The RIC Good Wood Guide

Adobe & Super Block Technology

clay, earth and ceramic arhchitecture

by Vicki Oldham

- reprinted from the Mendocino Environment Centre Newsletter, (US)

(See also Wood-Free Dome Building, and Interview with Nader Khalili, below)

As I look around, I see shortsightedness, greed, fear of change, ignorance and a waste of people and resources. I feel a sense of loss for the Web of Life and for those who have lost touch with it.

I know that some of my feelings are residual from a recent Board of Forestry hearing, where status-quo and self-serving interests were the real motives for the continuance of resource depletion. The idiom, "They can't see the forest for the trees", certainly rang true that day. I feel we are in an environmental and economic crisis. The Chinese word for crisis is written with two characters: 'danger' and 'opportunity'.

My search for alternatives gives me hope. I know there are better choices and new opportunities for people and the earth. The price is the danger of change. Fortunately, unlike the spotted owl (an endangered species), homo sapiens is very adaptable and in crisis can survive major changes in habitat, diet and even employment. Viable, timber-free alternatives for shelter have been used for thousand of years by cultures much older (and wiser) than ours.

By using the elements Earth, Water, Air and Fire in combination with each other, homes can be built without wood. These alternative homes are vastly superior to wood-construction in price, sustainability, energy-efficiency and simplicity of design. Ordinary people can build their own earth-friendly homes from the Earth's own elements. Earthen construction techniques have been used on every continent since human beings first began to build.

Hesperia, California is the home of the Geltaftan Foundation, Inc., a non-profit, tax-exempt, educational organization. CAL EARTH (California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture 1) is a program of the Geltaftan Foundation. CAL EARTH sponsors hands-on earth and ceramic architecture workshops with Nader Khalili, visionary architect and author. Nader Khalili has extensively travelled throughout the Middle East, where clay and earth structures have sheltered, shaded and survived for centuries. He has built amazing domes from adobe bricks that have been glazed and fired by turning the entire dome into a kiln. With their one-foot-thick walls, these domes, using Earth, Water, Air and Fire in their construction are impervious to the destructive forces of those same elements. Although labour-intensive and best suited to sites where adobe clay is readily available, ceramic structures provide a sane, sustainable alternative to wood construction.

 "Nader Khalili...has built amazing domes from adobe bricks that have been glazed and fired by turning the entire dome into a kiln.......With their one-foot thick walls, these domes, using Earth, Water, Air and Fire in their construction, are impervious to the destructive forces of those same elements."

Super Block technology is one of the most creative, viable, universal, sustainable, non-wood construction options I have found in my search for alternatives. It was first proposed by Khalili in 1984 to NASA scientists as "Velcro Adobe" (for building on the moon). Simply put, by using ancient structural principles, sandbags are filled in place with earth or sand and used as a structural unit. Barbed wire is the "velcro" or mortar used to hold each course of sandbags together. The structure is tied together with rope or metal. Walls can be sealed with a mixture of mud and straw or with stucco. Sandbag arches are used to form window and doors. The earth or sand is removed from the interior "footprint" of the dome, leaving the earth outside undisturbed and lowering the interior floor of the structure.

 "Super Block technology is one of the most creative, viable, universal, sustainable, non-wood construction options I have found.......It was first proposed to NASA scientists as 'Velcro Adobe'."

The simplicity and beauty of filling the sandbags in place allows anyone, even a child, to build a structure and, if necessary, to do it alone. Structurally, sand and earth have incredible flexibility and can take a lot of compression. When filling the bags in difficult places such as arches, three bags are filled simultaneously and gradually so as to form keystones (wedges). Although very flexible, when compressed, the sandbags become hard as rocks. A fifteen-foot diameter dome uses approximately 1200 polypropylene sandbags and two rolls of barbed wire. The cost is less than $500.

CAL EARTH and the City of Hesperia are located in the Mojave Desert. Khalili chose this area because it is a most difficult area in which to build. It is close to the San Andreas Fault, with harsh winds, flash floods, extreme summer heat and winter cold. His thought was that if he could successfully erect buildings there, they would pass anywhere. Super Block domes have passed static and seismic loading tests. The open-minded Hesperia Building Dept. is now allowing UBC type M-1 (garages and outbuildings) and B-2 (retail) occupancy prototype buildings in Hesperia. They are also open to receiving residential plans as part of this prototype program.

