Browsing the shelves of my local video store I recently stumbled upon a film that you should rent if you’re interested in experiencing a unique and refreshing perspective on reuse and recycling, and how it pertains to sustainable living. And (for a change) it has nothing to do with landfills or incinerators.
The film is entitled “Garbage Warrior” and it tells the story of maverick architect Michael Reynolds, the Taos, New Mexico-based inventor of so-called “Earthship” homes. The homes are constructed from recycled waste materials into thermal mass, energy-independent dwellings. Reynolds’ “Earthship Biotecture” homes have grown since his first experiments in the 1970s into self-sufficient, off-the-grid communities.
Instead of bricks, an Earthship is built from scrap tires that are rammed full with soil and stacked to form U-shaped principle rooms. The flat roof and rear of the structure is overlain with soil (to create heat-retaining thermal mass), complemented with a south-facing glass wall that passively traps solar heat. (See photo.) While the exterior may lack “curb appeal” the interiors are surprisingly beautiful. Interior walls can be curvilinear since they’re made from such things as recycled beer and pop cans mortared with concrete and covered with an adobe finish. Reynolds often arranges different colored sawn-off glass bottles in complex patterns in the walls to bring natural light inside, achieving a dramatic stained-glass window effect. Bathtubs, kitchen counters and partitions are constructed artfully in freeform shapes, achieving a kind of “Salvador Dali meets the Flintstones” effect.
Some homes generate electricity from wind mills and collect rooftop water for storage in cisterns underground, freeing the owner from dependence on energy and water utilities. “Grey” water is recycled to grow indoor plants and trees; in the largest dwellings these may even be tropical fruit-bearing species that support their own mini-Amazonia of insects and birds. Reynolds has lived in his original Earthship home for 30 years and has never paid a heating or air conditioning bill, despite the extreme summer highs and winter lows of the quasi-desert setting and high altitude.
The film doesn’t simply showcase these experimental structures and their inventive utilization of waste materials. The very nature of his unusual designs caused Reynolds to run afoul of local building codes. The authorities put him out of business for a time and Reynolds was even forced to surrender his architect’s licence. Reynolds decided that if he was guilty of operating outside the rules, then the rules would simply have to change. Filmmaker Oliver Hodge spent three years shadowing Reynolds as he wandered the corridors of the state legislature lobbying for a bill to allow him to create a “sustainable living” test site.
His draft legislation is vetoed time and again by conventional-minded politicians. The irony that this same legislature permitted the testing of the atomic bomb is not lost on Reynolds. It appears that his Quixotic quest is doomed when a series of natural disasters turns things around. In 2005 Reynolds heads takes a small building crew to the Andaman Islands after a tsunami devastates the South Pacific chain. His purpose? To help the locals build new eco-sustainable homes using the cheap and readily available recyclable materials literally strewn all around their destroyed lands. A highlight of the film is the attitude of the local people and officials who immediately embrace Reynolds’ sensible earthquake-resistant designs and get trained in Earthship construction, in stark contrast with the foot-dragging bureaucrats in New Mexico. Reynolds does similar reconstruction work in a Mexican province damaged by Hurricane cane Rita.
Things change for Reynolds after the authorities learn about his philanthropic work in the developing world where those who need it most benefit from his unusual construction methods, and after the destruction of conventional New Orleans homes by a giant hurricane brings home the relevance of Reynolds’ Noah-like foresight. As they catch on to sustainability, the architectural society eventually invites Reynolds to reapply for his architect’s license and, in March 2007, the state legislature finally passes Reynolds’ test building site law.
Many years ago I visited environmentalist mentalist Pat Potter and her husband in eastern Ontario when they built a Reynolds’ design Earthship home and spent part of a day with a sledge hammer pounding dirt into scrap tires. I recall that she also had run-ins with the local building department. The experience of watching someone build such a home at a very low price (they were actually paid a tip fee for some of their construction materials!) left a lasting impression on me. I don’t know if everyone can be accommodated in this kind of structure, but with clean water and affordable energy increasingly in short supply around the globe, I’m glad that New Mexico’s “garbage warrior” is free once more to experiment with new sustainable living designs.
After viewing this film, if you’re like me the next time you fill your blue box you may find yourself thinking, “Wait a minute! Why am I throwing out these building materials?”
Endnote: If you’re aware of any Earthship homes in Canada, please feel free to email us about them!
Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine. Contact Guy firstname.lastname@example.org
“Reynolds decided if he was guilty of operating outside the rules, then the rules would have to change.”