CASE STUDY: building sustainable houses from rubbish

| 19th June 2009
Mike Reynolds renegade architect
They’re made from recycled materials, and are entirely self-sufficient. Laura Sevier meets the renegade architect behind Earthships
To hell with what it looks like: it's how it performs that matters. We know we're rendering this planet uninhabitable

Question: what do you think of when you see a pile of old beer cans, bottles or car tyres? For most of us the answer is likely to be: a load of rubbish. Not everyone, however, sees it this way.

American architect Michael Reynolds considers tyres, bottles and cans ‘natural resources’. Take tyres, he excitedly explains to me on the phone from his home in New Mexico – ‘you can get them anywhere on the planet. In cities you have tyre stores that have to pay to get rid of old ones. In underdeveloped areas they’re lying all over the place. Nothing good is really being done with them.’

Reynolds has found a way to turn garbage into what he describes as ‘gold’ – housing gold.

Since the 1970s he has been designing and building ‘Earthships’ – sustainable, self-sufficient homes that can be built from recycled and natural materials.

You’d think that being built from unwanted garbage they’d be ugly, collapsible and makeshift. Yet these dome-shaped dwellings, which look more like spaceships than housing as we know it, have been described as ‘magical’, ‘beautiful’ – ‘the eighth wonder of the world’ even. Plus, they are sturdy enough to withstand earthquakes measuring force nine on the Richter scale.

Reynolds built the first one in the New Mexico desert more than 30 years ago, and it’s still standing strong today. In the small community of Taos where he still lives, he and his crew have constructed 60 Earthships over the years. They’ve had requests to build them around the world. Currently, Earthships are in use in almost every US state, as well as in many countries in Europe.

After more than three decades of refining the technique he says he is just ‘starting to scratch the surface of what is available in this goldmine that we’re starting to penetrate’.

What’s valuable about these houses is their self-sufficiency. They can operate entirely offgrid, with no power, gas or water lines coming in and no sewage lines going out. Yet they still manage to keep their inhabitants warm.

‘It’s -18°C outside when I wake up,’ says Reynolds. ‘Inside, the temperature is 21°C.’

It’s all down to the design. The basic building blocks of an Earthship are earthfilled car tyres, using the concept of thermal mass both to cool and heat the buildings. On sunny days the sun soaks into the building and the mass holds the heat.

Internal, non-load-bearing walls are made out of mud or cement, with cans or bottles set like bricks. Earthships also make use of solar and wind electricity, contained sewage treatment and water-harvesting.

‘What these kinds of houses are doing is taking every aspect of your life and putting it into your own hands,’ says Reynolds. ‘A family of four could totally survive here without having to go to the store.’ Earthships even have internal space designed for growing food with drip-irrigation systems.

So what’s it actually like to live in one? ‘It’s an empowering experience,’ he assures me. ‘It puts you in direct contact with sources – energy, water, heat. It makes you more able to take care of yourself. You’re not so vulnerable.’

What’s more, Earthships are relatively easy to build. Reynolds says the technology is ‘graduate-school stuff. It’s easy. It’s there for the taking’.

In the realm of radically sustainable housing he is certainly a visionary. Earthships tick many eco friendly boxes. Constructive use of rubbish: tick. Self sufficiency: tick. Suited to a post-oil world: tick.

A 2007 documentary, Garbage Warrior, directed by Oliver Hodge, celebrated Reynolds’ work and charted his struggle to get the houses built. It was, says Reynolds, ‘a long and treacherous process’.

‘The problem is all the bureaucratic, legal codes and regulations that are out there,’ he explains. ‘People are recognising that all over the developed world we have rules and laws in place to “protect” people, and this is holding people back from evolving. We need to evolve radically in how we build things.’

Radical, rebel, rule-breaker

In the documentary, Reynolds comes across as a man on a mission. He sees his sustainable homes both as a solution and a ‘direction for humanity’. Getting them built has meant ‘breaking laws left, right and centre’.

Although a conventionally trained architect, he has always been a rebel: ‘Everything I’ve ever done has been radical’. As a result of violating regulations he lost both his state and national architect’s license in the late 1990s. Everything he was doing fell outside what was considered ‘legal construction’.

