Creating the Alternative: Journey to The California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture

by Mo Lohre and Will Redwine

Geoff Lawton, Rumi, poisonous berries, student activists, NASA lunar/Martian construction and breaking a vow…. The next leg of the Creating the Alternative Tour (see more here) is pretty legendary. Part of the reason we started this tour was because one of our team members, Mo Lohre, was speaking on student leadership at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) National Conference in Los Angeles. As we pointed out in our last article, we took a vow not to use petroleum earlier that year, so flying from Portland to L.A. was not an option. We sought out vehicles that would align with the regenerative lifestyle we were designing. By the time we found the SolTrekker and harvested/canned enough food we only had time to make one stop on the way down to the Solar Living Institute (SLI,) in Hopland, CA.

The layout of the Solar Living Institute’s 12 acres of awesomeness.
Photo courtesy of White Mountain Photography

We were smitten with SLI. A solar energy oasis practicing permaculture and natural building was an incredible start to this epic journey (you can read more about our visit here). We wanted to stay longer but alas the AASHE National Conference was the following day.

When we arrived at the Los Angeles Conference Center we immediately felt the stark contrast of the university student world versus the permaculture student world: fast food, suit coats, no greenery for what seemed like miles. It felt competitive, individualistic, corporate and in some ways corrupt. The competitive nature of university life (hierarchical system accompanied by job scarcity), Mo feels, has infringed on the opportunity to make more of a collective impact especially at national conferences. Yet, there is work to be done in all worldly settings, especially among college students that desire change and who are beginning to realize the power of their actions.

The presentation was successful and the student spirit of AASHE was growing on us, but we had seen enough concrete and needed to feel a bit more grounded, so we looked into a more earthy location.

Mo Lohre

Before partnering up with the non-profit SolTrekker and building the Creating the Alternative Tour, Mo Lohre was the Graduate Assistant at the Sustainability Leadership Center at Portland State University, helping to empower students to make sustainable solutions on campus and in the local community. She also studied with PSU’s Leadership for Sustainability Education Graduate program focused on developing the knowledge, perspectives, and skills needed to build regenerative communities and ecosystems.

Since we were in Southern California, Free Will, one of the Creating the Alternative team members, suggested checking out one of his alma maters, The California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture (Cal-Earth), just about an hour and a half away from Los Angeles. Cal-Earth is a place where a specific type of natural building is experimented with and taught. This method of construction is called Superadobe which is the term given to it by its founder, Nader Khalili, a world renown humanitarian architect.

Here you can see the continuous polybag (as opposed to individual bags) filled with earth and
being laid over a window form. You can also observe the rough exterior plaster that the crew
has started applying to the base. Photo from All Things Architecture

Superadobe is a type of earthbag construction that is characterized by the use of continuous polybag filled with earth and a very small percentage of cement for what building code calls ‘stabilization’. Between each layer of polybag is laid barbed wire to ensure rigidity. At Cal-Earth students learn that cement is just a precaution and is not required when building codes are not a factor — if the mix is done properly. An ongoing tale is that Nader’s unstabilized structures were tested for earthquake resistance and the buildings were so strong that they actually broke the machinery used for testing.

Nader saw Superadobe as an opportunity to provide low-budget housing for emergency shelters and poverty-stricken areas all over the world. He was also a big proponent of using domes and vaults because of their inherent strength and stability, especially in earthquake prone areas. His designs and actual buildings worked so well that in 1975 the UN made him a consultant for Earth Architecture. Also, NASA seriously considered his designs for Lunar and Mars habitation projects in 1984. Nader knew the worth of earth and didn’t like when he heard it referred to as ‘dirt’  because of its connotations of ‘being dirty’  and ‘cheap’. One of his favorite quotes was by the great poet, Rumi: "Earth turns to gold, in the hands of the wise".

Nader passionately promoting the wonders of earthen construction with Mars 1, a design
proposed for NASA, in the background. Photo by Pars Arts

We wanted to visit and cover Cal-Earth because living regeneratively means building appropriately. Using earth seems like a legitimate path for doing that. It’s incredibly inexpensive; a fifth to a tenth the cost of standard construction. Another potential benefit of earthen building is that it can actually increase biology by utilizing the area excavated for the earth as a water feature for small scale aquaculture or a natural swimming pool. Earthen homes are also efficient in absorbing heat during the day and then slowly releasing it to warm the house on cool evenings. As far as building materials, earth is as local as it gets, plus it’s flexible, durable and time tested.

