Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Photo Essay: Under a Desert Dome

Sometimes the options in Southern California become too overwhelming, and it becomes easy to just do nothing rather than trying to choose which direction to drive in. Maintaining a calendar of far-flung explorations is exhausting.

So I appreciate it when I get a specific invitation to a particular place – especially one that's not open all of the time – rather than the vague "Hey let's hang out sometime" which has plagued me in both NYC and LA.



Would I have otherwise visited the open house at Cal-Earth? Maybe not. I hadn't even heard of it before.



Located off a dirt road in Hesperia, a town that wasn't much more than an exit off the 15 freeway a few years ago...



...Cal-Earth is this fenced-off commune that begs the question...



..."What happens in there?"



They don't do much advertising or promotion...



...but somehow they attract dozens of visitors to their monthly open houses...



...where curious folks such as myself can learn about sustainable living...



...exemplified by these dome houses...



...whose shape makes them very strong, easy to build, and resilient to wind, water, and fire.



They're primarily made of dirt – literally, sand bags held together by barbed wire (specifically, the superadobes) – and in some cases covered in a thin layer of concrete (for stabilization).



They each have their own unique decorative touches, whether it's pillows and a throw...



...or intricate tile work.



Many of them are covered in this reptile skin-like exterior, whose increased surface area helps cool the inside...



...which is sometimes ventilated by apertures made out of PVC pipes...



...providing air and light through windows too small for a human to fit through, thereby protecting those inside.



Some of the structures get a bit fancier...



...providing a texture wonderland...



...in an emergency shelter (or perhaps permanent camp?) that only costs a couple thousand dollars to build...



...and can be built by a handful of people in just a couple of days.



The windows are what really drives up the cost, unless they're made from reclaimed materials.



The structures at Cal-Earth are all prototypes of what can be built (think of it as a model home tour)...



...and although the domes are largely vacant...



...they do form somewhat of a village, which also includes the brick Rumi Dome...



...perhaps the most photogenic of the structures designed by Iranian "earth architect" Nadir Khalili...



...founder of Cal-Earth.



Nadir achieved much of his understanding of the basic elements of life (earth, water, air and fire) through his interpretations of Rumi's poetry.



An accomplished writer himself, Khalili wanted to teach others how to provide quick and cheap shelters for themselves...



...since, after all, we are the only mammal on Earth that is unable to build its own home. (!)



Some of the simplest models at Cal-Earth can be built by a single person...



...and can last for years...



...even when exposed to the elements (including the four seasons that the High Desert experiences).



Khalili even lectured on eco-architecture for such captive audiences as NASA...



...who, in the mid-1980s, was very interested in lunar and space habitation...



...and how Khalili's principles could be applied to setting up base off of this planet.



Nowadays, even six years after Khalili's passing, Cal-Earth continues to be a research institute...



...refining its best practices...



...learning from its mistakes...



...and testing its structures to the strictest of building codes (for earthquake proofing and other factors to protect from the elements).



It also conducts regular workshops...



...where unskilled laborers can learn how to read blueprints, compass theory and application, site planning...



...dome geometry and the principle of the arch.



Still, these domes can be wired for electricity and have plumbing and running water. Cal-Earth even built a prototype of a full-sized house, called Earth One, which features a full kitchen, three bedrooms, bathrooms and common areas all built under the vaulted arch principle  – which, while you're inside of it, feels like any suburban McMansion you'd find elsewhere in Southern California.

I would imagine other desert-dwellers just want to find another way to live off the grid and use all of the elements at their disposal (ironically, the same elements they're trying to protect themselves from). Some might use what they've learned to start their own businesses. Some experience some kind of awakening while they visit, realizing this is how they were meant to live, or receiving a calling to help abate the world's homeless problem (primarily brought about by natural disasters like the 2010 earthquake in Haiti).

I'm always looking for a transformative experience like that – some watershed moment in my life – but generally I just walk away with a satisfied curiosity, and a whole set of knowledge about something I never knew I wanted to learn.

Related Post:
One of Many Firsts: Earthquake