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One Man’s Trash, Another Man’s ‘Earthship’

September 30, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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In the latest installment in his series on innovation during the recession, Tom Bearden examines how one architect is turning unlikely items into environmentally friendly homes he calls "earthships."

JIM LEHRER: Now, another in our series on innovation in a time of recession. Tonight, a blueprint that reduces the carbon footprint. NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden has our Science Unit story.

TOM BEARDEN: At first glance, this construction site in eastern Montana looks more like a garbage dump than a new home being built: stacks of old tires, hundreds of empty bottles and aluminum cans.

But to Mike Reynolds, it’s a thing of beauty. An architect by training, he has spent his life developing almost completely self-sufficient homes he calls Earthships. No connections to the electrical grid, no water line, no sewer.

MIKE REYNOLDS: So we have a building that will have a guaranteed utility bill, annual utility bill of less than $100, guaranteed annual total utility usage, power, water, sewage. And that speaks for, one, the economy of running the building, but more than that, the effect, the light touch that it has on the planet.

TOM BEARDEN: Discarded tires are tightly packed with dirt and stacked in a U-shape. Spaces in between are stuffed with cans, bottles and cement. When the wall is finished, it’s covered with dirt.

MIKE REYNOLDS: The rationale there is that, one, we have so much of these materials — bottles, cans and tires — that we don’t know what to do with them. They’re filling the municipal landfills. We have more tires on this planet than we have trees.

So we’re trying to use the products that we don’t know what to do with rather than the products that we really desperately need for life on this planet. To cut down trees is ridiculous when you can build with tires.

TOM BEARDEN: The open end of the U will be closed off with a glass wall, which must face south, because Earthships are designed to use solar energy for heating. Reynolds says the design keeps an Earthship’s interior around 70 degrees, regardless of whether it’s 115 outside or 20 below, without heating or air conditioning.

MIKE REYNOLDS: The warmth of the interior space comes from the sun, obviously, coming in from the south. Now, in the summertime, the sun’s much higher in the sky, and the overhang is set up so that the spaces remain shaded. So we’re tracking the angle of the sun, so that in the summer, those spaces are super cool, and in the winter they’re super warm.

Using basic elements

TOM BEARDEN: Reynolds has built a whole subdivision of Earthships in the desert northwest of Taos, New Mexico. Most share the same basic elements. Rain provides water.

MIKE REYNOLDS: The metal roof catches real clean water, and it runs down to a gutter, which then funnels the water into this bank of cisterns. They total up to 6,000 gallons of water.

TOM BEARDEN: The stored water is filtered, then piped to sinks for drinking. Wastewater from the sinks, called gray water, is directed to a greenhouse just inside the glass wall, where it's naturally filtered again. That water supplies the toilets. The resulting effluent, now called black water, is piped to a conventional septic tank outside.

Solar panels power low-voltage lighting during the day and also charge lead-acid batteries, which power the lights at night. Cooking is done with propane delivered from a local supplier.

Reynolds and his team have built Earthships all over the world, and he says the design has proven itself in every sort of climate. Reynolds admits he ignored local building codes in the early days of his subdivision and concedes that some of the houses didn't work as well as advertised. He's been sued by unhappy homeowners.

In the late '90s, the county building department shut down the whole project, calling it an illegal subdivision because it didn't comply with local codes.

MIKE REYNOLDS: Yes, you got your insulation all cut back. We'll work around this with a metal -- a wood detail.

TOM BEARDEN: And Reynolds lost his architectural license, so he went to the New Mexico legislature.

MIKE REYNOLDS: We first fought the building codes and lost, you know, and we tried to just disobey them and lost, and then -- so we learned from that.

So rather than fighting, I tried to go through the legislative process, which itself was a battle, and sometimes a disgusting battle, but I did see that that's possible. I can change laws. I can change legislation. But it takes forever. It took four years to get one law on the books, which we're actually using now.

Changing legislation

TOM BEARDEN: The new state law allows Reynolds to legally build his Earthships and experiment with new designs in yet-to-be-designated developments. And his Taos subdivision, which currently has about 60 homes, now has the county building department's blessing.

Even though they're built from recycled materials, Earthships don't come cheap. The house in Montana will cost about $350,000. Reynolds also sells plans for people who want to build their own Earthship, which can reduce the price drastically because they're supplying the labor.

The Duke family are among those who chose to do the work themselves. Tom Duke, his wife, and two boys have been living in this one-bedroom Earthship for more than 10 years. A teacher in the local high school, Duke says the house provides him with all the conventional comforts.

TOM DUKE: Yes, you can -- a television set, video machines, dishwasher, laundry. You can do anything -- just anything you can do off a regular system, you can do off a solar system. You just have to be aware of maybe appliances that would drain it too much.

TOM BEARDEN: Have you ever drained your batteries?

TOM DUKE: Yes, we have. Consecutive cloudy days, your power can get a little low, maybe happens once every two years, we have to really watch it.

TOM BEARDEN: The only outside input is about $100 a year for propane for the stove.

ALIX HENRY, Earthship owner: And this is going to be the master bedroom upstairs.

TOM BEARDEN: Long-time resident and architect Alix Henry is currently building an addition to her Earthship to make more room for her family. She's been working with Reynolds since the early days.

A different way of life

ALIX HENRY: I think it's fundamentally changed me, but I don't think that I changed my life. We live like a normal family with more awareness of kind of the limits on things, I guess, so, like, we know how much it's raining, and therefore how much water we have, or how sunny it's been for a week, for instance. And if it hasn't been, then we adjust our life.

TOM BEARDEN: Reynolds is still developing the Earthship design even though he came up with the original concepts nearly 40 years ago. He calls this house "The Phoenix," symbolic of his once illegal subdivision rising from the ashes.

MIKE REYNOLDS: Half the square footage of this 6,000-square-foot home is devoted to food production, that being fruits and vegetables and tilapia, fish. And so the effort here is to illustrate that this building could take a family of four and, without any utility input or 18-wheeler deliveries or anything, keep them alive. And that's a zero carbon footprint, essentially.

TOM BEARDEN: The three-bedroom Phoenix is listed at $1.2 million. Ultimately, he thinks Earthship-like homes are vital to sustaining the planet.

MIKE REYNOLDS: Engineers were in here. And he said, "Well, what the world needs now is 1 billion of these immediately." That was it right there. I said, "That's coming from an engineer; that works for me." That means we're on the right track.

TOM BEARDEN: Reynolds wants to make the Earthships more affordable by establishing a community where people contribute their labor in return for housing. He hopes to have that project operational within the next year.

JIM LEHRER: You can see more photos of Earthships on our Web site,