Mud Master: An Earth House in Germany

Gernot Minke’s earth sculpted home fuses layers of clay bricks and green technologies.

| March/April 2004

It’s a challenge to describe Gernot Minke’s home and surrounding neighborhood to a taxi driver, much less convince the driver to stop upon finding the street. That’s because Gernot’s home is barely visible from the street, and it looks like a large mound of dirt covered in grass and flowers. The hobbit-like entrance is the only clue that someone lives here.

This quiet suburb of Kassel, Germany, is home to architect, artist, professor, and author Gernot Minke. On this lovely spring day, Gernot’s garden is bustling with birds, and the small pond outside is teeming with life. The plants in the surrounding landscape blend with the mix of grasses and flowers covering the roof, making it difficult to determine where the ground ends and the roof begins. The entire ecosystem is reaping the benefits of Gernot’s sod roof.

Gernot’s home is part of a district that was once considered undesirable because of its proximity to small industry, so the city readily supported Gernot’s proposal to redesign and green the area—a model for ecological development—in the early 1990s. Codes require that all homes built in the neighborhood have grass or sod roofs; fences are prohibited—only natural landscape barriers can be constructed; roads can’t be sealed to ensure that rain doesn’t run off; and cars must be parked in an area away from the houses. The result is a lush oasis in the middle of suburbia. The housing development is hardly discernable from a distance even though there are thirty-five residences, mostly single-family homes.

Spiraling sculpture

Inside Gernot’s understated entry, the space opens into a voluminous, light-filled dome rising thirteen feet high. Clay bricks circle around, layer upon layer, up to a glass skylight. From this central dome, the 216-square-meter home includes six other domed rooms, two framed with timbers, and four clay-constructed variations. The floor plan, resembling a honeycomb design, is a sculpture in every sense of the word. Gernot’s twenty-seven years of studying and experimenting with earth construction have produced a place that not only complements the environment but is also truly part of it.

Many people associate earth building with arid climates, but Gernot has developed a formula that works in central Germany’s damp climate. Key to this formula is a grass roof consisting of a layer of rock-wool thermal insulation, a water- and root-resistant skin, a light substratum, and a top layer of earth and lava, ideal soil in which to grow his grasses and flowers. This layer provides thermal insulation and protects the loam from the elements while providing the necessary vapor diffusion to regulate the humidity.

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