Page B1.1 . 17 May 2000                     
ArchitectureWeek - Building Department



Dirt-Cheap Houses from Elemental Materials

by Ted Katauskas

Every day, a growing number of apprentice home builders travel deep into the California desert for a chance to commune with Nader Khalili, an architect who is single-handedly trying to wean the world off of two-by-fours, steel, and concrete.

"We send our children into the world with the notion that a house must have a pitched roof, a square window and a chimney," Khalili says. "How can they ever imagine they can build something beautiful out of dirt?"

At the California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture, a school he founded in the Mojave Desert in 1986, students who typically have no architectural training are doing just that. In the span of a two-day seminar, they learn how to build simple homes that incorporate only the most elemental materials--earth, water, and fire--and the most fundamental architectural forms--arches, vaults and domes. The designs range from the artfully exotic (vaulted adobe that is glazed and fired into ceramic) to the simply rustic (sandbag igloos).

Khalili's unique vision emerged out of a midlife crisis. In 1975, the thirty-eight-year-old Khalili headed a conventional architecture firm in Tehran, Iran, that was prospering in the midst of a modernization program sponsored by the Shah. Realizing that his profits were coming at the expense of traditional Persian adobe architecture, which was being razed and replaced with Western steel and concrete, Khalili cavalierly sold his stake in his firm, bought a motorcycle, and took off on a five-year odyssey through the Iranian desert, searching for a way to preserve his country's architectural heritage while helping to house the poor.

On the outskirts of Ghala Mofid, a remote desert village, Khalili found the solution: a house-sized kiln with a vaulted roof that had once been used to fire clay tiles. Inspecting the long-abandoned structure, he noticed that countless firings had fused the adobe bricks of the kiln's walls and ceiling into a uniform shell of solid rock that had withstood centuries of earthquakes and exposure to the elements.


ArchWeek Photo

Persian architect Nader Khalili has developed techniques for firing clay into beautiful, high-strength, low-cost ceramic structures.
Photo: California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture

ArchWeek Photo

Nader Khalili's "superadobe," technique stacks sandbags strengthened by barbed wire into arches and vaults, forming structures resembling beehives from low-cost materials.
Photo: California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture

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