After 2 months in Quebec, we are pursuing our investigation in the south of the USA, in the state of New Mexico. We land in the capital city, Alburqueque. « Let’s see, you have ticked the ‘tourist’box… why have you come here? » is the question from a suspicious immigration officer. Indeed, this city is not in the top 10 list of « around the world travellers ». The only vague touristic attraction is that it hosted the shooting of the Breaking Bad, So you understand ! New Mexico is one of the poorest states in the USA. Despite the drought the people are telling us that the state is selling the little water resource it has to its neighbour, Colorado, in order to get some cash… In the buses being driven along the endless boulevards, we meet exhausted looks, and see the painful bodies of those who cannot afford a car.
But for us, this stop was planned from the very beginning. Only a few kilometres away from Albuquerque, in the Taos desert, original ecological houses were born, i.e. the Earthships. They are the result of the imagination of an architect, Michael Reynolds, in the 70s, and these houses are built from used materials and aiming at a « radical autonomy ».
We have had the opportunity to visit a few Earthship models in Normandy (in Gers to be precise), in Turkey as well as in Quebec. But we wanted to go to the heart of the lab, to know a little bit more on these houses which appeal to more and more people all over the world…
Our new adventure starts by thumbing a lift between the small town of Taos where we found some couchsurfing accommodation, and the dry plains of the sierra where the HQ of Earthship Biotecture is situated. On the second day of the shooting, when we tell our driver why we have come here, she says in a mischievous way « yes, indeed, I do know the Earthships… I am Michael Reynolds’s wife! » … « And you’re going to thumb a lift like that every day to do some shooting? Poor kids, it’s going to be complicated!… If you want, we have a pickup which is just there parked in the yard. You can use it while you’re staying here. » And without further delay she gives us the keys – and think that we have only known her for a few minutes! And our shooting all of a sudden is becoming far more comfortable. When we are driving the Reynoldses’ pickup, we are so happy on New Mexico’s dusty roads!
What is an Earthship?
The story of the Earthships starts at the very beginning of the 70s. In those days, the members of the « Club of Rome » are already doing away with the myth of an unlimited growth in a world with limited resources.1 Michael Reynolds had just graduated in architecture and he is already convinced that an economically and ecologically sustainable way of life starts with rethinking accommodations. Indeed, the building sector is at the origin of 30% of the greenhouse gases and uses up more than 40% of the global energy production !
Shocked by the waste of resources around him, he is wondering how to make use of the waste to build. Why not use tyres? This surprising idea will become the Earthships’ brand name. Each and every year, more than a billion tyres are produced throughout the world ; after being used for 3 or 4 years, they are piling up in huge open skips and sometimes they even catch fire rejecting tons of CO2 in the atmosphere (for instance in May 2016, in Spain). In the best of cases, those tyres are « recycled », i.e. burnt in cement factories…Seeing such unsatisfactory solutions, Michael Reynolds comes up with the idea of using them as they are compacting earth within to build houses. Once the walls are covered to protect them from the rain and the wind, few visitors will guess how they have actually been made!
Other used materials are also being employed in the walls of the Earthships and they play a much more aesthetic role, such as glass bottles which enable multi-coloured light to beam through the house.
Gradually Michael Reynolds has rallied around him a team of people who are convinced that he is on the right track and he is launching a good deal of experiments. The aim is becoming more precise: designing houses which have a low impact on the environment and aim at a «radical autonomy» «We have to find a way of being self-sufficient when it comes to our basic needs: food, accommodation, used water processing, waste management… Just imagine if 5 billion people start producing their own energies, the multinationals will have no customers for their products and they will eventually disappear! » Michael Reynolds says enthusiastically. « today we are in a vicious circle. We are like a herd of buffaloes running straight to the cliff. It is very hard to stop such a surge forward. You cannot stand in the way, yet you can try and influence some members of the group showing them that there are other ways… »
Between hybridisations and experimentations
The strength and the ingenuity of the Earthships was to draw inspirations from many ideas which already existed in the world of ecological building to bring them all together in one and the same building. Here are the main outlines: (click on the schemas to extend it )
• Passive solar use to heat the house.
On the south facade (in the northern hemisphere) a big slanted bay window enables the sun rays to enter deep into the house and heat the thick walls of the northern façade, which is partly in the ground. Thanks to the importance of the heat mass of the earth in the tyres, those walls make it possible to store the sun heat and to gradually redistribute it when the temperature starts to go down. In the Taos desert, the temperature can go down to _ 12°C in winter… but thanks to this system those houses need no heating!
• A 100% natural air conditioning
To cool the house, the designers of the earthships drew their inspirations from the principle of the Canadian wells. A chimney runs under the thick walls of the northern façade and makes it possible to cool the air flowing through. When the house temperature becomes too high, the opening of the chimney enables the fresh air to go inside the house and push up the hot air which then flows out of the roof windows.
