ZAV Architects highlights how raw-earth building methods can not only benefit the environment but also empower struggling communities.

It’s not often that you can erect a bright rainbow of human-made buildings on a natural shoreline in the name of biomimicry but, then again, Hormuz Island’s is no ordinary landscape. Tourists come to see the kaleidoscopic colours of Rainbow Valley, named for its 70-plus shades of minerals, and the otherworldly red-tinged waves that lap the island’s shore, produced by the sand’s high concentration of iron oxide.

When counted in 2016, the population of the 42-sq-km island was approximately 5,900. Despite its tourist appeal and politically strategic position – the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf is known as the world’s most important oil chokepoint, with the 2018 daily oil flow accounting for 21 per cent of global petroleum liquids consumption – local inhabitants are struggling economically, says Mohammadreza Ghodousi, founder and senior architect of Tehran-based ZAV Architects. Consequently, many are taking their boats to the waters to earn money from illegal trafficking. ZAV Architects was hired to empower the local community with a series of urban developments. The first stage, Presence in Hormuz 02, a colourful cluster of raw-earth homes, will be followed by a multipurpose artistic residence called Majara (‘adventure’) that’s designed to connect locals with visitors – culturally and economically.

Photo: Soroush Majidi

Photo: Payman Barkhordari

The focus of Presence in Hormuz 02 is on ‘building trust rather than architectural objects’, says Ghodousi. Locals become active participants in the ongoing project, which utilizes the Superadobe earthbag construction developed by late Iranian-born architect Nader Khalili. The technique’s simplicity and the small scale of the residences mean that the construction of the domed buildings – a familiar architectural shape in the region – isn’t limited to qualified craftspeople. Novices prepared for the project in advance, starting on smaller structures and working their way up. ‘Today they are trained master Superadobe masons,’ says Ghodousi, ‘as though Nader Khalili had multiplied exponentially.’ The resulting colourscape is inspired by the polychromatic spectrum of the island, whose own earth fills the bags with which it’s built. As Ghodousi explains: ‘The sandbags that create the domes are filled with the dredging sand of the Hormuz dock, as if the earth has swollen to produce space for accommodation.’

ZAV believes that architecture can act as a mediator, a sort of middle ground that takes into account the interests and diversity of a project’s many different parties, from the state and investors to the contracts and end users. The team points to the aforementioned second phase, Majara, which will do so by uniting various groups as project partners: the land owners from the neighbouring port of Bandar Abbas who organize an annual land-art event in Hormuz, investors from the Iranian capital of Tehran, and Hormuz locals.

The two-stage project is designed to increase Hormuz Island’s gross domestic product (GDP) in a time of economic distress brought on by sanctions, thus generating social change. Ghodousi describes four ways in which ZAV delivers the goods. One, the economic building method benefits the client. Two, assigning a bigger portion of the budget to labour costs and avoiding expensive imported materials benefits the local population. Three, the architecture can evolve and grow according to necessity, making it a future-proof solution that benefits both the client and the island. And finally, the use of Iranian materials and human resources reduces construction and transportation costs while increasing the GDP, benefitting the whole country.

Superadobe is one of a number of raw-earth building techniques gaining newfound attention for their sustainable processes. Although it’s not known exactly how long some of these methods have been in use, Khalili’s foray into raw-earth building began in 1974. The architect was looking for potential solutions for those with limited resources, such as refugees and the homeless. He would eventually found the California Institute of Earth Architecture, better known as CalEarth, to explore the possibilities of Superadobe and to educate others in its building process. In 1984, proverbial light years away from such homegrown social issues, Khalili was at a NASA symposium presenting a concept (that would eventually become the Superadobe we know today) as a feasible method of building on the moon and on Mars. With some proclaiming Mars as the next frontier and the likes of Elon Musk transforming space travel on one side, and others championing local building materials and methods in response to the climate crisis, it’s unsurprising that a method fit for both scenarios is back in the spotlight. ‘It’s all about using what’s available to you in that situation,’ Khalili’s son Dastan, president of CalEarth, told Vogue. ‘When you’re building with natural materials, you’re addressing what may occur in those environments – a storm, a meteorite, whatever it may be – you’re thinking sustainably and using what’s already there.’

Photos interiors: Tahmineh Monzavi