Boasting an outer shell made of stacked car tyres packed with earth, an Earthship claims to be a cutting-edge, sustainable green home made from recycled materials. In fact there are serious design flaws: from off-gas from the tyres to overheating in ultra-hot places like Australia. All in all, having an Earthship in your life is like having a particularly sensitive pet – which needs constant feeding and excercise.
But that has not stopped shameless American architect Michael Reynolds touring Australia’s North Coast, preaching his particular brand of Earthship.
In Melbourne, he is in league with the Ceres community in Brunswick East which has a small project where you can pay to experience Earthship construction techniques. The Group, which always relied on volunteers to build its empire, has now found a marvellous new idea – get people to pay $160 ozzie dollars for a weekend ramming earth into old tyres.
Reynolds, who did not invent the Earthship concept, says its “a vessel sailing on towards tomorrow.”
Reynolds told audiences in the Rainbow Region: “Earthships are designed to be self-sufficient, passive-solar homes. They are buildings that heat and cool themselves, harvest their own water and use growing plants to treat their sewage.”
Designed with solar arrays to harness the power of the sun and using inverters to provide electricity to household appliances, Earthship homes are not designed to go off planet, but they are designed to go off the grid. Reynolds took the design from another architect, and has been building them all over the world, providing solutions to affordable housing in third world countries and in countries like Haiti, which have been devastated by natural disasters. “He really milked that Haiti thing” said one Taos resident who has watched Reynolds over theyears. “He does not even live in an Earthship himself.”
“In the 1970s, before the word recycling was invented, I saw garbage as affordable resources,” Michael said, apparently unaware of the history of this english word. “When I looked at mountains of old car tyres, I saw a reservoir of raw natural materials and started experimenting with ramming dirt into them with a sledge hammer. They are the best building materials for structural walls; they don’t rot, termites don’t eat them and they are not affected by earthquakes and can withstand the forces of the wind.”
However eminent architects and academic experts like Plinky Fisk, a former Professor of Architecture at Texas A&M, disagree. Its a very labor-intensive way to build, and suffers from the fact that it is impossible to disassemble and reassemble an Earthship. You can read more about Reynolds bizarre antics and Fisks crtique of him in my book: “Off the Grid: Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Government, and True Independence in Modern America.”
Basicually, Earthships work best in temperate climates. “These rammed earth bricks, when used to build the curved walls of an Earthship, provide thermal mass which keeps the indoor temperature constant while outside temperatures fluctuate. It’s based on the cave concept, similar to how the adobe buildings in New Mexico are constructe,.”says Reynolds, who lives in Taos. But its not really the case.
With the finished constructions rendered with adobe or cement, and with earth ramparts build up around the outside, Earthship homes inthe New Mexico desert blend in with the surrounding landscape much more than conventional buildings. Whether that is the case in Melbourne may never be tested.
“The tyre wall is entirely backfilled with soil in such a way that there is a waterproof rigid curtain of insulation surrounding the backfill and the house becomes an energy sink and keeps the temperature at the right comfort zones for people,” Reynolds said. “Because Earthships don’t need to use fossil fuels to stabilise the temperature in the building and they generate their own electricity, the costs of living are reduced.”
The Earthship’s design uses rainwater, captured from the roof to make it easy for people to grow their own food in their homes and also treat sewage by reusing the water in numerous ways.
At one stage in his career, his architectural licence in the US was revoked when the authorities found his innovative designs too challenging for local building compliance regulations. These days, with his licence now reinstated and his innovative designs now being taken up all over the world, he has moved beyond architecture and has created the Earthship Biotechture Academy where the principles of Earthship construction are taught.
“The profession of architecture is not living up to the needs of the times,” Michael said. “I invented the profession of biotechture because these days people need the home they live in to take care of them.”
Michael’s Earthship designs come in a number of different models, from the cheapest ‘Simple Survival’ model, to the larger and more expensive ‘Global’ or ‘Custom’ models. The costs in building an Earthship home vary, from about $50,000 to several million dollars, depending on how big and lavish they might be.
“The cost of building an Earthship is about the same as building an equivalent quality of home in the world now,” Michael said. “The difference is that an Earthship home has no utility bills.
In a brilliant marketing wheeze, Reynolds has also been promoting the retro-fitting of existing houses to incorporate the “six principles” of Earthship design.
“Sometimes the greenest thing to do is to ‘green up’ what you have,” Michael said. “We cannot tear down the billions of buildings on this planet; we have to slowly change and evolve the buildings we have to be in line with these principles. No matter how good our Earthships are, we want people to undertake to retro-fit old buildings as well as integrate the six principles in all new building designs. If we address the problems facing the planet now, there won’t be panic when the situation worsens.”
The six principles of Earthship design
Thermal/solar heating and cooling: Earthships maintain comfortable temperatures in any climate.
Solar and wind electricity: Earthships produce their own electricity with a pre-packaged photovoltaic/wind power system.
Contained sewage treatment: Earthships contain use and reuse all household sewage in indoor and outdoor treatment cells resulting in food production and landscaping with no pollution of aquifers. Toilets flush with grey water that does not smell.
Building with natural and recycled materials: House is an assemblage of by-products; a sustainable home must make use materials occurring naturally in the local area.
Water harvesting: Earthships catch water from the sky (rain and snow melt) and use it four times.
Food production: Earthship wetlands, the planters that hold hundreds of gallons of water from sinks and the shower are a great place for raising fresh produce.
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