Technology World — 23 March 2011
Can the Japanese learn from Haitian earthquake survivors?

Can the Japanese learn from Haitian earthquake survivors?

I just received a message from Earthship Biotecture, the team led by rebel architect Michael Reynolds, the guy who invented a system of building sustainable homes from truck tires and garbage.

They have put a video up on the web which shows the Earthship they helped a bunch of earthquake survivors build in Haiti.

Before you dismiss Mike Reynolds as some whacko hippy, consider that he is a qualified architect, and a man with a mission. He has spent more than 40 years of his life fighting city hall and its conventional building codes that enforce the creation of expensive buildings that provide their owners with much less for their money.

Incidentally, Earthships are not necessarily cheap. Often they cost much the same as a conventional home. But they cost far less to run and live in. But with the free labor provided by the Haitians, the Haiti Earthship cost the team just $4000, mostly for solar panels, lights and bathroom fittings.

Mr Reynolds concept has gained supporters around the world who have built these “Earthships” as he calls them wherever local building codes will allow them. The biggest concentration seems to be in Taos, New Mexico, where there are scores of them. But over the years, Earthships have been slowly turning up all over the world; and wherever they appear they change lives because of their concept.

Many Earthships are self-contained and can work perfectly without needing to buy into and pay for utilities like electricity, household gas, water and sewerage. And did I mention, they are very earthquake resistant as well.

They are super-insulated with very thick walls and a highly-insulated roof, so they don’t need expensive air-conditioning to cool them or central heating to warm them. Even in the coldest climates, a  earthship can get by with maybe one small wood stove.

Electricity comes from a few solar panels, a storage battery (or a bank of them) and a DC to AC inverter to provide 110v or 220v mains AC electricity for powering laptops and recharging cellphones.

Water is captured by the building’s roof and routed carefully into cisterns or water tanks that store every drop for household use.

Gray water from showers is not wasted, it is captured and used to water food gardens where fruits and vegetables are grown. These provide healthy food with real nutrition which makes for smaller grocery bills.

Black water from the flush toilet is captured to a septic tank where, if local laws allow it, the effluent breaks down by bacterial action and can eventually be used to leach slowly into outside gardens to provide nutrient and water for the plants as well.

This is exactly what the Earthship guys have been showing the Haitians how to build for themselves, and the Earthship Biotecture people have released a video which shows the building they helped the people build for themselves. The experienced earthshippers taught the principles, demonstrated the physical techniques – such as tire pounding – and basically allowed the locals to get on with it.

They marked out a 12-foot diameter circle, pounded truck tires full of crushed stone and concrete rubble and created a round domed building. And next to it they placed a water cistern, a shower room and a toilet. The toilet is flushed by gray water from the shower, and the black water eventually leaches into one of the outside gardens.

In cooler climates, many earthship designs have the plants indoors, in fact the growing fruits and veggies are part of the home and kitchen — rather like living in a greenhouse, for those who like that idea.

Now I’ll admit there is all the difference in the world between the design of an earthship (actually there are many different designs) and what we think of as a traditional Japanese house. And certainly I cannot see an earthship being used for corporate offices in a city. But there must be something that the Japanese, with all their ingenuity, discipline and courage can learn and use from the earthship example.

And so could we, in Australia where I live and other western countries, if we were not so stuck with doing things the way we’ve always done them then surely we could do better. Our buildings need cooling and they need heating. We use and waste heaps of electricity and water. My god, we take drinking-quality water and we water our lawns with it, because we’ve been taught to think it looks nice. And when it rains, our homes and gardens in the city are designed to divert the water into stormwater drains so it can pour into the nearest river or out to sea.

Is it any wonder we are running out of fuel and water?

That’s just my opinion, of course, and maybe it’s because personally I’m just an old hippy at heart. But I honestly applaud Mike Reynolds and what his people are trying to do for people. He shows people how to build a home that – in his words – becomes the ship that takes you through your journey of life.

I would love to live in one, if I lived in a place enlightened enough to allow it.

If only…

You can see the Haiti Earthship video here:

Image by ehpien via Flickr.


About Author

David Harvey, Editor

David Harvey left school at 17 and went straight into newspapers as a cadet reporter. (He also a keen photographer and learned both trades.) He worked as a photojournalist in Hong Kong and as a war correspondent in Vietnam during the war. He moved to Australia in the late 1970s and got involved in I.T. during the mid-80s. This website is his latest venture here, combining news-gathering with the power of the internet. See: news-reporter

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