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The EarthShip Has Landed | Homes of the future

How would you like to build a house that doesn’t need much architectural input, costs far less than a conventional build, can be largely constructed by hand, and could cost you virtually nothing to run?

How would you like a house which satisfies every ‘green’ credential, and actually gives you free food, water and electricity?

Sounds like a dream doesn’t it?

Well, at the bottom of our humble garden, attached to our humble terraced house in a not very posh part of Brighton, is a structure which represents our dry run for just such a house.

It all started in 1996 when I visited the spiritual community in Elgin, Scotland, known as Findhorn.
There I saw people living in caravans, upturned giant whiskey vats and the first UK straw bale houses.
I was impressed, but Findhorn is a unique place, I would never be able to do this, so I forgot about this sort of housing.

About six years ago a friend who is heavily involved in permaculture and I were talking about low carbon builds and she told me about an extraordinary community building sitting right at the very tip of the organic allotment zone in Brighton’s Stanmer Park.
‘Have you seen the Earthship then?’ She said.
What’s an Earthship? I asked.
Before long, on a dull winter day, I was walking through the rising pathway in waist high vegetation past the cafe in Stanmer village, past the round ‘living bender’, made much like the Native American sweatlodges, comprising leafy saplings, past the outdoor art projects and suddenly there it was.

Amid the muddy construction site and behind the zinc security fences sat the oddest building I’ve ever seen.
Lusciously pink and curvacious, made of giant not yet rendered tyre-bricks rising up into a bank or earth ‘berm’, and a weird conical lump on one end.

The Low Carbon Network, now Trust, had studied Michael Reynolds’ Earthship colonies in Taos, New Mexico USA, and decided to see if they could build one right here in the UK. Michael and his crew came over, helped with the initial build, and in the process gave a couple of lectures down the road at the University, and they were good to go.

After some years of the predictable planning and building regulations struggles, they finally got permission for a community building built on Earthship principles, in the park.
All the build was done by volunteers as a learning experience.
Materials were begged, borrowed or donated. It’s taken a while but the building has now been commissioned and up and running for a few years, hosting all sorts of events and workshops. My band even played there at their open day in July 2010, (pictured).

So what is an Earthship? Fundamentally, it’s a structure made of recycled materials, mostly used car tyres rammed with ordinary earth and mortared together and rendered just like ordinary bricks.

Michael Reynolds, an environmental activist and US architect developed the idea in the 1970s because he was tired of the regulations that forced US architects to design and build homes which must maintain a constant temperature of 74 degrees Fahrenheit.

This costs the builder and the homeowner a lot of money and means a lot of carbon emissions.

Now, tyres are not very biodegradable, and in most of the World you are no longer allowed to burn them or dump in landfill. (For detailed stats, please see the Earthship website.) An Earthship is predicted to last 800 years!
The Network, now legally a Trust, got together and first built the u-shaped main structure out of earth rammed, and I mean rammed until they bulge, tyres. Cans and bottles can also be used, laid on their sides in rows in mortar and the render can be eked out by putting all sorts of things in between the tyres.

Michael Reynolds believes that a tyre full of earth – experts with a sledgehammer can ram one in about 8 minutes – is the most thermally efficient brick on the Planet right now.

The U-shaped main building is built into a ‘berm’ or a bank, either naturally occurring or created, like an earthwork, and the building is south facing. Why? Because the front of the U-shaped section consists of a large area of glass ideally at a suitable angle which is used to warm the building. It collects free solar energy as radiant heat all the time the sun shines, so the tyre walls and berm warm up, and in winter, no heating is required because the warm tyres reflect heat back into the building. In summer if it gets too hot, you can open the windows, or counterbalanced weight-operated skylights.

At one end is a circular rammed tyre structure with a reinforced, conical roof covered in heavy duty plastic and a large gutter for rainwater collection. Rainwater is diverted into a large tank or hopper inside the building and then piped in and out of the bathroom and kitchen. A sophisticated pumping system which is quite expensive but well within most budgets, handles the water supply and recycling although if you are techie minded you could build one yourself at a pinch.

Along the glass front most Earthships have a strip ‘planter’ full of vegetables, some flowers and even fruit. This is separated from the main area of the building by a stud wall. Or you can divide rooms with single skin can or bottle walls. Internal rooms can be accessed from doors in the planter area.

