CalEarth in Italy

In April, CalEarth and Vide Terra organized a SuperAdobe workshop together in Italy. We welcomed a wonderful group of attendees from Africa, Europe and Asia. This intensive course provided the theoretical and practical tools needed to build a dome using the SuperAdobe technique. Thank you to Davide Frasca and Mark Harmon for training and to Progetto Paterno for hosting!

Photo cred: Vide Terra

SuperAdobe Spotlight: A Dome in Nepal

ben dome.jpg

A long-term apprentice, Ben began his SuperAdobe journey at CalEarth and then traveled to Nepal to build. Learn more about his adventure below!

How did you first hear about CalEarth?

It has been nearly a decade since I first heard about CalEarth. A friend mentioned SuperAdobe and I looked it up online. I clicked on the CalEarth website and was immediately attracted to the curvilinear aesthetics of Khalili’s designs. The building techniques and humanitarian efforts spoke to my ideals yet being young and caught in routine, it wouldn’t be until years later that I stepped foot onto the CalEarth campus. The long-term apprenticeship often crossed my mind over the course of those years. Finally, after attending an open house, I was inspired to officially begin my SuperAdobe journey. 

What did you learn during you apprenticeship at CalEarth and what projects did you assist with?

Within the first days of the apprenticeship I learned the basic concepts and techniques while building a 6’ dome with the core curriculum workshop. From landscape applications to design, windows and doors, basic plumbing and electric, plasters and finishes, the apprenticeship offered a wealth of knowledge and experience in 10 short weeks. My group completed another 9’ dome with a 4.5’ apse, a clay plaster and installed a door constructed from scratch. We contributed to various other projects from the great CalEarth perimeter wall to campus upkeep, garden additions, plaster, paint and general dome maintenance as well as assisting with weekend workshops. 

What surprised you the most while at CalEarth?

What surprised me the most while at CalEarth and what continues to surprise me is why this incredibly beautiful, simple, effective, efficient, economical, seismic and fire resistant building technique is not more widely known and employed. CalEarth brings a logical solution to many of the issues surrounding the global housing crises. So the surprise is why we continue to plunder our recourses, producing chemically saturated, high cost, high impact materials while such a viable alternative is literally under our noses.

What do you wish people knew about CalEarth?

I wish for more people to simply know that CalEarth exists. I hope for people to be empowered by the techniques and knowledge that the institute offers, and to know that we can build our own low impact, healthy, wholesome homes. 

Why do you choose to build using the SuperAdobe method?

I choose this method because I understand it’s structural integrity and it excites me to have creative freedom and work with organic design principles. I enjoy the process of working with community hands on and learning the artistic nuances and subtleties that present themselves during the build. I choose this method because I believe in the principles behind the structures and I want to contribute to less energy consumptive development practices. On a more personal level, as a living, breathing, animated, human form of dirt, it feels natural and fuels an instinctual drive for me to form a home from the same elements from which I am created.

What brought you to Nepal?

I have long had an interest in the majesty of Nepal, and having the opportunity to build a dome there sealed the deal. My good friend, Hamilton Pevec, who works with my gardening and landscaping business, Awesome Blossoms lives part-time in Nepal with his wife and child. He was living in Nepal when the 2015 earthquake hit and became deeply involved with the aid relief and reconstruction process. At that time he researched the possibility of using earth-bag construction for rebuilding in the villages. Yet, having no hands-on experience with the techniques, they chose to rebuild from rubble using earthquake resilient modifications like banding, cap rings, thru stones, and vertical rebar reinforcements. That can all be seen in his new documentary film “Guerrilla Aid,”  a story about the front lines of aid relief during the aftermath of a major disaster.

His interest in SuperAdobe didn’t fade, and after myself and fellow colleague and friend, Chris Ford attended the CalEarth apprentice program, Hamilton took the opportunity to utilize our new found skills and learn the techniques to build his own dome. Together, we traveled to Nepal along with another friend, James Gorman and the adventure began.  

Talk about the dome you built in Nepal and what it will be used for?

