Green building

Piloting Earthships UK

The UK is going through a housing crisis. There are less and less affordable homes for key workers and for those on low incomes the possibility of home ownership is quite remote. Furthermore living sustainably on a low income is fraught with difficulty and obstacles. However change is one of the consistent things in life. It is this fact that inspires the few folk that make an effort towards genuine change in our society. In conversation with the UK pioneers of the radical buildings known as ‘earthships’, Simon Bradbury found that enthusiasm and a personal level of commitment born of passionate dedication is fundamental to success…

Earthship Brighton - under construction
Earthship Brighton - under construction

Paula Cowie and Daren Howarth, project managers for the earthships at the Craigencalt Ecology Centre, Fife and Stanmer Park, Brighton have trailblazed the way for the earthship concept to be accepted as a real possibility for affordable housing in the UK.

So what actually is an earthship?

Without getting too technical an earthship is essentially based around the increasingly familiar idea of “living lightly on the planet” or leaving as small an “ecofootprint” as possible. The concept is quite logical. In response to the waste and energy issues being raised in the US 25 years ago, Michael Reynolds, the American architect pioneer of earthships, began experimenting building with cans and tyres and over the years the concept has become somewhat pleasing in its simplicity and completeness.

The major structural design uses walls made of ‘earth packed’ car tyres that create large thermal mass that regulates the interior temperature year round. The rooms are laid out next to each other in an east west direction with a glass-fronted corridor facing south to maximize solar gain during the cold months. To further maximise heat retention the north side is bermed with earth. If needed, use can be made of backup heating systems such as wood burners etc. At the service level solar panels and wind turbines are used to generate electricity, which is stored in batteries; water is collected from the roof and circulated through filtration systems and used for bathing, drinking and watering the vegetables. Sewage is processed through reed beds or other so called ‘living machines’. The design is flexible enough to be adapted in all climates with earthships now built in New Mexico, Colorado, UK, Japan and Spain to mention a few, with around 2000 altogether in varying climates and environments around the globe.

Staying close to the idea of self-sufficiency is what these buildings are all about. Cowie sums up the earthships as “A nurturing organic building that feels like it’s going to take care of you forever. A home that puts the responsibility of living as a human on a densely populated planet in your own hands.”

As a reminder to us all post Rio/Tokyo/Johannesburg environmentally aware folk, sustainable development... “...Ensures that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs...

When I rang Daren Howarth he was in the back of a skip rescuing some unbeknown valuable industrial material that he couldn’t let slip into landfill but had a use for in some way. This sums up the attitude that Howarth has had to nurture over the four years it has taken to get the earthship at Stanmer Park, Brighton into its final stages of completion.

He has had to be open to the possibility that this radical building can take root in the earth in Brighton in order to convince the relevant bodies, something echoed by Paula Cowie up in Kinghorn, Fife where the UK’s other earthship is. Cowie suggested one success for her was that she knew very little of the planning process before the start which kept her open to the possibilities involved in countering any objections that came up. She said that “after visiting the earthship communities in Taos I wanted to build an earthship to live in. I had no idea if it was possible within our planning system so I got on and did it. My goal was to build one for everyone to learn from and then evolved into achieving generic acceptance for earthships anywhere in Scotland.

Now that the Fife earthship is officially open, Cowie suggests its role in the community as having, “The potential to empower people, they can build themselves, they can take responsibility for how they live and feel independent of systems. It provides people with something more meaningful than a shallow box they just have to keep digging into their pockets to keep warm in”. In the near future the goal is to bring about a small earthship housing development in Scotland which by combining the recycling of abundant waste materials and the sweat equity self build ethos, affordable housing could become a definite reality. In the same light Howarth mentioned that the Brighton earthship is an iconic building and its greatest potential is to inspire others. Indeed a necessary part of bringing about both projects has been to set up holding bodies to help promote this idea by putting into practice the training and education of others and to disseminate best practice information.

Earthship USA copyright Kirsten Jacobsen
Earthships were born in the USA. These pictures show how natural and subtle finishes can be achieved from, essentially junk - recycled tyres, drinks cans, bottles and a whole heap of determination and imagination. © Kirsten Jacobsen

Sustainable Communities Initiatives (SCI-Scotland) is the charity set up to demonstrate the earthship’s performance in the Scottish climate, as well as giving guidance on the costs involved and planning and building control issues. There exists (also near the eco village of Findhorn in Moray), the promotional organisation Earthships Moray (PDF). Similarly, in Brighton, a group of locals founded the Low Carbon Network following a visit to Brighton by Michael Reynolds. This is a not for profit company that fuses the links between buildings, the working and living patterns they support and global warming. Its aim is to “bring about change through the take up of new ideas and approaches to building”. Hence the earthship.

