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Earthships taking off

Earthship creator Michael Reynolds leads the way in sustainable home design.
Earthship creator Michael Reynolds leads the way in sustainable home design.

Embark on an Earthship journey, not to another planet but towards a green sustainable future. With an outer shell made of stacked car tyres packed with earth, an Earthship is a cutting-edge sustainable green home made from recycled materials that American creator Michael Reynolds says is "a vessel sailing on towards tomorrow." Michael recently toured the North Coast, bringing his radical Earthship designs to the Rainbow Region.

"Earthships are designed to be self-sufficient, passive-solar homes," Michael said. "They are buildings that heat and cool themselves, harvest their own water and use growing plants to treat their sewage."

Designed with solar arrays to harness the power of the sun and using innovative technology to provide electricity to all household appliances, Earthship homes are not designed to go off planet, but they are designed to go off the grid. Michael has pioneered their design and has been building them all over the world, providing solutions to affordable housing in third world countries and in countries like Haiti, which have been devastated by natural disasters.

Michael is an architect who loves to talk garbage and has earned the title of "garbage warrior" because of his passion for using recycled materials in building. He has spent the last 45 years perfecting his Earthship designs after initial experiments with building houses using old beer and soft drink cans filled with earth.

"In the 1970s, before the word recycling was invented, I saw garbage as affordable resources," Michael said. "When I looked at mountains of old car tyres, I saw a reservoir of raw natural materials and started experimenting with ramming dirt into them with a sledge hammer. They are the best building materials for structural walls; they don't rot, termites don't eat them and they are not affected by earthquakes and can withstand the forces of the wind.

"These rammed earth bricks, when used to build the curved walls of an Earthship, provide thermal mass which keeps the indoor temperature constant while outside temperatures fluctuate. It's based on the cave concept, similar to how the adobe buildings in New Mexico are constructed."

With the finished constructions rendered with adobe or cement and with earth ramparts build up around the outside, Earthship homes seem to blend in with the surrounding landscape much more than conventional buildings.

"The tyre wall is entirely backfilled with soil in such a way that there is a waterproof rigid curtain of insulation surrounding the backfill and the house becomes an energy sink and keeps the temperature at the right comfort zones for people," Michael said. "Because Earthships don't need to use fossil fuels to stabilise the temperature in the building and they generate their own electricity, the costs of living are reduced."

With the rising cost of electricity in mind, Michael sees Earthship homes as meeting the needs of today's world, especially where humanitarian and environmental concerns are becoming more important to people.

The Earthship's design uses rainwater, captured from the roof to make it easy for people to grow their own food in their homes and also treat sewage by reusing the water in numerous ways.

Michael's journey toward being able to provide people with affordable, innovative energy-efficient homes has at times seen him come up against bureaucratic restrictions and at one stage in his career, his architectural licence in the US was revoked when the authorities found his innovative designs too challenging for local building compliance regulations. These days, with his licence now reinstated and his innovative designs now being taken up all over the world, he has moved beyond architecture and has created the Earthship Biotechture Academy where the principles of Earthship construction are taught.

"The profession of architecture is not living up to the needs of the times," Michael said. "I invented the profession of biotechture because these days people

need the home they live in to take care of them."

Michael's Earthship designs come in a number of different models, from the cheapest 'Simple Survival' model, to the larger and more expensive 'Global' or 'Custom' models. The costs in building an Earthship home vary, from about $50,000 to several million dollars, depending on how big and lavish they might be.

"The cost of building an Earthship is about the same as building an equivalent quality of home in the world now," Michael said. "The difference is that an Earthship home has no utility bills. Now, though, we are realising the cost of housing is too much for most people and we are trying to take the designs into a new construction realm in the developing world for third world people. We built an orphanage school in Sierra Leone and now, people there are replicating it and are building more. We want to empower people to be able to build with affordable materials and it's so much easier in third world countries like Haiti, where you can build anywhere immediately. In developed countries, you can spend up to two years just getting a permit."

Closer to home, in the Victorian fire-ravaged town of Kinglake, where Black Saturday changed the landscape, an Earthship project is due to start construction, as soon as permission and funding is complete; and in Melbourne, the Ceres community in Brunswick East has a small project where you can experience Earthship construction techniques. Michael has also been promoting the retro-fitting of existing houses to incorporate the six principles of Earthship design.

"Sometimes the greenest thing to do is to 'green up' what you have," Michael said. "We cannot tear down the billions of buildings on this planet; we have to slowly change and evolve the buildings we have to be in line with these principles. No matter how good our Earthships are, we want people to undertake to retro-fit old buildings as well as integrate the six principles in all new building designs. If we address the problems facing the planet now, there won't be panic when the situation worsens."

For more information about Earthships, visit the website earthship.com.

Michael Reynolds

In the 1970s, before the word recycling was invented, I saw garbage as affordable resources.


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