We built a 15’ dome on Hamilton’s land just outside Pokhara where he, his wife and her brother run a yoga retreat center called Himalayan Yogini. The dome will be a meditation and singing bowl space before it is finished as a home for Hamilton and his family. Building in Nepal offered us many unique challenges and learning opportunities. Reworking our expectations of time management and labor, as well as tool and material availability was the first obstacle. Coming from the USA, where you can pick up anything you want from multiple locations in nearly any town in the country, it was a wake up call to be faced with fashioning our own tool handles, building our pole compass from bamboo, wire and duct tape, constructing forms with handsaws and low quality nails, building bamboo ladders, lashed with coconut rope and spending days searching for simple “common” materials in town. Furthermore, manual excavation through many feet of ancient rice terrace proved to be a far greater challenge than we expected. This process took around two weeks and we encountered many large boulders along the way. Luckily by that point our Nepali workforce had shown up to literally crush the boulders with sledge hammers while working in their flip flops. Being that we were building in a seismically active zone that is pounded with over 130” of monsoon rain per year, we decided to stabilize our bag mix with 20% cement for the foundation, 15% to buttress height and then 9% for the rest of the dome. This added a great deal of labor to our process but lent us some piece of mind for the dome’s safety and longevity. 

How long did it take to build the dome and who helped with your build?

In total, it took us just over a month, from ground breaking to completing the bag work. There is absolutely no way we could have accomplished that without the incredible help from the Nepali locals who showed up to help us. Initially we had 5 guys but after the first couple weeks one guy had to go back to his village. So for the remaining couple weeks we had 4 Nepali’s and 4 of us Americans. 

Did you incorporate any local traditional design into the dome?

I wouldn’t say we incorporated any traditional Nepali design into the build, other than using the local soil and orienting the dome to face the sacred Mt Panchase. We did however have a traditional Buddhist Puja performed before we started our foundation courses. The family hopes to incorporate some traditional clay plaster and paint for the interior and certainly with the resources we had, and our amazing work force it was all built in “Nepali style.” 

What is your hope for the future of CalEarth?

I hope that SuperAdobe is granted approval with the international code counsel, making it an official, permitted residential building alternative and that CalEarth may continue to grow and flourish as the incredible learning center that it is, bringing this technology to the people for generations to come. I envision the campus as a hub for the growing SuperAdobe industry, producing professionals worldwide, as it has done for years. I believe that our ever-growing population is in demand of lower input housing and development. I see CalEarth as a major player, ushering this technology into the mainstream. 

Do you plan to stay involved with CalEarth moving forward? How?

Absolutely! In whatever capacity possible! I plan to continue sharing my own knowledge, passion and experience with others, promoting the institute and taking the opportunity to build with this technology whenever possible. I am always open to whatever opportunity I can take to work with CalEarth. 

 If you could describe the SuperAdobe method of building in one word, what would it be?


Los Angeles Times Spotlight on CalEarth

CalEarth, Champion of Inexpensive Architecture for the Poor, Reopens this Weekend

By: Marissa Gluck - May 31, 2019

Early on a warm Saturday morning about 80 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, intrepid visitors sat in their cars waiting for CalEarth to open. They had come to Hesperia to see the dome-shaped structures meant to serve as housing and emergency shelters — inexpensive and easy to build architecture, perhaps for the poor or for people displaced by earthquake, wildfire, wind or flood.

Unfortunately, the research institute’s campus was closed. CalEarth had been shut down to the public since last December by the San Bernardino County Fire Department until the institute could build a fire road and make other improvements to comply with the county and city codes.

For advocates of sustainable design, the closure has quieted a longstanding voice in an increasingly important conversation. Founded in 1991 by Nader Khalili, the California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture has researched and developed solutions, including the SuperAdobe, a structure made with patented, long plastic bags filled with dirt from the building site and held in place with barbed wire. Khalili’s ultimate aim was to empower refugees and the poor to build homes using minimal materials and without the need for highly skilled practitioners such as architects, engineers and contractors.

The institute ran a robust program of apprenticeships and workshops for people interested in the technique. Alumni, dispersed across the globe, have used the SuperAdobe technique to build in places as varied as Oman, Venezuela, Japan, Hungary and Sierra Leone. While the Hesperia campus was closed, the apprenticeships and workshops continued offsite in places like Italy and Mexico.

“It verified that CalEarth is not just the campus,” said Nader’s daughter Sheefteh Khalili, who has run the institute with her brother Dastan since their father’s death in 2008. “The work has proliferated so much more expansively. The campus is just one part.”

