On Monday, I started my month-long internship at Earthship Biotecture. Earthships are self-sufficient houses that use recycled materials in their construction, and that are equipped with systems for rainwater catchment, solar and wind power, water reuse, waste control, and food production. What does that mean? It means that once you build an Earthship, you never have to pay an electricity or water bill again. Ever.
I’ve been working on site at the visitor’s center, which was constructed in the 90s as a demonstration building. That’s the entrance in the first photo. Earthships don’t look like much on the outside, but on the inside they’re really lovely.
The main room is filled with posters & diagrams of the various Earthship models and systems, plus a demonstration video and press books.
Yes, the TV runs off solar power collected from the roof panels. There are computers running in here too, and an extension cord stretching over to the building site, where it powers all the tools. With enough panels, you can have as much power as you like, even in cloudy areas.
What’s great about this design, however, is how little energy is really being used. Natural light makes it so you don’t need lightbulbs in the daytime, and even in extreme weather the building maintains an even temperature through passive solar heat and thermal mass. Today was cold and windy outdoors, but totally comfortable inside.
Bottle walls are one of the coolest features of Earthship design. They’re literally trash stuck in mud, but they create this beautiful stained-glass effect. That’s the bathroom door, and in front of it is a demonstration water cistern.
Less glamorous but much more important is the Power Organizing Module, which processes all the incoming power and sends it out as DC or AC. Normally this wall would be plastered, but the tires and cans were left exposed so visitors can see the construction technique.
All Earthships have indoor greenhouse areas, which are used for growing flowers and food. The food production techniques are still being perfected, but the ultimate goal is to make it so that you don’t need to buy groceries. It’s pretty amazing to look out over this healthy garden and see how dry and desolate the outside world is.
By the way: look at that window again. See the wooden arch at the far left? That’s part of the new construction.
This structure, and the identical one next to it, are part of Mike Reynolds‘ new additions to the visitor center. You can see that the walls are made of tires stacked like bricks; tires are filled with rammed earth (aka “dirt”) to make them incredibly solid, strong, and temperature-resistant. Non-load-bearing walls are made of cans & bottles, stuck together with cement and adobe.
This wall is just getting started, but you can see the design taking shape. The cans will be plastered over, but bottles will have their ends exposed to let in the light.
Once the wall’s thickness is determined, the bottles are cut with a tile saw and the two fat ends taped together. Then you just cement them in.
But before you can get to the fancy stuff, the tires have to be pounded! That’s what we’re doing at the big building, which will eventually become the new visitor center.
That’s my fellow intern Andrew off to the right, showing how it’s done. Yep, a shovel and a sledgehammer and lots of elbow grease. These things are seriously labor-intensive; pounding one tire takes 15-20 minutes for experienced (and acclimated) workers, so for us green kids from lower elevations, it’s taking half an hour per tire.
That’s Tim, the crew member who’s been managing us, working out the levels. Technically, this is a decorative (non-structural) bottle wall so it doesn’t have to be perfect. But sometimes it’s nice—actually, necessary—to stop hammering for a minute, so we’ve been getting everything good and even.
Tim and the other crew members have been amazingly patient and supportive while Andrew and I learn the ropes and build our strength. Working at 7500 feet can be totally exhausting, and when the winds are high it’s hard to catch a deep breath. But we’re learning and getting stronger, and benefiting from all the knowledge around us. Everyone on the crew lives in an Earthship, and many of them built their own houses. They’re professional and creative, and easy to talk to. I feel lucky to be here, even despite the sore muscles.
On that note, it’s off to bed for me. Tomorrow is a full day of tire-pounding on a new site, with all six interns. I’m gonna sleep all weekend!