Earthships are the next logical step

by Michael Reynolds

WHY IT IS GOING TO BE DIFFICULT FOR HUMANITY TO EVOLVE SIGNIFICANTLY ENOUGH TO SURVIVE A CHANGING PLANET

Bergen Architectural School – BAS – Bergen, Norway – December 7, 2008

We (Earthship Biotecture) were asked to help establish a force to retro fit the old nine story concrete agricultural grain silo building, home of the architectural school in Bergen, Norway. Our objectives were as follows…

 

pond at the Phoenix Earthship1) Create a learning experience for architectural students of BAS.

2) Create a forum for developing, evolving and presenting methods of retro-fit of existing buildings.

3) Raise awareness of the need for retro-fit.

4) Raise funding – create an icon of retro-fit in the architectural community and the world.

5) Promote sustainable living methods.

6) Give people an option for the future

7) Have fun while doing it.

8) Promote the use of recycled by-products of modern living.

9) Retro-fit BAS.

10) Improve quality of life for students and teachers of BAS as they are presently miserably cold most of the time while trying to conduct a meaningful architectural school.

 

 

This looked like a perfect scenario to explore retro fit of existing buildings as a concept/much needed pathway for a more carbon neutral life on this planet. The existing building is very substantial structurally – an uninsulated structural concrete tower in ill repair. It is an ugly eye sore for the community and cold. It is an architectural school where learning is the objective. The immediate needs of the school aside from exploration of the concept of retro fit are very real. Their building, while a formidable shelter, is an energy consuming nightmare. Aside from the immediate desperation we face as a planet, they face the immediate compromised functionality of their school due to an almost unacceptable level of discomfort for the faculty, staff and students. I immediately determined that the building should be considered as little more than “terrain”… semi-sheltered terrain on which we could build more comfortable spaces for the students, staff and faculty. This thought was reasonably well received. It had the potential to steer us away from super expensive conventional methods of remodeling and allow us to explore a new and different “way”.

 

As part of my Norway experience in acclimating to this situation I was invited to attend the 100th anniversary of the Norwegian Society of Architects, a one day presentation of the condition of the planet; their architectural response to this and the a gala dinner affair in the kings castle in Bergen. The presentations of global climate change were serious graphs, charts and observations that left me stunned all over again at how close we are to the edge of disaster as a species. The architectural response to this situation came off to me as architects applauding themselves at their miniature steps toward slowing down a freight train of disaster that is so close it is already casting a shadow on the stranded humans in its path. In fact I came away with the following glimpse of the current human condition…

 

A woman is pushing a baby carriage across a street. She does not see an oncoming speeding car. The driver of the car sees her at the last minute and slams on his breaks and yanks the steering wheel into the curb. His reaction had to be radical and immediate in order to avoid the horrifying outcome of crashing into the baby carriage. Slowing down was simply not an option in this scenario. The reaction had to be immediate, radical and effective. All other fears, reservations and regulations had to be instantly dropped by the driver of the car…

 

this is the human condition in early 2009 on this planet.

Simply slowing down the negative environmental effects of our living circumstance on this planet is not an option. Our reactions must be immediate, radical and effective if we are to have a future.

 

With these thoughts and observations in mind I proceeded to attack the project at hand – the retrofit of the Bergen Architectural School.

We had a “budget” of a few hundred dollars, under twenty students, only one semester to accomplish something in which time I was only at the school for four one week sessions. Did I say I like a challenge? I came up with the following almost real scenario for the project…

 

Humanity is struggling… Utility systems are failing… Economic systems are failing… Political systems are failing… Infrastructure is failing… People are essentially on their own…

 

Many structures exist that are very sound structurally and they

provide basic shelter from rain and the elements; i.e. they are shelter from the storm. There is no money. There are waste land fill sites full of byproducts of modern society. There are no rules or laws or codes or regulations. Life is yours for the taking. A small group of people have found the BAS building and it appears to be structurally sound and somewhat water proof and like a fortress for trying to survive the current situation… let the games begin.

 

My thought was that every student, would spend every second of every day of the semester working on this project. That is what the reality of a situation like this would require. The potential of this scenario had amazing possibilities…

 

1) establishing an example method for the rest of the world to take immediate, radical, and effective steps toward having a future…

2) providing comfortable, inexpensive, carbon neutral spaces built by the students for the architectural school to function in…

3) attracting publicity which had the potential to raise funds to continue the project and fully retro fit the school and therein provide an inspiration for the rest of the world to make change.

