Carbon-free by the sea: the ultimate green house

For those who want to live without leaving a footprint, the 'Earthship' is landing in Brighton
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The Independent Online

Imagine a house made out of car tyres and empty beer cans that heats and cools itself naturally.

It harvests and recycles its own water, has no utility bills, uses solar and wind power, generates no CO 2 and disposes of its own waste.

This is no fantasy but an image that Brighton councillors will have to envisage when, in the next few weeks, they consider a planning application for a 16-home "Earthship" housing development overlooking the city's marina.

"The Lizard" is the first such Earthship in Britain to be used for residential homes, and is one of the most radical solutions to sustainable housing yet proposed. If the go-ahead is given to this ultra-green scheme, which comprises one-, two- and three-bed homes, construction will start in the autumn.

It is reported that a huge number of buyers have shown interest in The Lizard, whose houses are expected to be on the market at around £400,000 - some 10 per cent more than a conventional home of a similar size in a similar area. But because there are no utility bills, the running costs are less.

"People love the idea of Earthships but this is not housing for hippies," says Daren Howarth, co-director of Biotecture, the social enterprise body that submitted the application.

"Projects like this are vital because they show the way forward. It's a very powerful building concept that has the potential to revolutionise the way we live. We have already received around 100 expressions of interest from buyers."

Some 15,000 used tyres - 1,000 for each house - will be used to create the walls at The Lizard. This comes at a time when Britain is planning to burn 40 million tyres a year, following EU legislation that bans dumping them in landfill sites.

Wine bottles and beer cans will fill the gaps between the tyres, and the walls will be covered with adobe clay, the bottles creating a decorative effect.

"Earthships are a great idea. Because of the cost, though, this will probably only appeal to green but wealthy types," says Paul Bonett, the estate agent selling the homes. However, six of the properties will be sold as affordable housing.

The Earthship planning application follows a six-month feasibility study funded by the Environment Agency and the Energy Saving Trust. Biotecture carried out the study in partnership with Brighton and Hove City Council and the Chichester Diocese Housing Association, as well as architects and surveyors.

The council has already indicated privately that it is behind the scheme and is keen to give the green light as long as all the necessary criteria have been satisfied. If the application is successful, The Lizard could pave the way for hundreds of similar developments across the country.

Green homes have shot up the political agenda over the past 12 months, as the environment has taken centre stage in government policy. Gordon Brown has promised there will be no stamp duty to pay on eco-friendly homes, and grants are available for homeowners to install solar panels and even wind turbines on their properties.

So how exactly does an Earthship home work? In essence, it is a self-sufficient greenhouse with an inbuilt storage heater. It is backed by a bank of earth and lined on three sides with two layers of wall, one made of tyres, the other of soil.

The fourth, south-facing side is all glass, behind which is an insulating glass corridor. This heats up under the sun's rays and then the house itself has less work to do to reach the required temperature.

Heat grows during the day (natural ventilation is provided if necessary) and the surrounding thermal mass of the earth radiates the heat back at night.

Year-round, the internal temperature seldom deviates from between 21 and 24 degrees centigrade.

Rainwater is collected on the roof and filtered for the tap supply, while water from the shower is recycled and used to flush the toilet.

Electricity comes from solar panels and wind turbines, while human waste is converted into fertiliser.

The car-free homes have bicycle parking spaces and the gardens are large enough to grow vegetables.

The Earthship is the brainchild of the maverick American architect Mike Reynolds, who has built hundreds of homes around Taos, New Mexico. He has made a number of visits to Brighton and helped set up Biotecture, partly to spread the word in Britain.

"The benefits to people financially and to the planet are obvious," says Mr Reynolds. "This is not some wacky scheme dreamt up by a crazy American architect. This has relevance right across the planet."

One of the Earthships he built was for Dennis Weaver, the American actor whose roles included the US cop show McCloud. Since Weaver's death last year, this huge luxury version has gone on the market at $3.3m (£1.6m).

There are a handful in Europe, including two comm- unity centres in the UK, one in Stanmer, near Brighton, and the other in Fife. Belgium and Spain have one each and there are a few in South America and Japan.

Perhaps Mr Reynolds' most extraordinary application was in the Andaman Islands off Malaysia, where he helped locals build emergency Earthships after the 2004 tsunami.

There are two other Biotecture projects in the pipeline, both in France.