By Brian Ackley
Source: Bidoun (Art and Culture from the Middle East), winter 2010
(with gratitude for sending the original to Tavoos)Pictures are courteously taken from: http://calearth.org/
This book is dedicated in the spirit of support for the goal of the Unitied Nations’ International Year of Shelter for the Homeless, 1987 — that all of the poor and disadvantaged of the world will be able to obtain a home by the year 2000.
— Nader Khalili, Ceramic Houses and Earth Architecture
In late 1981, I realized that the space transportation technology of the year 2000 would be capable of routinely carrying payloads to the Moon… a permanent lunar base has far-reaching implications for national policy, international relations, and American technology.
— Dr. Wendell Mendell, Lunar Bases and Space Activities of the 21st Century
Seek not water, seek thirst.
— Rumi, in Nader Khalili‘s Sidewalks on the Moon
In 2004, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture — a prize recognizing projects that “enhance the understanding and appreciation of Islamic culture” — went to a cluster of fourteen modest buildings in Baninajar, Iran. Constructed nearly ten years earlier to house Iraqi refugees from the first Gulf War, the project was carried out under the auspices of the United Nations Development Program and the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees. The award recognized not just these particular buildings but their potential as a prototype for a new-old kind of temporary housing, and the otherwise obscure architect responsible who created them.
Nader Khalili’s thirty-year quest for an architecture that could house the world’s poor — a self-styled mystical journey that would take him from the dusty roads of Iran to the seminar rooms of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to the Mojave Desert — culminated in an idea he called Superadobe. Superadobe housing like the units in Baninajar is made by taking woven polyester bags and filling them with sand, soil, or clay — whatever earth material might be at hand. These sandbags are then laid in coils to create load-bearing walls that rise as high as fifteen feet, then spiral inward to form a domed roof. Strands of barbed wire are threaded through the bags to secure the layers and stabilize the walls — a cheap and no-skills-required replacement for wet mortar. Windows and an entryway are formed by way of simple pointed arches, shaped from the bags.
It was, and is, an idea of considerable power. It costs next to nothing — dirt cheap, if you will — and requires only a few unskilled laborers; four people can assemble a Superadobe shelter in a day, and the know-how is easily passed on, even by those who have just learned it. Once the seed of knowledge is planted, a community can continue to build its own Superadobe structures long after the NGOs have pulled out.
As a tool for emergency shelters or housing refugees, the idea seems to have only advantages. More typical emergency shelters —tents, tarps, sometimes even corrugated metal over wood frames — require materials to be purchased and delivered to disaster areas that are rarely easily accessed. These stop-gap solutions often degrade quickly. Superadobe, on the other hand, requires just one small roll of bags and another of barbed wire. The system stays cool in the summer and warm in the winter, thanks to the heat-retention qualities of earth. And by applying a layer of stucco, the structure can be sealed, making the shelter permanent. Even upgrades like plumbing and electrical conduits are easily retrofitted by passing them through the layers of sandbags.