The structures on the CalEarth campus experiment with form and materials. Doors are sometimes constructed from wood pallets, light enters through colored glass bottles inserted into walls, windows are recycled PVC pipe. One has a large domed overhang that diverts water for places prone to flooding. Another one under construction will be underground.

The result is vaulted homes that have been compared to the homesteads on the “Star Wars” desert planet of Tatooine or the cozy cupolas of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbits.

“There is renewed interest in the dome. It’s a primal form that is really resonant,” said L.A. architect Daveed Kapoor. “The form is the essential shape of what homes used to be in every continent.”

Nader Khalili, who taught at the Southern California Institute of Architecture and was a visiting scientist at NASA’s Los Alamos National Laboratory, chose Hesperia because of the challenging conditions.

“The temperature is triple digits in the summer, single digits in the winter, we’re near the San Andreas fault,” Sheefteh Khalili said. The intense variation in weather serves as a stress test for the structures, which are designed to withstand extremes.

Dastan and Sheefteh have remained dedicated to advancing their father’s legacy. “His vision was so pure, so clear.” Sheefteh said. “It’s about access and education and empowerment.”

Which is why the closure has served as a crossroads for the institute.

The San Bernadino County Fire Department required CalEarth to complete a fire access road while the city of Hesperia added requirements including ADA accessible parking and a full sidewalk, curb and gutter on the east side of the campus. The road and ADA accessible parking have been completed, but the institute still needs to raise money for the sidewalk and gutter.

CalEarth launched a membership program for the first time in its history. According to Sheefteh Khalili, the remaining improvements will cost about $112,000, and CalEarth has raised $75,000 thus far. Because the fire road and ADA access was completed, CalEarth got the green light to reopen. The first open house since the closure is planned for Saturday.

The last major initiative the closure spurred is creating a set of standardized procedures for the International Code Council, an association that provides model codes for municipal governments to assess the safety and sustainability of structures around the globe.

The Khalilis hope that having a third party that can approve a procedure for testing and evaluating SuperAdobe will kickstart its adoption in the U.S., and provide a way for Hesperia and San Bernadino County to allow permitting for their buildings. For Kapoor, a standardized set of codes might make SuperAdobe more feasible in L.A., an idea he’d love to see realized. “It’s a cheap house you build yourself but each one feels like a sacred space,” he says. “It’s simultaneously sacred and profane.”

Yay! Another Northern California SuperAdobe Workshop - July 12-14 2019

Join us for a dome workshop in Northern California!

Date: July 12-14, 2019

Time: 9:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m.Location: 7809 Buckboard Lane, Smartsville, CA 95977

Maximum number of students: 12

Tuition price: $200/ $100 for Campfire victims

About the Camp Fire:

The Camp Fire was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in all of California’s history. In total, 18,804 structures were completely burnt to the ground, leaving thousands displaced without homes. People are now starting to consider rebuilding the town of Paradise; though it is of great concern that a fire of this particular scale could easily repeat itself. Residents are hesitant to rebuild using the same flammable materials.

About Sonny Morrow

In order to provide education regarding fireproof building techniques, Cal Earth alumni, Sonny Morrow, will be instructing a workshop which will cover the structural fundamentals of SuperAdobe. Students will walk away from this workshop with confidence in building fireproof structures.

About Circle G Farms

Circle G Farms, which specializes in permaculture design and practices, will host the workshop. It is approximately 60 miles south of Paradise and there will be plenty of space for camping on the property. Victims of the Camp Fire are encouraged to attend this workshop and will receive a reduced rate.

Sign Up (Add to Cart)

Cancellation Policy:

If for some reason you are unable to attend the workshop you registered for, your tuition may also be applied to another course that same year if you notify Cal-Earth at least two weeks before the start of a course.

If you wish to withdraw completely and cannot reschedule, a $50 registration fee will be deducted and your remaining balance refunded if you notify Cal-Earth two weeks prior to the start of the workshop. Any cancellations within two weeks of the workshop will not be refunded, only transfered. 

If Cal-Earth cancels the workshop due to low enrollment your tuition will be fully refunded or transferred (5 or more registrants required to hold workshop)