Castles Made of Sand
In 1976, Nader Khalili shuttered his Tehran design office, boarded a motorcycle, and—like an architectural Che Guevara—set off on a five-year odyssey, traveling the countryside and studying Iran’s ancient adobe construction techniques. "I was searching for a way to create a building that was totally in harmony with nature, that could be available to everybody around the world," Khalili recalls. "The adobes were environmentally harmonious. But one earthquake would destroy them." Khalili’s initial solution? "Ceramic houses—I set them on fire and glazed them." Using this novel strengthening technique, the architect successfully rebuilt old dwellings and constructed new school buildings in a number of desert villages.
What worked in Iran, however, where clay-rich earth and hot-burning oil were plentiful, didn’t necessarily travel well. In 1983, Khalili was in California pondering the problem when NASA called, seeking ideas for building on the moon. The tirelessly imaginative architect proposed Velcro-coated bags that could be filled with lunar dust and coiled into cylinders. "I thought, Why not apply this idea to housing on earth?"
The result is the "superadobe" structure: layers of sandbags set in a circular plan, with a strand of four-point barbed wire between each level to provide stability, and corbeled at the top into a dome-shaped roof. This simple design offers multiple advantages: The buildings are earthquake-, hurricane-, and flood-resistant. Khalili’s basic unit, a three-room, 400-square-foot house he calls the Moon Cocoon, can be erected by five laborers—four of them unskilled—within weeks. They are sustainable, adaptable, and literally dirt-cheap.
Khalili, founder of the California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture (Cal-Earth), is proud that super-adobes have proliferated throughout the Americas, Asia, and Africa, and received the approval of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. But he seems proudest of their appearance. "You can never build one of these that doesn’t look beautiful," Khalili says. "Just as you have never seen an ugly tree or an ugly flower."