Monday, January 19, 2009

What is an earthship?

(below is an excerpt from the notes to my upcoming article in P.U.L.P. Magazine) 

The earthship....

My current favorite evolution in sustainable architecture is the Earthship which was originally conceived and developed by Michael Reynolds who, after a much relational work with his state legislature, continues to improve upon this innovative form in New Mexico.   

His story can be seen in the recently released movie Garbage Warrior available online or at our local library.  There are also the many books he has written about earthships, their development and how to build and customize them to various climates.  He is more than an architect, he is a practical philosopher and charismatic futurist.

One of the essential defining points of the earthships’ structure is that it is an earth-bermed living space.  The average temperature of the earths’ interior is 58˚ so it takes very little to heat or cool the interior living space. The entire earthship is oriented to the south with passive solar gain in mind.  The walls of the earthship  are comprised of earth packed tires stacked like bricks.  These earth packed tires make use of a readily available resource, old tires, and turns them into  versatile thermal mass brick-like units to be used as a  building material.  These walls are load bearing and structurally sound and covered in stucco which can be stained or painted to create beautiful smooth walls.  They also collect a lot of solar energy during the day and release this energy into the living area at night.  

The rooms are U shaped with the opening facing south and a series of U’s are connected by a greenhouse like front.  Due to the earths’rotation on its angled axis, the low winter sun comes in through the windows and heats up the thermal mass of the walls and floor which is insulated by the burial berm of earth which wraps around the earthship.  The summer sun is higher and does not shine into the earthship and during this time the earthen berm  insulates the living space from the heat outside.

Earthships often utilize a unique water harvesting roof which collects rainwater in a cistern which is usually located behind the U shaped rooms or off to the side of the earthship and always insulated by the earthen burial berm.  

The earthship has had many incarnations throughout its development , each successive structure being more efficient and refined.  The earthship concept was originally born from a desire to provide shelter which addressed the needs of people.  To Michael Reynolds this meant a form of architecture utilizing passive solar and  thermal mass which needed no artificial system for heating or cooling and constructed using easily obtained materials which could feasibly be constructed by anyone of moderate means of labor with the simplest of tools.

His dream soon grew into a form of architecture which also embodied the concepts of rain harvesting roofs, internalized sewage and waste use and greenhouse food production.  Everything would be completely self contained, no infrastructure for electricity, gas, sewer or  water.

Then there is the addition of wind power and solar panels providing much more power than the simple minimalism of the earlier passive solar models.  

The latest innovation where all of these techniques come together most effectively and efficiently is embodied in an earhship known as The Phoenix. ....

The Phoenix  has a 6,000 gallon cistern for collecting rainwater harvested from the roof.  Greenhouse-like sections of the earthship  provide food production.  Temperatures inside the living area, due to the wise design use of thermal mass and solar energy harvesting remain at 70˚ year round.  Sewage is internalized and actually feeds the larger planter cells from far below.    It is an earthship which, as Michael Reynolds says in Garbage Warrior, “ . . . could totally support a family of four without ever going to the store.”

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