Architect’s goal was to house the poor

Times Staff Writer

Nader Khalili, an architect who developed low-budget adobe housing for emergency shelter and poverty-stricken areas, died March 5 of congestive heart failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, according to his son, Dastan. He was 72.

Khalili founded the Cal-Earth Institute in the desert near Hesperia, where students learned how to build his dome-shaped houses. He also taught architecture at the Southern California Institute of Architecture for many years.

His simplest design consisted of oblong plastic bags filled with dirt and held in place by barbed wire, a “super adobe” structure that cost under $500 to build. His other model was a fired-clay “ceramic” house that was more refined and could accommodate the rich colors of fired clay bowls and vases.


In lectures and demonstrations he proposed his super adobe structures as a housing solution for the poor in Central and South America, Africa, India and elsewhere around the world.

“Nader saw architecture as an essential social service,” said Eric Owen Moss, director of the Southern California Institute of Architecture. “He was constantly looking for ways to serve the poor, disinherited areas of the world.”

After an early career building high-rise apartments and parking structures in Southern California and in his native Iran, Khalili was disenchanted with what he referred to as the asbestos ceilings and lead paint walls of modern buildings. He returned to Iran in the mid-1970s and toured rural villages by motorcycle, looking at housing structures that were closer to nature.

Most of the adobe houses he saw could not withstand earthquakes and strong winds. He imagined a fired-adobe structure that would resist the elements. That led him to his ceramic house system. He then fashioned his cheaper, easier to make, bag-and-barbed-wire technology.

Back in California, Khalili “put his heart into housing for people who, in his view, had no alternatives,” Moss said.

When many architects began thinking of globalization as a means, “to build Chicago in Central Africa,” Moss said, “Nader wasn’t in that game. He wanted to deal with the millions of people who don’t have water lines. That was his priority.”

In the mid-1990s the Hesperia department of Recreation and Parks created the Hesperia Museum and Nature Center to showcase Khalili’s designs. Several model structures are in place. A community center will open this year.

Khalili’s prototypes have not been widely adopted in the U.S. because they don’t meet key building code requirements, said Cal Camara, general manager of the Hesperia Park District. They also aren’t considered a good fit for standardized cabinets, kitchen appliances and the like, he said.

Visitors to the domes, including many from abroad, have been inspired, however. “This is a building you can make by yourself,” Camara said. “Nader had a very positive influence on people trying to help themselves in life.”

Born in Tehran on Feb. 22, 1936, Khalili attended the University of Tehran for a year where he studied Persian literature and poetry. The poems of Rumi and other medieval Persian mystics continued to inspire him and are quoted on Khalili’s website,

In the 1950s he moved to Istanbul, Turkey, and studied engineering and architecture at the Istanbul Technical University. From there he traveled to New York City, continued on to San Francisco and finally settled in Los Angeles in the early 1960s.

He began teaching at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in the early 1980s and opened his Cal-Earth Institute to students and others interested in his work.

He traveled widely to lecture, and in the mid-1980s he expanded his interests to include lunar dwellings. He presented a paper on the subject during a NASA symposium in 1984.

He wrote several books, including the autobiographical “Racing Alone,” and “Ceramic Houses and Earth Architecture: How to Build Your Own.”

In 1984 Khalili’s design for a ceramic house received the award for excellence in technology from the California Council of the American Institute of Architects. He was presented a certificate of special recognition by the United Nations in 1987 for his “Housing for the Homeless” proposal, using his super adobe sandbag technique.

Khalili was married three times. With his son, he is survived by his wife, Iliona; daughter Sheefteh; four brothers and four sisters.

A memorial service is being planned for later this year.