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Building a house out of hundreds of tonnes of dirt and old tyres might sound like a strange place to call home, but the ideas behind Earthships make them truly more than just a humble abode. For the past three years, Martin Freney, PhD student at the School of Architecture, Landscape Architecture and Urban Design has been knocking some sense into the current eco-friendly housing market through his research on these literally outof-this-world homes called Earthships. So, what is an Earthship? In a nutshell, Martin describes an Earthship as the ultimate self-sufficient home that provides and stores all your electricity, catches and treats its own water and doesn’t require any heating or cooling. Made from recycled materials such as tyres, bottles, aluminium cans or even salvaged sheet metal, living in an Earthship means you can completely disconnect yourself from the grid. And those bills. Its gently contoured walls are usually rendered in adobe or cement, cleverly concealing the choice of materials to be as conservative or kooky as you prefer. These homes also use an indoor greenhouse to grow food and filter water for further use like flushing toilets. It pushes solar passive design to the extreme (all glazing is north-facing) to modulate comfortable indoor temperatures yearround. Far removed from conventional brick and mortar, timber-frame homes, Martin’s PhD at the University of Adelaide is testing the theory that the Earthship’s thermal performance stands at the top of the sustainable housing ladder. Basically, does all that compacted dirt in tyres actually mean that it performs better energy-wise than any other house we build in Australia? So far, Martin’s research is pointing to ‘yes’. Sounds like a magic house, right? Well, not exactly. Martin is a firm believer that many of our current problems in the home (remember that last electricity bill?) and on our planet can simply be solved by good housing design. The creator of the Earthship, architect Michael Reynolds did exactly that by developing flexible designs where substantial parts of the home can be owner-built, without specialised skills. Many Earthships come together in approximately five or six weeks, and are constructed by a group of volunteers, as Martin has discovered through the enthusiasm of volunteers pitching in on his own Earthship build in the Adelaide hills.
Martin experienced the Earthship’s remarkable thermal performance during his month-long summer internship at the Earthship ‘headquarters’, the Greater World Community in Taos, New Mexico. But it was Martin’s last trip in winter that left the largest impression. “It was freezing cold outside – around minus 5°C. You walk into the Earthship’s greenhouse and it’s 30°C, then into your living room which is 20°C. It’s incredible that those temperatures can be achieved with no heater.”
If Martin could advertise his research on a billboard, it would depict the Earthship greenhouse and living room each with their comfy climes, contrasted against a chilly outdoor temperature. And bare the slogan ‘No heater. No cooler. No problems!’ Paired with an approximate annual energy bill of $50 (from using gas for boosting solar hot water and cooking), it does sound like common sense. Yet why aren’t we all building environmentally friendly homes in Australia? Considering Australians continue to build the biggest houses in the world, and pay large percentages of our hardearned wage towards our mortgages, heating, and cooling, it comes as no surprise that we are in a bit of a pickle. (And we might need to do a little more than make sure we turn off the lights when we leave the room). So why aren’t we busy constructing energy-efficient homes, rather than our oversized resource guzzlers? Perhaps our hesitance to build eco-homes lies in the common perception that sustainable buildings cost more to build? In the recent report ‘Sustainability: Who cares? A property industry survey’ released by architecture and design firm Woods Bagot, one third of respondents believe that sustainable buildings cost 6 – 10% more, when in reality it is a steadily diminishing premium of 2 – 4%. Martin considers Earthships or other eco-homes to be potentially cheaper, especially when your friends and family get involved in the construction. When the ongoing running costs (for heating and cooling) are factored in, any additional expenses during construction are quickly paid back. Martin believes our slow progress with eco-building is more about a lack of awareness of building alternatives and the benefits of living in an eco-friendly home, rather than unwillingness. “If you don’t know what the options are you don’t have a choice. It’s an education issue. People are stuck in what the building companies churn out. No one’s screaming about it, but they should be.” Martin says.
The eco-friendly housing antidote Martin believes the remedy to our ‘resourcedependency-itis’ starts in disconnecting from the grid, and reconnecting to our surroundings. “I’m not saying that building an eco-home means you can totally escape, but if you build a smaller house, it’s going to be cheaper as it uses less material. If you build a house that collects and treats its own water and generates all of its electricity, then it’s going to help you pay off your mortgage quicker.” says Martin. This doesn’t mean that we have to move into shoe-box sized caves to save a buck. An averaged 3 bedroom Earthship is a roomy 140m2 – 200m2, pretty good considering it can even grow your food indoors! (That’s more than I can say for my house which just grows mould and a decidedly unhappy ‘Happy Plant’). And it goes further than pure economical savings...Imagine living in a home that you are connected to, not the grid. You control it through your behaviour to make it run effectively, rather than the home being connected to distant, abstract resources that seem to be limited only by your ability to pay the utility bills. “Put yourself in an Earthship, or any off-grid home and you start paying attention, or else you won’t be able to turn on the TV because you left the lights on and drained your batteries. It’s that simple. We have to conserve resources, and we’ve forgotten how to do that.” Martin says. Thankfully, living in an off-grid home doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice lifestyle- it’s more a matter of adapting our collection and usage of resources like water and electricity. We can still enjoy our mod-cons like high-speed Internet and wide-screen TV, just without taxing our planet and hip-pockets. “An interesting thing about the Earthship is the user behaviour, you have to actually learn how to sail it as such.” Martin says. In fact, owning a well-designed, sustainable home with minimal utility bills could even mean that you don’t have to head off to work so often. Building an eco-friendly home in an urban Australian environment Martin grew up in a regular home in the suburbs, which didn’t have any particularly eco-friendly credentials, but he did draw some inspiration from his family beach house. It was oriented north to let the sun through in winter, and shaded by vines in summer. Martin began his journey into sustainable design after completing a permaculture course in the late nineties through The Food Forest in South Australia. Since then, Martin has built his own ecofriendly straw bale home in the Adelaide Hills. So what advice does Martin have for people who would like to build or renovate in the suburbs? “The low hanging fruit is facing your house north (in the southern hemisphere), and ensure you have the appropriate eaves to shade your house in summer, and let the sun in during winter. Other beneficial options are to install a solar hot water heater and solar panels, and double glaze where you can.” says Martin. A relatively simple option is to build your house ‘reverse brick veneer’, putting the bricks on the inside of your home, then insulating and cladding
with materials such as weatherboard or rendered blueboard on the outside. This clever reversal of traditional materials means your house will be better insulated from the fluctuations of outside temperatures. Michael Reynolds has also begun designing a two-storey Earthship for more compact environments, altering the ‘earth-berm’ and insulation, and thus the need for long, north-facing blocks. Martin is encouraged that someday we may see Earthships ‘landing’ in the ’burbs. Until then, Martin will be completing his PhD, extending his organic fruit and vegetable garden using permaculture design principles, and holding workshops at his Earthship, which he plans to open as a bed and breakfast. All between building on his research, pitching in on a local Earthship construction in Kinglake, Victoria, before moving onto potential projects in Sydney and Vanuatu. Sounds like a man on an Earth-bound mission.
Words: Lauren Grantham Online Media Team Faculty of the Professions firstname.lastname@example.org This article provides an overview of sustainable houses in Australia, with a particular focus on Earthship homes. For further information on Martin Freney’s PhD and the School of Architecture, Landscape Architecture and Urban Design, please visit The University of Adelaide
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