Is it a House or a Movement?

Is it a House or a Movement?

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UK

Houses made of used tyres have been spreading through Europe, partly because the tyres are so universally available. Their indestructibility is an environmental problem – and buildings made from them may be the solution. People will pay you to take them away.

Britain’s first building made of used tyres will be unveiled to the public in late August.

earthship being built

Earthship inventor Michael Reynolds

Craigencalt Farm, Kinghorn, near Fife was in a race with another scheme in Brighton and the Scots project has announced an official launch on August 21st . Both schemes struggled against beauracratic obstacles from the authorities; both were backed by environmental charities wanting to provide an example of what can be done if the will is there.

They have been slow to catch on in the UK because of planning obstacles, but in the US there is a community of these houses christened Earthships. The concept was invented 30 years ago by architect Michael Reynolds, as a self-heating, self-powering, self-sustainable dwelling. He founded Solar Survival, a group of eco-dwellers from Taos, New Mexico

When I met him in Spain at a seminar on Earthship building techniques, Reynolds calls the tyres and bottles and cans used in Earthship construction, “indigenous” building materials. And it is true that they are as “natural” as wood or mud in most parts of the world.

Today there are roughly 2,000 Earthships across the United States, inhabited by a complete cross-section. Hippies, but also Yuppies; single women as well as families, and more mushrooming up every month. Reynolds is still the main proponent and hands-on builder. His seminars around the world would seem evangelical if they weren’t so practical. With his beard and ageing Rock star hair, he looks like Noah preaching the benefits of the Ark.

Every Earthship, said Reynolds, requires “some kind of a (planning) battle, but they either get an experimental approval or just get through somehow. In Brighton they did fight long and hard to get permission. It cost a lot of money to get approval… as much as the building. That’s why new ideas don’t spread faster.”

The battle revolved around waste management regulations said Daren Howarth of the Low Carbon Trust which was responsible for building the Brighton Earthship and is still raising the money to complete it some time this year.”We expected problems with building regs, but Brighton and Hove council were great,” said Howarth. The problem came when the Trust informed the Environment Agency they would be using tyres to make a building. “They came back and said we were processing waste because we were putting earth into a tyre – this meant we needed a waste management license, which requires a whole set of codes to be put in place to define the process and because this is a new process, there was even more bureaucracy.”

The Environment Agency eventually agreed this was an experiment, so it could go ahead, “but now we are in delicate situation for future projects” said Howarth. “Our argument is that we are re-using the tyres and not
re-processing them.”

To obtain planning permission both the Brighton and Fife Earthships had to have “really intense damp proof membranes around the whole building in the floor and behind the tyre wall, which was probably a good thing in these climates.” said Reynolds.

Construction began in Fife in July 2002 and will be completed during the summer of 2004 in time for the Launch on August 21 . So far over 3,000 volunteer hours have been donated by over 200 volunteers.

The tyres came from a local fitter who paid about 30p each for them to be removed.

The Spanish seminar was a three-day lesson in how to build an Earthship, and where to site it. It was in the Valencia area because a local couple had decided they wanted to live in one. They agreed to host the seminar
and would gain a half-completed Earthship. Planning laws are more flexible in Spain, and the Earthship was being built in a hilltop community where none of the houses had planning permission at that precise moment (although it was widely expected that in the next amnesty everything would be regularised, honest).

The seminarians who had paid $500 and travelled from across Europe, include a Spanish guy in combat gear who disappears off into the brush each night; an eco-architect from Porto and another from Barcelona; Britons living in Greece and Spain; a Charity worker from Amsterdam, who plans hundreds of Earthships as schoolrooms across Africa; a sculptor who wants a low-profile home somewhere in South West England; an American realtor touring Europe in a camper van; two timid Romanians, and several Dutchmen, one of whom intends to start a bar-restaurant Earthship in Spain.

Earthship design is based on the principle of Thermal Mass. The tyres are packed with earth, and then stacked atop each other. The gaps are filled with cement and the structure is skimmed with plaster. The tyres give the structure a solidity and water-resistance an Adobe hut would lack. Thick walls ensure the internal temperature is very stable, says Reynolds. The knock-on effect is that little energy is needed to heat or cool the building, meaning electric power from solar or wind sources is devoted to lighting and powering appliances — of which the most energy-greedy is the fridge.

Integral to the design is that Earthships are south-facing in all but the hottest climates. That gives maximum exposure to the sun, both for warming the house and for solar power. Roofs are designed to catch water rather than run it off. Water is then passed through multiple filtration systems to be used for drinking and washing, then household uses and finally gardening.

Reynolds estimates that if you pay builders, an Earthship cost roughly the same as a conventional house – an average $200,000 in the US. The Low Carbon Trust (which aims to be the first stop for European Earthship enquiries) is hoping to drop the cost to around £80,000 for a three-bedroom house, about £65 per square foot — cheaper than conventional housing. The typical delivery time they expect to be six months said Howarth.

Each tyre takes about 10 minutes of hard, bone-shaking work to fill with rammed earth using a light sledgehammer. To prevent the earth spilling, the bottom of the tyre is lined with cardboard, another plentiful and free building material. This design is built around a double U-shape which maximises the frontage exposed to direct sunlight and the space available for solar panels.

The team from Taos pound the earth with practised grunts while the paying guests mill around and take occasional stabs at work. But by the end of the second day a rhythm has settled and the outline shape of the whole building had emerged.

The final seminar was spent on water management, perhaps the most intricate part of the process, and the least understood. Solar energy solutions are now widespread. Rainwater management is under-used and brings its proponents into direct contact with health and safety standards.

Water collection starts with the roof, and Reynolds recommends an enamelled metal roof as the most economical, durable and drinkable solution. Rainwater is collected into a tank, and from there passes through several filters to ready it for drinking and bathing. First-use water runs off from the shower or sink and is then recycled to the toilet. From there the water proceeds through another filter and into the garden. Reynolds showed us photos of his Taos set-up with banana trees fed entirely from third-use water.

“Its not a widescale thing yet” says Reynolds as he looks over the building site.” but it is much broader than when it started. ..we had to learn to make a building out of tyres, cans and bottles. That took a decade or so. Look how long traditional building has been around, . It’s a good thing it didn’t go faster, but we are ready now.

“In the future, if we can sell people a product that will take care of them without expense and without the insecurity of relying on municipal power water and sewage — if you can sell that, everybody’s going to be
interested.”

As land gets scarcer in the UK; as technologies improve, allowing us to work and communicate without mains electricity or phone-lines, demand for Earthship-style solutions will increase exponentially. Whether planners will allow us to set sail for these futuristic dwellings is another matter.