Used water from the kitchen sink and shower or bath is diverted through the planter where it is cleaned and recycled by the plants and goes back into the utility tank.
Outside, a reed bed mini -sewage plant cleans the toilet water. Some people with enough land merely use organic earth toilets but these are pretty primitive for most people. Basically you dig a hole, construct a loo-shed with plank seat, and throw in a large scoop of earth afterwards! Organic toilets have to be re-dug from time to time because due to our diets and things like medication, human waste takes a long time to biodegrade. Indoor kitchens and bathrooms in Earthships should be run using eco friendly detergents and self care products.

Recycled heavy duty batteries – at Stanmer they were ex helicopter batteries from the original Big Brother TV studio! – are stored between the main roof, against the berm, and the main roof, also reinforced, collects rainwater and giant solar panels mounted on it feed the batteries. Solar power can be used for direct heat transfer or stored via converters as electricity. One of the residential earthships in France has been so successful with this they actually sell surplus electricity back to the French national grid.

Solar panels can be constructed D-I-Y,there are  instructions all over the Internet, you don’t have to spend thousands. Maintenance is easy as the flat roof is level with the berm, so accessible easily up an access ramp.

Other choices include a row of small windmills, there’s a demo one at Stanmer, it isn’t noisy and it will keep a low energy lightbulb or two going all day.

If this all sounds a bit hippie and uncomfortable, think again. A well built earthship can be finished and run to high standards. You can use your computer, plasma TV, washing machine etc, and the whole building as a comfortable, ‘living’ space, almost like a protective body which interacts with the bodies of its occupants. The Late actor Dennis Weaver built a really big, luxurious one, you can make them as basic or swishy as you like.
These buildings also have huge implications for the third World and disaster zones. Earthship shells can be constructed within two weeks – Taos Earthship builders are in all sorts of places right now, for example the Haiti earthquake zone, helping people who have lost their homes to create free, warm housing out of local, free recycled materials.

My partner Al and I met three years ago, and we started our relationship at the end of last year. I moved in and it wasn’t long before I was showing him my Michael Reynolds Earthship DVD. He’d heard of Earthships – he lives a straight mile from Stanmer – but hadn’t investigated.
The next day he was on the Internet researching the entire subject. It had fired his imagination as much as it had mine. When Al gets interested in something, he gets very, very focused!

A couple of visits to Stanmer later, down came his greenhouse, the old shed beside it was easily dismantled and all the bits carefully put aside to recycle. Out came the tape measure and shovel and he was off!
We don’t have much space for the structure we quickly dubbed ‘The EarthShed’ so we opted for smaller scooter tyres.

The scooter shop down the road happily gave us all the tyres we needed – they have to pay to get them taken away, so tyres are free.

And so Al started building. First, he created some images of what he hoped the finished Earthshed should look like using a photo of his garden with Photoshop Pro, but the plans are still in his head. And they are flexible. With a tape measure and a spirit level you could simply mark out the foundations and start.

Did I say foundations? You don’t need any. Even a scooter tyre is about 16 inches wide, pile them up plumb straight and they are not going anywhere. They will automatically load-bear, with good, solid roof beams mean no internal supporting walls are required, but the planter divider (more of the later) can make an extra support.
Friends collected cans and bottles. Every time they come round, or we visit, there are three or four bags waiting for us.

Can walls? Well, lager cans are not load bearing, but they eke out the mortar in between in a sort of honeycomb, and the mortar is strong and light.

Bottles can also be used, you can cut the bottoms off and join two together open end to open end with gaffa tape – use a cheap electric tile cutter, it’s a doddle – and coloured bottles end to end will let in light.

The North facing wall is best either against the berm (we don’t have one) or just tyres, for insulation purposes, but the east and west walls can let in light via the bottles.
Light comes pouring in the glass south wall, creating a very efficient greenhouse, one of our main objectives is to grow a lot more veg and maybe venture into some small scale fruit growing. The roof could have washing machine door glass or even giant chip shop pickle bottle ends, cut, joined and inserted as skylights.

