The Earthen Homes of Yongding County

Photo by Barbara Koh/New York Times

From China’s Fujian coast, it’s a grinding drive up narrow roads through villages built around exhausted coal mines to reach the remote mountains of Yongding. Morning mist clings to the slopes of dense trees and brush. Below, in a valley, rests an eerie collection of beige cylindrical structures, one as enormous as a football field. This sci-fi scenery is peculiar to southern China and concentrated in Yongding County. The bizarre edifices, which the Chinese say foreign surveillance has, over the years, mistaken for missile silos and U.F.O.’s, are decades- and centuries-old and made of rammed earth. They are still homes to the Hakka, a Han Chinese nomadic group.

Soil Lamp

We previously reported on the Mud Clock that runs off electricity generated by soil. The Soil Lamp, designed by Design Academy Eindhoven student Marieke Staps and recently exhibited during Milan Design Week 2008, is another electricity-producing soil innovation whereby the metallic strips of zinc and the minerals and organisms in damp soil chemically react with one another to initiate a constant electrical current that lights up an LED. Perhaps an entire earthen house can run all the appliances within using this technology.

Koudougou Central Market, Burkina Faso

The impact of Koudougou’s Central Market, designed by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) / Laurent Séchaud / Pierre Jequier for the Koudougou Municipality and completed in 2005, is twofold: at the urban scale, it reinforces and enhances the fabric of a mid-sized town, providing a monumental civic space for commercial and social exchange. On the level of construction, it introduces simple and easily assimilated improvements to a traditional material – stabilised earth – which allow it to achieve its full aesthetic and environmental potential. By using blocks of compressed earth, the market not only demonstrates the superior climactic performance of the local building material, but also shows how humble earth blocks can be used to create a sophisticated pattern language of vaults, domes and arches.

The market is the third of its type to be built under the direction of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) in cooperation with the Programme de Développement des Villes Moyennes of the Burkina Faso government, which aims to strengthen the country’s mid-sized towns through building commercial infrastructures. The market was the result of a truly participatory process that brought together and engaged the entire community in the site selection, design and construction of the market as well as its continuing use. A 1:1 prototype of a typical retail space was constructed which helped facilitate communication between the different collaborators, simultaneously allowing refinement of the design, development of innovative construction techniques and practical training of the local masons.

The Architecture of Yemen

The result of nearly two decades of research, The Architecture of Yemen: From Yafi to Hadramut the first book to offer an in-depth investigation into the characteristic architecture of the southern and eastern towns of Yemen, which until the early 1990s were extremely difficult of access. The author’s first-hand research provides detailed insights into building design, techniques and methods that, though rich in tradition and accomplishment, are little known outside the region.

Refreshingly, the book moves out of the more familiar major cities into the hinterlands and explores areas that could be said to be the last strongholds of vernacular Arab architecture. The author, Salma Samar Damluji, was allowed to visit locations and sites previously closed or unfamiliar to architects and foreigners. As a result of this privileged access, the text and images combine to convey unique insights and viewpoints: those of the master builders and house owners who actually create and inhabit the buildings. In addition to approximately 700 colour images and architectural drawings, a unique glossary of over 900 terms complements the text.

Ontario Rammed Earth House

The unusual “Mud House” house was constructed in King City, Ontario in 1937 by Blair Burrows, a remarkable woman architect from Toronto, using only local materials and without cutting down any trees. She built the house entirely by hand, of pisé de terre (rammed earth). Original features include the two-foot thick, rot-free walls and a monumental hearth.

Save the Heritage of Hassan Fathy

Save the Heritage of Hassan Fathy is an International Association based in Geneva (Switzerland), founded in February 2008 to safeguard the heritage of the Egyptian architect, Hassan Fathy.
His works constitute a patrimony of outstanding value which belongs to the cultural world heritage. The Association’s objectives are the following:

  • Raising the awareness of the public opinion about the importance of the work of the Egyptian architect
  • Providing a platform of exchanges between the concerned Institutions (public and private) and Universities
  • Promoting protection and conservation projects to safeguard this outstanding heritage

Adobe Classes at the Northern New Mexico College

Anselmo Jaramillo is teaching our one-week introductory class, Build With Adobe, starting April 21. A little bit of talk, a lot of work. Adobe 147-201, CRN 21475.

Following that on Monday, April 28 is our very intensive ADOB 112-101, Arches, Domes and Vaults that runs five days a week for two weeks ending May 9. Also taught by Anselmo this will take place on the property of Alejandro Lopez on the east side of Espanola. The project will be a small vault. Alejandro already has a dome.

The two courses make a nice package.

More information on the College website or by calling Quentin Wilson at 505-581-4156. Email Donald Martinez for registration at or 505-581-4120

Another one-week introductory class begins June 2. The instructor is yet to be identified.

Another on August 18 with Kirk Higbee the instructor. Followed by Arches Domes and Vaults for two weeks beginning Aug 25 and bracketing Labor Day. Taught by Q Wilson. This will be vault in
Abiquiu which we think will be the largest vault ever built west of the Rio Grande, east of the Chama River, South of the Canadian Border and north of Española.

Do Some “Good” with the Voute Nubian For Burkina Faso

The Voute Nubienne Association has recently made an agreement with an eco-urban property developer in California, LJUrban, that, for every house they sell in their ‘Good’ project in Sacramento, and for every 10,000 clicks on their project website, they’ll fund the training of one VN mason in our Programme in Burkina Faso. This is very important for us, as the main brake on development of our ‘Earth roofs in the Sahel’ programme is the speed at which new apprentices can be recruited and trained to meet the demand for VN houses, to replace the dreadful tin-roof shacks in which so many poor families in the Sahel live.

If you want to help, please go to their website at:

and click on the ‘Goodometer’ you’ll find there—it’s that easy! Even easier, just click on Goodometer below.

Please encourage your friends to do likewise…every click counts!

New Orleans Marine Hospital 1867 was Rammed Earth

The all-iron Marine Hospital, innovative in its day, yet doomed by construction costs. Photo / Theodore Lilienthal

A new book of essays, New Orleans 1867: Photographs by Theodore Lilienthal, on rediscovered photographs of New Orleans in 1867, written by the curator of architecture and design at the MIT Museum, shows how the city tried to rebuild its economy and retrieve its prestige in the aftermath of war. One of the photographs is of a vast, domed building under construction at the edge of the city turned out to be the Marine Hospital, New Orleans’ version of Boston’s Big Dig. The iron building, insulated with rammed earth, was thought to be lighter and therefore better suited to swampy local conditions, as well as fireproof. The proposal was innovative but the technology was costly, a sinkhole of federal money. Never completed, eventually demolished, the hospital was one of the most advanced buildings of its time, but it has been forgotten today.