Living with our earth and within our means

I watched a fascinating show last night on a sustainable housing concept called Earthships. It followed the dream of architect Michael Reynolds and his clients as they build ‘radically sustainable’ housing in various parts of the world. I was familiar with the concept of living off the grid but had never heard of these particular housing units and needless to say I was enthralled for an entire hour as I watched them create an amazing home from garbage.

Using the concept of thermal dynamics, Earthships are built using recycled materials such as tires, aluminum cans and cement. Using these materials to construct ultra thick walls, the homes are completely temperate-keeping, keeping a mean temperature of 18C. Reynolds explains that a ‘thick’ house will keep constant temperature as opposed to a ‘thin’ house which is extremely wasteful of energy. He compares it to building a heavy plane and then expecting it to fly.

When an Earthship is being built a crew of 50-75 volunteers are assembled and put to work. Most of these people are environmentally curious architecture based folk who want to learn the process and are willing to give their time, live in tents and work gruelling hours to experience the evolution of this type of construction first hand. Most of this labour is done by hand from the levelling of the ground to stacking tires and packing dirt and cement in between the layers. They are built as environmentally as they live and everyone puts in a full days labour.

Wood has been used as a construction material for centuries despite certain characteristics that make it an inferior material such as weather/infestation vulnerabilities. Wood degrades and erodes and boasts negligible R value. The wood must be wrapped and shrouded in a multitude of chemicals and treatments to cover up its ‘flaws’ and make it more durable. Reynolds’ concept is that we have access to materials which are piling up in landfills that are superior in both construction and durability. The very shape of the tire when stacked side by side echoes a honeycomb, one of the most sophisticated construction models on earth.

The fascinating thing about these homes is they allow the owners to live completely off the grid. They collect, contain and recycle their own water, produce their own food via indoor greenhouses and collect solar power to light the way. Building material costs are minimal as the structure is made up of a large percentage of recycled materials and much of the labour is free. From my further research on these homes, I see that one was constructed recently in Lethbridge and I’m seriously considering a road trip to see it for myself firsthand.

Although these homes would not pass architectural controls in an urban setting, the concept of living in a wholly sustainable home is quite appealing. It certainly opens up an entirely new realm of interior design and makes me step back and look at home in an entirely new way. Sometimes it’s not about bigger, better, more, more, more but about living with our earth and living within its means.

Kim Meckler is an interior designer in Red Deer with Carpet Colour Centre.