Nader Khalili

Individual – Iran and, United States

1936 – 2008

Nader Khalili (1936-2008) was an Iranian architect who lived and worked in both Iran and USA, where he pioneered the technique known as Super Adobe or Earthbag Construction. Designed initially in response to a NASA call for establishing human settlements on the Moon and Mars, this simple yet highly effective construction method can be used to build shelters quickly and without the need for specialist building skills. It has been used to construct emergency shelters since the first Gulf War where the technique was used in partnership with the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR to house refugees in Iran. In 1991 Khalili founded the California Institute of Earth and Architecture (Cal-Earth) to carry out technical research related to the Super Adobe method. The non-profit organisation designs and tests prototypes in the extreme climatic conditions of the Mojave desert.

Khalili began his architecture career designing high-rise buildings with offices in Los Angeles and Tehran. Aged 39, the architect closed both offices and travelled around Iran researching appropriate technology solutions to house the poor. He spent five years studying the vernacular desert architecture and the work of Jalaluddin Rumi, the Sufi poet and philosopher whom Khalili saw as a major influence and whose work he translated into English. At this time Khalili developed the technique of Geltaftan (literally meaning 'clay' and 'firing' in Persian) where adobe brick buildings are fired from within to increase their durability. He used the technique to rehabilitate houses in a village close to Tehran as well as constructing a school in this method. But his technique did not gain widespread appeal, due in part to the pollution caused by the oil firing process and its relatively high cost.

The Super Adobe method was a development of this earlier work, an attempt to adapt adobe construction for contexts where there was no prior knowledge of such building techniques. Sandbags filled with earth are laid in courses to construct a structure that has compression strength based on the structural principle of domes, whilst barbed wire placed between the bags provides tensile strength, also making it earthquake resistant. If available, a locally sourced stabiliser such as lime, cement or asphalt is added to the earth. The appeal of this system is that it does not require skilled labour and is built entirely from readily available, local and environmentally friendly material. The structures can be adapted both in form and spatial layout and the flexible system can either be used temporarily or made permanent with a waterproof finish applied to the exterior. This option to convert a temporary structure into a permanent shelter is especially useful in disaster relief situations and in refugee camps where host countries may not prefer permanent structures but the realities of war can demand otherwise. Rather than employing contractors for specialist work, these shelters can be built by the refugees themselves including women, children and the elderly. It also encourages local economies rather than relying on large globally operating construction companies. Khalili's humanitarian architecture thus gives agency to those most in need, being able to construct their own homes restores a sense of dignity to refugees and even if the shelters are only constructed for temporary use, the solidity of the buildings can give an air of permanence to fragile lives in a way that standard emergency solutions such as tents cannot.

Other Work

Architecture for Humanity, ed., "Nader Khalili: Cal-Earth [Interview]," in Design Like You Give A Damn: Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crisis (New York: Metropolis Books, 2006).

K. Lauren de Boer, "An Interview with Nader Khalili, Earth Light Library, "

new reference

Nader Khalili, Ceramic Houses and Earth Architecture: How to Build Your Own (Hesperia, Calif: Cal-Earth Press, 1996).

---, Sidewalks on the Moon (Los Angeles: Burning Gate Press, 1994).

---, "Designing Lunar Habitations," Mimar: Architecture in Development, no. 32 (1989).

---, Racing Alone: A Visionary Architect's Quest for Houses Made with Earth and Fire (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983).

References About

"Cal-Earth Institute & Nader Khalili: Sandbag shelter prototypes, Iran and various locations, first development 1992.," A + U: Architecture and Urbanism, no. 4 (April 2005).

Ted Katauskas, "Dirt-Cheap Houses from Elemental Materials," Architecture Week, 1998,

"Habitat d'urgence, camp de réfugiés de Baninajar, province du Khuzestan, Iran: Nader Khalili, California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture," Architecture d'aujourd'hui, no. 367 (2006).


Host countries never like to have permanent architecture for refugee camps. They always want it to be temporary. So this is meant to be temporary. If they don't waterproof and plaster it, they could just bulldoze everything back to earth. It's not making a statement; it's providing means for the refugees to find a way to live.'

- Nader Khalili quoted in, Architecture for Humanity, ed., "Nader Khalili: Cal-Earth [Interview]," in Design Like You Give A Damn: Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crisis (New York: Metropolis Books, 2006), p. 112.

The only way you can survive with idealism is to be in constant touch with poetry, and that poetry should not be brushed aside by practicalities or viabilities or economics. This is what the juice of survival is-always being in touch with poetry.

- Nader Khalili quoted in, Architecture for Humanity, ed., "Nader Khalili: Cal-Earth [Interview]," in Design Like You Give A Damn: Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crisis (New York: Metropolis Books, 2006), p. 112.


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