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Imagine a world in which you could have your own home without consulting the bank, calculating a mortgage, or even hiring a realtor. This is exactly the vision that led Nader Khalili to create Cal-Earth, a nonprofit organization committed to providing solutions that allow anyone to have access to a safe, sustainable home. "Housing is getting more and more expensive and unsustainable, and we as a culture are completely detached from that process," explains Sheefteh Khalili, who has been running Cal-Earth for the last 10 years with her brother, Dastan Khalili, since their father's passing. "More and more, people are looking for alternatives... It's kind of about going back to a more simplistic way of life," she says.
An architect, Nader Khalili created a building method that simply calls for soil, sandbags, barbed wire, and a few basic tools. With these three materials, anyone can build what's called a SuperAdobe home. They're ideal for both those interested in cultivating an alternative lifestyle and those working to aid in the housing crisis and help those affected by natural disasters. However, just because these homes are made from minimal materials doesn't mean they can't be beautifully designed and fully equipped for modern life. "You don't have to sacrifice anything to live sustainably. You just have to be able to think a little bit outside the box," Sheefteh Khalili says. Learn more about this unique housing option and take a look inside the stunning interior of one home that will make you consider getting off the grid.
The Building Method
"My father was really adamant that this work be affordable and accessible to people throughout the world," shares Khalili. Evolving from research done by Nader Khalili in the Middle East during the 1970s and 1980s, the SuperAdobe building method combines traditional earth architecture with contemporary safety measures. Essentially, the homes are made by filling long sandbags with whatever soil is available, compressing the material, and lining each row of sandbags with barbed wire to keep the structure together. It seems rudimentary, and intentionally so—these basic materials and methods mean that this housing option is available to anyone, especially those battling the housing crisis or facing disastrous conditions. The buildings can sustain anything from earthquakes to hurricanes and can be quickly built-in communities where homes have been destroyed.
The Design Process
The dome shape may seem like a quirky design element, but it serves an important purpose in helping the structure hold up against gravity. While much of the design aspects are for structural purposes, these homes are completely customizable. "There are lots of different ways to expand the spaces and connect the domes together," explains Khalili. You can have bedrooms, hallways, and courtyards for truly stunning indoor and outdoor spaces.
"The cool thing about it is that it's a very flexible sort of architecture," according to Khalili. In other words, people can design their SuperAdobe to have as many or as few modern amenities as they desire. There are ways to include everything from air conditioning systems and solar energy to indoor plumbing and composting toilets. "Anything you can think of, you can integrate," she says.
Located in the small Mojave Desert town of Hesperia just a few hours outside of Los Angeles lies the Cal-Earth Institute, where the unmistakable smooth architecture of SuperAdobe homes stands. This is where students, volunteers, and passionate individuals can come to learn and build through workshops and longer apprenticeships. Khalili makes it clear that this is work that anyone can do, no matter your experience or physical abilities—that's the beauty of the simplistic building method and materials. "We do what we call the coffee-can technique. If you can carry one coffee can full of soil, you're a full participant of this work," she says.
A basic understanding of this method can give way to the creation of larger housing projects, as evidenced by the SuperAdobe homes located at the institute. There's the Eco-Dome, which is a 400-square-foot tiny-home concept with a living space, bedroom, kitchen, and bath. Then there's a larger 2000-square-foot structure dubbed Earth 1, comprised of three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, and a two-car garage.
"It's amazing what a group of passionate people can do," Khalili says. Cal-Earth has seen ongoing growth in its educational programs, volunteer days, and interest in development. "We get a lot of affirmations from people to keep this going, so we're just doing what we can."
At the crux of Cal-Earth's mission is the idea that housing should be available for all. The organization has worked to make this mission a reality by sharing its knowledge with as many people as possible. Now, there are SuperAdobe structures in 54 countries worldwide, ranging in scale and use. They've worked with NASA and the UN and are currently developing a disaster relief kit that essentially fits all the tools and materials needed to build an emergency structure in a duffel bag the size of carry-on luggage.
In addition, Cal-Earth has made strides in terms of inclusivity and equality in a field that is customarily dominated by men. "Women are 50 percent of the population. Why are they not involved in the building of their own home?" Khalili says this thought is what led her father to create the coffee-can technique that allows anyone to be an equal participant in the building process. "There is a space within Cal-Earth for women to lead building projects, which isn’t something you see typically," she explains.
You can visit the Cal-Earth Institute in Hesperia to experience the SuperAdobe homes up close and in person, or you can spend the night in one in Joshua Tree, a veritable mecca of all things alternative and off-the-grid. There, you will find the Bonita Domes created using Cal-Earth's building methods by Lisa Starr.
"I created Bonita Domes in order to continue my work and calling as an artist and healer and to create a sustainable way of living," says Starr. Built for her own use as a home and studio, Starr says that offering the space up to guests looking to get in touch with nature was simply a "bonus afterthought." Stay in sleep pods made of 85 percent earth and cook in the fresh air with an outdoor kitchen and kiva fire pit. "The sky is your ceiling and the earth is your floor," according to Starr. Check out the property on Airbnb to plan a truly unique vacation close to nature.
Now, get a look inside the fully furnished and beautifully designed Eco-Dome. See how surprisingly chic these sustainable homes really can be.
A circular living space sits at the center of the white home complete with a jute rug, ceramic tile, and bohemian furnishings.
With white and brown interiors and potted plants, this space feels incredibly connected to nature.
A cozy nook perfect for enjoying a meal. The counter and barstools make the most of the small space.
Ceramic tiles comprise this countertop complete with intricate designs. Even the tableware seamlessly matches the rest of the décor.
Three windows allow light to enter this snug bedroom (who really needs anything besides a bed, after all?).
Without much space for a traditional sofa, this floating bench creates seating in the living area.
A quaint entryway, this hall holds a potted plant, a rustic firewood holder, a delicate yet functional wall hanging, and a design-friendly rug.
With a high, dome ceiling, this small home feels expansive. Modern furnishings and design elements make it clear that a SuperAdobe home really can be anything you want it to be.