If you’re interested in getting a firsthand look at how natural and low-cost materials can be used to create livable, surprisingly beautiful houses, few places in the United States offer better examples than CalEarth, also known as The California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture. Located in the hot, unforgiving desert climate of Hesperia, California (about 80 miles northeast of Los Angeles), the nonprofit institute founded by the late architect Nader Khalili researches and develops environmentally-friendly building designs and teaches the public how to bring them to life.
Last December, CalEarth closed its doors to the public for a series of updates required by county and city codes, but it has since re-opened its doors to provide inspiration to all those who seek it, and its lessons feel more relevant than ever before. Run by Dastan and Sheefteh Khalili since the death of their father, the institute shows off the capabilities of “SuperAdobe” in an almost otherworldly-looking display on its sun-drenched grounds.
SuperAdobe is a form of earthbag architecture developed by Nader Khalili, and it doesn’t require much more than some long sandbags, barbed wire, earth dug on-site, and a few tools. Not only does this natural building system enable sculptural, organic shapes, it’s also extremely strong, earthquake-resistant, and easy to learn. Considering the fact that CalEarth believes entire families should be able to participate in building, from elderly grandparents to the youngest children, it seems only natural that the institute would adopt this technique. The bags are filled in place using small pots and kitchen utensils, and there’s no heavy lifting or machinery required.
Inspired by traditional earth architecture found in the deserts of Iran, CalEarth’s structures range from a small emergency shelter for one person that can be expanded into a rapidly-built village to entire three-bedroom houses with two-car garages. Some standout examples include the 400-square-foot Eco Dome, the modular Earth One Vaulted House featuring radiant floor slab heating and solar power, a “Water Village” full of coiled and plastered huts, and a “Fire Village” with integrated rocket stove heaters, among many more.
The CalEarth team explains: “The building process is intentionally simple, but the structural integrity of SuperAdobe is the result of years of research. The structural design uses modern engineering concepts like base-isolation and post-tensioning. The long coils of sandbag provide compression (vertical) strength, while the barbed wire adds tensile (horizontal) strength. In addition, the sandbags add flood resistance. The earth itself provides insulation and fire-proofing.”
“The arch is the strongest form in architecture and has been used in building for thousands of years. A dome is simply an arch rotated 180 degrees. SuperAdobe is extremely well-suited for building arches, domes, and vaults, and SuperAdobe domes are extremely strong structures. They have passed California earthquake code tests and withstood a 7.6 magnitude earthquake in Nepal. Using geometry and a simple compass tool, builders can easily create corbelled dome structures of various heights and up to 22 feet in diameter.”
Visitors are welcome to attend open houses held on the first Saturday of every month to experience the structures for themselves, which are often likened to the huts of Tattooine in the Star Wars films. You can also book tours by appointment, bring a group of students on a field trip, or volunteer to help prep, build, or manage some of the institute’s operations. While CalEarth began as a way to empower refugees and the poor to build their own natural-disaster-resistant homes, it has since grown into an international program of apprenticeships and workshops, with its full curriculum is available online.