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Iran: Iranian-Born Architect Trying To Build Support For His Earthquake-Resistant Technique

  • Andrew Tully

The earthquake that struck southern Iran on 26 December 2003 killed more than 30,000 people and left the ancient Silk Road town of Bam in rubble. The dead cannot be brought back, but the town can be rebuilt. Yet, according to an Iranian-born architect living in the United States, international aid agencies and the government of Iran are going about the reconstruction process in the wrong way. He says he has developed a new construction method that is not only resistant to earthquakes but is also consistent with the indigenous architecture of the Middle East.

Washington, 16 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Nader Khalili says cities and towns in Iran need not wait years to rebuild after enduring the earthquakes to which they are so prone.

He says his technique -- using what he calls "super adobe" -- can be used to quickly rebuild a shattered city such as Bam, in his native land, and at the same time make it resistant to future earthquakes.

According to Khalili, super adobe is inexpensive, relying mostly on local soil. But unlike normal adobe -- simple sun-dried brick -- super adobe is reinforced with a small amount of cement and dampened with water. It is then packed into simple fabric tubes, whatever the dimension of the wall being built. The tubes can be filled either by hand or with mechanical pumps. These long tubes are stacked on top of one another, with layers of barbed wire layered between them to hold them together.

The roof is a dome made of the same fabric tubes filled with Khalili's super adobe and formed into circles, each a bit smaller than the one beneath. Khalili says he has successfully tested his technique in an earthquake-prone area of the western U.S. state of California, known as Earthquake Zone 4.

"The system that I have developed has gone through many tests. To prove that these [techniques] will work for the rest of the world, I've decided the most difficult building code in California is [in] Earthquake Zone 4, the toughest earthquake [building] code there is -- possibly in the whole world. It took six years to go through the tests, and we were successful in passing them," Khalili said.

Khalili says two design factors make his homes resistant to earthquakes. One is that the walls are made not of adobe bricks but of the long tubes of cement-reinforced adobe. Therefore, he says, the lateral motion in an earthquake will not cause a wall's individual bricks to work loose.The second important design element is the dome, which Khalili says is based on the shell of an egg. Khalili suggests an experiment for anyone curious about the strength of a dome:

"Pick up an egg, put the egg in the palm of your hand, and if that egg is healthy, try to break it. Then you know how strong these are. These are called 'shell structures.' The minute a force arrives on a dome, immediately it's equally transferred everywhere. You can [blast] a dome from inside and you'll get a hole -- it won't collapse," Khalili said.

Khalili notes that arches and vaults share some of the load-bearing and impact-resistant qualities of the dome. As encouraging as his technique may be, however, he has had difficulty persuading governments to adopt it when rebuilding after earthquakes. He says many developing countries are determined to rely on Western architecture, using steel and concrete in the mistaken belief that modern building methods are stronger.

In fact, Khalili says, towns that were rebuilt with this method have fallen again when earthquakes recur. Even after a town has been razed twice, he says, governments and aid agencies resist his super adobe method. Specifically, he cites United Nations relief agencies, as well as Iran and Senegal, which set up daunting bureaucratic hurdles.
"The minute a force arrives on a dome, immediately it's equally transferred everywhere. You can [blast] a dome from inside and you'll get a hole -- it won't collapse."

"[The] government of Iran knows very well, the minister of housing, they know about my system very well because it has been tested there. Of course, I'm stuck in the bureaucracy there, just like I was stuck in the bureaucracy in Senegal, just as I was stuck in the bureaucracy of [the] UN. One of the biggest problems is probably there is not much money in it for a [senior official]," Khalili said.

Brink Lindsey is the director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, a private policy research center in Washington. He is not surprised to hear that Khalili has faced bureaucratic impasses, particularly in developing countries. He says the number of forms and procedures required in these nations would discourage even the most intrepid entrepreneur:

"There's so much red tape to get a business up and running. There're so many different agencies to sign off. There're so many bribes to pay in many cases that it's simply impossible for a small-scale entrepreneur in a developing country to do business legally," Lindsey said.

According to Lindsey, poor countries need the revenue from fees that accompany all the red tape, and they believe they cannot afford to pay their officials well enough, and so they expect that the officials will supplement their salaries with graft.

"What you see is, first, a lot of stifling of entrepreneurial activity. But secondly, a lot of diversion of entrepreneurial activity into the informal 'shadow' economy -- that is, people continue to do business, but just outside the law. Governments tend to tolerate informal activity because it's such a safety valve for the economy," Lindsey said.

Lindsey says it is time for countries to streamline their bureaucracies and invest more in their employees. Otherwise, he says, they may not attract the foreign investment they want -- or, in the case of Iran, the reconstruction methods they so desperately need.

Until then, Khalili says he had decided to sidestep the Iranian bureaucracy altogether by using the Internet to conduct classes in how to build using his super adobe system. The classes originate from California, he says, and the students are in Iran, watching through a World Wide Web connection.This method, which Khalili calls "distance teaching," is effective in this case because, he says, Iran is the most computerized country in the Middle East, with more than 10 million people having access to the Internet:

"To me, the best way of doing it is to empower the people, in location, by teaching them how to build these structures. And that's how I have already started this distance teaching. To cut through the bureaucracy of the local government and the UN bureaucracy, it has to be people-to-people," Khalili said.