Earthship Biotecture

Founded by maverick green architect Michael Reynolds (see Figure 6.5), Earthship Biotecture is dedicated to researching and experimenting with autonomous buildings made from waste materials, and spreading ideas about building zero-energy houses around the world. An Earthship is an 'independent vessel to sail on the seas of tomorrow' (Reynolds, 1990: 1), a building 'that will take care of you by interacting with and encountering the biology and physics of the earth' (Reynolds, 2004a; see also Earthships are thermally-massive buildings with large south-facing windows (in the northern hemisphere), designed to selectively capture solar energy (admitting sun in the winter and shading from sun in the summer) and store the heat in the mass. The thermal mass walls are constructed from old tyres rammed with earth, laid down like building bricks, and plastered to give smooth walls. Drinks cans and glass bottles are used as infill, and to create non-load-bearing internal walls, again used as building bricks and plastered over. With additional layers of insulation - earth banked up around the house at the rear and one or two layers of greenhouses at the front - an Earthship is like a cave, and the internal living space maintains a stable temperature and feels warm in winter and cool in summer, requiring no heating or cooling in any climate. Rainwater and snow is collected from the roof and filtered for drinking; greywater from washing is filtered through internal planters growing food in the greenhouses and stored for toilet-flushing and the garden, and black-water sewage waste is treated in an external septic tank. These buildings generate their own electricity through wind or solar power, can be built cheaply using largely low-skilled labour, and are designed for lower-consumption lifestyles which empower their residents through utility self-sufficiency and its cheapness to run (Reynolds, 1990, 2000). The major objectives of Earthship Biotecture are:

• To reduce the economic and institutional barriers between people and sustainable housing;

• To begin reversing the overall negative effect that conventional housing has on the planet;

• To create a less stressful existence for people in an effort to reduce the stress that they in turn place on the planet and each other;

• To interface economics and ecology in a way that immediately and tangibly affects current pressing problems with existing lifestyles;

• To provide a direction for those who want to live in harmony with their environment;

• To empower individuals with the inarguable forces of nature;

• To find and distribute knowledge about sustainable lifestyles (Reynolds, 2004b).

In the early 1970s Reynolds originally began experimenting with autonomous passive solar houses built from waste materials as a response to unsustainable energy-intensive construction methods, housing shortages, waste management problems and the potential unreliability of energy and water infrastructure systems as a result of extreme climate conditions, political or economic collapse (Reynolds,

Figure 6.5 Mike Reynolds, founder of Earthship Biotecture, Taos, New Mexico

2004a). Climate change has pushed many of these issues even higher up the agenda, and Earthships can be seen as rational responses to the needs for climate change mitigation (through building which require no heating or cooling and are self-sufficient for energy, therefore having a zero carbon footprint) and adaptation to climate change (by providing resilient homes capable of maintaining stable internal temperatures, withstanding extreme weather events such as flooding, hurricanes, storms and heatwaves, and their effects on infrastructural energy, water and sewage systems) (Hewitt and Telfer, 2007).

Reynolds is based in Taos, northern New Mexico, at the Greater World Earthship Community, where self-sufficiency for thermal comfort and water are challenging tasks, with annual precipitation of around 300mm (approximately half that of London) and temperature extremes of -34°C in winter to 38°C in summer are not uncommon (Hewitt and Telfer, 2007). For three decades he has pioneered experimental buildings of this type, both with and without the support of local planning officials, and has incrementally improved the design and performance of his buildings as they have evolved, been adapted for other climates, and responded to commercial and regulatory pressures (see Figure 6.6). The Greater World Earthship Community is a 633-acre residential demonstration development of privately-owned

Eartthship Water Roof
Figure 6.6 An autonomous Earthship, showing south-facing greenhouse front and earth-banked rear, Taos, New Mexico

Earthships in the high New Mexican desert, with approximately half of the planned 120 homes built, and over half the land retained as a communally-owned park. Buildings are available for private rental, offering visitors a taste of Earthship living, and educational seminars with hands-on building sessions further disseminate these ideas to wider communities. There are two further Earthship colonies nearby, built in particularly remote and inhospitable locations (e.g. on a mountainside) to demonstrate the viability of the concept (Reynolds, 2004a). Reynolds' team travels the world instigating Earthship projects, holding seminars and publicising their methods as a sustainable housing solutions. Although designed for the harsh, desert environment, Earthships have proved adaptable to other climates such as Jamaica, France and Japan. Two demonstration buildings have been built in the UK: the first a small visitor centre in Kinghorn, Scotland (see Kemp and Cowie, 2004), and the second a larger centre in Brighton (see Hewitt and Telfer, 2007).