Wood-Free Dome Building

In mid 1996, the town of Hesperia began building its new Museum and Nature Centre, based on the designs of Nader Khalili, and after much testing of a full-scale prototype erected at CAL EARTH. The complex consists of fourteen domes and two vaults, and is the first officially permitted structure of its kind to be built entirely of earth.

Interview with Nader Khalili

(reprinted from Permaculture Journal no. 10)

Six years ago, I left the companies that I had just sold. I bought a motorcycle and rode it into the desert. My idea was to fire a clay and adobe house right in place, and then possibly glaze parts of it. The idea had hounded me for many years and I thought: 'Now is the time to do it'.

Where did you get the idea that a house could be fired? The first thing that anybody who works in ceramics will say about a house being fired is 'It's much too big. It won't work'.

Khalili: I had no background in ceramics, no background in anything that has to do with firing, and possibly that's why it came to me. There was no limit in my mind like how big a piece of ceramic or how hot a fire can be.

I knew for two-thirds of the world, even more eighty percent maybe there is no material, no money, no architecture, nothing available to them. The only thing they have is their labour and the earth under their feet. That is the architecture which is real to me to provide for those people who have just their hands and the earth. So the question was: how would I come up with something with these factors in my mind?

All over the world there are huge kilns built out of adobes and clay. They have lasted for hundreds of years. I came to the kilns when I had to explain my work to the villagers.To the specialists and big people in the city and bureaucrats, I couldn't explain anything. I couldn't get any help from them, so I just left everything and went to the villages.

I saw a funny worn wall outside one village. I went inside and looked, and it was a big kiln exactly the size of the house I planned to fire. I tried to break it with my foot, hand, anything, but I couldn't. They were using this kiln to bake ceramics and make bricks a hundred years ago, and it was abandoned. It had sat there under rain, snow, flood, earthquake. After all these years of struggle, I saw that I was doing exactly what the village had been doing for hundreds of years.

So I ran to the village and took the villagers down to the kiln. I said: 'Now look, you are living in houses which made from adobe and clay and have roofs which are vaults or domes without any wood. How come your houses have been falling on your heads and killing you and your cattle all this time, but this kiln hasn't fallen down?' One of the old men looked at me as if I were an idiot. And he said, very nicely, 'Well, can't you see that a fire has made this to one-piece brick? This will stay for a hundred years!'

All of a sudden one of them said, 'Oh, that's what you're going to do to our houses!' and then the whole thing fell into place.

So that was the big moment.

Khalili: That was one of the big moments. Over these six years, I have had many big moments big moments of discovery how you can glaze a house or a kitchen or a bathroom; big moments of discovery of how you fire a place.

How do you fire a place?

Khalili: The system is patented, but it will be my gift to the people. Really it's very simple. You close up the windows and doors with adobes and you leave a hole in the door for a torch. The torch is made so it curves upward into the room. You put a barrel of kerosene oil or whatever kind of fuel you have on the roof of the next house, and that gives the pressure to let the oil flow through a hose into the torch. The fire stays lit for about twenty hours.

What's the cost of firing a house?

Khalili: It came out to one house with two rooms, arounds 300 square feet, $US38 worth of fuel to fire.

About how many structures have been fired in this way?

Khalili: This is very, very new. the first construction we did was a year ago, and a year before that we fired twelve houses that were twenty or thirty years old. I did only two of them; the rest of them the villagers did themselves. The new construction was a five thousand square foot school. The whole thing was made from clay earth. The total cost for materials was $US1800.

The roofs are vaults and domes, the best forms Nature has given us. Any architect, any structural engineer knows a dome can resist forces better than any other form. That has been shown in earthquakes all over the world. Just before the revolution in my country (Iran), in Tabas a great earthquake levelled everything including all the steel and concrete structures. The only things that remained there were the structures with brick and clay that were built in the form of domes.

The revolution really broke many things in the people's minds. All of a sudden, you asked yourself: 'Now what is all this city planning, housing, all these beautiful statistical figures, feasibility studies? You find out they don't belong to these poor people.

