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Earthship Biotecture

March 7, 2012

Under the guidance of ‘garbage warrior’ Mike Reynolds, Earthship Biotecture is a radical, and often experimental, approach to sustainable design. Jo Leeder headed to the Earthship Biotecture seminar in Melbourne to learn more about Reynolds and his vision for self-sufficient housing.

ADR has revisited Michael Reynolds’ Earthship Biotecture in 2015, check in with the group’s current projects.

“Sustainable Autonomy For Everyone: S.A.F.E”. This was the title of the three-day Earthship Biotecture Seminar held in Melbourne in February, led by Earthship founder and architect Michael Reynolds. With a limited understanding of the history of this organisation and in the knowledge that I was going to miss the introductory day of the event, I decided to do a little research to discover what, exactly, an ‘Earthship’ might be. In addition to the ubiquitous Google search, I queried friends, colleagues and neighbours to see what others knew about Reynolds and his building typology.

Some assumed it had something to do with space: ”A spaceship with a garden and seeds in it, which travels to other planets to improve biodiversity,” or the science fiction-inspired guess, “a mothership in space?”

Others envisaged more earthly, yet still loftily ambitious structures: ”A self-sufficient ecological ship that floats along the sea!”, ”a floating Eden Project?”, and even the bleak vision of “a biome greenhouse thing they build in the desert and stick people in for 18 months to see if they survive?” Thankfully, no.

A couple got a little closer to the reality: ”Buildings made from old tyres and plastic bags,” and “a super-sustainable house.”

In essence, an Earthship is an autonomous, waste-free house constructed from recycled everyday materials. Recycled tyres filled with mud or earth and plastered over with cement form the core structure, with non-load bearing internal walls constructed from recycled bottles or cans. The external walls are thick to act as a thermal mass to regulate the internal temperature, while a glazed frontage takes advantage of passive solar gain and lets natural light in. Energy is generated via sun and wind power, while an on-site sewage treatment plant also feeds into the food production area – both of which are contained within the walls of the building. The Earthships’ built form, which is drawn from its internal systems and technologies, is usually long and thin, although a domed-shape Earthship has become popular in areas stricken by natural disasters.

Mike Reynolds, the founder of Earthship Biotecture and a fervent advocate of sustainable living, compared his designs to the human body: a machine with a network of interrelated systems. Contemporary houses, he argued, are built as a singular box containing a set of individual components that come in and go out in a linear fashion. The Earthship, by contrast, features a circular system. Rainwater is harvested from the roof, collected in a cistern and used for drinking, washing and showering. Grey water is cleansed in a botanical cell within the building, and then used for toilet flushing. A blackwater botanical cell treats used toilet water, before dispersing it again.

This botanical cell is a similar system to the Living Machine wastewater treatment, but done internally and as individual systems. On-site sewage can cause a number of regulatory headaches, and as Reynolds readily pointed out, for many the proximity of such a system might be a green step too far in terms of inhabitable comfort. Several other toilet types have been used in the Earthships prior to the botanical cell: the composting toilet, which was “like having a pet, it needed lots of attention,” while stories of the ‘solar toilet’ had the audience squirming, grimacing and laughing in equal measure.

As for on-site food production, the reality of living with plants can bring with it an abundance of bugs. Reynolds, though – who happily lives among crickets and butterflies – dislikes the way most buildings shut out nature.

“The worse the situation gets regarding the planet, the more uptight we get about rules and regulations,” he says. In his view, we should be leaning towards less stringent regulations as climate change continues to threaten the planet. Reynolds’ philosophy for “living with less” stems from his overarching desire to lead a life that is more sustainable and self-sufficient.

Reynolds talks with pride about the botanical cell, but it is the more rudimentary bucket shower and bucket flush toilet that has been used effectively in Earthship Biotecture’s disaster relief housing. Working on charity projects in Haiti, Reynolds and his team have implemented bucket-flush toilets to avoid problems with broken plumbing, and simple bucket showers with a small drainage pad: a tyre wedged in with gravel, which seeps water away instantly. Importantly, they place a particular focus on training local workers to ensure building work can continue.

Reynolds is a man of passion, inventiveness, ingenuity and an obsessive nature – and he is dogged in the face of adversity. I was charmed by both the man, and his ideology. There is much to commend in the Earthship: these projects strive to function autonomously, working with nature rather than against it and using natural means of heating and cooling. These are fundamental to living sustainably; and yet the Earthship model comes up short. It appeals to a niche market, while its construction materials and methods are so particular and specific that they also limit its utilisation. The next step in the process will require applying Reynolds’ philosophy for self-sustaining, waste-free homes to a more mainstream model of eco-housing that can be replicated at a much larger scale.

For further information about Earthship Biotecture, contact Jonah Reynolds: jonah@earthship.com and www.earthship.com

Images all images courtesy of Earthship Biotecture

ADR has revisited Michael Reynolds’ Earthship Biotecture in 2015, check in with the group’s current projects.

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  • Anna April 9th, 2012 2:16 pm

    Jo, thank you! I was trying only moderately successfully to make this point to someone who’d just completed a course the other day. She thought the course was a bit of a rip off, but when I asked her why they didn’t use shutters to create the adobe walls, because it would be quicker and cheaper, she said the point of these buildings is to be hand made and and to be a communal exercise.

    Which made me wonder if it’s really about sustainability, or just being wilfully anachronistic and elitist.

  • Chun December 31st, 2013 5:46 pm

    “while its construction materials and methods are so particular and specific that they also limit its utilisation.”

    What do you base this summary on?
    I am stunned that you can you written this article and then seemingly completely misssed the point. Did the editor insist on this line, or can you really not see that car tyres and glass bottles are rather common world wide?

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