Earthships: Putting housing back into the hands of the people

The Phoenix Earthship @ Earthship Headquarters, Taos, New Mexico

* This is the full version of an abbreviated article published in Green Lifestyle

Imagine living in a home where you don’t have to pay another electricity or water bill ever again, enjoy a comfortable 21 degrees Celsius temperature inside without a heater or air-conditioner even if it’s freezing cold or boiling hot outside, and only need to go as far as your front sunroom to pick up some fresh fish and vegies for dinner. Costing around the same as a conventional home to build, but having zero utility bills and a near zero carbon footprint, 100% off the grid Earthships are good for the planet, great for your health and wonderful for your wallet.

Visionary architect and creator of Earthships Biotecture, Michael Reynolds aka ‘The Garbage Warrior’ has gained notoriety for his decision to build the homes from used tyres, aluminium cans and glass bottles. Yet sitting in the living room of the Phoenix Earthship in Taos, New Mexico this fact is barely noticeable amidst the stunning design elements around me and the sudden awareness that I have huge amounts of oxygen streaming into my lungs.

I feel like I’m in the middle of a rainforest, even though we’re actually in the middle of a hot, dry desert. I am surrounded by lush, tropical plants dripping with all kinds of fruit and vegetables. Birds are chirping in the rooftops, and a fishpond is a few feet away filled with fat tilapia. A state-of-the-art looking chicken coop is nearing completion outside. “A family of four could live here and have all they need to survive,” says Reynolds who has been developing Earthships Biotecture for 40 years. The rapidly increasing need and demand for housing that makes more sense environmentally and economically means that Earthships are experiencing a surge in attention – in both developed and developing countries - providing solutions where traditional housing has failed.

"Garbage Warrior"and Architect/Creator of Earthships Michael Reynolds

Did you know?

  • The name Earthship was inspired by the similarity shared with a Sea Ship: they are self-functioning self-contained bodies that have all they need to support and sustain those who reside within it. The name also comes from the houses being constructed in and of the earth.

  • 80% of humanity live on less than $10 a day. Hunger is the single gravest threat to the world’s public health with one billion people facing starvation each day. 16, 000 children a day die due to hunger-related causes. Malnutrition is present in half of all child deaths. (World Health Organisation)

Reynolds has been called everything from a genius to a crazy revolutionary but he says he is simply doing something that makes sense. “It is the most logical, straightforward way of taking care of yourself, which also happens to take care of the planet and other people.” Reynolds’ goal is totally sustainable green housing for every man, woman and child on the planet. Far from seeming crazy, once you learn about the benefits of an Earthship vs the economic and environmental disaster of our conventional housing systems not to mention ongoing humanitarian global crises, it seem more crazy that we aren’t universally committed to this goal and moving toward it as fast as possible.

Reynolds is adamant that every human has a right to basic sustenance, and that work should be there to provide any extras we may want in life not something that dictates whether we can eat or not, or have a roof over our heads. “Everyone’s sustenance should not be related to the economy. People have a basic right to sustenance – food, water, shelter. It is possible for everyone on this planet to have sustenance. The pathway to sustenance is easy and available to everybody. Economy should be separate. What these kinds of houses are doing is taking every aspect of your life and putting it in your own hands.”

Earthships are defined by six principles. Food Production is one of the least known and most rapidly developing, which Reynolds is excited about. “My 8 year old grandson was here the other day. He dropped a pole into the pond, caught a fish within 15 seconds, we cooked it up, gathered some salad stuff from the greenhouse and had a meal. We’re slowly introducing more food production into the homes – bananas, strawberries, cantaloupe, tomatoes, greens. You can produce enough food to stay alive in any climate.”

Did you know?

  • 250 million tyres in the U.S get thrown away every year, creating piles of useless potentially hazardous landwaste.

  • 1/3 of the world’s energy use is due to home /building heating and cooling.

  • An average of 14 000kg of carbon emissions are generated per household. If the rapid increases in human-induced carbon emissions continue, we face the disappearance of icecaps, rising sea-levels extinguishing entire islands and coastal communities, the loss of coral reefs, and ocean acidification. Oceans are an essential part of how our entire planet functions, and we are dangerously close to the tipping point of irreversible damage. (www.solveclimate.com)

  • Solar energy currently gives us 1% of Australia’s electricity.

  • Earthships have zero carbon emissions.