 

In that this was a school, a learning situation, this was the perfect forum to take an unconventional approach to architecture that could just help to re-establish the fading need for its very fucking existence… But no… my first hurdle was that the semester was filled with the basic conventional courses, cross courses, and in fact a full-on conventional, hypothetical design project that was to approach this retro fit through a conventional architectural process which provided conventional facts and figures to simply support tearing down the building. All this was just more of a challenge but the very real effect of this was that it left the students with almost no time to effectively deal with the retrofit project much less really get absorbed into it.

Tire pounding Michael Reynolds

 

So what we have here is a “bold rhetorical step” taken by the architectural school. In reality this step turned out to be surrounded with the same old shit. Rhetoric is like drawing a line in the mud. After a short while it just goes away if no solid action follows it up. They had the thought but were afraid to really take the leap and follow up with solid action. They cracked open the door to a desperately needed new direction but only allowed a timid look through the door when what was really needed was to throw open the door and run through it. How close this is to what is happening in the “real world”… applauded rhetoric that at best results in a timid slowing down of a car headed for a sure smash into a woman and a baby carriage. This is one of the reasons …

 

WHY IT IS GOING TO BE DIFFICULT FOR HUMANITY TO EVOLVE SIGNIFICANTLY ENOUGH TO SURVIVE A CHANGING PLANET.

 

But there is more… The project turned out to involve going to grocery stores and carrying compressed cardboard bales back to the school on a hand pulled dolly and fanning out through the community in search of other used windows, wood, discarded broken bags of cement, bottles and other discarded building materials. We were going to build what we called a

”Nest”; a small room build of huge R-30 card board “bricks” which turned out to be very strong and put together much like straw bales. The local grocery stores had machines that compressed and baled these bricks and then they had to pay to have them hauled away to who knows where… an expense of time, money , fuel and more energy of some kind to deal with them after they got to where they were going.

 

The industry of recycling appears to use a tremendous amount of energy in processing and transportation. I am more impressed with the kind of recycling that a tree does. It drops its leaves down on the immediate ground around it and they decay and are absorbed into new soil. I would like to mimic that kind of recycling and that is what we were doing in Bergen.

 

We did not have very good tools to customize the bales. We had to slice them into nice blocks all the same size and needed a chain saw with a long bar/blade. We had only a short one and finished each cut off with a hand saw. When we finally were able to break away from the conventional architectural courses, we managed to get the walls going up. It appeared to be working. This was a soft structure like straw bales and earth rammed automobile tires which requires evenly distributing the loads via a spread wooden bond beam. In that we were scrounging free wood around the school and community, this also was a challenge but we found enough.

 

Corner Cottage EarthshipThen we had to work out an ass backwards phenomena resulting from building on the warm side of cold mass, the uninsulated mass of the concrete structure. After a little trial and error we determined that condensation would occur if there was a vapor trap immediately against the outside structural concrete wall. We corrected that with an air passage between the bales/blocks and the outside mass wall and kept going. This was, however, a learning experiment and all this was part of the game. So with very little time, almost no money and minimal tools, we got started and it was going up. Learning was happening as well as a usable warm room was on its way but it was still looking quite crude at this point. This was an unconventional process – really just shooting from the hip with both design and execution but it was solid action, not just rhetoric.

 

After all this, we were in our third work day as a team with both me and the students. There were a dozen of us working and the energy was high. Learning was happening in addition to the emergence of a pretty cool little building. Then we got hit with the news that the administration and faculty were concerned and worried at the lack of planning and possible failure of this project. They wanted a meeting to rethink, slow down, and

possible redesign. This was an experiment, a learning experience, a forum for discovery. Formal design would have crippled the learning experience not to mention slowing up the production of a much needed warm usable space. It turns out that even in a learning, experimental situation, there is fear of uncertainty and insecurity about traveling in uncharted territory. I would expect this in the real world but I didn’t expect it in a forum for exploration and learning. The fact that this could happen in this circumstance was clearly illustrating again …

 

WHY IT IS GOING TO BE DIFFICULT FOR HUMANITY TO EVOLVE SIGNIFICANTLY ENOUGH TO SURVIVE A CHANGING PLANET.

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