Students work on earth structure during ‘minimester’ course

Students enrolled in the May “minimester” course “A Contemporary Interpretation of Historic Cherokee Architecture” wrap up their work on a sustainable earth structure adjacent to WCU’s Bardo Arts Center.

Students enrolled in a May “minimester” course at Western Carolina University had an opportunity to construct a sustainable earth structure using contemporary hand-building methods and to compare that process to traditional practices used by Cherokee people to build their winter homes.

Thirteen students participated in the course titled “A Contemporary Interpretation of Historic Cherokee Architecture” and taught by Jane Hughes, WCU assistant professor of interior design. The students learned about alternative building methods as they worked to “sculpt the earth into a livable art form,” Hughes said.

The group labored for about 10 days on the structure located adjacent to WCU’s John W. Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center. They used the California Institute of Earth Architecture’s “SuperAdobe” construction method, which involved primarily the molding of clay from university property, some sand bags and barbed wire, and a minimal use of cement. The structure is intended to demonstrate a means of creating a low-cost and sustainable shelter with a low carbon footprint that can be built with unskilled labor anywhere in the world, Hughes said.

The students and instructor show off their work, including (from left) Allison Kendo, Madison Hunt, Nicole Lavender, Christen Ray, Anthony Guerere, Jane Hughes (assistant professor of interior design), Emily Worley, Samantha Teague, Alex Gross, Katie Williamson, Baylie Baker, Sarah Lux, Holly Thomas and Shonda Davidson.

“Cement production is responsible for about half of the construction industry’s carbon dioxide output, both through the energy required to make it and the CO2 given off as a byproduct of the chemical reactions involved,” she said. “Our structure contains less than 10 percent concrete, with the rest being clay and sand.”

Steps also were taken during the purchase of materials to reduce the project’s overall carbon footprint, Hughes said.

Because of frequent rainy conditions and the short minimester time frame, the structure couldn’t be fully completed with its domed roof, but Hughes said she hopes to finish it with another group of students next May.

Other class time was spent in activities such as discussion about Native American houses, creation of models and study of site conditions including the sun’s angle and path, precipitation and soil composition.

Students enrolled in the course and working on the project were Baylie Baker, Shonda Davidson, Alex Gross, Anthony Guerere, Madison Hunt, Allison Kendo, Nicole Lavender, Sarah Lux, Christen Ray, Samantha Teague, Holly Thomas, Katie Williamson and Emily Worley.

For more information, contact Hughes at or 828-227-2155.