Later, the Earthship settlements were ruled illegally convened in breach of planning law. Job sites were shut down and building came to a grinding halt. Reynolds realised the only way to get things going again was to play by the rules, which meant making the settlement a legal subdivision, a process he describes as ‘endless horseshit’. Inspections, lever-arch files of paperwork, archeologists, engineers, diagrams and drawings ‘that nobody ever uses’, all at a cost of thousands of dollars.

It took seven years to get the development completely open again, in 2004. Even so, he lost the right to experiment and create new buildings and innovations. There was no evolution, no scope to make mistakes.

What Reynolds wanted was a test site, with no holds barred. As he points out, ‘They allow it for bombs, cars and aeroplanes – why not houses?’ He realised that what was needed was a change in law to allow for easier testing of sustainable housing. ‘Sometimes to fight the system you have to get in it and be part of the system,’ he says.

It took him three-and-a-half years to write one law (the ‘sustainable building test site’ law), get it accepted in New Mexico and get the governors to sign. In 2007 his test site was finally approved by the state legislature.

Whereas in the US he had to beg on hands and knees to build, in other parts of the world Earthships have been welcomed with open arms. This was particularly marked in 2005 when Reynolds and his team were invited to one of the tsunami-hit Andaman islands.

There he introduced the concept of the low-tech shelter made from local materials and with the ability to withstand a force-nine earthquake, and showed them how to build an Earthship. ‘They wholeheartedly jumped on the idea,’ he says. ‘There were no barriers. When there’s an absolute breakdown of everything then new ideas are clutched like they could be lifesavers.’

Ironically, when the US Board of Architects heard about his work it invited him to reapply for his architect’s licence.

Bullshit and biotecture

Reynolds prefers to think of what he does as ‘biotecture’, a word he came up with 10 years ago to define a profession based on architecture, biology and physics. He points out that, over the years, the architectural establishment have viewed him as an idiot, incompetent, insane, a dreamer and even a crook. ‘I scared a lot of people. I was building out of garbage. People’s perceptions of it are changing, though. They’re now seeing that it’s a good material.’

He admits that in the early days there were ‘fuck-ups’. There was the case of a writer who stayed in one of the Earthships and his typewriter melted. Sometimes the houses were too hot or leaked. ‘I’m just glad I didn’t kill anybody,’ Reynolds says. As he’s keen to emphasise, however, ‘it’s experimental. Some things don’t work. Some things could be better.'

So what needs to happen next? He doesn’t have faith in the legal process. Even though he got his law through in New Mexico, for it to appear in every state and county would take many more years of ‘legislative bullshit’, and as he says, ‘we don’t have that kind of time.’

At the time of writing he was planning a talk at the UN in June about invoking martial law to apply the Sustainable Sites Act on a wider scale. ‘Yes, there would be a few mistakes here and there, but it’s way less damaging than this slow evolution. We’re not keeping up.’

The Earthship model could potentially be rolled out on a larger scale. Reynolds wants to go to every city, constructing a building there to make it an educational facility.

‘It’s not just a shelter,’ he says. ‘You’re building a machine that heats and cools, contains and treats its own sewage. It requires an education. So first you provide the prototype that they can replicate.’

The newest Earthship has a flatscreen TV and high-speed internet connection. He says it’s what people want and that it shows you don’t have to live in a hut. The buildings have all amenities, such as hot showers and baths.

Do they work in other climates beyond New Mexico? ‘Yes, but in severe areas like the Sahara desert and the North and South poles they work to the extent of reducing the amount of fossil fuel.' Different climates suit different shapes – a building in Europe could be made to look very conventional, for example. ‘But really, to hell with what it looks like: it’s how it performs that matters.’

As Reynolds points out, ‘We’re running out of oil. We know that in the future we’re rendering this planet damn near uninhabitable. So as we move towards that we’re trying to devise a method of living that allows people to take care of themselves.’

For more information: Earthship

Laura Sevier is the Ecologist’s Daily Life Editor

Help us keep The Ecologist working for the planet

The Ecologist website is a free service, published by The Resurgence Trust, a UK-based educational charity. We work hard - with a small budget and tiny editorial team - to bring you the wide-ranging, independent journalism we know you value and enjoy, but we need your help. Please make a donation to support The Ecologist platform. Thank you!

Donate to us here