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Earthship Biotecture: A New Evolution in Sustainable Design

Earthship Biotecture, sounds and often looks like it could have emerged from a science fiction novel. But the true marvel in these structures may be the answer to a sustainable future. Earthships are a unique design for self-sustaining buildings. Michael Reynolds, the architect and creator of this concept provides society with this tangible outline on how to create a viable green community. It contains all the basic necessities but allows humanity to use it in a way which it will not have negative consequences on the environment.

Elements of Earthship Biotecture Design

The following six simple ideologies are the key to the Earthship Biotecture design:

  1. Natural/Recycled Building Materials
  2. Thermal/Solar Heating and Cooling
  3. Solar and Wind Electricity
  4. Water Harvesting
  5. Contained Sewage Treatment
  6. Food Production
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A diagram of how the heating/cooling system works. Image via Green Passive Solar.

Natural/Recycled Building Materials and Thermal/Solar Heating & Cooling

In construction, designers hardly consider the damage done to the environment in the process of just generating and shipping materials. But that’s not the case in Earthships. Each house is created from natural and recycled materials using dirt-encased steel belted rubber (old tires) as resilient bearing walls, and uses cans and plastic bottles in non-structural walls. This process helps repurpose non-biodegradable items that may have ended up in landfills and also enforce Reynolds’ idea that building supplies can be made out of anything as long as you use them in the right way.

For example, the exterior walls that utilize old car tires help create a dense mass or thermal mass which regulates the interior temperatures. The mass can absorb heat into itself allowing the inside of the homes to stay at lower temperature in the hotter months. This is one of two systems used to regulate heating and cooling; the other being a Passive Solar System. The United States Office of Energy explains Passive Solar Systems as a way to “[integrate] a combination of building features to reduce or even eliminate the need for mechanical cooling/heating and daytime lighting”. What this mean is that is it saves us money and uses less energy. To simplify this a bit more, thermal mass is a part of the building’s features which make the Passive Solar Design work (See image above).

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An interior shot of a botanical call in one of the homes. Image via Earthship.

Solar & Wind Electricity

Instead of using electricity produces in large power plants that consume many of our fossil fuels and create both air and water pollution, these homes use photovoltaic or sun panels and wind systems to generate energy. Since no energy is needed for heating and cooling this electricity is stored in a Power Organizing Module (POM) and used for any household need such as computers and appliances. The POM basically acts like a battery.

Water Harvesting, Contained Sewage Treatment & Food Production

Each design is built to work within its surroundings, gathering rain water from the roof and channeling it into a cistern. A cistern is basically a container that will store the runoff. Using this type of system eliminates storm water excess in the area. The water is connected to a module system that includes the city water supply and regulates the use in your home as needed.

Water will typically get reused four times throughout the house with no waste left over:

1. Showering and drinking

2. Watering botanical cells

3. As grey water in toilets

4. Watering the exterior botanical cells

These botanical cells are planters used to help sewage treatment and in-between them are water filtration systems that clean it throughout this process. The cells help provide not just visual appeal but also fresh vegetation and organic food to the household.

Maintenance

Structure: Earthships are built to be durable for the climates in which they are constructed but there will always be some variable of upkeep needed as in many average homes.

Energy: To enable the most production of stored energy some occupants even adjust their panels towards the sun throughout the day. Granted this process comes off slightly tedious but the repercussions are well worth the trouble.

Water: The cisterns need to be checked for debris and cleaned annually with a non-toxic clean such as vinegar.

Plumbing: Most plumbing can easily be done by a normal plumber since the system is created for the everyday person.

Expanding Into a Larger Scale

Earthships haven’t transitioned into an urban format as of yet but it opens a new door of possibilities that we should investigate further using this as a model to grow and learn from. A self-sustaining city built of recycled materials seems like a futuristic dream but with Michael Reynolds’ new way of thinking we might be able to build these cities for future generations sooner than thought. For more information on Earthship Biotecture or to get involved on a project click here.

Feature Image: A typical design of an Earthship. Image via Earthships.

About The Author

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is a undergrad student who has been studying architecture for over four years, first at Pratt Institute and now at UCF. Sustainability is important to her as a designer because architects greatly influence the environment through building and construction. It's vital for her to understand what the current issues are and how we can go about improving them. Her motto is "We can't create innovation without knowing what has already been done".