Industrialisation had disillusioned a lot of people over there of the value of the things they had themselves. I asked many of those people, 'What are you doing? Why are you tearing that down and putting this up?' They said, 'Well, this is modern'. I said, 'Why these huge windows? You had beautiful enough light. Aren't you going to cook inside this in summer?' He would say, 'But this is what they do in Tehran. This is right. I've seen it. Why shouldn't we have things in life? Why should the Westerners come and take our oil and have all the fun themselves? We can have it, too'. I was trying to tell this man, 'You don't need modern housing. You need some money to build what you have better. You are wealthy in what your culture gives you. If there is this sort of building in America, in Europe, it's because it fits their life. But it doesn't fit yours.

'Sun hits a flat modern roof six to twelve hours a day, and you absorb all that heat inside your room. A dome means you always have a shade zone. One side in sun, the other side in shadow. You will never get that full sun of three hundred days a year. One side is hot and one side is cool, it creates a movement of air inside your house. Now, you want to tear that down and put up a couple of steel beams and a few inches of cement? This dome wasn't just invented by somebody else and sold to you; it came about because of the earth.

Even the West is finding out today that they cannot control Nature any more, that you shouldn't create air condtioning to fight the sunshine. They are finding out that they'd better create a shade zone and a sun zone, they'd better create current, and they'd better use wind. They have come to this point because of the energy crisis. But you have the wealth right here. Why do you tear these things down?'

Now, I knew that throughout the architectural world of the West, as well as the East, they were concerned about the true value of giving to people the simple answer to what they need. There is always a simple answer to everything, if you go deep in it and if you put your heart in it.

During the beginning of the revolution, I said, 'Now, what is all this prefabrication of big buildings? Why can't I fire this man's house?' All of a sudden I wasn't thinking as an architect any more. I wasn't thinking, 'Now I'll have clients, I'll build projects, I'll design them and I'll get my fee and build'. No there were millions of clients for me! They couldn't afford to pay any fee, but the material was under their feet.

I found out that what I had been doing before the revolution was creating a piece of art alone, and that's not enough. Art in the East has never been something you hang in a museum. The fine arts are the arts that people use. The Persian rug is the most beautiful piece of art, but it's not created for art it's created to put under your feet. So my work of firing and glazing jumped from a dream of creating these beautiful, magnificent peices of art, to to a question: what about these poor villages with these torn down walls and houses? I can fire that; that will be safe for them. What about the toilets and stable, such dirty, diseased places? Okay, I can cover them with glaze and they become sanitary.

And finally the dreams really came true. That's when you get closest to anything you could name a religious experience, an ideal or a dream.

Yes, I know what you mean. There's that feeling of having taken your personal vision and made something of it, and it's something useful and beautiful.

Khalili: I found that I wasn't embarassed to be feeling religious. Being religious has to do of course with growing up with something else in another country. You fall between two cultures. Going through that, a lot of things become nonsense. But I watched myself feel that the material itself couldn't create things; you've got to have a spirit. It is something that is in us. We are part of a bigger creation. There is such capacity in our heart and our mind that we only have to go through all this self-searching to reach that.

If anybody would have told me that in the middle of the night somewhere in a dirty place and cold and in misery, all of a sudden I would see in the fire of a glazing house something that I had never experienced, that's something funny you would never accept. But you do that. You are in the desert, you are with the people, you are in the mountains, you are with fire, and then you find out that your whole existence is really fire. You are burning constantly inside.

For me, the work is completed. From now on, I have to improve on it, and I will carry on to make the most economically low-cost housing for the poor of the world that comes from th earth and the fire. I will try also to build the most beautiful glazed spaces, interiors, where you can sculpt everything you want fireplace, bookshelves, coat hangers, everything, and then fire it in the glaze. I will be trying tio improve on how you can glaze your house with just rock salt.

I think my work has been cut out for me the rest of my life. I wouldn't want to make it commercial, no. I still would like to continue it here, in India, anywhere in the world that the opportunity comes, because the satisfaction that I got was unparelleled with any material gain that could come to me.


1. For more info on CAL-Earth, see Builders - Earth, Mudbrick, Adobe , Cob.

Go to TOP of PAGE