Nader Khalili is a world- renowned California architect and author from Iran. In simple terms, he builds houses using domes and vaults and other ancient design techniques from existing on-site earth using a system he developed over the last 30-plus years called Earth Architecture. He has created and teaches several innovative methods of eco-building. One method is called the Geltaftan Earth-and-Fire System known as Ceramic Houses, another the Superblock construction system utilizing SuperAdobe.
Those are a lot of big terms, but the short course, if you’re not planning on enrolling in Khalili’s school Cal-Earth (The California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture), is that he constructs incredibly beautiful, economical and healthy homes that leave a lighter carbon footprint than Rumi’s ghost…practically. Based in Hysperia, California, Cal-Earth is a non-profit foundation dedicated to research and education of the public in environmentally-oriented arts and architecture.
Nader builds with the four elements of earth, water, air and fire but identifies five as he includes the poet Rumi as an element and sometimes refers to them as “the five personalities.”
“For the 30 years that I have been working and practicing in the desert, in Iran, in America, in different places of the world, I have come to intimately know of five elements…and the great mystic poet Rumi. What mystic poetry tells me is the spirit of unity. And if you understand how these elements work, you will find ultimately that there are not five but there is one. And everything that you build will all work in the spirit of unity that exists in this universe. And that means from a simple point that makes a circle to all the galaxies in this universe.”
Nader is a master who currently manifests his poetic vision into housing for the world’s homeless, especially those in disaster areas. His ability to use the existing on-site earth to build makes incredibly effective efficient use of materials. Where conventional methods require all sorts of beams and foundation material to be brought in, the dome utilizes gravity, earth and building techniques that don’t require anything that’s not already there.
He speaks in a thick Iranian accent, taking ESL liberties with the language that just add to his mystique “First in emergency shelter for the disaster areas in the world. Like when Pakistan did that [earthquake] and when tsunami did that. And New Orleans did that, we are the first ones who get called because we can help them to do emergency shelter with the earth that exists on the sites.”
Though his primary focus is emergency disaster relief, Nader’s compassionate gaze also falls on other important housing needs. His second area of focus is low-cost housing, third is middle-income housing. These are all offshoots of the main work that he began 30 years ago, especially the ones he’s working on called SuperAdobe. Utilizing natural resources of the site to build safe and natural houses is a practice that he initially envisioned for structures in worlds beyond.
“I first introduced this at NASA’s symposium in ’84 on how to build on the moon and Mars,” he says. “When you set down there’s no material except mounds or Mars’ soil. This new system is really done for extremely harsh environments.”
And he couldn’t be more in sync with the rhythm of our planetary needs. This day those among the voiceless billion people living in the degrading squalor of urban slums will sleep, eat, love, worship, birth and suffer in the toxic poverty of the world’s ‘human zoos.’ Some will learn to walk, others to die. All will suffer. Many without shelter from the elements.
“According to recent figures there are a billion people in this world that are either homeless or refugees or a few steps from disaster,” Nader says, “This will help them because we have gone through the harshest test for these structures. Earthquakes for example.”
The tragedy of natural disaster and the existing sprawling slums like Cono Sur in Lima, Sadar City in Baghdad or the dehumanizing filth of Metro Manila are well-documented third- world horrors. With over 400 cities whose population exceeds one million, the time when the urban population of the earth outnumbers the rural already has arrived. Nader has the framework for a viable solution.
“The entire work is based upon the aesthetic that if you build with nature’s materials, with the elements and if you understand nature and you understand the gravity and the angle of repose and you can work with the sun and wind and you can work in harmony with nature you will get the spaces…just like you get tree or flower, they are all that beautiful,” he said of the house recently completed in Hysperia, California, near the Cal Earth school. Like the low-budget, bare bones model, the Rumi-er version is the same thing on a larger scale.
