These odd-looking houses are not for everyone, but they offer a remarkably sustainable solution to counter climate change, recycle materials, reduce energy needs, manage scarce water resources and feed our families.
Earthship creator and Architect, Mike Reynolds, has been refining and adapting his sustainable building techniques for over 40 years. He calls it "Biotecture" – incorporating natural biological processes from human waste treatment to year-round food production into the functional design of the entire building system.
Even if you’re not about to step out on the radical edge – these self-sufficient homes demonstrate lots of sound ideas that could be incorporated into more conventional housing in the not-too-distant future.
A climate for change
With the global population meter rolling over 7 billion in the past year, and on track to reach 9 billion by 2050, we know we’re running up against some hard truths about sustainability.
More people means more mouths to feed, more human waste to treat, and more housing – all requiring more land, water and resources. Add to that, the chilling realization that the world’s climate is changing even faster than climate scientists had been predicting, jeopardizing our local food and water resources as well as the infrastructure we rely on.
Mike Reynolds’ visionary Earthship model makes more sense now than ever before.
What’s an Earthship?
An earthship is largely constructed of earth and recycled materials, including old tires, aluminum cans, bottles and may use recyled lumber, diverting large quantities of these waste materials from landfills.
These well-insulated homes function completely off the electrical grid, and capture, filter and recycle rainwater before it’s finally used to flush toilets and eventually water the landscape plantings. Even better, the water is cleansed as it hydrates an interior vegetable garden which provides a year-round in-home supply of fruits and vegetables. This closed-loop system is actually not all that different from what will be needed to support long distance human space travel in the future.
There are several key elements, working in concert, that make earthships so incredibly self-sufficient:
- Earth-packed recycled tires create thermal mass on three exterior walls banked with earth.
- Recycled aluminum cans and cement are used for non-load-bearing walls
- Uses the energy of the sun and earth for passive heating and cooling
- A south-facing glass wall/greenhouse provides heat, light and food
- Rainwater is collected, from the roof, stored in tanks, and used 4 times
- Homes incorporate solar electric panels and batteries and solar water heating
- Interior plantings provide food, give off oxygen and treat greywater from showers and sinks
These systems are interrelated and all contribute to the sustainability of the whole. The two videos below explain the concept much better than I can.
This short Weather Channel segment explains how an Earthship works.
Watch the video (6 mins)
Earthship Biotecture – A 2011 overview
This next video goes into more depth with creator Mike Reynolds explaining how he has continually been refining his concept for over forty years. Near the end, there’s a segment showing how Reynolds and his team went to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and shared their knowledge with Haitians while helping them build small, earthquake resilient earthships that can play a vital role in the reconstruction efforts.
Watch the video (25 mins)
Ideas for the future
While I doubt that earthships will replace conventional housing in the near future, Mike Reynolds has become an environmental prophet for the green movement. After being shunned by the professional Architectural community for nearly two decades, his licence was reinstated in 2007 and he was asked by the American Institute of Architects to give a lecture at it’s Colorado headquarters.
After hurricane Sandy’s devastation in New York City and along the New Jersey coast, I think long-term planning to reduce and resist the impacts of a rapidly changing climate will become a much higher priority.
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