Earthship tour showcases cheaper and environmentally friendly way to live

Note: This article is hosted here for archival purposes only. It does not necessarily represent the values of the Iron Warrior or Waterloo Engineering Society in the present day.
Sunday, November 15th marked a very eye-opening experience for me and the twenty or so others who ventured all the way to Clear Creek for the Sustainable Technology Education Project’s (STEP) Earthship tour. While I was initially somewhat sceptical of the value in taking a two hour bus ride in order to spend a few hours learning about these homes, I felt the experience was well worthwhile.
The first stop was an Earthship home, a concept which has been revived this century in New Mexico, though homes made of earth date back millennia. The main principles involve using earth-filled tires (which are donated for free, to avoid paying disposal costs) as walls, insulated glass to warm the home naturally, and radiative walls to ensure the heat is spread throughout the home.
Other innovations include a channel that starts at the front glass wall, draws in the air heated by the sun (as heated air rises) and releases the heat at the back of the house, ensuring the temperature is well modulated throughout. Essentially, the earth itself acts as a massive heat storage unit, trapping the sun’s energy in summer and releasing the energy in winter. I’ll admit I was sceptical that a home could be constructed in Canada with no central heating system, but there are several homes in existence which do just that. Who knew the earth could be such an effective heat sink?
The house has other sustainable features such as a water collection system and wind turbines. Water is collected on the roof, filtered, and stored in cisterns. With an effective water collection system, the home can last up to 6 months without a rainfall, with no need for wells or municipal water. The electricity needed is generated by home-made wind turbines and stored in batteries, meaning the home will be completely off-grid when it is completed.
Most astonishing is the price of this 2500-square-foot home. Made of recycled materials, the cost of construction was around $40,000. Though it is being constructed by its owners, Connie and Craig Cook, along with volunteers, the local officials estimated for tax purposes that the equivalent labour cost is $30,000. In other words, even if they had paid a fair market price for labour, the cost of the home would be a fraction of the equivalent conventional construction. Though modern Earthship homes started in New Mexico, they have shown their adaptability to all regions and climates, with modifications to suit the needs of the inhabitants and region.
Admittedly, Connie and Craig Cook practice a conservationist’s approach when it comes to electricity and water consumption, but their quality of life is in no way degraded. For example, would hang-drying one’s clothes really be that much more inconvenient than using a drying machine? Though they are choosing more simplistic furnishings, there is no real reason why an Earthship home couldn’t be built with modern furniture and decorations, providing the aesthetics and comforts to which we are all accustomed.
As earth is compacted into the tires, leaving no oxygen, the house is fireproof, and existing Earthship homes have been shown to be resilient to the forces of nature. I asked why more people don’t build these homes if they are cheaper, more comfortable and have lower operating costs. The simple answer was that most people are just ignorant of the self-sufficient mindset, having been so indoctrinated with the idea that we need a very specific, consumerist model to support our luxurious lifestyle.
Another solution is Craig Cook’s homemade wind turbines, which are built from simple materials including scrap parts. The main reason more people do not supply their electricity in this way is simply a knowledge gap-people feel they don’t have the skills necessary to live this kind of lifestyle.
A little closer to our conventional mindset was the next stop on the tour: a straw bale home, courtesy of Larry Wiebe. This home looked and felt just like a regular home, with special additions to accommodate a disabled family member, as well as a miniature lighthouse to have a view over nearby Lake Erie. In fact, without the “truth window”, a small space in the wall showing the insulation, it would be impossible to tell the house was made of straw, rather than conventional materials. As the owner wished to build a second story, the walls were reinforced with wood and steel. However, there are other straw bale homes where the straw is packed tightly enough to act as load-bearing support. The main benefits of this house are the savings in construction materials, and the energy savings due to insulation. Additionally, as straw is a waste product from nearby agricultural lands, there is an enormous environmental benefit in procurement and transportation of materials.
The main lesson I gained from this experience is that we can radically rethink our conventional model of how we live, without sacrificing quality of life. From a cost, environmental, or quality of living perspective, the sustainable model comes out ahead. I would encourage everyone to look at and become better informed about the living options available to us in our world today.

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