For the average person, a government order to shelter in place or stay at home comes with some adjustments. Many changes are cerebral: we navigate vast expanses of togetherness with our families while figuring out how to balance work, life, and newfound teaching roles. Other changes are physical, like giving each other enough space to be successful. A lucky few can say that not much has changed for them personally. No matter what your position is in this thing, if you have a place to shelter, you’re doing better than 20% of the world’s population.
An estimated 1.6 billion people, including those who are homeless and those who are refugees, are living without adequate shelter. The need for shelter is a cornerstone of human well-being, and yet building a home for oneself can seem totally out of reach. After all, most people aren’t qualified to build a habitable structure without an architect, an engineer or two, and a team of construction workers with heavy equipment. Or are they?
It all depends on the design and materials. Dome structures have been around for centuries, and the idea of using packed earth to build walls is a tried and true concept. Architect Nader Khalili perfected a blend of the two concepts with his SuperAdobe construction system, which employs long sandbags filled with moistened earth. Khalili opened the California Institute of Earth Architecture (CalEarth) in 1991 to explore the possibilities of SuperAdobe and to educate others in the building process.
I grew up among the poor. I am one of nine children, and constantly knew need. I never forgot, so now I’m responding. — Nader Khalili
This year, the Hackaday Prize is teaming up with CalEarth to push their widely accessible concept of sustainable living into the future. As with our other three non-profits, this effort is twofold. The open call challenge invites you to design sustainable add-ons for SuperAdobe homes that expand their livability and are simple to build and use. Throughout June and July, our CalEarth Dream Team members are working to find ways to automate the process so that these homes can be built much faster, and in turn help more people.
SuperAdobe is Super Easy
Essentially, long sandbags are filled in place, by hand, with moistened soil from the site. The soil is stabilized with lime, cement, or whatever is available. Then the bags are tamped down and spiraled into layers, with a course of barbed wire laid in between each one for stability.
It’s a laborious process for certain, but the result is a sustainable home that’s easy to heat and cool even in weather extremes, and can withstand natural disasters including seismic shocks. SuperAdobe structures are designed with the elements in mind, and are positioned to leverage natural light and guard from wind.
Sustainable Humanitarian Aid
CalEarth’s main focus is on providing a system to build affordable, sustainable homes for refugees, homeless, and other displaced persons. They have directly helped those affected by the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and other disasters by building shelters in a matter of days.
Many of CalEarth’s students take the idea and use it to start or further their own relief initiatives. In 2005, the Small Earth charity in the UK built 40+ domes in Kathmandu, Nepal, creating a hostel for children and their caretakers. Happily, all the domes survived a 7.6 magnitude earthquake in 2015.
The CalEarth Institute in Hesperia, California offers workshops and classes both in person and online for anyone who wants to go forth and build Earth-friendly homes for others or even for themselves. While the Institute itself is a wonderland of resources, the idea is to be able to build SuperAdobe structures anywhere they’re needed, using whatever materials are available.
Therefore, the ability to substitute and improvise is an important part of the plan. CalEarth have recently developed a duffel bag shelter system. Essentially, they wanted to be able to put someone on a plane with two duffel bags packed with enough tools and materials to build a six-foot emergency shelter anywhere in the world (PDF).
Design Sustainable Add-ons
One of CalEarth’s goals is to make these emergency shelters more livable in the long-term by integrating modern comforts that use sustainable technology. These would come in the form of modular add-ons that can be customized as needed.
Their main focus for these add-ons is on heating and cooling methods like the rocket mass heater and passive cooling system in the eco-dome shown above. They are also focused on finding thermal flooring solutions, new uses for solar panels, and ways of harvesting water. If you can think of a way to collect rainwater, filter it, and pump it through a solar-heated shower, you’re definitely on the right track.
Ideally, these add-ons would be modular and highly mobile to compliment the emergency shelter duffel bag system. Flat-pack design would be perfect. They should be easy to deliver around the world, and then to set up and use once they arrive. These problems need fresh eyes and creative thinkers who value simplicity and using natural resources wherever possible.
For the Dream Team challenge, the focus is on automation. The single most expensive aspect of building SuperAdobe structures is the time investment. Right now, it’s all manual labor, and the bags are filled by hand, one bucket or coffee can at a time.
The CalEarth Dream Team will be working to develop modular solutions to automate the process every step of the way. For example, finding a way to mechanically open the bags and keep them open as they’re filled so that the humans can focus on other things. Or how about a crank-powered machine that can fill the bags faster, or a collapsible tool that can tamp the bags in larger footprints? Maybe there’s a way to lay barbed wire automatically so no one has to worry about getting hurt.
Whatever you come up with, we want to see it. Watch the Q&A video with CalEarth directors Sheefteh and Dastan Khalili below to better understand the challenges of building and modernizing sustainable housing, and start your entry today!
All images courtesy of CalEarth.