We’ll have a lot of guttering to collect the water, probably in a couple of big rain butts, there won’t be a loo in there, but we’ll probably have a garden sink.

Outside, Al has built enclosing boundary walls creating a patio area, these full of coloured bottles and the whole thing will be rendered in Mediterranean pink mortar. You can use adobe, or mud-lime-straw mix render but probably not in a damp environment.

Pukka Earthships use recycled ash for mortar. Internal walls can be plastered and then lightly oiled instead of painted or papered, and this looks great, again, see the Earthship website.

It’s been a long road. We’ve sourced all the cans and bottles, most of the wood, all the glass, including some from the old greenhouse, and leftover insulation for the roof from people who have just done their lofts, and a lot of the building materials from friends or from Yahoo exchange recycling groups Freecycle or Greencycle which are now Worldwide. All local Freecyclers’ email addresses have been retained and they will be invited to the topping out party! We have used old bricks, just a few new bricks, for a couple of the supporting columns to save space, and even breeze blocks left over from our recent kitchen extension.

Al has built the whole thing by hand, he borrowed a cement mixer long-term from my brother, and the only other equipment he has used is a wheelbarrow, a sledgehammer, a sieve to get the big stones from his own dirt, and ordinary D-I-Y tools. We have a bench saw and drills for the roof but these can be borrowed if necessary
And he has used his body. Al has retired, from a fairly sedentary job, and has lost weight, developed long unused deltoids and biceps and now has a healthy year round tan!

He toils to the sound of Radio 2, on a ghetto blaster which is kept from the rain in my giant white canvas army tent which we put up in his garden and now houses the glass cutter and everything that used to be in the old shed.

Downsides? Yes of course. The Environment Agency is currently saying that they don’t think earth rammed tyres are a viable building material. Presumably they haven’t bothered to check the now legal and accepted colonies of Earthships in the USA.

In the UK, with its rainy weather, a residential earthship would need a thick non permeable layer beneath the walls and against the berm but this is no problem.

Currently there are two Earthship builds happening in Scotland, plans in Devon and Cornwall and two residential Earthships in France.

So far, no residential Earthships have had planning permission in the UK, but the Brighton build did recruit some planning and building professionals so there is a possibility of consultancy in the future for the determined.
The big kicker is land.

Land is extremely expensive in the UK, although in Europe, especially France and Spain, if you have a house to sell with decent equity here, an Earthship and the land for it are entirely possible. One of the high quality French builds cost about £200,000 but relied on free labour in return for experience.

We have thought through building in the UK and we’ve come up with two other possibilities.

You could start an eco build ‘Intentional Community’, several couples could get together, pool resources, buy some land and build their homes together, similar to the the post-war self build projects in London and other big cities which had been bombed. The Government has been considering releasing non toxic ‘brown land’, former factory and office sites now abandoned, for housing.

These would be ideal for Earthships, because a joint build on a substantial piece of land could be landscaped even if the wider environment lacked good aesthetics.
Or, you could, planning permitting, buy a wrecked bungalow with surrounding land in a rural area, pull it down and simply replace it.

These are ideas for the future. As low or zero carbon buildings start to look more attractive to more people in the UK, or eco-hybrids, conventional homes with some Earthship or other low carbon technology, start to be built, all this will be more do-able.

There will, I believe, be a lot of unconscious resistance within Officialdom to the idea of a low cost building where there are no connections to the national power and water grids. Building regulations will be a nightmare because Earthships simply don’t fit into any current perceptions of what a solid, viable build should look like. For the Earthshed, we have obeyed garden building height restrictions and as we aren’t going to live in it we don’t need planning or building regs.

But other types of low carbon builds are already getting planning permission and building regulatory approval.
Many local authorities are looking at council tax concessions to encourage low carbon living too.
I am guessing that this type of low level, high gain technology will become more attractive as the recession wears on.

Meanwhile, the sun is shining today and I hear the now familiar sound of the cement mixer at the bottom of the garden, accompanied by the rants on Jeremy Vine and the gentle clack of our bamboo wind chimes as Al patiently grows our soon to be beautiful Earthshed in a sea of drink cans and mud!

Rhiannon
For more go to www.earthship.com or look at our Facebook group: Earthship Dream Connect UK.

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