SuperAdobe Spotlight: A Dome in Nepal

ben dome.jpg

A long-term apprentice, Ben began his SuperAdobe journey at CalEarth and then traveled to Nepal to build. Learn more about his adventure below!

How did you first hear about CalEarth?

It has been nearly a decade since I first heard about CalEarth. A friend mentioned SuperAdobe and I looked it up online. I clicked on the CalEarth website and was immediately attracted to the curvilinear aesthetics of Khalili’s designs. The building techniques and humanitarian efforts spoke to my ideals yet being young and caught in routine, it wouldn’t be until years later that I stepped foot onto the CalEarth campus. The long-term apprenticeship often crossed my mind over the course of those years. Finally, after attending an open house, I was inspired to officially begin my SuperAdobe journey. 

What did you learn during you apprenticeship at CalEarth and what projects did you assist with?

Within the first days of the apprenticeship I learned the basic concepts and techniques while building a 6’ dome with the core curriculum workshop. From landscape applications to design, windows and doors, basic plumbing and electric, plasters and finishes, the apprenticeship offered a wealth of knowledge and experience in 10 short weeks. My group completed another 9’ dome with a 4.5’ apse, a clay plaster and installed a door constructed from scratch. We contributed to various other projects from the great CalEarth perimeter wall to campus upkeep, garden additions, plaster, paint and general dome maintenance as well as assisting with weekend workshops. 

What surprised you the most while at CalEarth?

What surprised me the most while at CalEarth and what continues to surprise me is why this incredibly beautiful, simple, effective, efficient, economical, seismic and fire resistant building technique is not more widely known and employed. CalEarth brings a logical solution to many of the issues surrounding the global housing crises. So the surprise is why we continue to plunder our recourses, producing chemically saturated, high cost, high impact materials while such a viable alternative is literally under our noses.

What do you wish people knew about CalEarth?

I wish for more people to simply know that CalEarth exists. I hope for people to be empowered by the techniques and knowledge that the institute offers, and to know that we can build our own low impact, healthy, wholesome homes. 

Why do you choose to build using the SuperAdobe method?

I choose this method because I understand it’s structural integrity and it excites me to have creative freedom and work with organic design principles. I enjoy the process of working with community hands on and learning the artistic nuances and subtleties that present themselves during the build. I choose this method because I believe in the principles behind the structures and I want to contribute to less energy consumptive development practices. On a more personal level, as a living, breathing, animated, human form of dirt, it feels natural and fuels an instinctual drive for me to form a home from the same elements from which I am created.

What brought you to Nepal?

I have long had an interest in the majesty of Nepal, and having the opportunity to build a dome there sealed the deal. My good friend, Hamilton Pevec, who works with my gardening and landscaping business, Awesome Blossoms lives part-time in Nepal with his wife and child. He was living in Nepal when the 2015 earthquake hit and became deeply involved with the aid relief and reconstruction process. At that time he researched the possibility of using earth-bag construction for rebuilding in the villages. Yet, having no hands-on experience with the techniques, they chose to rebuild from rubble using earthquake resilient modifications like banding, cap rings, thru stones, and vertical rebar reinforcements. That can all be seen in his new documentary film “Guerrilla Aid,”  a story about the front lines of aid relief during the aftermath of a major disaster.

His interest in SuperAdobe didn’t fade, and after myself and fellow colleague and friend, Chris Ford attended the CalEarth apprentice program, Hamilton took the opportunity to utilize our new found skills and learn the techniques to build his own dome. Together, we traveled to Nepal along with another friend, James Gorman and the adventure began.  

Talk about the dome you built in Nepal and what it will be used for?

