Earthships: Does Your Home Work For You?
I first learned of Earthships this past spring, after a friend had watched the documentary Garbage Warrior and described to me the seemingly strange system of building homes from trash. Another of our friends went poking on-line shortly after this discussion to discover an upcoming conference taking place in Seattle. Though I had my initial misgivings about the whole concept of garbage-built homes, I happily agreed to attend, curious to find out more.
Briefly explained, Earthships are a type of off-grid home developed over many decades by former architect Michael Reynolds. The homes are constructed from a combination of natural and recycled materials and are sustained by what Reynolds refers to as “earth phenomena” – sun, rain, wind and snow. (This unconventional concept is what eventually forced Reynolds to surrender his architecture license.)
As the four of us sat waiting in the second row of the auditorium during the first night of the seminar, a disheveled and unshaven older man sat down in front of us, busy with his phone. I admittedly hadn’t watched the film prior to the gathering (I mistakenly thought we’d be seeing it that night), so imagine my surprise when this strange character soon took his place at the podium. What I learned over the next two and a half days, as we were schooled on the elements of Earthship Biotecture, is that Reynolds is a true and proven visionary.
What is an Earthship?
Before the conference, I’d envisioned garbage homes as something grotesque. Something along the lines of cars plastered in salvaged superhero figurines, masquerading as art.
In fact, Earthships are quite the opposite – a hybrid of cob house and solarium, equipped with all the normalcy of a conventional home. The most striking aspect of these buildings, however – apart from their jeweled mosaics constructed from recycled bottles – is the fact they are 100 per cent autonomous. Most people I know, myself especially, entertain visions of off-grid living. This vision, however, has always felt tragically unattainable – how can an almost thirty year-old with as many thousands of dollars as years on earth still outstanding in student loan debt afford all the ingredients of off-grid living? The answer, I discovered, lies in garbage.
One Man’s Trash
During his lecture, Reynolds made a startling observation: that, in modern humanity’s lifetime of economy and consumption, garbage has become indigenous to our planet. To illustrate his point, we were shown images of landfills piled with discarded bottles and sea floors stacked with decaying tires. In every single place across the world, garbage is abundant. It was during his twenties, studying to be an architect, when Reynolds became committed to transforming this waste into something valuable. The process wasn’t straightforward, however, and Reynolds experimented with an array of concepts before finally adopting his proven method of pounding dirt into recycled tires with a sledgehammer. The insulated tires, which form the building’s foundation, are then topped with a unique masonry of recycled cans and bottles, with the whole arrangement eventually being plastered over to form a structure able to withstand everything from earthquake to fire.
It seemed there was a stirring theme underlining Reynolds’ passion for Earthships: the ability to live free.
Over several decades, Reynolds has fine-tuned a mind-blowing model of decentralization. In simple terms, we’re talking the freedom of no utilities. Earthships are constructed to generate their own heat, water and food, allowing inhabitants in locations as extreme as Siberia to live comfortably without ever needing to heat their homes. Taking advantage of the science of thermal mass – by not only using rammed tires for construction, but by burying the structure itself – as well as solar energy and ventilation, the space’s interior temperature is effectively regulated at a comfortable 58 degrees Fahrenheit (that’s about 14 degrees Celsius).
As far as water, it’s collected from the environment through a uniquely engineered rooftop catchment system that filters it for drinking and showering. The water from showering is recycled as greywater, which is filtered and treated by a botanical cell within the home, and is then collected for toilet flushing. As for sewage, it travels to a solar-powered septic tank and, once treated, is used to sustain the exterior landscaping. When explaining to my husband the fact that Earthships generate their own electricity, he skeptically exclaimed, “But can it power my Playstation?” Why, it sure as hell can! Through solar power and a unique vertical wind-powered mechanism Reynolds calls a dynasphere, electricity is harvested, stored in deep-cycle batteries, then converted to AC by way of a Power Organization Module.
This Global Earthship Model, as Reynolds calls his take on the conventional home, is not only capable of generating its own heat, water and electricity, but also produces its own food. The botanical cell that filters the greywater also serves as a greenhouse, helping not only to regulate the building’s temperature, but to support the plants whose roots oxygenize and clean the greywater passing beneath. The greenhouse climate is ideal for growing a multitude of plants – including bananas – as sources of food.
Total autonomy level: expert.
Aside from offering an enticing alternative to mortgage payments and utility bills, what moved me most about Reynolds’ innovation is its application to disaster relief work across the globe. Motivated to provide support to the planet’s 80 per cent living outside the comforts of the developed world, Reynolds formulated what he calls the Simple Survival Model.
The idea was conceived of during a relief trip to Haiti in the wake of the devastating earthquake of 2010, when Reynolds realized there was a way to simplify his original Global Earthship Model – a model that was suited to the developed world, but impractical for places where resources are scarce. Doing away with First World luxuries like flat screens and water fountains, the Simple Survival Model was built with the purpose of supporting life’s basic necessities: shelter, water, sanitation, energy, food and garbage recycling (source). This downsized concept developed by Reynolds and his crew was so astoundingly simple, they were able to teach the Haitians they were helping how to build the structures themselves using materials salvaged from the area. Word of Reynolds’ relief work is swiftly gaining momentum, and it’s no wonder why. From a visit this month to rural Malawi to build an Earthship community centre, to plans to travel to remote Northern Canada this coming spring, he is showing the world the value and advantage of sustainable methods.
The New Norm
In an age where eco and has been absorbed by commerce and, as Reynolds stated during his lecture, the majority of us are one paycheque away from homeless, we are all too prone to feeling powerless. The chance to see Reynolds present his designs was an unexpectedly life-changing experience. Suddenly, the concept of sustainable living has transformed from something vague into something tangible, and it seems not one day has passed that I haven’t contemplated Reynolds’ revolutionary approach. Over a century and a half ago, Charles Darwin conceived of “survival of the fittest” to illustratate the critical importance of adaptation. Amid our planet’s rapidly changing climate, this need has never been more apparent.
Thanks to Reynolds, we might just stand a chance.
Did you know a rumoured 14 Earthships have already been built within B.C, including the Darfield Earthship? Learn more about Michael Reynolds’ Earthship Biotecture by visiting his site