The sustainable consumption impacts of Earthship Biotectures's initiatives can now be assessed. First, they enable much greater

Figure 6.7 Earthship walls made of tyres, earth, bottles and cans

localisation of construction, through the use of low-cost, low-tech waste materials (see Figure 6.7). Reynolds states 'I'm looking for a material that is indigenous to the entire planet. I've been all over the world, and everywhere there are tyres and cans and bottles' (Reynolds, 2004a). Of course, they also promote localisation of utility-provision, to the scale of the autonomous house self-provisioning for energy and water, food and waste-treatment. Next, they are fundamentally concerned with reducing ecological - and specifically carbon - footprints, through their independence from fossil fuels, their low-energy use design, and their use of recycled materials in construction. For example, the power system required to run an Earthship's essential services (pumps, lights, fridge) is very low, and can be run on 12v DC power straight from solar panels on site costing about $15,000. Inverters are required for supplying power to computers, TV, washing machines, and this energy should be used sparingly. In contrast, the solar panels required to meet a conventional home's power requirements would cost around $50,000, resulting in quite different price incentives and generally being too high to be widely considered. This illustrates how the Earthship principle of moderating consumption allows far greater scope for sustainable activities, while still offering reasonable access to modern luxuries: 'if you change what you need, in your head, then all of a sudden your life gets a lot easier' (Reynolds, 2004a). Recognising the need for global equity in resource use, Reynolds explains how self-provisioning is only sustainable if everyone else has the same standard of living, and takes an equitable approach to resource use and social justice.

Community-building is not an explicit objective of Earthship Bio-tecture's work, but it nevertheless does have some impacts in this area. First, it aims to enable low-income people to have secure, resilient shelter, and so a key element of its work is to provide plans and know-how for affordable, socially inclusive self-build. Second, while communities of replicated autonomous houses do not require collective infrastructure for their essential services (and so there are few collective action impacts), the initiative can be seen as an 'ultimate expression of personal empowerment and North American individualism' (Hewitt and Telfer, 2007: 114) but the Earthship colonies mitigate against this charge, to some extent.

Finally, and most fundamentally, the Earthship concept is a new infrastructure of housing provision, one which promotes resilience and

Table 6.1 Evaluating sustainable housing initiatives as a tool for sustainable consumption: key findings

Sustainable Canelo Project Earthship Biotecture







Leading proponents of straw bale housing movement in the USA. Nonprofit organisation offering educational courses, demonstration projects and range of 'how-to' books. Favours self-build for the connection it offers between home and inhabitant. The process is at least as important as the outcome.

Construction materials are principally straw and mud, widely available and free in many parts of the world.

Strong commitment to a globally equitable distribution of resources, hence advocates simple low-consumption living in the developed world. Very low ecological footprints of strawbale housing, both in construction and use through higher energy efficiency and thermal stability.

Research and demonstration of zero-carbon housing built with waste materials, requiring no heating or cooling, self-sufficient for energy and water, recycles greywater and treats sewage, and grows food.

Majority of materials used are abundant and ubiquitous waste products from modern society - locally available and free. Building off-grid enables inhabitants to be self-sufficient for energy, water and sewage waste.

Major reductions in resource-use possible through self-sufficiency in energy and water, and through greater energy efficiency. High-consumption Earthships are possible, but not necessarily desirable; commitment to globally equitable resource use.

Table 6.1 Evaluating sustainable housing initiatives as a tool for sustainable consumption: key findings - continued ^

Sustainable Canelo Project Earthship Biotecture




Collective Action

New Social Infrastructure

Inclusive construction techniques, community-building (barn-raising), women and children involved too. Community-building is major impact of this type of housebuilding. 'Connecting people, culture and nature', building supportive networks.

Small-scale activities, but with a strong sense of acting collectively such as through community-build projects, and empowering people within these groups.

Offers a system of housing self-provision which bypasses industrial construction techniques and technologies.

Not explicitly concerned with communitybuilding, but Earthship communities have been established.

Earthships are an expression of frontier individualism.

Allows householders to live independently of the utility grids, self-provisioning rather than relying on (potentially unreliable) infrastructure. Self-build, low-impact approach advocates home ownership without the need for high-income lifestyles to service utility bills and mortgages.

self-sufficiency, independence from mainstream modes of energy use and utility infrastructures. In his first book which sets out basic design and construction principles, he begins by stating:

We need to evolve self-sufficient living units that are their own systems. These units must energise themselves, heat and cool themselves, grow food and deal with their own waste. The current concept of housing, in general, supported by massive centralised systems, is no longer appropriate, safe, or reliable (Reynolds, 1990: ii).

This new system of provision extends to social arrangements for financing housing too, emphasising low-cost self-build and the resulting low-income lifestyles that can be supported: 'It was such a freedom to not have a mortgage payment, to not have a utility bill, to know that no matter what happened to politics or the economy, I would have power, water, sewage, heating and cooling' (Reynolds, 2004a).

Getting Started With Solar

Getting Started With Solar

Do we really want the one thing that gives us its resources unconditionally to suffer even more than it is suffering now? Nature, is a part of our being from the earliest human days. We respect Nature and it gives us its bounty, but in the recent past greedy money hungry corporations have made us all so destructive, so wasteful.

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