Art Feature: Back to the Future: A second look at earthship principles

Published: April 2009 Vol. 13 Issue 3

photography & text by Ross Evertson

Earthship designed and built by Joe Callahan of Boulder, Colorado. Photos by Ross Evertson.
I was raised in the carpet and drywall world of suburban Denver.  The homes of my friends all looked and felt so similar to my own, each one was like a visit to a parallel universe (some of them even shared the exact same floor plan, and everyone decorated the same way—the primary difference was the odor, if the parents smoked, or if there was a baby). There was something comforting to the sameness at that age, but as I got older that sameness became almost depressing and it was rare for me to ever find that level of comfort in the home of anyone else, friend or stranger.

It was particularly bizarre, then, when I first stepped into an earthship. It did not look like any home I had ever been in before. Beneath the iconic south-facing floor to ceiling windows is an indoor garden, fed by greywater from the sinks and shower. The soft forms of the structure flow all around. As organic as the stucco walls feel, they are covering a traditional earthship building material—used automobile tires filled with tightly compacted dirt.

Earthships, as envisioned by an architect in the 1970s, can have an almost future-prehistoric look, like a reclining dinosaur carcass that just happens to have a bank of windows for a stomach. Underneath that fantastic façade are concepts that are finding their way into almost every single facet of new construction.
As strange a building as it may seem, at the same time it felt perfectly…right.  Dug into the sides of hills, the earthship’s south-facing windows and thick northern walls regulate the indoor climate.  It is the natural way to heat and cool a building, and it feels that way.  No forced air, no noisy furnace, just a pleasant, naturally comfortable temperature. 

This kind of innate pleasantness, however, isn’t even the most desirable aspect of these structures.
The concept of ‘green’ is now fully ubiquitous. It even has its own cable network  (which, of course, is the 21st centuries primary cultural indicator that an idea has “arrived.”) And while we as a nations struggle to define what it is we need to do to address energy independence, architect Mike Reynolds, the founder of Earthship Biotecture, handily defined it over 30 years ago.

There are 6 principals that define an earthship (see sidebar), and adopting all of them can theoretically lead to a life completely off the grid, with all food, water, waste and energy concerns addressed right there with the home, a self-sufficient oasis.

While Reynolds earthship “biotecture” movement inspired thousands of people, it took a global climate crisis for the world to begin to realize that these principals need to be applied to every structure, to limit the immense waste produced by constructing, maintaining, and using our buildings.
It is easy to bet against the chances that an office building would process its own waste in house—though it might just be a matter of time—but real progress is already being seen in public housing.
For instance, when it was built in 2004, Highland Gardens, a mid-rise public housing facility in Milwaukee, Wisconsin had the largest modular “green roof” in the United States. On green roofs, a cover of vegetation provides for lower energy consumption, a prolonged roof life and an improvement in air quality.  This sort of technology, and specifically this kind of implementation, has caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which in 2008 publicly encouraged public housing agencies to adopt green strategies whenever possible, from new construction, to maintenance and reconstruction. There is an emphasis on renewable energy, as HUD claims that public housing agencies spend nearly a quarter of their operating costs on utilities. 

On April 7th, 2009, just a few feet from the Platte River, and under the shadow of an I-25 overpass, Renaissance Riverfront Lofts will officially open.  One of Colorado’s first green-built affordable housing developments, Renaissance will be providing 100 units, with roughly 40 percent slated to be reserved for homeless individuals being served by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.

It’s ribbed metal cladding and contemporary paint job has the building blending in with the now-commonplace loft aesthetic. Underneath the paint, there are no spare tires packed with dirt, but there are Energy Star appliances,  low-flow toilets and Ecospace elevators that use 2/3 less energy than traditional elevators. While the building is very much on the grid, power usage is supplemented with roof top photo-voltaic panels, which will provide 40 megawatts of power a year, the equivalent of nearly 40 tons of CO2 emissions. To attempt to put this in perspective, the EPA claims the average American produces 4 tons of carbon dioxide a year in energy usage. The building does the equivalent of taking roughly ten of its residents off the grid.

Now that it is reasonably well known that energy efficiency and green practices save money and improve living conditions, it is a trend that will be difficult to stop. Bette Iacino, the Director of Education and Advocacy for CCH says that moving forward, new construction will be built and maintained greenly “as much as we’re able.”

What’s next? Expect more of those earthship principals to be adopted in public and private housing nationwide.  Public housing authorities are in a unique position to adopt new money saving technologies, and to educate and protect the health of their residents with greener buildings.  Although fully contained, closed-loop public housing might be a long ways away, sustainable energy practices, water harvesting and onsite food production is right on the horizon.•