written by Caroline
Mike Reynolds – biotech, garbage collector and environmentalist – said to an audience at a Q&A after the premiere of his biographic documentary, ‘Garbage Warrior’, in 2007: “If all of the soldiers in all of the armies in all of the world were to put down their weapons and pick up tools and start making sustainable housing for all the people in the world, life would just begin on this planet.”
His first earthship was built in 1972. The foundation of the building was made out of beer cans and dirt, and stained glass windows were made with bottles. After 40 years, the house apparently still stands strong. In most prototypes, tyres are the main foundation which provide good insulation with the help of packing them tightly with dirt and are resistant to fires and hurricanes. Unlike a normal household, an earthship is freely independent of any active form of energy possible – electricity and water-heating are generated using solar and/or wind power. The main water supply is rainwater collected from the roof then stored in a cistern. Grey water from showers, sinks and toilets is recycled through an irrigation system that leads to a garden outside.
Here’s the full-length documentary of Michael Reynold’s brainchild:-
I had previously heard of earthships but had never taken the idea seriously until we met Ruben Cortes who did a TEDx talk here in Kuala Lumpur on sustainable biotechture in South East Asia. Ruben grew up in Mexico and then worked and travelled extensively throughout Europe, finally ending up in Malaysia 2 ½ years ago, to work as a sustainable building consultant for Wild Asia, a non-profit organization that reaches out to small palm-oil plantations to teach sustainable management. About a year ago, he graduated from the Earthship Academy based in Taos, New Mexico under the tutelage of Reynolds himself and now specialises in earthship biotecture.
One of the things that Ruben mentioned as we drove to the TEDx talk was the majority of Malaysian developers that seemed to create hundreds of wastelands as they abandoned small to large-scale buildings throughout the country. Usually, this was due to running out of funding to complete projects, or lack of interest from the public once the buildings were complete.
He told us of a trip he took to Port Dickson, about an hour away from Kuala Lumpur, with a fellow photographer, Simryn Gill. She showed him the outstanding number of abandoned houses and commercial buildings covered in an overgrowth of trees and weeds. With that, she had created a rather revealing photo exhibition of these wastelands called “Standing Still”. You can see more of Simryn’s work here.
“You know Mont Kiara?” Ruben points to the sky-high condominiums we drive past. All I know of these condos is that they empty wallets very quickly if you intend to live there. He chuckles and says, “The occupancy rate for all these apartments are only 20 percent!” He says a friend lives there, and only two apartments have been occupied on his entire floor. Despite the many vacant apartments, that’s not stopping these developers from building more empty, unoccupied ones. You’ll remember Dave’s rant about the ghost town of a mall five minutes away from my house.
It was only a few months ago that Ruben had flown to the Philippines to help build a windship for the community in Barrangay Batug – a more simplified and resilient structure that is resistant to the frequent typhoons (or bagyos) that hit the country yearly. Wikipedia mentions that around 19 tropical storms hit Philippines annually, with 6 to 9 of these storms being severely damaging. Through training from the Earthship volunteers, the locals can rebuild the windship with available recycled materials if they are hit with another typhoon.
Since his experience in the Philippines, Ruben has wanted to build an earthship in Malaysia. The current plan is to build a small prototype around December this year before attempting a bigger project. Once funding comes through, the next step is to build the larger scaled earthship, hopefully earlier next year (you can see the layout plan here). We’ll let you know how that goes as we’ve put our hands up to volunteer! 🙂
As amazing as earthships are, there have been questions raised regarding issues with their design. Earthship Europe did not have a very positive report on the performance of current earthships built in Europe some years after they were built. Archinia, an architectural cooperative, also provided a list of problems of a typical earthship. These problems were mainly climatic as the design of the earthship was more suited to an arid environment like New Mexico’s. Earthships in temperate countries had problems with heat loss – more so in winter; earthships in humid countries had problems with collecting water on interior walls which caused mold and algae to grow. Despite the cons listed of the earthship design, Archinia still supports the idea of earthships and also provides useful tips and hacks to avoid the current faults related to the present design, and it looks like they’ll be releasing a book based on this early next year.
Archinia describes itself as an “architectural evolution” and so we can say the same for the earthship. Because forty years – in evolutionary standards – is not long at all.