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DESIGN 2000

Dome Sweet Dome

Nader Khalili's low-cost, eco-friendly domes could help shelter the world's needy.

September 07, 2000|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the scrubby desert near Hesperia, about 100 miles east of Los Angeles, a sun-bleached sign for Cal-Earth barely hints at what goes on behind the iron gate. A bold vision is taking shape from the mind of the slim, bearded man who runs the institute.

Nader Khalili, 63, sees an end to global shelter problems in the mud houses he builds in the backyard of the 15-year-old California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture's 7 1/2-acre compound. There, Khalili and a staff of volunteer architects, engineers and students, develop survivalist housing from basic building materials using funds he earns by lecturing, writing and offering apprenticeship programs. Dome-shaped adobe prototypes, made from the dirt he walks on, are an unlikely tool for social change, yet they have attracted NASA scientists, the United Nations, a leper colony in India, and Byzantine Catholic monks building an abbey. The appeal is mainly practical. The domes are cheap and easy to build as well as environmentally sound.

Visions of ecological housing for the world's 2 billion people who lack decent shelter came to Khalili during a long motorcycle trip through the Middle Eastern desert in the '70s. He was miles away from the corporate high-risers he had been engineering in cities from Los Angeles to Tehran. When he wasn't putting up tall buildings, he lectured about the latest architectural techniques to professionals and students around the world. "I used to breathe, eat and sleep high-risers," he says. His desert odyssey changed all that. He decided he couldn't go back to steel superstructures, asbestos ceilings and walls covered with lead-based paint.

Still, his past and present are not as disconnected as they seem. The skyscrapers were monuments to the latest technology of the time; the domes, with their mosque-like shapes, are what people need now, he says.

A 'Tangible Spirituality'

Once Khalili explains that he was born a Muslim in Iran and his grandmother raised him on Sufi mystics' poetry, the look of his domes begins to make sense. "My structures are tangible spirituality."

Ten years ago, he began translating the poems of Jalaluddin Rumi, who was born in 13th century Persia (modern-day Afghanistan). An expert in Islamic law and a Persian language scholar, Rumi's work is generating a renewed interest in Sufi poetry. His tomb in Konya, Turkey, is now a pilgrimage site. Rumi's poetry taught Khalili that earth, water, air and fire are the basic elements of life. For an engineer familiar with desert climates, those elements became mud bricks formed into half-moon-shaped houses left to bake in the sun.

Later, when his work caught the attention of the U.N., he used sandbags instead of brick molds because they are readily available in disaster areas. Now he is experimenting with plastic-bag tubing that is light to transport. A dome 18 feet in diameter costs about $300 in building materials.

For all their humble materials, the domes feel luxurious inside. The "Rumi" dome has walls dotted with small openings for a lacy effect, and a floor made of clay bricks. Another house, a mud brick "mansion" made from a cluster of nine domes, has arched windows with latches that open like a ship's portholes, and a Persian carpet in the living room. On a hot summer day, the domes stay about 20 degrees cooler than the outside temperature, which averages around 115 degrees.

When Khalili presents his construction techniques to NASA, he talks about economics. It is cheaper to build with materials native to the planet they're on than haul steel and concrete from Earth. "I show them how they can pick up what is under their feet on Mars and build a colony." He does not have a contract, but talks continue.

NASA scientists appreciate the simplicity. "We in aerospace are a very trendy group," says Madhu Thangavelu, an engineer and architect who has done consulting work for NASA and will teach a course in space exploration architecture this fall at UCLA. "Then someone like Nader comes along, who says that from time immemorial humans have built the same way, not using trendy materials, but what is under their feet.

"Most of his structures are built by hand by one or two people. That system is very compatible to building on other planets. He talks about his approach in terms of Sufism, but it appeals to a universal philosophy."

For Sufis, who make up the mystical branch of Islam, the hands are a link to the subconscious, Khalili says. Sometimes it is better to use your hands and forget your head, your thinking mind, he suggests. It helps open the way for a personal experience of God, which is a mystic's ultimate goal.

During his meeting with NASA's department of small business research concerning a Mars housing prototype, Khalili did not mention that Rumi is his spiritual consultant. But Khalili has solved building problems by reading the poet. Once, when he worried that his adobe domes were starting to crack, the mystic's poetry helped him out.

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