Dirt Domes Designed for Emergency Housing

Bijal P. Trivedi
National Geographic Today
April 3, 2002

In regions of the world devastated by floods, earthquakes, fire, hurricanes, and war, where money and natural resources are lacking, one thing always remains—dirt. That is the material of choice for architect Nader Khalili, who uses dirt to build dome-shaped emergency housing.

Khalili believes his dirt domes, which are cheap, eco-friendly, and quick to construct, could provide housing for the more than a billion people worldwide who lack adequate shelter.

The domes, which can be built in as little as a day, look like adobe beehives or sand-colored igloos. The domes would be ideal for rapidly rebuilding Afghanistan, especially after the recent earthquake, said Khalili who founded the non-profit California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture (Cal-Earth), in Hesperia, California, to develop low-cost, environmentally oriented building styles.

Khalili's work has attracted the attention of the United Nations, NASA and, most recently, Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade. With Khalili's guidance, Wade is considering building an eco-city with 20,000 dome homes for people left homeless after severe flooding earlier this year.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is always looking for new ways of building cheap housing in disaster-struck regions. Lorenzo Jimenez de Luis, of UNDP's Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery, visited Cal-Earth to examine the dome's potential.

"What we saw was very impressive. These domes were very easy to build, they were made of compressed earth and could be adapted to the soil type of any country for less than $80 per unit," said Jimenez de Luis.

The only issue is the element of respecting people's way of building, Jimenez de Luis explained. Domes are traditional architecture in Afghanistan and Iran, but beneficiaries in other countries may not be so eager to accept these styles.

Materials of War

The style of architecture, called "Superadobe," uses sandbags—filled with dirt, sand, or clay—and barbed wire to construct the dome.

The sandbags are stacked in coils that are held in place with the barbed wire. As the dome rises, the rings of sandbags gradually get smaller, allowing the walls to curve inward and form a self-supporting roof.

"This construction method allows us to use elements of war—sandbags and barbed wire—and transform them into elements of peace," said Khalili. The domes can be finished with lime and cement to give a more permanent stucco-like appearance.

"Mr. Khalili's architecture is revolutionary even though it uses ancient technology," said Jimenez, "I would love to see his ideas tested and tried."

Continued on Next Page >>


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