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    Dirt-Cheap Houses from Elemental Materials


    Within the walls of Ghala Mofid, he found villagers living in the open air because the vaulted roofs of their crumbling raw clay homes had been undermined by rain and threatened to collapse. Khalili walked the villagers out to the kiln and convinced them he could make their homes as solid. As a test, he repaired a single home, temporarily sealed its door and windows with bricks, and fired the house from the inside with a burner that was gravity-fed by two barrels of kerosene balanced on the roof. The adobe baked for three days and turned to rain-and-earthquake-impervious stone, just like the old kiln. Soon, every home in the village was fired.

    Over the next few years, Khalili toured the farthest reaches of Iran, teaching villagers to transform their homes into ceramic that would last for generations, a process he called "geltaftan," a combination of the Persian words for "clay" and "firing."

    In 1982, with his mission accomplished in Iran, Khalili began teaching a course in ceramic architecture at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, in Santa Monica. On a field trip, looking for suitable adobe houses to fire in Taos, New Mexico, Khalili discovered that unlike the peasants of Iran, the poor of America lived in trailer homes. Adobe homes built with bricks that cost a dollar apiece were not an option.

    "I needed to find a way to pick up any soil and build with that, taking into account those who cannot afford clay or firing," Khalili explains. "Then I realized that all over the world, from Mexico to the Sahara to the coastlines, there is sand, but nobody is doing anything with it."

    So Khalili figured out how to make houses out of sand. Using a mortar of barbed wire, he stacked sandbags into arches and staggered the arches into vaults, forming a sort of igloo that required a total material investment of a few hundred dollars. With the middle-class in mind, he developed "superadobe," mile-long fabric tubes that are pumped full of moistened soil and coiled into structures resembling beehives. These houses cost a few thousand dollars.

    Ultimately, Khalili envisions a sort of earth-friendly Levittown rising out of the Mojave. He and his students have built a model superadobe house on undeveloped acreage near his architecture school in Hesperia, a bedroom community of pitched-roof bungalows in the wind-swept high desert seventy-five miles outside of Los Angeles.

    Over he next few years, he hopes to convince forty Hesperians to replicate his design. Already underway is a 7,500-square-foot nature center and museum consisting of twelve domes made of Khalili's superadobe, one dome of brick, and still another, a thirty-foot-tall entrance hall, of glazed and fired clay.

    While Hesperia's leaders are quick to compare Khalili with Frank Lloyd Wright or Buckminster Fuller, the architect himself prefers to be measured against an apricot or a crustacean.

    "Some of my best inspiration comes from the apricot pit," he says. "You put it into the earth, and that pit changes the earth into a tree with branches that flower and make more apricots. That is a true architect.

    "To me, the greatest builders are those little creatures in the sea that make seashells. Their shells, their homes, have the best texture, the best colors, the best forms. They are waterproof, yet they are created only from water. If we as humans understand and realize our own potential, we should be able to do just that. We should be able to mold the earth into its best and most beautiful form without the need to cut trees and destroy the environment. It is shameful that we call ourselves made in the image of God, and yet we have to destroy everything to build our little houses."

    Copyright 1998, Ted Katauskas
    This article originally appeared in Architectural Record, August, 1998.


    ArchWeek Photo

    The "superadobe" technique.
    Photo: California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture

    ArchWeek Photo

    Results of the "superadobe" technique.
    Photo: California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture

    ArchWeek Photo

    Ceramic structures.
    Photo: California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture

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