We built a 15’ dome on Hamilton’s land just outside Pokhara where he, his wife and her brother run a yoga retreat center called Himalayan Yogini. The dome will be a meditation and singing bowl space before it is finished as a home for Hamilton and his family. Building in Nepal offered us many unique challenges and learning opportunities. Reworking our expectations of time management and labor, as well as tool and material availability was the first obstacle. Coming from the USA, where you can pick up anything you want from multiple locations in nearly any town in the country, it was a wake up call to be faced with fashioning our own tool handles, building our pole compass from bamboo, wire and duct tape, constructing forms with handsaws and low quality nails, building bamboo ladders, lashed with coconut rope and spending days searching for simple “common” materials in town. Furthermore, manual excavation through many feet of ancient rice terrace proved to be a far greater challenge than we expected. This process took around two weeks and we encountered many large boulders along the way. Luckily by that point our Nepali workforce had shown up to literally crush the boulders with sledge hammers while working in their flip flops. Being that we were building in a seismically active zone that is pounded with over 130” of monsoon rain per year, we decided to stabilize our bag mix with 20% cement for the foundation, 15% to buttress height and then 9% for the rest of the dome. This added a great deal of labor to our process but lent us some piece of mind for the dome’s safety and longevity. 

How long did it take to build the dome and who helped with your build?

In total, it took us just over a month, from ground breaking to completing the bag work. There is absolutely no way we could have accomplished that without the incredible help from the Nepali locals who showed up to help us. Initially we had 5 guys but after the first couple weeks one guy had to go back to his village. So for the remaining couple weeks we had 4 Nepali’s and 4 of us Americans. 

Did you incorporate any local traditional design into the dome?

I wouldn’t say we incorporated any traditional Nepali design into the build, other than using the local soil and orienting the dome to face the sacred Mt Panchase. We did however have a traditional Buddhist Puja performed before we started our foundation courses. The family hopes to incorporate some traditional clay plaster and paint for the interior and certainly with the resources we had, and our amazing work force it was all built in “Nepali style.” 

What is your hope for the future of CalEarth?

I hope that SuperAdobe is granted approval with the international code counsel, making it an official, permitted residential building alternative and that CalEarth may continue to grow and flourish as the incredible learning center that it is, bringing this technology to the people for generations to come. I envision the campus as a hub for the growing SuperAdobe industry, producing professionals worldwide, as it has done for years. I believe that our ever-growing population is in demand of lower input housing and development. I see CalEarth as a major player, ushering this technology into the mainstream. 

Do you plan to stay involved with CalEarth moving forward? How?

Absolutely! In whatever capacity possible! I plan to continue sharing my own knowledge, passion and experience with others, promoting the institute and taking the opportunity to build with this technology whenever possible. I am always open to whatever opportunity I can take to work with CalEarth. 

 If you could describe the SuperAdobe method of building in one word, what would it be?


SuperAdobe Spotlight: Tommy's Tea Dome

At just 22 years old, Sonny has already accomplished so much, including building an incredible SuperAdobe dome for his brother, Tommy. Learn how Sonny became inspired by this method of building and how he has taken his passion for SuperAdobe to the next level - teaching workshops!

How did you learn to build with SuperAdobe?

I must have read a dozen books on the subject of SuperAdobe/Earthbag building before signing up for CalEarth's long-term apprenticeship and it was during this time that I really began to notice a change within myself. I truly began developing the understanding and technique behind SuperAdobe and what a privilege that was. Fundamentally speaking, SuperAdobe is indeed a simple concept, but CalEarth taught me all of the intricacies that were not in any of the books that I had read and I certainly wouldn't have discovered them on my own.

What inspired you to learn this type of building method?

I originally discovered SuperAdobe when I was 16 years old; I am 22 now, but at that time I remember initially being attracted to the low-cost aspect of it all. The thought of being able to build my own house and to have it entirely paid off gave me a great deal of inspiration. But as I began working and learning how to build with the earth, it dawned on me that even if I had all of the money in the world, I would still build this way. There is just something so inexpressibly intriguing about it.

Tell us about your apprenticeship at CalEarth. What did you build during the apprenticeship and what did you enjoy learning the most?

