This Organization Is Building Sustainable Homes Out of “SuperAdobe”

published Apr 27, 2023
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Exterior of Super Adobe home with two car garage.
Credit: Courtesy of CalEarth

The Mojave Desert has more than tumbleweeds and roadrunners. Still, many people only drive through it on the way elsewhere (Las Vegas, for instance) or to visit one of its national parks. Perhaps they stop, pull over for gas, and grab a burger at In-n-Out. 

But maybe, just maybe, that rest stop gets them a little lost. And if they get lost in Hesperia, California, drive past a subdivision of tract houses, and continue down a long dirt road, they might discover what appears to be a long stretch of enormous beehives rising from the dirt. These are what’s known as earth homes.

Credit: Courtesy of CalEarth

Earth homes are structures built primarily from organic materials. The idea of building homes from soil, clay, grass, or straw has been around for eons, with Indigenous cultures all over the globe building structures out of these materials and creating models from which many present-day earth homes are derived. The CalEarth Institute seeks to spread awareness of its unique model for today’s earth homes: the SuperAdobe architectural technique, which enables one to build a simple earth structure in just one weekend from nothing but sandbags (polypropylene tubes which they call “earthbags”), the dirt below your feet, barbed wire, common tools, some elbow grease, and time. 

Developed by CalEarth founder Nader Khalili, these structures are designed to be accessible and sustainable; something that could be built by anyone. Khalili’s son Dastan notes that as long as you can pick up one coffee can full of dirt, you can build an earthbag using the SuperAdobe method. The idea is that if anyone can build themselves an earth home in a weekend, they can protect themselves if they have been displaced by a climate disaster, war, or any other situation that necessitates immediate emergency shelter. 

Khalili, an Iranian-American architect, was inspired by the poet Rumi, with the organic shelters drawn from Rumi’s vision of a union among the universal elements of earth, water, air, and fire. The poet also seems to have inspired Khalili’s vision for CalEarth as a global, aid-based project; Dastan, who now runs the Institute with his sister Sheefteh, notes how moved his father was by this Rumi line, and how it led the vision for his earth homes: “The Earth turns to Gold in the hands of the wise.”

Credit: Courtesy of CalEarth

The SuperAdobe technique has been used for structures built to house people all over the world, for different purposes. Some have built private residences — in California, Brazil, Guatemala, and even Tanzania, among other places — but others have been propelled by the core philosophy behind CalEarth and Rumi’s poetry of connectedness, choosing to erect structures to house those facing homelessness. 

Credit: Courtesy of CalEarth

The Mahatma Gandhi Foundation and AVANI built 16 SuperAdobes in Kolhapur, India, intended for rescued child laborers. In Nepal, the U.K.-based charity Small Earth built over 40 domes for the Pegasus Children’s Project as an orphanage. These large-scale relief projects, and the unique touches included in each, are the ones that most impress Sheefteh.

“The SuperAdobe is the same everywhere. But [it] has this cultural malleability, [and people] create it in the local spirit. So the colors, the way that they plaster, they use a certain kind of aesthetic or waterproofing that’s local,” she says. “And so that’s been really special to see the way they do it in Costa Rica versus the Philippines versus Japan.”

Credit: Courtesy of CalEarth

Perhaps the most notable thing about Khalil’s domes is that they have shown to withstand all kinds of abuse. The domes on site at the Institute have to put up with some pretty extreme weather and situations: heat waves, desert cold spells, the occasional small earthquake, and the threat of a much larger one (some of the structures on site have made it through the Northridge earthquake of 1994, which clocked in at 6.7 on the seismometer). In fact, the earthbag domes have passed California’s earthquake code tests, and the orphanage in Nepal was able to withstand a 7.6-magnitude tremor in 2015.

The beauty and science behind their strength lies in the arch. A simple form, the arch is known to be one of the strongest shapes to build upon and incorporate into architecture. For proof, all you need to do is consider the many buildings the ancient Romans designed, many of which are still standing today, such as the Colosseum and the Pantheon.

Credit: Courtesy of CalEarth

So how does one begin to build a SuperAdobe dome of their own? You can choose to trek out to California and take an in-person workshop at CalEarth HQ. You can also go to an international training (they’ve been held in Mexico, Spain, and Colombia in years past), or do what so many people do now when they want to learn something new: watch an online video

Sheefteh says the staff at CalEarth is hard at work on adding lessons to its website. “The key thing we’re looking for is continued accessibility, so we’re going to be launching a Spanish language online course with the entire [building] curriculum.” Once you’ve learned how to make your dream dome, you’ll need some land and approval from your local building department to get permits. CalEarth itself continuously works on getting blueprints passed by the IRC (International Residential Code) and the ICC (International Code Council) so more places around the globe can embrace SuperAdobe architecture.

Credit: Courtesy of CalEarth

Back in the desert, if you look at the CalEarth Institute from one direction, it seems like nothing but miles of domes and dirt. In the other direction, however, are those tract houses I mentioned, another form of quick and easy architecture. The difference, of course, is those houses require manufactured lumber, drywall, and other materials — all items that, as Sheefteh notes, might not exist everywhere in the world, and even if they exist now, there’s no saying how much longer they’ll exist or how much they’ll cost. 

According to the Associated Builders and Contractors, the price of construction materials has jumped nearly 5 percent from January 2022 to January 2023, and are nearly 40 percent higher than they were at the start of the pandemic. In a time when climate disasters are becoming more frequent than ever and causing added disruption to our delicate supply chains, CalEarth offers a reminder that some solutions to common problems might be right beneath our feet.