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Earthships Sailing to France

by delicatemonster Fri Feb 2nd, 2007 at 10:29:25 AM EST

I was planning on writing this article for awhile when I stumbled upon this link to Europe's first residential  Earthship to have a building permit in Normandy, France. For those of you unfamiliar with Mike Reynolds and Biotecture, here's a link for http://www.earthship.com/learn/earthship-france.php.

There's a more detailed introductory piece beneath the fold...

From the diaries ~ whataboutbob

On our whirlwind tour of the West, my wife and I weren't expecting much to happen between Taos and Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. A glimpse of stark, crimson red canyons, the pastel blue sky sweeping down over the desert landscape. Maybe some indiscreet flashing on scenes from Thelma and Louise. Certainly, we weren't expecting Hobbits, nor a Hobbit kingdom--those little knobby, half earthen structures out of which half humans were supposed to strut, eating biscotti and drinking mead or the next worldly derivative. We never saw Bilbo nor Frodo, much less Golem, but we did see the Hobbit kingdom, and then some.

Their peaks rose into the blue like a minaret awaiting its muezzin. My wife said rather that it was like visiting Novgorod, Russia. East is east or west is west, and here, it seems, they met! I believe we saw the future. And it was both brilliant and scary. My question was simple: "What is that?"

We were barreling along Route 56 at 65 miles per hour when I yelled. I had no idea what I seeing. Neither did my wife.

"Slow down."

I did. I purred down to a low twenty-five miles an hour.

"It looks like a house," I said, "Kind of."

"It is a house," replied my wife. "But what are those things hanging off of it?"

"I think those are solar panels."

We slowed down and looked for a road to take us in for a closer view.

We plied our way down a narrow gravel road that threaded through a colony of these erstwhile hobbit homes. Probably about 15 or 16 in the small colony we came across, some completed, most under construction. Worn out tires were stacked along the roadside which gave the colony the odd feel of being something between redneck trailer park and the Viking space probe. Upon lengthier consideration this is a pretty apt description of the entire 'earthship' phenomena, joining low tech trash with high tech efficiencies. Not only can we be cozy and warm, we'll be salvaging the environment while bringing our utility bill to the nirvana of conscientious penny pinchers: zero. Let's repeat that for those of you just tuning in: Zip. Nada. Nothing.

That's what we were told anyhow, after we finally scored a tour of the inside of an Earthship from a lady who ran the model home, one gravel road over from the colony.

This was mid-July and the temperature outside that day would hit 105 degrees. When we finally arrived at the model home, the temperature stood at 98. Inside, it was a comfortable, indeed pleasant, 71. The woman was sitting near the rear of the model working on a Macintosh. An electric light was on and in the main entrance area--what would be a living room in a normal home, I presume--a large television set outfitted with VCR, blinked the date and time.

"Is this the model home?"

"It is."

"You're off the grid?"

She smiled, "Yes, we are."

I noted the Macintosh.

"Very little electricity actually, and its all powered by solar, wind or reserve battery on cloudy days."

"So there's no connection to a power utility just in case?"

She shook her head. "Why?"

The point of Earthships, she noted, in addition to simple conservation, was also self-sufficiency. Mike Reynolds the founders of Earthships, initially was struck by the idea when Hurricane Marilyn roared through the Caribbean, destroying a quarter of the homes on St. Thomas, one of the U.S. Virgin islands. Full restoration of power took several months. Three thousand miles away, in Taos, New Mexico, Reynolds, owner of Solar Survival Architecture read the news and saw a demand for Earthships.

Thus, in many ways Earthships are a survivalists concept, combining the best of American's western go it alone mystic with practical technologies and a distinctly eco-friendly view of the environment. This is the landscape that produced Edward Abbey after all, and harbored eccentrics like D.H. Lawrence.

In The Legacy of Conquest, Patricia Limerick writes of the western pilgrims leaving great heaps of tin cans outside their little shacks. "Living out of cans," she notes, with a bit of irony, "the Montana Ranchers were typical Westerners, celebrating independence while relying on a vital connection to the outside world." Not unlike the 'independent westerners' of today, who take to the rockies in their SUVs, powered by a web of connections that reaches all the way across the oceans to cluster bombs in Iraq.

