What We Do
Located in the Mojave Desert, Cal-Earth is at the cutting edge of Earth and Ceramic Architecture technologies today. Its scope spans technical innovations published by NASA for lunar and Martian construction, to housing design and development for the world’s homeless for the United Nations. It began as the “project” of the Geltaftan Foundation and quickly became a self-sustaining entity, which merged into a single public nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization, Cal-Earth, Inc.
The founding philosophy is the equilibrium of the natural elements of earth, water, air, and fire and their unity at the service of the arts and humanity. The Cal-Earth project has transformed this philosophy through hands-on research into sustainable earth architecture through building and testing life-size prototypes, and by educating the public in environmental arts, architecture, and awareness.
The technology and designs developed at Cal-Earth are inspired by timeless principles in architecture: the universal natural elements, the arch and its derivatives of the vault, dome, and apse; sustainable energy, natural geometry and symmetry of structure, the unity of tension and compression.
To reach the masses in need, Nader Khalili (1936-2008), and now Cal-Earth’s associates and apprentices, have educated, and continue to educate, the public in these self-help, environmental and futuristic technologies and designs. Cal-Earth apprentices around the world are teaching and building sandbag shelters in countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Iran, India, Mexico, Chile, Siberia, Tibet, South Africa, and throughout the United States. Today these prototypes have been built on nearly every continent.
Housing has become out of reach of the world’s poor and disaster stricken as local buildings use more imported and manufactured materials. The current global need for housing includes some 20-40 million refugees and displaced persons in the world and several hundred million people who live in close-to-disaster housing and slums with no access to basic necessities. According to the United Nations’ Human Settlement Programme (UN Habitat), it is projected that at least 1.9 billion additional urban dwellers will be added to the urban population in the next two decades in a context of already widespread inequity and poverty—both in developing and developed nations. The UNHSP equated this to having to complete 96,150 housing units per day, or 4,000 per hour, for the next 25 years—not to mention the infrastructure that must be built—to accommodate this population growth. Something must be done.
This building system focuses on housing as a basic human right, and on the economic empowerment of people by participating in creating their own homes and communities, while at the same time addressing today’s global needs: preserving natural resources and energy, halting deforestation, slowing pollution and global warming, promoting health, healing communities and cultures shattered by globalization, sheltering the homeless and refugees.
Cal-Earth houses and infrastructure are constructed by unskilled labor, using available on-site earthen material, local supplies of sandbags and barbed wire, and usually a locally produced stabilizer (lime, cement, or asphalt). Hands-on team work molds the solutions for sustainable development while the flexibility of plan and finishes allows the integration of indigenous, traditional forms, patterns, and colors.
The thermal mass and prototypes’ design create comfortable living spaces acceptable to modern safety standards and comfort zone, based on the time-tested, sustainable architecture of harsh environments such as that in the architect’s native Iran which reached a highest sophistication. The abundant natural energy of wind and sun are used in design for passive cooling and heating.
Cal-Earth’s next educational plan is a Distance Learning Program to be broadcast directly from the institute to universities, NGO’s and disaster struck areas in need of shelter around the world, in a hands-on, live, interactive format.
How We Began
In 1975, four years before the Islamic revolution in Iran, architect Nader Khalili closed his offices in Los Angeles and Tehran at the height of a successful career building high-rise and conventional buildings. He set out alone by motorcycle into the deserts of his native Iran inspired by the concept of Ceramic Houses, and convinced that the only way the world’s poor could ever afford a home was to build with earth and fire. After five years studying the traditional desert earth architecture, the first ceramic houses were fired in the villages, fusing the work of the traditional master masons with the ancient art of the potters, which is documented in his book Racing Alone. During these five years of research and “in-search”, Khalili got to know five eternal personalities which become the inspiration in his work and life — earth, water, air, fire, and Rumi whose mystic poetry is infused with the unity of these elements.
The bureaucratic chains which the Islamic revolution initially loosened soon returned, and when his work could no longer progress, he returned to California in 1982 to seek approval for these earth architecture concepts in the heart of the industrialized world (see his book Sidewalks on the Moon).
On NASA’s invitation, Khalili presented his ideas at their first Lunar habitat symposium in 1984; to construct with lunar soil in the forms of domes, vaults, and apses using solar energy to create magma-like ceramic concrete, and building with robotic automation, or to suck in the lunar dust (regolith) into long Velcro tubes and coil them into buildings the way a potter coils a pot. Timeless materials (Earth, Water, Air and Fire) and timeless forms in architecture (Arches, Vaults, Domes, and Apses), gave earth architecture the dimension to be used both on earth and other planets.
In 1991 the architect founded The California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture (Cal-Earth) a non-profit research and educational organization. From 1991 to 2008, the work at Cal-Earth under his direction had been to research, develop and teach the technologies of Ceramic Houses and Superadobe, by building, testing and designing prototypes. The harsh environment of the high-desert with summer temperatures regularly over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, snow and freezing winters, flash floods, high speed winds, and the highest seismic zone 4 in the United States continues to provide an ideal testing ground. This building technology (Superadobe—sandbags and barbed wire) has been patented and trademarked (U.S. patent #5,934,027, #3,195,445). It is offered free at the service of humanity and licensed for commercial use.
Between 1991 and 1993 the first dome shaped prototypes of earth-filled sandbags and barbed wire, and of fired bricks were built and successfully passed static loading tests for California’s stringent seismic codes. From 1993-2003 research and development continued with UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) input at Cal-Earth Institute. A second round of static and dynamic seismic tests in 1995 were successfully passed by the original sandbag and brick prototypes of domes and vaults, officially adding earthquake resistance to being fire, flood, and hurricane proof. All engineering was reviewed by local building departments in consultation with ICBO (International Conference of Building Officials), and testing was carried out by an ICBO approved laboratory. California building permits were issued under the U.S. Uniform Building Code. The tested prototypes were built with unstabilized on-site earth. Later prototypes use a small amount of cement or lime cement mixed with the earthen material. During this period, long sandbag tubes were developed for mechanization and faster hand construction. Mechanization of the techniques has been utilized up to 15 times faster than hand-built techniques, using standard equipment such as concrete pumps.
Several design prototypes in domes and vaults were built and tested including a brick/ceramic dome called “Rumi Dome of Lights”, Emergency Shelters for refugees and homeless, a sustainable small house prototype called Eco-Dome, and a conventionally planned three-bedroom home using the three-vault design concept of offset vaults called Earth One. The system was also endorsed by UNDP emergency response and UNITAR (United Nations Institute for Training and Research). The prototypes are significant because they realize a powerful idea at the service of humanity. Such an idea is carried in the mind and the architecture is repeatable universally.
There are thousands of alumni apprentices all over the world building for the homeless, challenging traditional building departments, and innovating new ways to use materials. Cal-Earth is grateful for their continued research and dedication to this work. Check our Alumni Page to see some examples of their projects.
Cal-Earth is always looking for new enthusiastic and able team-members. If you are interested, please see our Apprenticeship page and fill out an application.
- Upcoming Events
- What is Superadobe?
- Subscribe to the Cal-Earth Newsletter
- Learn to Build with Superadobe
- Purchase Educational Materials
- Apply for Workshop
- Cal-Earth Newsletters