This is not Superadobe construction but it is an example of using the excavated area
as a water feature. For more information on this earth structure, check out architect Peter
Vetsch’s creation at Photo courtesy of Freshome Design and Architecture.

Despite all the benefits of building with earth, there are some challenges. For one, gaining permission to build earthen structures can be a real headache, or not even possible in some areas. Even if you do get a permit it is not going to be cheap. Also, it can be pretty labor-intensive and it’s not the fastest method of building out there. You can make it less physically strenuous if you don’t mind slowing down the process quite a bit or by getting a larger crew. Here is a link to find out more about different methods of earthbag construction.

Free Will, one of the members of the Creating the Alternative team is an alum of Cal-Earth and has experience building with Superadobe. He also took a 4-day intensive with Bill & Becky Wilson of Midwest Permaculture before heading to Australia to do his PDC with Bill Mollison and Geoff Lawton. Shortly after that he WWOOFed at Bill Mollison’s farm, Tagari, and then at David Holmgren’s site, Melliodora. Immediately on his return to the States he enrolled in the Cal-Earth program. Since then he has built a wide array of earthen structures and designed many properties.

Midwest Permaculture happened to be doing a collaborative workshop on permaculture and earthbag construction at the Cal-Earth Institute grounds when we were coming through. Free Will was excited to hear this since he noted while studying at Cal-Earth, that the property could benefit tremendously from some permaculture design. The workshop featured laundry to landscape and hugelkultur design. You can check out Midwest Permaculture’s coverage of this course here.

Another awesome coincidence with our stop at Cal-Earth was that Geoff Lawton was coming to do a presentation. He was just up in San Francisco talking about permaculture at a TED Talks event focused on the redesign of the urban/city landscape and systems.

We had a chance to reconnect with Geoff, show him the SolTrekker and get some personal time to ask a few good questions. We explained our position about eliminating the use of petroleum and wanted to know his thoughts on his own personal use of fossil fuels. He felt that the work he was doing by far offset his carbon footprint. Although his answer did not totally resonate with us at the time, it was beneficial for us to consider the perspective of an individual working so hard to heal the world. We needed more time and experience to find out what is the best way to create change, and were about to learn that our extremist mentality could cause more harm than good. We were also learning that diversity is key to a regenerative world and what one person does to make change will be different than others. Although we are still passionate about saying ‘enough is enough’ to abusive systems, we were finding out that respecting others’ perspectives and decisions was important to positive growth.

Group photo on the Triple Vault, one of Cal-Earth’s buildings, after Geoff Lawton’s guest
appearance at Midwest Permaculture PDC at Cal-Earth. Photo courtesy of Midwest Permaculture.

All in all, it was an incredible experience and we were looking forward to spending more time at Cal-Earth. However, that night while relaxing with the rest of the Cal-Earth crew, we noticed our dog, ToMo, being a little too relaxed and actually unresponsive. We called his name and shook him vigorously and he still was not coming to. His breathing had become extremely shallow and he had urinated on himself so we hurried off to the closest emergency vet. On the way, we realized we didn’t have enough biodiesel to make it to the vet. This would be our first lesson of the cost associated with taking an extreme vow. Since we were not about to sacrifice a life that had no control over its caretaker’s value system, we broke our vow of boycotting petroleum and got just enough diesel to make it there as quickly as we could.

Thinking he ate something he shouldn’t have, the veterinarian treated him with activated charcoal and told us to hope for the best. We waited through the night and lo and behold our little buddy greeted us with a bright bushy wagging tail in the morning. Later that day, we found a plethora of small reddish-orange berries in his stool. We never learned which plant the berries came from but we highly suspect it was the culprit.

ToMo lives! A tearful reunion with our canine companion.

The inability to access biofuels in the case of an emergency left us feeling vulnerable and lacking self-sufficiency. We decided to get serious about the veggie oil and hydrogen conversions that we had been planning for the vehicle. We even turned down an invitation to Bioneers back up in Northern California because we just couldn’t travel anymore without practicing what we preached. Tune into our next article for a detailed low-down on the veggie and hydrogen conversions as well as tips on how to do it yourself, which we believe is a very worthwhile investment.

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