Earthships and Garbage Warriors
On Monday night Green Action and I watched the documentary Garbage Warrior, a film by Oliver Hodge about renegade “eco-architect” Mike Reynolds, who has spent decades building and developing his Earthships – self sufficient homes built from discarded materials (“garbage” – tires, bottles etc) designed to function off the grid. You can watch the film here. Despite being made out of “garbage”, the finished product can be strikingly beautiful:
This stained-glass effect from glass bottles, set in walls of earth, reminds me of the dream cave sequences from the BFG, a movie I loved as a kid. Skip to around 7:00 in the link above and you’ll see what I mean! In fact, Reynolds frequently describes his experiences building these houses through the 70s and 80s as being like living in a dream.
Reynolds trained as an architect, but found the architecture profession stuffy and overly conservative. Their concept of what a house was or could be had moved on little since rebuilding projects after world wars I and II. In his words
“I began right then to think that architecture, as it stood then, was … worthless! It had nothing to do with the planet; it had barely anything to do with people and what they needed.”
Reynolds began with simply wanting to push the concept of what a house could be. Later, he began thinking in terms of climate change. He envisions the possibility of a post-collapse society in which cities have been largely abandoned and people live instead in subsistence communities, returning to the cities to forage for materials to build their houses. In such a potential future, his architectural ideas could become both widespread and important for our survival.
“I started all this thinking with quality of life in mind. We’re talking about survival now… We know that in the future we are rendering this planet damn near uninhabitable. So as we move closer towards that, we’re trying to devise a method of living that allows people to take care of themselves.”
The design of the houses is very clever. They are built with glass windows facing south and often with walls of tires packed full of dense earth. All of this packed earth and tires gives the house an enormous specific heat capacity – its ability to absorb and retain latent heat energy. During the day the sun heats the house and during the night that heat is very efficiently retained. No central heating system is required, despite temperatures frequently dropping below minus 30 degrees in the desert climates where Reynolds builds his houses. The house can also collect rainwater and may feature a natural “air-conditioning” system. Here are some simplified designs:
Arriving with only a tent and a few acres of land, within a few years a virtually self-regulating house can be built largely from freely souced local “waste” materials; one is left with no mortgage, no utility bills and can grow their own food. In the film, Reynolds describes his “intense” (one of his favourite words!) realisation upon completing his first house (around thirty years ago now) that he was “free”.
“I had my own power, I had my own food growing, I didn’t need heat; I was like Jesus Christ man, I am free. I am absolutely free. The state of mind that that put you in: you can get up in the morning and you own your life – ‘well I can do whatever I want’ – ‘cos you don’t have to do anything to stay alive.”
His personal take on some ‘anarchist’ ideas about human nature that are dear to me, was a high point of the film. It’s a powerful idea; that as young people entering the housing market today we need not suffer decades of peonage under gargantuan mortgages simply to fulfill our most basic need for shelter; that we might instead become free human beings running our own lives. I was reminded of Henry David Thoreau’s observation that
“Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbours have.”
Reynolds was soon joined by others wishing to replicate his experiences. They formed a team of engineers and architects and have since travelled the world, notably building shelter with local residents in the aftermath of both the Boxing Day Tsunami in the Andaman Islands and Hurricane Rita off the coast of Mexico, both of which are documented in the film. Through these experiences, local people, architects and engineers are educated on how to build their own Earthships. More recently the team has helped rebuild communities in Haiti after its 2010 earthquake.
The developing world has been much more receptive to these ideas than Reynolds’ native USA. Reynolds was stripped of his architect’s license in 1997 – his houses did not comply with a number of existing building regulations, such as requirements to be connected to roads and the existing power, water and sanitation systems. He has since had to fight tooth-and-nail to navigate a labyrinthine legislative and regulatory system for the right to continue building his houses. After several years of stalled attempts his bill for the right to build experimental sustainable housing was passed in 2007 (sadly along with many caveats limiting the scope of his ideas) and a test site approved by the State of New Mexico.
This paralyzing inertia in our political and economic systems is something I’ve often worried about. Unless we can fundamentally shift how these institutions ‘function’ soon we will be a rabbit caught in the headlights of global climate change. Reynolds puts it so:
“Politics does slowly, slowly grind things out, and that’s fine if we had hundreds and hundreds of years on this planet: we have decades left on this plant of life as we know it and American politics is a fucking dinosaur that is not gonna make it: it’s just gonna come to a grinding halt… The ‘American Dream’ in my opinion is in the toilet, it’s history, it’s gone. The ‘American Dream’ is now how do we survive the future. It’s not having an eight bedroom home with eleven bathrooms. It’s not having a career and a lawn and all of the amenities. It is simply how do our children and our children’s children even have a chance at life.”
The Earthship is an idea whose time has come. For anybody reading this living in the Southampton area, we are trying to organise a representative from Earthship Brighton to talk at the Southampton Futures Festival, part of the Climate Forum series, which will be held from 17-19th Feb 2011. You should come along!