Case di terra (earth houses)- an Abruzzo curiosity
Earth houses in Abruzzo?! I hear you say. If you’re already thinking this is something that only exists in movies, like the Shire in “The Hobbit”, think again. Earth houses are 1. real 2.closer than you think 3. not necessarily underground. Let’s discover a bit more…
“An earth house (also known as an earth berm or an earth sheltered home) is an architectural style characterized by the use of natural terrain to help form the walls of a house. An earth house is usually set partially into the ground and covered with thin growth. Modern earth houses are built with concrete walls and insulation.”
Most foreigners are now familiar with the wonderful scenery of the “Sassi” in Matera, Basilicata, made famous by movies like “The Passion” by Mel Gibson. Not everyone knows, though, that earth houses are not necessarily underground… I am the daughter of a surveyor and spent some of the best times of my childhood
getting up to no good in hanging around construction sites (health and safety laws were introduced later…maybe;). As of today, I still have a keen interest in architecture and town planning so I though I’d share with you this lesser-known Abruzzo fact.
There are around 800 earth houses in Abruzzo across 42 towns -notably, Chieti, Manoppello, Roccamontepiano and Casalincontrada, plus some town in Teramo province. Apparently, there were more than 7,000 in the 1930′es. These are technically “raw earth” houses, built with a material called “massone”, a mix of water, straw and clay.
Of the 800 raw earth houses left in the region, only 10-15% are lived-in. However,the latest census of earth houses in Abruzzo was held in 1999 and chances are that even fewer are left since then. Unfortunately, most City councils, the Provinces and the Regional institutions are not doing enough to preserve these remnants of the traditional Abruzzo way of life- a culture shaped by a close relationship with the land and with the community.
Earth houses are not only sustainable- being built with simple materials which were plentifully available in rural societies such as ancient Abruzzo; they also have better insulation, allowing for energy and CO2 savings, and fit better with the countryside landscape.
Also, earth houses are better resistant to fire and to earthquakes – this is a factor not be underestimated in Abruzzo, which is a highly seismic area, as the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake recently proved.
“Earth houses in Abruzzo were designed and built after conventional city houses ; however, their peculiar materials and the rural context allowed the standard model to evolve- with the addition of cloisters, logge, internal and external staircases. The structure is modular, so that the building was able to evolve in time according to the change of the inhabitants’ needs.
The fact that the territory is prone to earthquakes has influenced the typical Abruzzo earth house structure too: walls are sloping “a scarpa”, they are shaped like truncated pyramids made of soil and straw which absorb seismic shocks”
(Mr. Gianfranco Conti, Architect specialising in raw earth building)
However, there is an exception to the general lack of interest in earth houses – the town of Casalincontrada (Chieti province) hosts a dedicated “Earth Houses Permanent Documentation Centre” (CeDTerra); the centre has worked for fifteen years to promote the recovery and restoration of earth houses. Together with the Casalincontrada municipality, the centre is looking to establish a “permanent workshop” which will preserve the traditional building tecniques of “case di terra” and hopefully prevent further decay of the ones still standing.
The survival of earth houses in Abruzzo at the moment relies mostly on the goodwill of their owners (remember- real estate is heavily taxed in Italy, even if you can’t live in the house) and of some private NGOs like “Citta’ della Terra Cruda” (City of Raw Earth). It is really a pity, as they could be rescued and revitalised, maybe adding some hospitality facilities to use them as Bed & breakfast accomodations.
Would you like to live – or even just to visit- a earth house in Abruzzo? Let me know in the comments