My first CalEarth apprenticeship was in September of 2017 and our apprentice group mainly worked on Dave and Debby Walker's house. We were happy to help them turn their dreams into reality, while at the same time, learn the key concepts behind SuperAdobe. I must say that out of everything I learned at CalEarth, I really enjoyed learning the numerous little tricks in manipulating the bag as well as the barbed wire.

What do you wish the general public knew about CalEarth that most do not?

What CalEarth teaches is outwardly prodigious, and undeniably so, but what the general public doesn't see is the aspect of personal development in which every CalEarth student undergoes during their stay. Those of us who have been through Cal Earth's workshops/apprenticeships will know exactly what I am talking about. In my eyes, it is the epitome of the hero's journey.

“Tommy’s Tea Dome;” the name alone intrigues us. Why did you build this structure?

I built this dome for my brother Tommy and his main passion in life is the art of traditional tea. This dome acts as a transition from the outside world into a tea-focused environment also known as a tea house, or in this case, "Tommy's Tea Dome."

Tell us about Tommy. What does this dome mean to him?

My brother Tommy is 24 years old and suffers from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. He used to be able to walk, run, and function just like a normal person, but with his condition, he becomes progressively weaker over time. At this point in his life, he is permanently bound to an electric wheelchair and has few hobbies, although the hobbies he does have he is extremely passionate about, one of them being tea. I built this dome for him to take his passion of tea to the next level.

How long did Tommy’s Tea Dome take to build and how much did it cost?

Tommy's Tea Dome took roughly a year to complete although it is important to note that there were a few times where many months had gone by without any work done to the structure. After the bag work was completed, I began doing the majority of the finish work on my own, including installing electricity, plastering/rendering, installing windows and a door, building a rocket mass heater, and the list goes on. With that being said, all of these things took quite a while for me, but I did have some help at times from friends and also my mother. The cost of Tommy's Tea Dome in materials is $1,900 which includes a ceiling fan, electricity, a door, windows, a rocket mass heater, as well as the bag, barbed wire, and all of the other building materials. The labor for building the structure was done by my friends and I as well as my mother.

Did you run into any challenges while building the dome?

Thinking back, it seems to me that every step of this build was a challenge but when I walk around Tommy's Tea Dome and look at it and touch it, I think back to all of those challenging times and feel proud that we always proceeded on to the next step no matter how impossible it seemed at the time, and that is what life is all about.

Are you currently working on any SuperAdobe projects or do you have plans for future projects?

I just finished teaching a five-day SuperAdobe workshop in Northern California which was a huge success. We had twelve students from many different parts of California attend, as well as two students from out of state. It is looking like I will be teaching more SuperAdobe workshops as well as managing some other local projects all while trying to juggle my college schedule. I am very excited to see what projects come my way.

If Tommy could describe his dome in one word, what would it be?

"Wabi" (Japanese) meaning: beautiful in its simplicity - perfect imperfections

SuperAdobe Spotlight: Building in Joshua Tree

After working on his SuperAdobe building for years, Mark passed final inspection and is excited to call his dome, home. Learn about his journey and how he turned his dream into a reality!

Tell us about your experience with CalEarth. What workshop did you attend? I attended a one week workshop in April of 2008 that covered most of what you needed to know about building an EcoDome.

What inspired you to build your own SuperAdobe structure? Attending the workshop and talking to the staff and other students and living in the structures on campus for a week convinced me that this is what I wanted to do.

Did you hire builders to help with the construction of your home or work with friends who volunteered their time? Ian (Site Director at CalEarth) agreed to be the foreman and assembled a team of 5 full-time builders that built the structure and applied some initial plaster. This took about 10 weeks to complete. After that initial phase, we would have friends and volunteers, people who were interested in gaining experience with the SuperAdobe process come out for a day or more and continue with the plastering and whatever else needed to be done.

What amenities are included in your domes? I have a fully functioning bathroom and kitchen, all the plumbing and electrical that are normally found in a house and for heat I installed a hydronic radiant floor heating system.

How long did your home take to build? It took 11 years to build because of two things, time and money.

