The earthship has landed
Over the past 15 years, green building—sustainable design, green architecture—has made its way towards the top of the global issues list. Today, the concept of building using fewer, renewable resources is championed by hybrid-driving Hollywood stars, architects, and a US ex-vice president.
But how do green building techniques, better suited to the temperate climates from which ideas and concepts typically originate, fit into the tropical climate of the Caribbean?
Weeks after grousing to a friend that there were few opportunities in the region to learn hands-on about green design, Melanie Archer found herself on a hill in Jamaica with 30 other people, sweaty, blistered—and building an earthship
What is an earthship?
Earthships are earth-sheltered, self-contained buildings made of tyres rammed with earth (in situ, as each can weigh up to 350 pounds when filled with earth). Internal, non-load-bearing walls are made of a honeycomb of recycled cans separated by concrete, or of glass “bricks” (to make them: cut off the spout of two large bottles and duct-tape the severed ends together).
Michael Reynolds, founder of Earthship Biotecture, graduated from architecture school in the early 1970s, quickly abandoning what he sees now as impractical building techniques. He started building structures using bottles, tyres, and beer cans. By the 1990s, Reynolds had coined the term “earthship” to describe the solar-pit houses he was building in New Mexico. Today, Reynolds estimates there are more than 1,000 earthships worldwide.
Lesson one: not all “green” buildings are created equal. While buildings win accolades for running appliances off solar panels, an earthship takes a more comprehensive approach, built from the ground up to be a completely self-sufficient unit, eliminating any need to be plugged in to the grid. To be an earthship, a building must maintain a constant temperature, make its own electricity, harvest its own water, contain and treat its own sewage on site, and produce its own food.
Knowing only that, I awoke on the first day wondering what on earth I had committed myself to. I knew a crew of nine from Earthship Biotecture had left their homes in Taos, New Mexico to make their mark, literally, on the landscape of Negril. Once they had decided to take up a building challenge in a particular country, they put out a call for trainees, who would learn how to construct an earthship under the guidance of the experienced crew. There was a Jamaican crew on hand, which I had joined during week two. I knew we would be working on a domed structure, but had no idea what that really meant.
The first morning, trainees gathered over breakfast. We were a motley crew of 13, ranging in age from early 20s to 50s, countries of origin from Trinidad and Tobago to Germany, and reasons for being there from curiosity to gathering information for local buildings. After breakfast we huddled around Kirsten Jacobsen, earthship education director, for an outline of the day’s goals. She assured us we could ask any crew member to explain anything happening on site, encouraging us to get as wide a feel as possible. The session was also educational in the broader sense—we watched short videos on building earthships, and learned alarming facts about the global depletion of resources. Questions were asked, belongings gathered, bathroom breaks taken.
Then we piled into our van and, with a sense of expectation, headed for the hills where the crew had already started work. The van was by no means spacious, a forced intimacy that lent itself to instant closeness and joviality. By the time we got to the site 15 minutes later I felt good about the day ahead and, although just slightly less clueless after Jacobsen’s briefing, eager to start working.
The Jamaica earthship, 20 feet in diameter, sat on a gentle slope accessed by a stony path and surrounded by trees, a cross between an adobe building with a Mediterranean feel and a sketch from a Tolkien fantasy. An arched doorway, its sole opening, faced south, I would later learn, to optimise breezes and to form a natural brace against hurricanes. It looked at once completely comfortable in and alien to its surroundings, and I wondered if the latter was because the land leading to the site was peppered with small, boxy concrete-block houses. A water truck sat at the bottom of the hill, next to it a jumble of crate upon crate crammed with glass bottles, aluminium cans, plastic bottles and tyres. In other words, our building materials. “Grab something,” Jacobsen said cheerily. I discovered no one went up the hill empty-handed—at the same time I learnt that a gentle stone path is not so kind with a crate of bottles in hand. Labouring up the hill, I was overwhelmed by the sounds coming from the site: the whirr of the generator, the sharp blasts of power tools, music blaring from an unseen iPod. There were subtle sounds, too—a shovel turning out a batch of cement in a wheelbarrow, cement being slapped into place.
