Snug homes, without felling trees


Earth: An architect teaches how to build conical housing, using tamped soil in a coiled plastic casing.

April 28, 1999|By Phil Garlington | Phil Garlington,Orange County Register

HESPERIA, Calif. -- It's not exactly that the aborigines of Australia's Western Desert have forgotten how to build traditional earth houses. It's just that it's been a while, and besides, they've heard about some new architectural ideas for using nature-friendly building materials.

Sandbags, for instance.

A half-dozen village leaders from the Ngurawanna community, in the Pilbara region of the great Outback, were on a walkabout of sorts this month at a seminar put on at Iranian-born architect Nader Khalili's Cal-Earth Institute.

They'd come halfway around the world for hands-on training in how to build inexpensive, energy-efficient earth domes to replace the prefab government houses they're living in now.

"We're on a mission," says Kate George, the group's leader and the first aborigine woman in Australia to earn a law degree.

The Pilbara region on Australia's west coast is a harsh desert landscape of dun-colored hills, scrub vegetation and unending wind. Some inhabitants who follow the old ways still live in tents.

But most of the villagers reside in government-supplied prefabs with steel framing and tin roofs that are iceboxes in winter and insufferable ovens in summer.

"They have the minimum of insulation, require heavy energy use for air conditioning and heating, and are completely unsuitable for the climate and conditions," says George. "We're looking for something that is easy to build, makes use of native earth and blends in with the natural surroundings."

After visiting Khalili's school on her own, she returned with the village leaders to size up the potential of sandbags.

Michael Woodley joined a dozen other students with shovel, wheelbarrow and hoe who were feeding soil into a long tubular plastic sandbag and slowly coiling it into a dome-shaped hut.

Woodley was impressed. "This is very peaceful."

His hope is that through building their own homes, the villagers will become more self-reliant and the work will help solve the problem of chronic unemployment among the native people.

"We are also seeing more ecotourism in western Australia," says George, who runs a private consulting firm dealing with employment issues. She says visitors from America and Europe relish the wildness of the Outback. "We want dwellings that fit in with the landscape."

In a nutshell, Khalili's basic sandbag dome house is made of a long plastic tube that is gradually filled with damp earth and tamped down as it is coiled in circles, the way a kindergartner makes a clay pot. Instead of mortar, strands of four-point barbed wire are laid between the courses. The inside is stuccoed with a mix of earth, cement and straw, then painted with milk and linseed oil.

The outside is covered with what Khalili calls "rep-tile," which are cement-stabilized mud balls. Khalili says the mud-ball tiles are good insulation and temper the destructive force of the occasional desert gully-washer.

"They're fun to make, too," he says.

The sandbags are filled in situ as the house goes up.

"Any time you use a lot of force, or do too much lifting, you're doing it wrong," says Khalili, 60.

A woman and a child, using a coffee can to fill the bags, should be able to build a small house in a week, he says.

The domes can be built for as little as $250 using the specially designed tubular fiber bags that come in rolls a mile long.

The dome design, Khalili says, can stand up to earthquake, flood and fire and is nontoxic, with none of the noxious exhalations of plywood or plastic foam insulation.

During a seismic test, the city of Hesperia tried to pull over one of the domes with steel cables attached to two cement trucks and couldn't do it.

At Khalili's seminar, the Australians were joined by representatives of a nongovernmental self-help group, Oasis -- organized by actor-activist Woody Harrelson -- that is trying to save the remnants of the Costa Rican rain forest.

"Heavy logging is depleting the forests," says Brian Machovina, 28. "We want to bring back designs that don't require wood."

With Machovina was Gabriel Reyes, a contractor from the Costa Rican town of Puerto Jimenez.

One of the apprentices at Cal-Earth is Carette McFarlane, an Irvine resident for 25 years, who signed up after reading a newspaper article about Khalili two years ago.

"It changed my life," McFarlane says. She plans to build her own sandbag house.

Also attending the seminar was Robert Crawford, who owns 30 remote acres in West Texas. He read about the sandbag houses in an issue of American Survivalist Magazine, which touted the design for its ability to withstand a fusillade of bullets.

Khalili, who originally pioneered sandbag building for the United Nations refugee program and for NASA's proposed moon base, has been amused by the growing interest from Y2K survivalists.

"It wasn't intended, but it seems they like the ballistic aspects," Khalili says.

All of Khalili's designs are based on the dome, arch and vault.

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