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Living Greener, Earthships and Living Buildings

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I’ve heard of extremely environmentally friendly homes and communities called “Earthships” popping up across the U.S. What are they exactly?

An Earthship is a kind of passive solar home-or community of homes-typically made of natural and recycled materials such as old tires and recycled cans. Such homes make use of non-polluting renewable energy sources and smart design to meet most if not all heating, cooling and power needs. The term Earthship, coined by self-proclaimed “biotect” Mike Reynolds, is derived from the homes being in and of the Earth-that is, constructed responsibly out of earthen materials and built into the ground. It also refers to living in a ship, which requires inhabitants to be autonomous from outside help (such as a power grid).

The concept has spread well beyond from its roots in the desert surrounding Taos, N.M. Besides being the headquarters for Reynolds’ Earthship Biotecture business, the Taos area is also home to several Earthship communities which generate their own power without contributing to the atmosphere’s growing carbon load and make use of local recycled materials to minimize resource use.

Construction materials in Earthship homes vary according to what particular recycled items are plentiful and useful in a given locale. The New Mexico versions usually consist of exterior walls made from earth-filled tires stacked like bricks and covered in stucco or adobe. These thick outer walls employ “thermal mass construction” to naturally regulate indoor temperatures. Wintertime heating is provided primarily by the Earthship’s layout and orientation, with windows on the sunny sides of the building letting in light and heat. A properly constructed Earthship can maintain a comfortable indoor air temperature with plentiful natural ventilation all year-round with little or no help from power-hungry heating or cooling equipment.

According to the Web site Greenhomebuilding.com, some other common features in Earthship homes include: curving interior walls fleshed out with recycled cans mortared together with concrete; rooftop water catchment; reuse of so-called gray water for landscaping irrigation and plumbing; composting toilets; and other cutting-edge eco-friendly techniques and technologies.

Earthship Biotecture makes available via its Web site several books and videos outlining different perspectives on the Earthship concept, as well as practical information on how to build one of your own. The Web site also provides a wealth of information on existing Earthships and helps those interested in the concept connect with one another via a global network of builders and enthusiasts. It is also a great place to find an existing Earthship home for sale or rent. The firm also offers internships with Michael Reynolds and other leading practitioners in the emerging discipline.

Earthships can be found in most U.S. states today, though New Mexico is the leader, followed closely by Colorado. Several have sprung up in England and France as well as in South Africa, among other countries. And with more and more governments tightening up their building codes to require increased energy efficiency and smarter use of resources, Earthships are bound to become even more popular.

CONTACTS: Earthship Biotecture, www.earthship.net; Greenhomebuilding.com, www.greenhomebuilding.com.

I recently heard the term “living building.” Can you explain?

Over the past couple of decades, architects and builders looking to green their projects turned to the addition of various piecemeal elements to save water here or cut down on electricity there. Those who added more than a few green touches could apply for and get certified by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) under its Leadership in Energy and Efficient Design (LEED) program. While these efforts have been laudable-essentially launching the green building industry as we know it today-they represent merely the infancy of what green building might someday become.

The concept of the “living building” has now emerged as a new ideal for design and construction. The Cascadia Region Green Building Council (CRGBC)-the Pacific Northwest chapter of the USGBC-defines a living building as a structure that “generates all of its own energy with renewable non-toxic resources, captures and treats all of its water, and operates efficiently and for maximum beauty.” The group has been pushing for adoption of the concept by construction industries here at home, and also helped to launch the International Living Building Institute to promote the concept internationally.

“We view our role as the organization that is meant to ask the really tough questions, to push the boundaries as far as possible,” says Jason McLennan, CEO of CRGBC. To this end, in 2006 the group launched its Living Building Challenge (LBC), a “call to the design and construction community to pursue true sustainability in the built environment.” So far 60 different projects around North America are vying to meet the high standards of the LBC, which exceed even the highest status of LEED certification.

The first building to be completed for consideration under the LBC program is the Omega Center for Sustainable Living, in Rhinebeck, N.Y. The 6,200 square-foot, one-level building, which serves as headquarters for the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, features a geothermal heating and cooling system, solar panels, rain gardens that direct water run-off to irrigate plantings, a 4,500-square-foot greenhouse that helps filter wastewater for reuse, “daylighting” design that brings natural light indoor to minimize electric light usage, and eco-friendly building materials all around. It was designed-per LBC criteria-to be “net-zero,” meaning it uses no more energy than it generates itself. Once the building has been in operation for a full year next summer, CRGBC will audit it to see if its performance lives up to the green hype. Dozens of other LBC contenders around North America will be audited as well.

Of course, the costs of creating a living building today are very high. Achieving net-zero can be especially costly, and stands out as one of the biggest obstacles to greater interest in the living building concept. Another challenge is finding materials that meet LBC standards, since many common building materials-such as PVC piping for wastewater transport-off-gas chemicals and have other hazardous attributes. LBC also expects builders to source locally as many materials as possible to boost local economies and make efficient use of nearby natural resources. McLennan remains confident that costs will come down as green materials, technologies and methods become more commonplace within the general building industry.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk from the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com.

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