The week before, the walls of the earthship had been constructed from tyres packed with earth, and a wood beam roof structure attached to form a brace for the insulation, as well as extra support for the dome that would sit on the walls. The skeletal dome sat on the flat land behind the house, a simple frame of bars bent into shape and tied with wires. A group of trainees set about tying chicken wire to the bars to flesh out the overall shape, while others packed out the rough circular tyre walls with cement.
We kept working, rotating tasks as desired, interrupted only by spurts of laughter over a particularly crass song. Lunchtime came quickly and the site went quiet as all machines were turned off and we trekked over the hill to a tiny restaurant where lunch was provided.
Work continued in the afternoon, with crew members building the unit that would house the solar-powered batteries and pouring bases for the columns supporting the verandah. I took refuge in the shade, washing the glass bottles cut to form “bricks” for the bathroom wall, and making conversation with some Jamaican women curious to know why I was there. We left the dome covered in wire at the end of the day.
My second day dawned with the aching of muscles I’d forgotten I had. There was no time for sympathy. On site, work resumed: the packing out of tyre walls, with cement in short supply. The sun blazed as we joked while working, shouting across the site, or engaging in a quiet conversation on the cool side of the building. By mid-afternoon we were ready to lift the dome onto the structure. For the first time, the site fell eerily still as generator and tools and music were shut off, everyone dropping all conversations and tasks to gather in a circle. As instructions were being delivered by a sole voice, clouds rolled in and a breeze picked up.
Maybe I had spent too much time with the crew, but the moment felt almost spiritual—this coming together of people from such disparate backgrounds literally to place a roof over someone’s head. We cheered and clapped when the dome was set on the wall and, as one intern noted with some amazement, perfectly aligned. “That’s just dumb planning, I guess,” a crew member replied.
The next day I looked for a task inside the dome—the insulated walls made it noticeably cooler than the exterior. While I marvelled at that, a blast of cool air hit me and I stupidly wondered if someone had turned on an air-conditioning unit. I found the actual source—a metal tube that ran in from outside, sucking up cool air and dragging it into the structure. There were three inside the dome, a feature incorporated in tropical climates where heating is not an issue. Inside the dome, which was now plastered over, I helped pick-axe the floor till it was level.
That night I sat with Michael Reynolds, founder of Earthship Biotecture, whom I had been observing from afar. Reynolds has bright eyes and a quiet demeanour but a sense of purpose, white flyaway hair on top of which two pairs of glasses seem permanently perched, and what struck me as odd tropical construction attire—a long-sleeved, black shirt, and knee-length pants over black long-johns.
“Why Jamaica?” I asked.
“We go for challenges,” he said. “We go for impact, we go for any place where it will make a bigger noise about it, because we want the world to know that this can be done—that we don’t need diesel, that we don’t need nuclear power plants, that we don’t need to stack up garbage in some place and ship it out to the ocean or burn it or whatever—we use the garbage, we consume it, we eat it up! And what you see up on that hill is the result of it.
“It’s labour-intensive but, hell, people go to spas and they lift weights—that’s bull----. I would hook up all those machines to a generator that makes energy….I don’t want to get on a soapbox and tell people how they should live, but I deal basically in logic... It’s not like goody two-shoes, save the planet, sustainable and green and all that—it’s just really a logical response.”
True, but I couldn’t help but wonder if people in rural regions, or any region of the Caribbean for that matter, would be quick to adopt earthship practices. Then it occurred to me that perhaps the bigger lesson I’d learned was not how to build an earthship per se, but how to respond to the tools at hand, to take a good, intelligent look around and make climate-appropriate decisions that have little impact on the landscape. Natural cooling seems like a good place to start, with solar power being another simple solution for hot climates.
On my last day I surveyed all the work that had been done during the week. The crew had smoothed out the exterior wall, lifted, plastered and insulated the dome, built a gutter out of plastic bottles and cans, installed the battery that would power the structure, built an interior bottle wall, plastered exterior bottle walls, and pounded tyres with earth to form a retaining wall for the front and to support the verandah, the frame for which stood ready for the next week’s work. All the materials had come from local resources; waste was now a part of someone’s home.
During that evening’s after-work, beer-drinking ritual, which we all looked forward to as we hammered and plastered during the day, I took a look at the building team. We were smelly, Band-Aided, dirty, sore, and so very happy. It’s not easy building green, but the rewards are many.