Getting on board with Earthship

Earthship Bio-Tecture is a phrase which describes a of 21st century, sustainable building and off-grid solution. Originally coined by world renown architect, Michael Reynolds, the foundation of this concept is meant to provide for the 6 needs of life on earth, being:

  1. Food Production
  2. Contained Waste Treatment
  3. Water Harvesting
  4. Building with Natural and Recycled Materials
  5. Thermal Solar Heating and Cooling
  6. Solar and Wind Electrity 

After Mother Nature pummelled the Caribbean with not one but two category-five hurricanes in September 2017, sustainable building was not on the top of our mind. As many island communities were sifting through the rubble to determine how to best move forward, the real struggles would lie ahead. 

The entire mass of the home is used to both cool and heat it naturally, depending on your climate using natural convection.

While severe weather is not unheard of in this region, the complications brought on by the 12-day separation between massive hurricanes Irma and Maria hitting the British Virgin Islands meant less opportunity to assess, recover, and repair amid the storms.

By utilising solar panels to generate power and convection to heat or cool, an Earthship reduces the demand for electricity as it generates and stores it.

Many homes are completely destroyed, while others are severely damaged and will need extensive repairs in order to be habitable and functional living areas once again.

As the BVI shifts its focus from recovery to rebuilding and moving forward, a more sustainable way of living could change the way the people of the Caribbean live.

Michael Reynolds of Earthship is one man that has brought the tenets of sustainable, ‘off the grid’ living to a new level.

The interior living space being separated from the green house creates a thermal buffer from the weather conditions outside. This assists in regulating room temperature without the use of air conditioning.

Since graduating from architecture school in 1969, Reynolds’ passionate pursuit of a better way to build homes and structures has evolved into Earthship, a vibrant organisation committed to creating self-sufficient dwellings from natural and recycled materials.

From creating a ‘building block’ from beer cans in 1971 and using them to create light, strong concrete walls for a structure, the idea of homes made from ‘garbage’ has evolved into unique and beautiful structures that incorporate thermal mass, passive solar, and natural ventilation, offering a self-sufficient way of living.

Many Earthships take an open concept to allow light to travel through the green house exterior buffer.

The Six Needs for Life on Earth

In addition to heating and cooling built into the structure, Reynolds recognises six other ‘needs for life’ that Earthship structures address.

Building with natural and recycled materials

By creating foundations from discarded tires and walls from aluminium cans and glass bottles, ‘Earthships’ are not only cheaper to produce, but take unwanted items that may sit in a landfill and repurpose them for building materials. In an island environment—when landfill space is at a premium and recycling practices are expensive and difficult to sustain—taking ‘garbage’ and using it to create sustainable buildings could affect great change in the region.

Solar and wind electricity

All power for an Earthship’s existence is created from solar or wind energy. This energy can then power the structure for all daily living needs, including powering the other systems that make it a self-sustaining living environment.

Thermal heating and cooling

By using discarded tires for walls and building into the earth, Earthships use thermodynamics to keep interior rooms at a comfortable temperature without needing electric systems to heat or cool them.

Water harvesting

Islanders are accustomed to cistern-fed water systems, and Earthships continue this practice, harvesting all water from rainfall needed for daily living.

Contained sewage treatment

In addition to harvesting water for daily needs, an Earthship contains its own sewage treatment system, which reduces need and cost for municipal waste management.

Food production

Earthships incorporate greenhouses and aquaponics in order to offer organic food production systems to sustain the people living in the structure. The plants are not only functional as a food production system, but are also aesthetically pleasing and provide natural air purifying measures for the home.

This Earthship produces and recycles enough water to last a year, even in the desert. It also maintains a 70F to 75F temperature in a climate which can be over 100F in the summer and below freezing in the winter, all with little or no additional heating.

Because the Earthship is semi subterranean, Mr Reynolds encourages the use of natural, local and even recycled materials. In addition, the interior walls of the building help regulate temperature, and humidity naturally.

Natural Disasters and Island Implications

Reynolds and the Earthship team have responded with their biotecture technologies to natural disasters around the world. In 1999 after hurricane Mitch devastated Honduras, Earthship took their building practices to the region to assist in rebuilding homes that could withstand a category-five hurricane.

Similarly, after a deadly typhoon hit the Philippines in 2014, Reynolds designed a new kind of Earthship that allows torrential winds to pass over a home instead of lifting it off the ground, as could happen during a massive hurricane.

A completed Earthship can be made up of 1000’s of used car tyres. Each tyre is packed with dirt from the building site and can weigh roughly 400 pounds each. It’s safe to say there aren’t many hurricanes strong enough to blow over a 400 pound brick.

“We could go to any Caribbean island and start a city that didn’t need any infrastructure whatsoever,” said Reynolds. “And these structures won’t blow away in the event of a hurricane.”

After the catastrophic earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, Reynolds went to the island nation and in four days constructed a room for immediate shelter for an earthquake survivor—a unique demonstration of the intersection of beauty and sustainability of the Earthship model.

Then, after raising funds and returning to the island two months later, their team added a flush toilet, cistern, and shower that created a courtyard-like structure resembling a villa. This villa is now being used as an Airbnb rental.

Since each plan is custom drawn to match the weather conditions, terrain and climate, you can choose materials that best hold up to the local environment.

Green house spaces can be used for planting flora for food, pest control and even air purification.

“We have been working on sustainable dwelling units for five decades. What we find is right after a hurricane or earthquake, people don’t have infrastructure anymore and need what we’ve been working on,” said Reynolds. “We learned a lot by going to these places for decades, and we do now have a programme that provides them with the essentials for survival right after a natural disaster, but in a way that is not temporary. It evolves into a permanent structure, permanent residence, a permanent way of living that is sustainable and green.”

British Virgin Islanders may consider the durability and sustainability of an Earthship-type structure when rebuilding a home or business in the Territory. This kind of building could revolutionise the way people live in the Caribbean, in a way that not only greatly reduces the waste coming from a dwelling, but helps the islands to use some of the unused materials that are already piling up on the beautiful shores of the BVI.

Building in the BVI could make use of local palm and stone as well as recycled materials such as car tyres and glass bottles.

“An Earthship vessel addresses the six points for human survival. You need to make a strong shelter that is comfortable without fuel. It can be done. We all on this planet need to move to green and sustainable and logical living, so this an opportunity for everyone,” said Reynolds.

Learn more about Earthship, their structures, and how their solution could make a real difference in how the BVI recovers from natural disasters like hurricanes Irma and Maria at www.EarthshipGlobal.com. Preserving the beauty and culture of the unique and unforgettable Caribbean region has never been more important.

Photography by Kirsten Jacobsen—Earthship Biotecture  

Sara Sherman
Sara Sherman is a freelance writer, yoga teacher and former St. Thomas resident. Learn more and contact Sara via her website at www.SaraMSherman.com.
Sara Sherman

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