Down-to-earth houses

The idea of building a beehivelike house out of moist dirt mixed with some loose cement, scooped into standard-size sandbags, and held together by strands of barbed wire sounds like something Rube Goldberg might have cartooned.

But it's real all right, and its originator, Nader Khalili, insists it is a practical and inexpensive way to solve the world's homeless problems, particularly in depressed and war-torn areas.

Most African countries have experimented with what Mr. Khalili calls his "superadobe" houses. In the United States, one has been built in Fallbrook, Calif., the self-styled Avocado Capital of the World. Eventually it may grow into a village for migrant workers.

The design is based chiefly on time-tested Iranian desertarchitecture: primitive huts made of dirt held together by slurry.

Since 1991, when Khalili, an Iranian-American architect who used to build skyscrapers, began experimenting with beehivelike structures, his headquarters has been 7-1/2 acres of barren high-desert land in Hesperia, Calif.

His nonprofit organization, the California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture – usually called Cal-Earth Institute – has survived chiefly through financial grants from several US corporations.

Khalili's mud structures have passed California's stringent Seismic Zone 4 codes, meaning they are highly resistant to fires, floods, hurricanes, and other kinds of natural disasters.

Emergency shelter

"Helping homeless people find shelter has always been a mission with me, a dream," Khalili says. "Government officials from all over the world have come here ... to study our work. Almost all of them have slept in one of our structures overnight, and we like that. But our goal is to build an entire city in some place like West Africa. Then we would really have something to show people."

One of the Cal-Earth Institute's biggest boosters, Khalili says, is a unit of the United Nations Emergency Response division.

"What we saw was very impressive," Jimenez de Luis of the UN Development Program told "National Geographic Today." "These domes were very easy to build ... and could be adapted to the soil type of any country."

However, not everyone is convinced that Khalili's "mud huts" have a future. Architect Peter Berman says that this primitive technology is a step backward, not a solution for the future.

Khalili responds that his beehive shelters have never been intended for people who can afford conventional housing. His targets are developing nations that are often rocked by earthquakes and massive flooding.

Using mostly the dirt under their feet, Khalili says, five unskilled laborers, properly supervised, can build a superadobe (which has room for two people) in less than a day. Not counting labor, the cost of a finished hut is about $200.

Plumbing, electricity, and running water (which can be added later) are not included. The top of the domelike structure is usually left open for ventilation. (Temperatures inside the structure can be 20 degrees cooler than outdoors.)

A small fireplace tucked into a wall provides heat and can also be used for cooking.

Windows are portholes without glass that are staggered, usually at mid height around the diameter. The entrance is a simple opening that is covered at night by a tarp.

Unless the 18-inch thick walls are covered with at least two coats of paint, there is a lingering odor of moist dirt. And since there is no room for a standard-size bed, sleeping bags are a must.

Currently, using mostly the same building techniques as those applied to his $200 model, Khalili and his staff are well along on a 2,000-square-foot house on Cal-Earth's Hesperia property.

This is a $75,000 three bedroom, two-bathroom house that features vaults (rooms) arranged in an offset pattern. It includes a living room, kitchen, washer and dryer, and two-car garage.

Because the dome-like ceilings in this structure are approximately 11 feet high, curved steel rods are used for support.

This particular model uses several wind tunnels, which will extend around the structure's roof. They are designed to channel cool air into the main areas of the house.

However, what Khalili first wants to catch on are his two-person beehives that begin life when workers lay out a circle 20 feet in diameter. After digging out that circle to a depth of 15 to 18 inches, the dirt from the hole is mixed with loose cement. Then the self-supporting sandbags, held together with strands of barbed wire, are wound into coils that spiral to a height of approximately 12 feet.

What has hampered Khalili's progress with foreign governments over the years has been the absence of a small town or community of permanently occupied superadobe structures anywhere except Hesperia.

Tied up in red tape

In fact, despite favorable reports from many who have talked with Khalili, bureaucracy has been a tough barrier for him to break.

One plus that Khalili can point to with pride, though, is a number of individually built superadobes in barren areas across the United States. He has a number of unsolicited photographs of beehive houses built by former students. Many are postmarked Arizona.

Like most pioneers trying to sell an unconventional idea, Khalili has his critics, many of whom feel his technical methods became obsolete decades ago. Most of them consider tents to be preferable to dirt huts for housing in third-world countries.

Some naysayers note that the most basic models may last only two to three years. Others contend that the domed style of architecture, which originated in Iran and Afghanistan, may not be readily accepted in other countries.

But to those who share Khalili's ideas, he seems like a man willing to "ride the often-frustrating wave of time" until his dream becomes a reality.

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