Build a Better House - With Dirt

Adobe, Cob, and Earth Block Alternatives

Taos Pueblo in New Mexico
Taos Pueblo in New Mexico. Photo by Wendy Connett/Robert Harding World Imagery Collection/Getty Images

Tomorrow's homes may be made of glass and steel—or they may resemble the shelters built by our prehistoric ancestors. Architects and engineers are taking a new look at ancient building techniques, including building with earth products.

Imagine a magical building material. It's cheap, perhaps even free. It's plentiful everywhere, worldwide. It's strong enough to hold up under extreme weather conditions.

It's inexpensive to heat and cool. And it's so easy to use that workers can learn the necessary skills in a few hours.

This miraculous substance isn't only cheap as dirt, it is dirt, and it's winning new respect from architects, engineers, and designers. One look at the Great Wall of China will tell you how durable earthen construction can be. And, concerns for the environment and energy conservation make ordinary dirt look downright appealing.

What does an earth house look like? Perhaps it will resemble the 400-year-old Taos Pueblo. Or, tomorrow's earth homes may take on surprising new forms.

Types of Earth Construction

An earth house can be made in a variety of ways:

Or, the house may be made with concrete but earth sheltered underground .

Learning the Craft

How many people live or work in buildings constructed of earth?

The folks at eartharchitecture.org estimate that 50% of the world's population spend much of their time in earthen architecture. In a global market economy, it's time that more developed nations take note of this statistic.

Traditional adobe homes in the American Southwest have wooden beams and flat roofs, but Simone Swan and her students at the Adobe Alliance have discovered the African mode of construction, with arches and domes.

The result? Beautiful, ultra-strong, and energy-efficient homes, echoing the adobe domes built along the Nile centuries ago and being built today like earth igloos in places like Namibie and Ghana in Africa.

No one can argue with the environmental benefits of using mud and straw. But the ecological building movement does have critics. In an interview with The Independent, Patrick Hannay, from the Welsh School of Architecture, attacked the straw bale structures at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales. "There would appear to be little aesthetic leadership here," Hannay said.

But, you be the judge. Does "responsible architecture" have to be unsightly? Can a cob, straw bale, or earth sheltered home be attractive and comfortable? Would you like to live in one?

Designing a More Beautiful Mud Hut

The African earth igloos, however, come with a stigma. Because of primitive construction methods, mud huts have been associated with housing for the poor, even if building with mud is a proven architecture. The Nka Foundation is trying to change the mud hut image with an international competition. Nka, an African word for artistry, challenges designers to give these ancient building practices a modern aesthetic that is missing.

The challenge outlined by the Nka Foundation is this:

"The challenge is to design a single-family unit of about 30 x 40 feet on a plot of 60 x 60 feet to be built by maximum use of earth and local labor in the Ashanti Region of Ghana. The client of your design is the middle-income family in any township of your choice in the Ashanti Region. Total costs of constructing the design entry must not exceed $6,000; land value is excluded from this price point. The entry should serve as an example to the local people that mud architecture can be beautiful and durable."

The need for this competition tells us several things:

  1. How something is built can have little to do with aesthetics. A home can be well-made but ugly.
  2. Attaining status through architecture is nothing new; creating an image transcends socio-economic class. Design and construction materials, the essential tools of architecture, have the power to make or break stigma.

    Architecture has a long history of design principles that often get lost through the years. Roman architect Vitruvius set a standard with 3 Rules of ArchitectureFirmness, Commodity, and Delight. Here's hoping that earth igloo construction will rise to the level of being built with more beauty and delight.

    Learn More:

    Sources: Architecture: A house made of straw by Nonie Niesewand, The Independent, May 24, 1999; eartharchitecture.org; 2014 Mud House Design Competition [accessed June 6, 2015]