Earlier this summer, a team of 200 volunteers from around the world descended on Ushuaia to help build Tol-Haru, a 100% sustainable building that will act as an educational centre. Tol-Haru is Argentina’s first ‘Earthship’, and it is hoped that its construction will raise awareness of alternative ways of building, which work more in harmony with their environments.
Earthships are the brainchild of Michael Reynolds, an architect from the US who has spent the past 40 years experimenting with building techniques, and in designing the Earthship he has created a building that is “the epitome of sustainable design and construction”.
The constructions are made from around 50% recycled materials and are designed to function entirely off the grid, with solar panels to heat water and provide the power needed. The flat roof collects rainwater, up to 90% of which is recycled through a grey-water recycling system, meaning that such buildings are an option even in desert-like conditions. Thick external walls made of old tyres retain heat and provide insulation, keeping the indoor temperature a comfortable 20-22ºC year round.
Reynolds’ experimental buildings in New Mexico were the subject of 2007 film ‘Garbage Warrior’, which sees the architect struggle through battles with building regulation bureaucracy, and also follows his team to the Andaman Islands after the 2005 tsunami, witnessing them help locals rebuild using Earthship techniques. The fame generated by the documentary catapulted the Earthship concept to a new level, and now the team behind the constructions run academies for enthusiasts, have released a series of e-books on building techniques, and sell construction drawings, which are designed to meet standard building codes, meaning there are now hundreds of Earthships around the world that aficionados have built.
There is even a section on the website entitled ‘I Want One’, aiming to give dreamers honest information about living in such a home, with realistic facts intertwined with anecdotes from builds that have been commissioned. Reading the section, and talking to Reynolds, it becomes clear that this is much more than just construction – there is an entire life philosophy behind these buildings. Reynolds is realistic about climate change and western society’s dependency on fossil fuels, and sees the Earthship as a form of empowerment, giving people energy, food, and water security, and as a consequence, the ability to take care of themselves, in a time when so many are dependent on corporations or government to do so for them.
One chapter, entitled Tomato Security, states:
“We have had people ask us to build them Earthship communities with underground chambers for weapons and ammunition. When we ask them why, their answer is: ‘we are going to have our lives together and we need weapons and ammo to protect ourselves from others who will want to take it from us.’ This made us think and we came up with the answer that even if you have the stomach to kill starving people who are coming after your tomatoes, there are not enough walls and weapons to protect you and your tomatoes from all the world around you that has yet to find an approach to secure sustenance. Your best security is for everyone within five hundred miles of you to have what you have. If you let logic prevail, you will find that if all those around you could have what you have, why would they want to invade you? This is the foundation of tomato logic.”
It seems like a simple logic, but Reynolds is aware that many of the things he is suggesting sound like scary counter-culture in Republican New Mexico, admitting that if too many people decided to build their homes this way, he would probably be shot. But he has declared that he no longer fights against the system, laughing, “I just outsmart them.”
The Ushuaia project was the initiative of Naturaleza Aplicada a la Tecnología, or NAT, a foundation supported by actor Mariano Torres and his wife, artist Elena Roger. They were joined by local organisation Ushuaia Recicla, which provided 333 old tyres, 3,000 aluminium cans, 5,000 plastic bottles and 3,000 glass bottles for the construction. Torres, a native of Ushuaia, said that in bringing the Earthship technology to the city, he would be giving something back, and hopes that many of the elements used in building Earthships can be implemented by the municipality.
Reynolds agrees, highlighting two aspects in the design that he hopes will be particularly useful for Tierra del Fuego’s capital. “The building uses 50% of materials that society throws away. And Ushuaia has a big garbage problem, because it’s on an island and everything is brought in, creating a lot of garbage, and there is no place to get rid of it. So we use what we call ‘garbage’ to build with – bottles, tyres, etc. The building also contains and treats its own sewage on site, so nothing goes into the bay.”
He goes on to say that the various aspects of the Earthships are applicable in many ways, to fit in with different environments around the world. This is something he has proven when you see the range of different terrains where the Earthships have been constructed, from New Mexico to El Alto in Bolivia, northern Europe to Sierra Leone.
Reynolds says it is easier to build outside of the US because regulations tend to be more lax. “The architectural board in New Mexico thought I was a disgrace to the profession because I was building with garbage. So some people thought I was a disgrace, and others – well, there are rules and some people just go by the rules. They don’t understand that we have to evolve if we are going to stay alive here.”
Many of the builds the team have participated in around the world have taken place after disasters, such as after Hurricane Mitch in Honduras, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and the 2005 tsunami in the Andaman Islands. The team are, in fact, currently in the Philippines helping rebuild after November’s Typhoon Haiyan.
I suggest that he is almost the opposite of a disaster capitalist – instead of sweeping into devastated areas and looking how to make the most money possible out of the people’s misery, he goes in and helps empower them to rebuild their lives, exchanging knowledge and teaching techniques that can be replicated after his team have left.
He replies, saying: “Disaster creates a situation where people are desperate and they’ll take anything and the rules are put aside. We learn a lot from these disaster projects, and often improve our techniques through the cultural exchange. So it’s kind of a win-win situation – we aren’t doing it to make money, we are just doing it to learn how they – and we – can do this better. An Earthship heats itself without fuel. And it also produces some food. So it is dealing with many of the issues that every single country on this planet faces.”
He is particularly proud of their success in Sierra Leone. “We keep tabs on how the houses are doing – they are always doing pretty well, and what we always want is for local people to replicate them, and that happened in Sierra Leone, where we made a school. We only made two rooms of an eight-room school as we didn’t have time, and so we taught them how to do it and they finished the other six rooms on their own. And their work totally looks better than ours! And in other places they are replicating some of the techniques too.”
And it seems the concept is already set to be replicated around Argentina and the region. Reynolds and his team will be returning to Argentina next summer to construct a 40-bed hostel in El Bolsón, and are also planning an Earthship Academy in Uruguay this year. They are also fundraising to build a community project for the Qom in Formosa.
For more information on the Earthship visit earthship.com or check out their facebook page. If you are interested in future Academy sessions in South America, please send an email to [email protected].