Self-sufficient living modules hit UK

They sprang up in the deserts of New Mexico and are made of tyres, earth, and rubbish. Now these self-sufficient living modules have arrived in the UK. Hester Lacey reports

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In the desert a few miles from Taos, New Mexico, is an elegant building, all curves and flowing lines, with a high atrium roofed in glass, its walls painted in subtle shades of terracotta and aqua. Visitors who pull over and knock at the door of Angel's Nest find an equally startling interior. Wooden ceilings and high galleries run alongside an interior greenhouse fragrant with jasmine and planted with fruit trees: banana, mango, papaya, fig and date. The back walls are almost entirely glass, giving views across the austerely beautiful desert. The smart bathrooms and welcoming bedrooms are the equal of those in a five-star hotel.

Some of the less obvious features of Angel's Nest are as important as its glamorous façade. Solar panels and a wind turbine produce electricity. Thick walls and the insulating effect of the huge greenhouse keep the house cool in the strong sunshine but retain heat at night or when the weather is cold. Rainfall is gathered and filtered, used for drinking, and washing, then as "grey water" for the food plants; its final incarnation as sewage is used to nourish non-edible shrubs. "In a drought, we need occasional water back-up if there are extra people here," says the owner, Robert Plarr. "But a family of four can live off the desert all year. The desert is a hostile environment but we live like kings."

Many of the neighbouring homes look like hobbit-holes, some like smart barn conversions, but all are striving towards the same goal: self-sufficiency. As far as possible, the houses are built from recycled materials: tyres, aluminium and steel cans, plastic and glass, even cardboard. They are called Earthships.

Michael Reynolds founded Earthship Biotecture and has been designing them for the past three decades. He trained as an architect but prefers to be known as a "biotect", because, as he says, his work involves so much more than architecture. He has worked on 2,000 to 3,000 projects. "Looking into the future, it's becoming clear that we cannot continue to move in the direction we are following," he says. "The Earthship is a response to that. Housing, sewage, water, power, garbage, food: it is a living method that addresses all those issues."

One of the beauties of the Earthship design is that it can be adapted to suit other climates. Reynolds has worked in Bolivia, Japan, Canada, Mexico, Belgium and India. "We have explored cloudy weather and found that, with double or triple greenhouses to eliminate heat loss, bills can still be cut by 80 per cent."

The first UK Earthship, which overlooks the Kinghorn Loch in Fife, opened in August 2004. It was built by Sustainable Communities Initiatives (SCI), a registered charity, and was constructed to housing standards, although it is being used as a demonstration, education and research building. It contains 700 tyres (rammed full of earth), 1,500 cans, reclaimed timber and other natural products such as sheep's-wool insulation, clay membranes and earth plaster. More than 200 volunteers worked on the two-year project. The UK's second Earthship, also designed by Reynolds, will be completed this summer. Earthship Brighton has been built by the Low Carbon Network.

"It was a challenge to translate the Earthship into English architectural language, and I think it looks beautiful," says the project manager, Mischa Hewitt. "The biggest issue was damp-proofing. Many American Earthships are built in high, arid areas. Stanmer Park in Brighton is not arid! But the amount of rain we can harvest is awesome; 73,000 litres a year."

More rain means less sun. "The thick walls act as huge storage heaters," says Hewitt. "It is colder here than New Mexico, but it hasn't been that much of a problem. We have more than enough sun; you can walk in on a cold day and it's warm inside, even though there is no visible form of heating." The Earthship also has a stove that runs on pellets made from waste wood for back-up heating; the stove also backs up the solar water-heating system.

To generate electricity, Earthship Brighton has a set of photovoltaic panels to harvest power from the sun, and a small wind-turbine. "They complement each other, because if it's not sunny it tends to be windy," says Hewitt. Energy is stored in battery banks for the days when not enough electricity has been generated. "We have a capacity of 10 or 12 days," explains Hewitt. He adds that generating one's own power makes one use it more sparingly.

Reynolds has worked hard to make Earthships low maintenance. "In the early days it was like being on a yacht; you had to know a lot," he says. "But we realised we couldn't make the general public accept the maintenance issues. So, over the last 10 years, we have designed out all the maintenance. You need to check batteries and clean filters, every two or three months." One of the main barriers to Earthship construction in the UK has been our draconian planning laws. But that may be set to change, as local councils wake up to environmentally friendly, cost-effective housing. Earthship Fife was granted full planning permission and SCI is running a three-year monitoring programme to secure permanent validation for Earthship building techniques in Scotland. The charity is now working towards creating a "zero waste and zero energy" self-build Earthship development of 12 homes. Brighton, too, may see more Earthships. "We have submitted a nine-unit development to Brighton council," says Reynolds. "The community loved the idea. We hope it has a good chance of passing; Brighton is a leader in sustainable development. Approvals used to be a nightmare but now everyone is starting to take these issues on board, and this may cause laws to change."

Should that happen, it's likely that Reynolds will remain at the forefront of Earthship development in the UK. His enthusiasm goes way beyond simply running a commercial company. "We need to make enough money to keep going but we put it back into the business. We're trying spread values of a different kind, that give every person on the planet what they need to stay alive. It's thrilling. We need Earthships more than we need money."

Angel's Nest ( www.angels-nest.org; 001 505 246 4661); Earthship Biotecture ( www.earthship.org; 001 505 751 0462); Earthship Brighton ( www.lowcarbon.co.uk; 07974 122 770); Earthship Fife (01592 891 884; www.sci-scotland.org.uk)

How to build one

Getting started

The first step, says Michael Reynolds, is detailed research. Books, DVDs and videos are available; the Earthship Biotecture website is a good starting point, as are the other sites listed. The Earthship community is friendly, welcoming, ready to share its knowledge and actively welcomes enquiries and visits. Earthship Biotecture rents out several of its New Mexico Earthships to visitors, from $75 (£42) per night.

Finding a site

"Most we have built are in rural areas, but they work equally well in cities," says Reynolds. "In rural areas, you might partially bury them to create a hobbit-hole home, but in cities you can insulate rather than burying and veneer them in brick or stone to fit in with other buildings," he says.

Finances

As a rough rule of thumb, you're looking at a similar figure to a conventional new-build. "From working in several countries, we have found that Earthships tend to cost the same as good-quality conventional building," says Reynolds. And remember: no more utility bills! Raising a mortgage could be less straightforward. Mischa Hewitt suggests that financial institutions with an environmental element to their own principles may be a better bet than high street banks.

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