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April 23, 2014  |  Login
Ceramic Earth Home Construction
By Eric Corey Freed

Originally developed as a low-cost method for building homes in poor communities, ceramic earth is a method of creating strong houses — fast. Like adobe and cob, the walls are made of the local earth. A large fire is burned inside the house to bake the walls like ceramics in a kiln. The finished buildings are sculptural works of art.

What Ceramic Earth Is

Think of ceramic earth like a giant ceramic kiln. Ceramic houses are adobe houses made with very high clay content. The finished walls are fired in place to become hardened ceramic. These permanent, waterproof, and earthquake-resistant homes use all four natural elements: Earth and water are used to make the bricks, while fire and air are used to finish them. The result is an affordable, strong home made of natural materials.

There are two types of ceramic earth:

  • Fired adobe: Fired adobe uses stacks of clay bricks to create the walls. After they’re set into place, a fire is set inside the home to bake the bricks into a hard ceramic shell.
  • Earthbag construction: Earthbag construction uses long tube bags filled with dirt and sand. The long bags are wrapped in coils, similar to a ceramic pot, spiraling upward into a dome.

I go into greater detail on these two types of ceramic earth in the following sections. Check out the figure below for an example of earthbag construction.

The notion of using bags filled with dirt may make you think of dirty rooms. In reality, because the walls are completely covered with plaster, the covered earthbags will not spread dirt around your home. Plus, the ceramic earth has already been fired and doesn’t burn; the shape of the domes resists fire as well.

The History of Ceramic Earth

The concept of ceramic earth is the work of visionary Iranian architect, Nader Khalili. In his native Iran, poor people lived in small adobe houses that were prone to collapse in an earthquake. Khalili discovered that, if the walls were fired, they would bake together the same way a ceramic pot acts in a kiln. Through experimentation, Khalili perfected his techniques. In addition to strengthening old adobe buildings, Khalili built new buildings using the same process.

When Khalili moved to California in 1984, he discovered that the homes of poor people were not made of adobe, but of wood. His ceramic firing technique would not work, so he began experimenting with sandbags filled with earth.

Earthbag shelters have been used in the military for decades as a lightweight, low-cost, and quickly built solution. The infantry constructed bunkers from sand-filled sacks as far back as World War I. Several architects have explored earthbag structures, but Khalili improved on the system to create what he calls superadobe.

Working with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Khalili has proposed using his earthbag technique to create human settlements on the moon. He has since created developments of his superadobe around the world. more


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