It’s a 2,000 square foot, three-bedroom, family room, living room, kitchen, two-bath, two-car garage house near Hysperia where Cal Earth is based. This dome happens to be a middle-income dwelling. It’s a variation on the structure he used to create emergency shelter in Pakistan after the earthquake. The Hysperia house used the earth from the swimming pool pit he dug as the material to build the house. “We call it a very holy pit because the house comes right from that,” he says.
And you really can’t get any more elemental. The house is cooled by a wind-scoop oriented to the ocean for maxium efficiency, heated with solar energy and covered in paint made with milk and linseed oil. They are not only economically viable, but they are the most beautiful spaces.
About his inspiration, the poetry of Rumi, the great Persian poet of 750 years ago, he says, “He uses the elements of earth, water, air and fire in his poetry. He sees that the figure of infinity goes in and out, to inner life and outer life. If we understand how to balance these elements then they are in equilibrium. We will always be working with the environment and it will always affect your soul and spirit from the time you are born till the end.”
Following the spirit of Rumi, Nader’s intentions are materialized in earth houses that are immediately apparent as soon as you see one of them. Whether they are disaster relief emergency structures in New Orleans or middle income homes in Hysperia, they are a manifestation of love and compassion.
“I try to integrate this physical and spiritual together in a tangible unity that is really the architecture that is created. We can never go wrong. It’ll always be practical and beautiful. The rest is the technical know-how. Just that. Earth turns to gold in the hands of the wise,” he imparts a quote from Rumi, and then another, “Seek not water, seek thirst.”
With degrees in philosophy and architectural education earned in Iran, Turkey and the U.S., he’s been a licensed architect in California since 1970, leaving his enlightened footprint all over the planet since.
Khalili’s architectural works also include: the design of a future-oriented community for 5,000 inhabitants for Future City/Villages, Intl. in New Cuyama, California, in 1988 (prototype structures were built on-site, and pre-fabricated vault modules were built, fired and glazed at a brick factory); Malekshahr of Isfahan, a community for 20,000, which was designed and partially constructed by 1979; the Middle East headquarters of Dupont/ Polyacryl was designed and supervised, completed in 1978; over 100 projects of conventional buildings ranging from high-rise to single residence structures. www.calearth.org
Sam Slovick is a regular contributor to LA YOGA Ayurveda and Health as well as LA Weekly. He is also published in Details, Vibe, Giant, Nylon, Neon, Angelino, The Advocate, The Face, Curve and others.
Nader builds environmentally and ecologically nurturing housing on many levels. His mainstay these days is the Eco-Dome: a small house, “Moon Cocoon” that utilized Nader’s SuperAdobe construction.
Local earth-filled SuperAdobe coils (soil-cement or lime-stabilized earth) form the four-inch thick walls of the main dome of each structure. The basic model features a main living room, entrance hall, kitchen, bedroom (called “bed-womb” because of its small, organic form) or a larger version with a living room, entrance hall, three bedrooms and a bathroom. All are designed with the sun, shade and wind in mind for passive cooling and heating. A wind-scoop can be combined with a rated furnace unit, depending on local code approval, or solar energy and radiant heating may be incorporated and of course, interior furniture can be built-in with the same materials.
The basic is approximately 400 square feet (interior space), and is a good place to start for a first time owner/builder. Later it can become a small guesthouse, studio apartment or a cluster in your own Eco-Village of vaults and domes which can be built by a team of three to five persons.
If you’re the do-it-yourself type, Eco-Dome pack includes: construction document blueprints and engineering calculations, title 24 energy calculations and the engineering record. The price is $2,400 for a single unit (400 sq. ft. approx), $3,200 for double unit (800 sq. ft. approx.). It includes shipping and a how-to DVD showing step-by-step construction of the Eco-Dome. Everything you need to get busy. If you’re not so good hands-on you can call Cal Earth and they’ll send some apprentices to come and built it for you.
The Eco-Dome plan is a part of the Cal-Earth educational and research program, to be used in conjunction with the Cal-Earth apprenticeship course.