does Pablo say?
Green Prophet’s friend and advisor, environmental artist Pablo Solomon says:
“People in our part of Texas have made adobe bricks from caliche clay for centuries. It is a naturally occurring mixture of clay and limestone gravel (often small fossils). When it dries in the sun it is incredibly hard. Like all adobe, you must plaster over it to keep the moisture out.
“Also, you might find this interesting–a guy out in Marfa, Texas (near Big Bend National Park) mixes cement, shredded paper and sand to make a light weight concrete for construction by blocks or pouring. The really unique aspect is the way he mixes the composition. He pulls a mixer behind his pick up truck as he drives around and gears attached to the trailer wheels cause the mixer to turn.”