Innovative earth domes low-cost, pretty

ROSEMARIE SMITH
Last updated 07:58 24/07/2013
Solscape earth domes

Solscape earth domes were built as workshop projects where unskilled volunteers learned earthbagging techniques to create highly individual little shelters.

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For the gardener, the ultimate in housing could arguably be a grow-your-own.

But if you can't wait while timber trees grow, (or come up with some other horticultural solution) the answer could still lie in the soil.

Adobe is familiar in this part of the world as historical building material, but how about earthbagging up an earth dome?

No need to dig out the Whole Earth Catalogue from the 1970s, it's easier to settle in front of a computer and summon up images of contemporary, yet timeless, structures of strange beauty and imagination.

True art in the garden.

Even if, for now, at least, it's probably easier to stick with building a play or summerhouse or a sleepout, rather than getting stuck into a full dwelling.

Or just have a winter exploration of other people's fascinating projects.

For the "how to" advice is depressingly familiar to anyone trying to build innovatively; the hardest construction task is surmounting red tape, both regulatory and financial.

The earth domes pictured here are at Solscape, an accommodation, conference and training centre at Raglan, dedicated to sustainable living practices.

It has a large garden run on permaculture principles, and an emergent cafe producing such fabulous vegan food that even the least alternative lifestylers (and carnivores) of our conference-going party could admit there might be something in this healthy approach to eating.

Unfortunately, that particular weekend last November was as wild and wet as any on a more southerly front, and not having travelled to the balmy north with a sturdy wet-weather wardrobe, a garden tour was off the agenda.

But the earth dome proved sufficient interest instead, living up to the advertised promise: "These beautifully flowing round structures have their own personality and time spent in one of our domes is a unique and distinctly grounding experience."

The weather showed how the dome performed in wet conditions, and running a heater - and an electric blanket - was necessary to ward off a chill underfoot, despite the thermal isolation of a layer of empty bottles built into the floor.

But once the warmth built up, it was cosy and dry.

The earthbagging construction was dreamed up by Californian-based, Iranian-born architect and philanthropist Nader Khalili, whose Iranian and Turkish training is evident in his own designs.

He saw the domes as low-cost, aesthetically pleasing housing, and especially suitable as emergency- response accommodation, requiring more effort than tents, but warmer, inexpensive and able to be built under supervision by unskilled labour.

The whole family from children to grandparents could be involved, without backbreaking labour, or equally crippling debt.

Earthbagging is similar to building with sandbags, familiar to us in military and flood-protection situations, with the bags stacked up to be self supporting.

Khalili added further grip by placing barbed wire between each layer, labelling the technique "superadobe".

It looks like large-scale coiled pottery, with roof stepped in, allowing for playful shapes, and inserts of coloured glass items like bottles to add to the fun.

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It is very adaptable, as the bags can be filled with a variety of locally available earth materials: clay, sand, grit, pumice (but nothing with a humus content).

Layers of lime plaster inside and out give a finished, weatherproof surface.

Unlike adobe, there's no waiting for the material to dry before starting construction, and no structural timber or steel required, apart from window and doorframes or for decorative elements.

Getting proportions of clay to sand, and water content, requires some knowledge and skill, but dome building is mostly a lot of slog labour, which can be provided by unskilled helpers, who have fun and the satisfaction of putting a personal stamp on the outcome.

While very stable (they meet Californian seismic standards), the domes are best made no larger than six metres in diameter.

They are also energy efficient because of their large thermal mass and slow dispersion of heat, so work best in places where there's wide variation between day and night temperatures.

The Solscape earth dome building team was led by Bomun Bock-Chung, who started out as a conventional home builder in Hawaii, but switched to more experimental forms, and now teaches sustainable building techniques in New Zealand.

The Solscape does have cement mixed into the roof covering in deference to the wet climate, and wide eaves, but the walls remain breathable.

But even if the water got into the walls, they wouldn't turn to mud, he points out.

Bock-Chung is part of a new generation of cheerful young idealists, equipped with sound technical knowledge, and out to live more creatively, and less burdened by debt.

"I think they have the potential to take off because they're so strong, and people like them because of their creative shapes," he says.

His Sheltercraft website features several earth dome and roundhouse building projects and reveals the smaller of the Solscape earth domes took him three months to build, with help from about four volunteers at a time, for about $15,000 (including labour.)

The internet provides many examples of fabulous personalised earth domes, but further reading should start with Nader Khalili's California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture, calearth.org, and Bock-Chung's sheltercraft.org. He has also posted more detailed sequences on Flickr of various building projects.

Story suggestions or feedback on this page are welcome at timesgardening@gmail.com.

- The Southland Times

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