Tell us about the inspection process. What were your most difficult hurdles and what steps did you take to pass inspection? The inspection process was pretty easy; the difficult part was showing the inspector that I was making progress every 6 months because of the time and money problem. The inspectors were very understanding of the situation and would work with me to keep the project moving. The biggest problem inspection-wise was after most of the windows had been installed, the inspector asked where the egress window was. We had to remove 2 casement windows, enlarge the opening and install larger windows to comply with the code.

What is the weather like where you live? Why did you choose to build using the SuperAdobe method? I live in the high desert near Joshua Tree National Park so we have real seasons, cold winters with lows in the 20s to 30s and summer highs that can reach 105 to 110. I chose SuperAdobe because it seemed like the building would stand up to the weather and it didn’t require a lot of expertise to build.

What is your favorite room of the house? Why? I don’t know that I have a favorite room, but I really enjoy looking at the walls and seeing the different surfaces and trowel marks left behind by the many people who had a hand in building it. The appearance also changes with the lighting which is really cool.

Would you like to build more SuperAdobe structures on your property in the future? I want to build a garage soon; hopefully we can use the SuperAdobe method.

If you could describe the SuperAdobe technique in one word, what would it be? Handmade.

SuperAdobe Spotlight: CalEarth Alumni Ayal Bryant

Ayal built with SuperAdobe in Costa Rica and Puerto Rico and continues to teach, build and advocate. Learn more about his extraordinary buildings below!

1. You have built SuperAdobe structures in different countries. How do you choose the location you will build? I have built wuith SuperaAdobe in Costa Rica and Puerto Rico, but these have been for clients who have already defined the project location. What I do is visit the site previous to designing in order to assure that SuperAdobe is the appropriate building technique for that specific site and the client's needs.

2. Why do you choose to build using SuperAdobe over more traditional types of building methods? This is a very important question and I am very careful about recommending SuperAdobe to a client as it is very particular and is not ideal for all situations. If we decide to build with this technique it is because I have analysed factors such as: climate, soil, risks (flooding, earthquakes, hurricanes, etc.), aesthetics and availability of workers. I prefer SuperAdobe in dry/hot climates or where earthquakes and hurricanes are a possibility.

3. Tell us about the structures you built. What are they used for? Both structures are used as homes. The first is for a couple who live in it full-time and even offer tours of the house on AirBnB. It is 170m2 and made up of 4 full-sized domes, 4 apses and a main 6m diameter and 2 story kitchen, living, dining and mezzanine. The second is a 70m house comprised of 5 domes built as a home for a couple who are starting an organic farm in the mountains of Puerto Rico.

4. Do you have a team of builders who travel with you or do you employ local builders? I employ local builders as much as possible, otherwise the price of the project becomes too expensive.

5. Highlight some unique design features in each of your buildings. Where did you get the inspiration to incorporate them? The house in Costa Rica was built 2 feet below grade, and a cellar built about 4 feet below grade with the intention of regulating the internal temperature and using all the material removed as fill for the sacks.

We also designed a unique water catchment system dividing the exterior surface of walls in two by means of a farrow cement gutter that runs all the way around the house directing the rainwater into catchment points at the intersections of the domes.

On the Puerto Rico project, we built on a ruble trench foundation that helps keep all the water away from the walls of the house as well as absorbs some of the energy in case of an earthquake. We also incorporated fixing points all around the house for a roof that will be added later.

6. Talk about some of the environmental concerns you had while building and what steps did you take to make the structure suitable for that location? Rainfall was the biggest concern definitely as it slowed construction and affected not only the work pace but the materials as well. As the earth we used had a really high proportion of clay, it was difficult to work with if it was saturated with water.

7. Do your buildings have amenities such as bathrooms and kitchens? If so, how were these spaces constructed? Yes, all the buildings have normal bathrooms and kitchens; this includes composting toilets, tadelakt shower stalls and grey water treatment systems.

8. What surprised you the most when learning to build using SuperAdobe? The beauty of the finished products.

9. If you could describe your buildings in one word, what would it be? Inspiring.