American Experts Admire Arabian Earth Knowledge and Architecture

Source: America.gov - 25 October 2010

By M. Scott Bortot
Staff Writer

Washington — Quentin Wilson and Ronald Rael are visiting Saudi Arabia to talk about one of that country’s most valuable natural resources — and no, it isn’t oil. It’s earth — the kind beneath everyone’s feet.

Wilson, an adobe construction professor at Northern New Mexico College, and Rael, an assistant professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, are sharing knowledge with Saudis on how to build, maintain and restore earthen structures through a U.S. Embassy speakers program.

The building experts admire how the people of the Arabian Peninsula use soil as a building material. Wilson uses slides of earthen buildings in Saudi Arabia to teach his students, and Rael is impressed by Yemeni earthen architecture.

“To me, Yemen represents the highest level of mud-brick construction in the world,” said Rael, who has traveled in the country extensively. Yemen’s mud-brick buildings are built in clusters and stand up to five stories. “It is almost science fiction, but it’s there, and these are 500-year-old buildings.”

Wilson, who in May attended the first International Conference for Urban Heritage in the Islamic Countries, in Riyadh, praised Saudi know-how in earthen architecture.

“I think that there is an incredible body of knowledge in Saudi Arabia. … I am really in awe of their total scene of earth construction,” he said.

Building with earth is as old as civilization itself. Rael specializes in how earthen construction can be incorporated into contemporary culture, while Wilson is an adobe home builder with decades of experience.

Adobe, a material shaped into blocks by placing combinations of soil, clay and water mixed with organic material into frames and drying it in the sun, is a technique used in the Arab world, the United States, Asia, Africa and Latin America. There is also a linguistic connection. The word adobe, it turns out, is derived from the Arabic al-toob (الطوب), meaning brick.

Another popular earthen building technique is called rammed earth. This involves packing soil, water and organic materials such as straw into forms to make walls.

Wilson and Rael said building earthen structures may be more practical than using concrete and steel for several reasons. For starters, earthen structures are durable: The world’s oldest standing structures are made with earth, and in the American Southwest, people still live in earthen dwellings built nearly 1,000 years ago.

Earthen construction also has a milder environmental impact than modern construction techniques. Massive amounts of energy are used in the production and transportation of steel and concrete, while soil and clay can be found right under people’s feet and used to build.
Then there are earth’s superior heating and cooling properties.
“Thermally, it is the best-tuned material on the planet for soaking up solar energy and storing it for nighttime use,” Wilson said. The ground also serves as a coolant in an earthen-built house. Rugs maintain warmth in the winter, and they are removed in the summer to maximize cooling. “Once you have lived in these things, you learn how to live with them and design them so that not only will they stay warm in the winter, they will stay cool in the summer,” Wilson said.

If building homes with earth is cheaper than using steel, cement or lumber and is less harmful to the environment, why doesn’t everyone live in an earthen home? Rael presents several theories.
One is that building with earth may not make a lot of sense from a business perspective.
“It doesn’t insert into the capitalistic equation very well because no one can profit from it,” he said. While man-made materials such as concrete, steel and lumber can be measured and standardized for sale locally and internationally, measuring earth is a different case. “Earth from one place to across the street can be radically different even though it can make a similar building material,” he said.
Earth may be its own worst enemy because of availability and longevity.
“It is like saying the tire manufacturer is going to make a tire that will last 80 years,” Rael said. “They will be the first people to go out of business.”
Despite the industrial challenges to building with earth, Wilson remains upbeat about its potential. After all, more people on the planet continue to live in dwellings made of earth than in concrete, steel and wooden structures. Wilson said proponents of earthen structures need better efforts to spread their message.
Promotion efforts aside, Wilson said earthen housing will be the way of the future because of environmental considerations.
“With climatic change and dwindling oil supplies, I just can’t help but think that people are going to have to turn more and more to earthen construction,” he said.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://www.america.gov)

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