Earthships: Hobbit Chic at the Right Price

For many people, home ownership means the achievement of the American Dream. Living in a house that you care for and control provides a feeling of security and independence. Unfortunately, a number of obstacles plague first-time buyers these days, and receiving a home loan in a time when many people are “upside down” is just the first hurdle. Take into consideration geographical location, proximity to employment opportunities, and school districts for children. All these things indicate the current value of a property, but they also tell us how much a house and the land it sits on may be worth in the future. Whether you plan to live in the same house all your life or remodel for a quick resale, it’s important to consider what lies ahead when it comes to the places we call home.

As I travel through the neighborhoods of Colorado Springs, I find it difficult to ignore the way human shelters have changed from necessity to accessory. People spend thousands of dollars on extra rooms and cutting edge technologies that not only go unused on a daily basis, but add to the growing problems of pollution and waste that plague our entire region. The common perception is that if you have a huge, energy consuming monstrosity of inefficient architecture filled with silly extravagancies, you’re doing really well for yourself. The problem with this idea is that the warmth we’re basking in as we sit fat and happy in our homes is actually the funeral pyre of this planet. Eventually, that heat will be extinguished, and we are going to wake up cold and uncomfortable with no one to blame but ourselves.

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What if we could change the way houses are built to create a way for every homeowner to decrease and eventually reverse the environmental impact of building and maintaining his / her home? What if there is an option for housing that allows us to harness the natural power of solar and wind energy and use water collected through snow melt and rainwater catches? What if these new homes become comparable in price to conventional housing available today?

All of this is possible through the Earthship, an applied concept that has been evolving and gaining momentum for forty years. It began as a way to create a structure built from recycled materials that relied completely on independent utilities. Earthships generate their own electricity, conserve and reuse water, heat and cool passively, contain and treat sewage onsite, and produce a significant amount of food for the inhabitants. These homes are built primarily of dirt-packed tires in a large U formation. The use of tires is beneficial because of their high load-bearing ability and resistance to fire. When filled with compacted earth, these tires provide a thermal mass that allows Earthships to retain heat in the winter and remain cool in the summer. All biotecture homes have one south-facing wall comprised completely of windows to provide a source of light for the greenhouse that is an integral part of every earthship. Internal walls are built using aluminum cans and plastic or glass bottles to customize the shape or lighting of each room.

At this point, you may be wondering why we don’t see more communities of this kind in our own region. The answer is very simple. Currently, the laws surrounding water rights make it very difficult for the average person to construct an Earthship of his or her own in Colorado. The concept of prior rights gives water to those whose claim to local sources is the oldest, and the process of getting well rights can take anywhere from six months to two years, depending on the area in question. In addition to these complicated regulations, anyone who wants to invest in an Earthship has to apply for the same building, plumbing, electrical, and waste permits that a contractor building a traditional home would need. Many of these laws are necessary as they maintain a level of safety for all parties involved, but the extended time and additional money this process demands can become such a deterrent that people simply give up.

earthship 3Not all regions of the world are so retrograde regarding environmental innovation. The concept of sustainable living has spread to modern cities throughout the world, and Earthships can now be found in Spain, France, Portugal, and the UK. Many of these communities have homes available to rent for an evening or weekend as pleasant educational retreats to promote awareness of biotecture systems. We need to use these existing models to prove the viability of sustainable housing and the elegant simplicity in using materials that would otherwise become garbage.

We can make small changes in our everyday lives that will allow more people interested in Earthships the opportunities to build locally. By limiting unnecessary water use and donating recyclable materials to organizations actively building environment-friendly homes, we can make the process of spreading this knowledge easier. In a time when resources are being depleted at an exponential rate, we need to reevaluate how we perceive wealth and success. We must celebrate ideas that allow us to exist on this planet without destroying it, and it would benefit nearly everyone to make these changes now.