The Brighton build got the go ahead initially under the commercial planning process. Howarth is hoping that the building inspectors might make a statement that if a proposal had been received for residential use then the building, on completion, will have met the necessary standards. By April 2005 if this standard is met the Stanmer earthship will exist as a prototype earthship demonstration model of sustainable housing possibilities in the UK. Obviously it’s not all been plain sailing but the stand out highs have been good ones.

As a vote of confidence for the project, Solarglas (UK trading name of the French company Saint Gobain) generously agreed, in principle, to gifting the project the entire expanse of glass needed for the south face of the building. The managing director of a high street bank, on being shown round, commented that he had been shown, “the art of the art of making things happen”.

Earthship Scotland © Paula Cowie
Earthship Scotland © Paula Cowie

It’s the fact that people genuinely see the potential for these buildings that such interest and support has developed.

When talking about the US families he met who live in the earthships, Howarth saw that the children were being shown the limits of the resources at their disposal, not in a pedantic way but by way of actually experiencing. He mentioned that it was great for the kids to grow up in an environment that supports their growth whilst culturing an awareness that the services and utilities are limited and that these children just know this.

Cowie believes there are absolutely no sacrifices to be made in living in such a dwelling, rather the opposite, that the awareness gained through being in direct relation with how much is consumed is a big positive, practically as well as from an environmentally conscious point of view.

For most of the rest of us I guess we have to work quite hard at nurturing the same knowledge in our children and ourselves.

The highlights of the project that stand out for Cowie at the Craigencalt earthship were,
Seeing the first tyre laid down and filled with earth by Michael Reynolds on July 7th 2002 and the launch on August 21st 2004, when 900 people shared in the joy of doing it.

So a pile of old tyres and a load of old earth, some good old fashioned pioneer-ing spirit, lots of meetings and after a great deal of satisfying hard work there emerges a totally self reliant self regulat-ing home. It has the potential to provide us with free energy, that’s ‘FREE ENERGY’ in case anyone missed that bit.

Simply being proactively positive is something that I picked up from both Cowie and Howarth as being key to bringing the projects to fruition. If you take a look at the Stepping Stones for the Brighton earthship, Howarth mentioned there being times throughout the process when difficulties were present that could have blocked the project and it might have stopped, but the cost would have been that there would be no Brighton earthship.

If we keep in mind how much new housing costs to build and then is inflated in the buying process and quickly becomes inaccessible for a growing number of people and families in this country then it is a joy to discover that there are innovative projects that get funding and planning permission to act as prototypes to address such problems.

As my family and I have the designation of being homeless ourselves, I see the need for affordable housing quite keenly. What a breath of fresh air it is in finding that the hard work of a small number of dedicated individuals is providing possibilities.

There is still campaigning to be done as one of the major pitfalls is the govern-ing of the use of used tyres. At present the waste disposal laws state that only licensed waste disposal companies can process used tyres. The argument is that the tyres are not being disposed of but recycled and that they will be taken out of the waste stream for a very long time by being embodied in the walls of earthships.

Brighton Earthship
Earthship Brighton

What remains to be done, amongst other things, is to get the waste disposal laws changed and persuade the Housing Corporation to release the necessary cash and we might actually see some creative and innovative solutions to the housing crisis that is a real threat to certain sections of our social and family life.

Having the opportunity to build and live in your own home is becoming less of a possibility in these times and I think these projects represent a chance to recover something we have albeit lost. In England, where planning and other regulatory laws don’t exactly favour this type of develop-ment and space is too much of a premium, it’s essential that projects like this be placed into the public domain so that all may have the chance of fulfilling that basic birthright.

Simon Bradbury

“What then is architecture? It is man in possession of his earth. It is the only true record of him...while he was true to earth his architecture was creative.” Frank Lloyd Wright 1867-1959, “Architecture and modern life”, collected writings vol. 3, p222, 1937.

About the author
Simon Bradbury works in property maintenance in the South Devon area and is a freelance writer on art, building and living well sustainably. He can be contacted at Contact Simon Bradbury

This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of the Green Building Press. It first appeared in the Green Building Magazine (formerly Building for a Future). The Green Building Press is dedicated to promoting sustainable and environmentally responsible construction. Copyright © Green Building Press / Simon Bradbury