Earthship experience: 8 weeks, 650 tires, thousands of pop cans

2010-02-21T00:00:00Z Earthship experience: 8 weeks, 650 tires, thousands of pop cansDONNA HEALY Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
February 21, 2010 12:00 am  • 

Tucked into a bluff above the Yellowstone River, an architect known as the “Garbage Warrior” built a home with walls made from cast-off tires and empty soda cans.

The home’s south face, an angled wall of glass, rises over a greenhouse bathed in sunlight reflected off the snow-covered hills east of Miles City. Its other three sides are sunk into the hillside. 

Last summer, a work crew and volunteers rammed dirt into tires to create 650 steel-belted “bricks,” which were stacked in rows, nine tires high.

Empty soda pop cans and beer bottles cemented side by side and covered with adobe mud became the interior walls of the eco-friendly home built by longtime Miles City residents Scott Elder and Karla Lund.

The two-bedroom house, built in eight weeks last summer, is the latest prototype of an Earthship, a form of self-sustained housing built by Taos, N.M., architect Michael Reynolds. Reynolds, a white-haired hippie, was dubbed the “Garbage Warrior” in a documentary film portraying his iconoclastic approach.

In the 1970s, Reynolds started designing bricks out of beer cans. Since then, he has built about a thousand Earthships, scattered around the world. Another thousand have been built by homeowners themselves.

“We’re using what the world calls garbage,” Reynolds said in a phone interview.

“An auto tire is built very well. It’s a shame to throw it away just when it loses its tread.”

To find cast-off tires in specific sizes, Elder and Lund spent nearly a month hand-picking through used tires at car dealerships and at the wrecking yard.

About 45 percent of the Miles City Earthship is made from recycled materials.

The home operates off the power grid, relying on passive and active solar design and geothermal mass. Solar panels at the top of the angled glass wall charge batteries on the roof.

The greenhouse, beneath double-glazed glass, extends in a corridor along the full length of the house. Another layer of double-glazed glass buffers the interior rooms.

Cisterns collect rainwater, which is used three times before it returns to the ground.

Elder, who owns a health food store in Miles City, began researching alternative designs 25 years ago.

He expects the home’s total annual utility bill to be about $150 for the propane heater, which fuels the gas stove, clothes dryer and on-demand water heater. A wind generator will eventually supplement the home’s power supply.

After a string of cloudy winter days, when the outdoor temperature plummeted to minus 25 degrees and the inside temperature hovered around 50 degrees, the couple also had a backup wood stove installed.

“The idea I believe in is having a house that’s self-sufficient,” Elders said.

“I’ve always wanted to be disconnected from the grid. It’s the independence of it. It’s so passive, you don’t need any source of heat or cooling.”

Elder also buys into one of the architect’s main tenets.

“A house shouldn’t be tied to the economy,” Elder said. “Everybody should have a home.”

Elder pegs the cost of his prototype Earthship at about $200 a square foot, about the same as new, conventional home construction.

Elder has lived in Miles City since 1976, and Lund directs the nursing program at Miles Community College. They had considered building the house by themselves over a period of five to seven years.

Elder’s father, who wanted to live long enough to see the construction project completed, gave them the money to hire Reynolds and his 12-man crew. A rotating contingent of 12 to 15 interns, who were eager to learn about the home’s design, volunteered their labor.

The 1,100-square-feet home has two bedrooms and a bath strung along the greenhouse hallway, which occupies an additional 750 square feet.

The main room combines a living room, dining area and kitchen. An alcove near the kitchen, called the “brain room,” converts some of the battery power into conventional household current.

The alcove also serves as storage space and a laundry room.

In the master bedroom, an adobe wall provides a dramatic backdrop for the bed and hides the walk-in closet. The interior walls are covered with adobe mud mixed with shredded straw and white glue.

In the bathroom, the shower and toilet are elevated on a platform to improve the drainage.

Rainwater from the roof funnels into four connected cisterns buried behind the house. The roof can collect close to a thousand gallons of water from an inch of rainfall, and the cisterns can store a total of 6,000 gallons. 

Drinking water from the cisterns passes though a series of four filters.

After water is used for cooking or washing, it is aerated and drained through rocks before it enters beneath the soil of the greenhouse to water the plants. After filtering through the soil, the water is used again to flush the toilet, and then it passes into a traditional septic drainfield.

Mastering the various water and power systems takes time.

“You are very, very aware of your power usage. Very aware,” Lund said.

“It’s a little bit of a change getting used to, but we haven’t done without anything.”

She uses the vacuum cleaner only when the sun shines. The well-insulated refrigerator runs on 24-volt direct-current. They have no appliances with LED clocks, no microwave, no curling irons, hair dryer or electric mixer.

Their television is plugged into a power strip so that they can cut the power when the TV is not in use.

Because the ground maintains a year-round temperature of about 55 degrees, the house only needs to produce enough heat to raise the winter temperature another 20 degrees.

In summer, vents tunneled into the ground, known as cool tubes, pull in cold air.

“The last day the crew was here, it was 103 outside, and it was 70 degrees in here,” Elder said.

The couple has found that the Earthship functions most efficiently when someone is at home to open or close windows and vents.

Before this summer, they will need to install some sort of window treatment for the south-facing glass, an expense that may run as high as $10,000.

But, for the moment, the homeowners are looking ahead two years — to when they hope to harvest bananas in winter from their greenhouse.

Contact Donna Healy at dhealy@billingsgazette.com or 657-1292.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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