Phoenix Earthship, Taos, New Mexico

The first question most people ask when they hear about Earthships is “Why are they made of tyres?” Thermal/Solar Heating & Cooling with a comfortable 21 degrees Celsius year round is another of the Earthship’s core principles. As it turns out, tyres are a perfect casing for rammed earth. Reynolds found that when filled with pounded dirt, tyres become powerful and durable insulation. With hundreds of them creating the exterior walls of your home, going down several feet underground, they provide a natural cooling/heating system keeping your home at a lovely temperature year round.

Despite the below freezing winters and hot summers here in the New Mexico desert, none of these homes have air-conditioning or artificial heating. All Northern Hemisphere Earthships have South-facing roof-to-ground glass windows (North-facing in the Southern Hemisphere) to take maximum advantage of passive solar heating. All Earthships are powered by Solar and Wind Electricity, although you do have the option to also be connected to the conventional grid as a back-up.

Building with natural and recycled materials reduces the amount of fossil fuels used in the manufacture of traditional building materials, and turns everyday throwaway items into productive building blocks. Aluminium cans reduce the quantity of concrete needed for interior walls, while glass bottles reduce the amount of glass needed for windows while also creating a vibrantly colourful and striking aesthetic effect! Every aspect of Earthship design is integral to the home’s function, with a typical Earthship being built into the earth on the rear side.

Did you know?

  • Only 5-10% of Sydney rainwater ends up in a dam. We face water restrictions and fears of running out of water, meanwhile 90-95% of our rain is going down the drain and flowing out to the ocean. As for our caught rain - half is literally going down the toilet with flushing accounting for 40% of household water use.

  • Almost 1 billion people lack access to safe, clean drinking water. Millions of women and children spend hours a day collecting water, often from polluted sites. Every 20 seconds a child dies from a water-related disease. (www.water.org)

  • A home on a half-acre block with it’s own rainwater catchment system can receive up to 54, 000 litres of rainwater during a 1 inch storm. A typical Earthship for 4 people has four 6800 litre rainwater tanks.

  • Every drop of water caught by the Earthship is used four times

  • Sewerage is conventionally trucked out, or flows out, to our precious oceans and waterways. 2.5 billion people lack access to improved sanitation, with 1.2 billion having no facilities at all. This is the world’s biggest cause of infection. Earthships provide their own contained sewerage treatment.

One of the most powerful selling points for an Earthship in our Australian climate is its Water Harvesting. Reynolds says “I’ve been to Australia once and went to three different places, and they totally loved it. You need it (the Earthship principle of Water Harvesting) down there really bad.” He explained how caught water is used four times. “Rainwater is harvested on the roof and stored in cisterns/tanks. It goes through a pump panel and a pressure panel, that pressurises the water and filters it, and makes it good, regular household water clean for drinking, for your kitchen sink, laundry and showers. This water then drains in at either end of the house and goes via another filter to all the indoor planters. It then gathers in a well which is used to flush the toilet. It finally goes outside to a conventional septic tank, and gets turned into a thick liquid which is used to water the outside landscaping plants.” Each Earthship thus provides it’s own Contained Sewerage Treatment.

Reynolds and his crew travel to developing countries at least a couple of times a year, particularly to areas recently affected by a natural disaster. Most recently they went to Haiti and in four days, with the help of forty people aged four to fifty from the tent camps, built an earthquake and hurricane resistant simplified Earthship hut. Reynolds describes how simple it is, once taught a few basic skills, for people to start building houses for themselves and each other with materials that are literally all around them. “The Haitians could do every aspect of it. They could pound the tyres, lay the bottles. They did it all, learned it all and we are clear that this could be replicated.”

While places like Haiti and the post-tsunami Andaman Islands are obvious in their need for help, Reynolds is reluctant to attach any sort of special humanitarian saviour title to trips there. “The whole world is a disaster. The whole world needs help.” He explains that the reason they go to areas like this is because the urgency allows for immediate action unlike the long delays and waiting game caused by the average city’s bureaucracy. “A disaster is really an arrow that penetrates dogma. The whole reality has changed so they’ll take anything without scepticism. We know how to give them water, we know how to contain sewerage and make it sanitary....We want people to be empowered by the ability to create sustenance for themselves, and in doing so, create employment, jobs, a mini economy. An entire method that is independent of corporations, largely independent of oil, independent of politics. It’s putting housing back into the hands of the people.”

For more information on Earthship Internships, Seminars, Consultancy, Packaged Earthship Kits, Books and DVD’s please go to: www.earthship.com

Dana and Christian were based in Taos, New Mexico in May 2010 while Christian undertook a one month internship at the Earthship Greater World Community, gaining hands on experience with all aspects of Earthship construction.

(c) Dana Mrkich 2010

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