"The [modern housing] systems give us power on one hand and poison on the other," Mike Reynolds notes, "Acid rain, radioactive waster, spider webs of power lines, polluted rivers and oceans, vanishing wildlife are all part of the 'price' for the life support systems necessary to make the current concept of housing functional.

A person on life support in a hospital has to always be within reach and 'plugged in' to the various systems that keep him/her alive. So it is with our current concept of housing."

Mike Reynold's Earthships are an alternative answer to these systems of dependencies. Earthships are designed to actually incorporate systems that are external to most traditional house designs. Thus, they can be self-sustaining. Better, from the point of view of an environmentalists, their materials are modern mans' most prolific wastes: tires, tin cans and bottles.
Traditionally, Mike notes, most houses were built from whatever material was plentiful and fast at hand--trees, clay, grass (on the plains). In modern urban culture our most plentiful material is our non-biodegradable waste. Thus, tires which will spend three times or more of a human life time making an eyesore of a valley or mountainside can now be used as the building blocks for Earthships. Imagine, if you will, Montana Ranchers having the foresight and resourcefulness to build huts out of their own tin cans.

At the model Earthship, our host explained that the basic Earthship design is a U. The U design is based on three tire walls, built on the North, East and West sides while on the south side is glazed and slightly angled.

The south facing glazed window is angled in such a way that it receives the maximum winter sun which the Earthship converts and stores as thermal heat. There are also vents to cool the building down when there is too much heat. The concept is surprisingly simple and efficient: using the building walls and windows to collect solar energy during the day, the walls of a Earthship give back the energy later in the day when the outside air cools. The main walls of an Earthship are built from old car tires full of rammed earth, these are the load-bearing walls (that create the thermal mass), the spaces in between the tires are filled with cans, bottles and wire, on to this mud, cement or adobe plaster is added. In addition, Earthship roofs can catch water when it rains and store it for later use in a cistern. Recycled greywater (from showers, dirty dishes etc) and blackwater (septic waste) are carefully separated. The grey water is fed into toilets for flushing and gardens where the waste is welcomed as nutrients to plants, and acts as a filter. The black water is broken down in an external solar septic tank which accelerates the anaerobic process by heating the waste with solar energy. The solids break down and travels through filtering layers of gravel, pumice, soil and roots where it is absorbed by plants and cleaned. Energy is provided by solar panels and/or wind generators stored in batteries. Methane gas from the breakdown of black waste can be stored for emergency energy needs.

To our delight, the interior of the model home is comfortable and spacious. The rounded walls indeed give it a Hobbit feel, but this is a plus not a minus. One senses a return to a natural order living in the Earth, as this Earthship does, rather than on top of it.
I ask our host again if she's sure there isn't any external power line coming in--because it seems too easy.

She smiles, shakes her head.

"So how many millions does it cost to build?"
I ask this with my wife hanging on my arm, waiting for the bad news. Our expectations are that such a seriously advanced use of modern technology most cost a fortune, like trying to build a house on Mars, say.
"About $175,000"
"Thousand," I repeat to make sure I've heard right.
I'm shocked because that's about what we paid for our own house. A house, I might add, that is entirely at the mercy of the city for sewage and water, Old Dominion for power and not in the least bit environmentally friendly.

"The average pricing works out to about $120 per square foot. If you provide your own labor, less" our host explains.

"What about humidity, we live in a humid climate?"

"We have Earthships in the United Kingdom, Brighton and Edinburgh.  I suspect that's as much humidity as you might ask for. We also have Earhships near the tropics in Honduras, in Bolivia and Mexico. And we'll be coming to France in 2007." Basically, in an effort to spread knowledge and skills about Earthships globally, Earthship will be hosting a training program as part of a French 'Barn' raising, an Earthship raising, as it were. Reynold's and other old pros will be offering the opportunity to work alongside their experienced crew.


That's all my wife needed to hear, she was sold. "This place is beautiful," she said.

