Letter Re: Retreat Construction, Afghan Style

One of the most notable features of the architecture here in Afghanistan are the adobe-walled compounds called qalats. Looking at them, especially from the air, it seems to me they would be an excellent style of construction for those with the time (and money) to build their own home retreat. See this photo.

As you can see in the picture (which shows attached qalats for three or more families), a qalat can be almost a miniature castle, complete with a tower or towers. The walls are thick adobe, requiring demolitions or tank cannons to breach. (If you’ve got enemies with access to tanks and [tank] main gun ammo who know where you are, you’re pretty well screwed anyway.) One gate to control access, which, if you were so inclined, could easily be built as a old-school sally port. The walls enclose enough space for vegetable farming and in some cases small orchards, along with space to park vehicles. In the winter, the vegetable garden area can be used to pen livestock.

The biggest downside, at least for building in the US, is that I’m pretty sure adobe doesn’t meet most building codes, plus it’s usefulness is limited to the southwest. Also, a proper qalat takes a long time to build. Now, I don’t see any reason you couldn’t build one with reinforced concrete walls (covered with stucco if bare concrete is too ugly for you) if you’ve got the money to pay for it, which would probably obviate any building code issues.

What considerations am I missing? – David L.

JWR Replies: Adobe and rammed earth construction will work in wet climates, as long as they are covered by a roof long with wide eaves, to protect them from rain erosion. As with any other high-mass construction material, it is essential to include plenty of re-bar. (This often neglected in Third World countries, mostly due to poverty. Without re-bar, masonry and earthen structures are prone to collapse in earthquakes.) Do not under-rate the utility of adobe and rammed earth! In retreat architecture, mass is a good thing! As I wrote in my latest book: There is no substitute for mass. Mass stops bullets. Mass stops gamma radiation. Mass stops (or at least slows down) bad guys from entering a home and depriving its residents of life and property… …When planning your retreat house, think: medieval castle.

Rammed-earth Fujian Tulous have been used in China for centuries to protect co-located families from the depredations of bandits.
One shortcoming of Afgjan qalats is that they typically have blind sides. (See my previous commentary on Vauban Stars and Cooper Corners.)