What made Steve Areen finally decide to hang up his walking shoes after spending more than two decades traveling the world? Well, in 2011 a friend gifted him an empty patch of land – and it turned out to be the perfect spot on which to build his dream home. What’s more, the house he constructed is an inspiration to shoestring homesteaders everywhere.
Northeastern Thailand’s beautiful landscapes certainly influenced Areen’s decision to lay down roots there. From the Khorat Plateau to the banks of the Mekong River, it’s an earthy, friendly region, abounding with natural wonders and ancient ruins. And it was here that Areen’s friend Hajjar Gibran offered him a plot of land on his mango farm.
But Gibran’s generosity didn’t end there. It was thanks to his design acumen, as well as his son-in-law’s talent for stonework, that Areen had his house ready in just six weeks. The cost of the basic structure? A mere $6,000. However, anyone considering embarking on a similar project should be aware that materials are comparatively cheap in Thailand.
“I probably wouldn’t have built it if was a long process,” Areen admitted on his website. “The low cost and time-efficiency of using blocks is what enticed me into building. Because suitable compressed earth blocks were not available at the time, cement blocks and clay bricks were used.”
In fact, Areen’s home was constructed with a material called aircrete, or “autoclaved aerated concrete.” Invented in Sweden back in the 1920s, aircrete is a kind of lightweight foam concrete that is easily cut to size thanks to its relatively soft consistency. And it is particularly well-suited to the extreme warmth of the tropics owing to its thermal efficiency.
Aircrete’s thermal properties stem from its internal structure. Millions of hydrogen bubbles are created during the mixing and casting process, when aluminum powder reacts with calcium hydroxide. This means that the finished material is filled with tiny holes, just like a sponge.
As a result, aircrete weighs 80 percent less than conventional concrete. And since it does not require sand, gravel or rock, it’s also ultra-cheap to produce. Instead, all you need to add in is everyday dish detergent.
Naturally, since aircrete is so resource efficient, it’s quite ecologically sound. Yes, with a lower impact on the environment than traditional cement, it’s gaining an international reputation as a cost-effective green building material. So if you care about the environment, aircrete may be worth considering.
Moreover, aircrete is fireproof and waterproof. You could even build a furnace – or a boat – with it. And, because the material is versatile enough to be shaped and joined without gaps, it leaves no space for any undesirable critters to get into the house. This sounds like a very sensible idea in the teeming jungles of Thailand.
Areen’s good friend Gibran believes that building an aircrete house doesn’t even require any special skills. “[It] is easily achievable for most people,” he wrote on his website. “Especially if you do it with others. It’s easy to learn… Work becomes play when we help each other. It will be one of your life’s most memorable events.” So, then, what exactly did Areen build?
With just six weeks of hard work – and the help of his friends – he constructed a unique-looking dome house. Complete with intriguing round windows and oval doorways, the architecture could be described as Alice in Wonderland meets The Hobbit. And the lack of straight lines and corners makes it a very calming dwelling.
“There is something intangible, freeing and uplifting that soothes your soul the moment you step into one of our dome homes,” Gibran added. “They give you a sense of expansion as though you have entered a sacred space. Aircrete domes are extraordinary. They provide something that conventional buildings simply cannot. Your dome home will surround you with a secure sense of serenity.”
Moreover, as well as being aesthetically pleasing, the domes are inherently stable structures. “A dome is strong because it distributes forces equally in all directions throughout its entire surface,” Gibran explained.
With the basic exterior of the house complete and rendered in earthy terracotta tones, Areen then turned to the interior. The doors, roof deck and assorted furnishings he needed to make his house a home set him back less than $3,000. And the transformation from a bare plot of land to an exotic retreat was remarkable
Firstly, Areen overlaid the floor with roughly hewn stone slabs to enhance the interior’s natural ambience. These also provided jagged textures to contrast with the smooth, curved walls of the dome. He then added plants, vases and assorted items of furniture. And in one corner, he even built a pebble mosaic into the wall.
Elsewhere, the cozy little kitchen seems to have everything you might need. There’s shelving space – not to mention condiments, implements and storage vessels. And the rustic table and chairs add to the home’s earthy vibe. This is the house of someone who likes to be close to nature.
Adorned with a striking red spread, a double bed occupies the center of the bedroom, seeming to promise the deepest night’s sleep ever. Meanwhile, to each side, large, round windows provide not only abundant natural light, but also soothing spaces in which to recline. No wonder Steve looks so relaxed!
In fact, the house offers several calm enclaves, such as the one above, overlooking a small pond and mango trees. What a hospitable space for entertaining guests! And the inclusion of what appears to be locally sourced pottery and textiles makes the house seem at one with the region’s culture.
Of course, if you’re living in the tropics, you’ll want to spend plenty of time outdoors, too. For that purpose, Areen constructed a fantastic “sala” (gazebo) on top of one of the domes – and from its lofty perch above the mango trees, you can enjoy enchanting views of the surrounding countryside.
All in all, Areen did a grand job on his dream home. However, it seems that he may still be heading to new horizons after all. “Now the goal is to take this design… and build with more sustainable materials that better insulate for colder climates,” he wrote on his website. And that’s great news for those of us living in the chillier parts of the northern hemisphere.