It really was. Inside, a banana tree stood in a huge window that let in the New Mexican sun, water cascaded in a cistern behind us and even the bathroom was charming. Everything worked aesthetically. All the pieces fit, form and function.

"This is the house Frank Lloyd Wright should have built"

"I think it's the one he wanted to build, but the technology wasn't ready yet. Now it is."

The question is, are we? Mike Reynolds seems to thinks so. As he writes in the introduction to his first volume on Earthships:

"Our ability to evolve beyond these [old housing] systems is becoming increasingly necessary, and has a twofold impetus. If we learn to live without these systems, we could radically slow down destruction of the planet and possibly reverse certain aspects of the deterioration. If it is already too late, we will need, in the near future, living units to sustain us via direct contact with existing natural phenomena."

Surviving as a species on the planet earth lends a heighten sense of drama to the purchase of a home, yet despite the hint of wild eyed survivalist in Reynold's statement, there's much truth to it. Certainly, any sane man would not venture to suggest we can continue on our course without something changing dramatically. Earthships seems as reasonable and painless a change as possible.

It might be a while, but my wife and I are saving up our money either here or preferably in Europe. Any day now, we'll be breaking ground and packing old tires full of dirt for our walls. For those who can't feature themselves as over cautious environmentalists, and like, instead, to consider themselves 'rugged individualists', consider this: Earthships are the ultimate in an individual's great goodbye to the systems that would otherwise keep them enslaved. Much more rugged and individualist, I should think, then certain Montana Ranchers who 'conquered' the West while leaving behind their waste trails of empty tin cans.

Earthship Brighton under construction

I haven't been yet, I'll have to check it out.

Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.

by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Thu Feb 1st, 2007 at 04:14:40 AM EST
Thanks for the picture. Interesting design and a  different from the Hobbit / Hopi like shapes we saw in New Mexico. I wonder if it's supposed to be based loosely on a Tudor? Hmmm. One of the questions I'd like to ask of the Brighton Earthship, or any ES in England, how do they handle the rain and humidity?
by delicatemonster (delicatemons@delicatemonster.com) on Thu Feb 1st, 2007 at 11:31:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'll go along soon, ask your questions and report back.

Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.
by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Fri Feb 2nd, 2007 at 12:39:23 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I actually know a guy that is thinking of building one in Norway. Which strikes me as a rather bad idea. I would imagine it would get extremely cold during the winter, and generally humid during the summer.
by Trond Ove on Fri Feb 2nd, 2007 at 08:05:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Not if it is designed right.  Moisture build-up can be prevented by proper ventilation at the point of water 'production' within the structure -- primarily kitchen(s), bathroom(s).  A specific room, called in the states a "mudroom," used to 'airlock' the outside from the inside environment will prevent cold and moisture infiltrating during entry/exit from the structure.  Buildings in Norway should have one of these, anyway.  

One of the principals of Earthships is the exterior and interior of the structure must be designed in accordance with the specific climate for the specific site upon which the structure is erected.  As the climate of Norway and New Mexico is slightly <g> different I cannot address how that issue is solved where you are.

I agree complete reliance on passive solar for heat in the Norwegian climate is silly.  Reliance on on-site generated energy not necessarily so.  Again, local conditions demand local answers.  

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Fri Feb 2nd, 2007 at 11:55:05 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Bio-architecture forms reminds of of architecture of Eugene Tsui and of course, Gaudi.

However, on the functional side of things (heating, convection, etc.) one should also look at things like:

 - Passive House movement (as started in Central Europe)
 - For UK builders I'd recommend the Green Building Bible, while it doesn't cover everything, it is a good one stop resources.
 - Arctic climates are more difficult, but the Sami people have lived for centuries in a harsh and cold environment. One just has to adapt to the fact that the main source of energy is chemical (food) and it's all about energy insulation (keep the energy given out by your body) rather than passive intake (because solar is almost non-existent during the winter). I've yet to find true "modern" earth house concepts applied to arctic climates. Ecological house concepts do exist and consume way less energy than most common houses.

As always, these things are not new, but recycle and bring back from history things already forgotten, while at the same time combining them with new approaches.

by SamuM on Sun Feb 4th, 2007 at 06:11:00 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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