• An remarkable water cycle
The rain water flowing on the roof is collected in big tanks. The grey waters if the shower and the sink are collected in the greenhouse to be filtered by the plants before ending in the toilets. The black waters then flow into a phyto-cleaning pool outside the house. An interesting alternative for the more resilient to dry toilets! ( let’s recall that each time we pull the chain, between 1.5 an 7 gallons of potable water go to waste …)
• Energy autonomy
All the energy of the ‘Earthship’ comes from the solar panels on the roof, sometimes coupled with a domestic wind generator. Both installations feed six batteries which can provide power to the house even when the weather is not favourable.
Earning the right to experiment
Today Earthships are all the go. But life has not always been a smooth ride for Michael Reynolds who has had to fight hard to be granted the permits needed to build. « In the beginning, I could not care less about permits » Michael explains, « I was just an outlaw and I have had problems [his architect warrant was confiscated] , I tried to fight the authorities, but I lost. Today I try to go beyond the building codes. We are not fighting any longer, we are trying to find a way to please the authorities while doing such things as also please us… ».
If in our society, it is rare to encourage the right to error, it is even less so in the building sector where the safety stakes are essential. Yet, the principle of precaution has become a synonym of inertia and a means for some big promoters to try and slow down the emerging new building methods which are less marketable. Michael and his team are claiming that innovations can only emerge by taking the risk of making mistakes. In the courses they are dispensing in the Earthship Academy, they report, with some humour, their trials and their err-tests (for instance, the first models had no separate hallway between the greenhouse and the living rooms. But it was so hot and damp that Michael decided to build a wall between the greenhouse and the living part.
Following their fight over several years (chronicled in Oliver Hodge’s « Garbage Warrior » ) Michael Reynolds and his team eventually managed to be granted the right to go on with the building of Earthships in Taos and attempt all sorts of experimenting on a site of 2 acres.
But this victory did not come without any concessions, as Phil tells us: « The very first models did not have any cement whatsoever in their structures, but when the authorities withdrew Mike’s architect warrant, outside engineers had to be employed to be granted the building permits. So we had to introduce concrete in the beams and their foundations. Gradually using concrete became systematic. But that does not mean that nothing will ever change. I would like us to return to our roots, yet we are held up by the building codes… »
Ironically New Mexico is the state in which the « The Trinity Test », was carried out, i.e. the first nuclear bomb test1. Is building ecological houses a more frightening weapon of mass destruction than bombs?
Building another life
These houses are getting more and more popular with the public at large. This year, more than 20,000 visitors came to the Earthship Biotecture visitor center! 250 students of all ages, from the USA, from Europe, from Japan come every year to learn the basics of the building technique during the training sessions of the« Earthship academy », for a whole month.
Phil, who has been working on the team for 20 years reminisces « When I completed the building of my Earthship at the age of 29, I understood that I was free, I did not have to earn a lot of money to pay the bills or pay back a mortgage. Today many of those who attend the Earthship Academy cannot find a job which means something for them in their sectors. Many young people can no longer live like their parents although they have a great deal of qualifications… They are looking to have a life which is based less on money and work, and for them Earthships are maybe the sign of some solution… »
How much does an earthship cost?
The cost of an Earthship varies according to the size of the building, the conditions of the building site, the materials used, etc.
The fisrt possibility is the order. Today Earthsip Biotecture is offering ‘turnkey Earthships’. For instance in Ger in Normandy, Michael Reynolds’s team came in 2008 to build the very first Earthship in Europe, helped by some local craftsmen. The building of a house took 5 months of work. The total cost of the house amounted to euros 190,000 for some 120m2 (links in french).
The other option is self-building to adapt your Earthship to your wishes and to your wallet, too! Many people get their inspirations from the design and embark with volunteers under the principle of crowd building site. Even if the cost is considerably lower, there are elements which do come at a price, such as the bay windows, the energy system and the filtration of rain waters. The first Earthship type house in Quebec (links in french) self-built in 2005, cost around $50,000 for some 60m2.
A universal model?
Encouraged by their successes in the Western world, Mike and his team want to share their know-how in the poorest countries (especially following natural disasters in the Philippines, in Haiti, in Malawi…) by developing the cheapest Earthship models.
Yet Phil admits to us that there are limits to such an approach. Like many NGOs, Earthship Biotecture is embroiled in some of the hurdles of the help to development… « When we intervene in a country following a disaster, we can do what we know how to do to go fast, using the materials we are used to such as tyres or cement for instance… which is not always adapted! I would prefer to stay on site longer to understand the culture, observe the climate, identify the local materials available much better… But I do not know whether Earthship Biotecture can do it one day. Maybe the best thing to do in those countries is not to build Earthships as we build them here, but to work from traditional building techniques and improve them: so that they may collect and reuse the rain water, be better insulated and facing better climate sides… »
«What is the perfect ecological house in your opinion ? » we are often asked. It would be an illusion to believe that there is one optimum accommodation type, adaptable whatever to any and all places! The good ideas are there to be taken up, adapted according to the climate, resources, financial means, culture, etc… More and more hybrid houses appear and it is most probably the future!
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