Sometime last week, whilst researching more on strawbale houses, I came across another building technique that I hadn't been aware of previously – earth-bag or superadobe. Then, on Saturday I went to World Fest and got to hear a guy from the Cal-Earth Institute talk all about it. Fascinating and wonderful stuff it is, and so simple that one person can build a house using the most sustainable technique around.
Here's how it goes: you dig out the building area, put the dirt into bags, stack the bags in an ever-decreasing circle and soon enough your hut is ready! The structure is fire-, pest- and weather-resistant because its design is based on an arch and because the building materials – being of an earthen nature – have a natural flexibility in them to parry even the quaking of terra firma. They also pass the strictest of building codes in San Bernadino County, Calif. which is known for its high standards due to its seismic proximity.
The origins of superadobe are rooted in perhaps the oldest construction on the planet – mud huts. Nader Khalili, the guy who came up with the current technique, looked at what has worked throughout time and then smartened it up a bit. The Iranian-American Khalili was a successful architect (and philosopher) in California, building skyscrapers like there was no tomorrow. Then he realized there was a tomorrow and decided he wanted to do something more better with his work. Along with superadobe, Khalili also fashioned a technique for ceramic houses. His contributions have been honored like mad for decades by little known groups such as the United Nations and NASA, (He pitched the idea of colonizing the moon and Mars.) so he founded the Cal-Earth Institute to support his work.
Safe, cheap and quick emergency shelters can be built with earth bags like the Baninajar Refugee Camp in the Persian Gulf (pictured above). These huts cost about $650 each to build and each can be completed in a matter of days by a team of four. What's more is that the building materials consist of sandbags and barbed wire, and the notion of taking tools of war and using them for higher purposes was not lost on Khalili.
To be sure, the emergency shelters are simple mud huts as you would likely envision. However, superadobe can also be gussied up to slake the more luxurious thirsts among us. The natural insulation, coupled with passive solar planning, makes these gems incredibly energy efficient, as well. In hot climates, if you dig down four feet to lay your foundation layer, you can also capitalize on the Earth's natural cooling mechanism.
Khalili passed away last year, leaving a wealth of wisdom and kindness in his wake. The Cal-Earth Institute carries his torch with that same generosity of spirit, teaching people all over the world how to shelter themselves.
Considering that the kids who starred in the $140 million-grossing Slumdog Millionaire just had their “homes” demolished, that victims of hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis are still homeless in Haiti, China, Indonesia and elsewhere, that hundreds of thousands of war and genocide refugees are without shelter in Pakistan, Sudan and other areas, and so on and so forth... the ability to build a $650 housing unit seems just about right. A roof over every head would be change I could believe in.