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Moving from McMansions to Earthships: The Quest for Sustainable Housing in Australia


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Building a house out of hundreds of tonnes of dirt and old tyres might sound like a strange place to call home, but the ideas behind Earthships make them truly more than just a humble abode. For the past three years, Martin Freney, PhD student at the School of Architecture, Landscape Architecture and Urban Design has been knocking some sense into the current eco-friendly housing market through his research on these literally out-of-this-world homes called Earthships.

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Moving from McMansions to Earthships: The Quest for Sustainable Housing in Australia

  1. 1. Moving from McMansions to Earthships:The Quest for Sustainable Housing in AustraliaBuilding a house out of hundreds of tonnes of dirtand old tyres might sound like a strange place tocall home, but the ideas behind Earthships makethem truly more than just a humble abode. Forthe past three years, Martin Freney, PhD studentat the School of Architecture, LandscapeArchitecture and Urban Design has been knockingsome sense into the current eco-friendly housingmarket through his research on these literally out-of-this-world homes called Earthships.So, what is an Earthship?In a nutshell, Martin describes an Earthship as theultimate self-sufficient home that provides andstores all your electricity, catches and treats its own water and doesn’t require any heating or cooling. Made fromrecycled materials such as tyres, bottles, aluminium cans or even salvaged sheet metal, living in an Earthship meansyou can completely disconnect yourself from the grid. And those bills. Its gently contoured walls are usually renderedin adobe or cement, cleverly concealing the choice of materials to be as conservative or kooky as you prefer. Thesehomes also use an indoor greenhouse to grow food and filter water for further use like flushing toilets. It pushessolar passive design to the extreme (all glazing is north-facing) to modulate comfortable indoor temperatures year-round. Far removed from conventional brick and mortar, timber-frame homes, Martin’s PhD at the University of Adelaide is testing the theory that the Earthship’s thermal performance stands at the top of the sustainable housing ladder. Basically, does all that compacted dirt in tyres actually mean that it performs better energy-wise than any other house we build in Australia? So far, Martin’s research is pointing to ‘yes’. Sounds like a magic house, right? Well, not exactly. Martin is a firm believer that many of our current problems in the home (remember that last electricity bill?) and on our planet can simply besolved by good housing design. The creator of the Earthship, architect Michael Reynolds did exactly that bydeveloping flexible designs where substantial parts of the home can be owner-built, without specialised skills. ManyEarthships come together in approximately five or six weeks, and are constructed by a group of volunteers, as Martinhas discovered through the enthusiasm of volunteers pitching in on his own Earthship build in the Adelaide hills.
  2. 2. Martin experienced the Earthship’s remarkable thermal performance during his month-long summer internship at the Earthship ‘headquarters’, the Greater World Community in Taos, New Mexico. But it was Martin’s last trip in winter that left the largest impression. “It was freezing cold outside – around minus 5°C. You walk into the Earthship’s greenhouse and it’s 30°C, then into your living room which is 20°C. It’s incredible that those temperatures can be achieved with no heater.” If Martin could advertise his research on a billboard, it would depict the Earthship greenhouse and living room each with their comfy climes, contrasted against a chillyoutdoor temperature. And bare the slogan ‘No heater. No cooler. No problems!’ Paired with an approximate annualenergy bill of $50 (from using gas for boosting solar hot water and cooking), it does sound like common sense.Yet why aren’t we all building environmentally friendly homes in Australia?Considering Australians continue to build the biggest houses in the world, and pay large percentages of our hard-earned wage towards our mortgages, heating, and cooling, it comes as no surprise that we are in a bit of a pickle.(And we might need to do a little more than make sure we turn off the lights when we leave the room).So why aren’t we busy constructing energy-efficient homes, rather than our oversized resource guzzlers? Perhapsour hesitance to build eco-homes lies in thecommon perception that sustainable buildings costmore to build? In the recent report ‘Sustainability:Who cares? A property industry survey’ released byarchitecture and design firm Woods Bagot, one thirdof respondents believe that sustainable buildingscost 6 – 10% more, when in reality it is a steadilydiminishing premium of 2 – 4%. Martin considersEarthships or other eco-homes to be potentiallycheaper, especially when your friends and family getinvolved in the construction. When the ongoingrunning costs (for heating and cooling) are factoredin, any additional expenses during construction arequickly paid back.Martin believes our slow progress with eco-building is more about a lack of awareness of building alternatives andthe benefits of living in an eco-friendly home, rather than unwillingness. “If you don’t know what the options are youdon’t have a choice. It’s an education issue. People are stuck in what the building companies churn out. No one’sscreaming about it, but they should be.” Martin says.
  3. 3. The eco-friendly housing antidoteMartin believes the remedy to our ‘resource-dependency-itis’ starts in disconnecting fromthe grid, and reconnecting to oursurroundings. “I’m not saying that building aneco-home means you can totally escape, butif you build a smaller house, it’s going to becheaper as it uses less material. If you build ahouse that collects and treats its own waterand generates all of its electricity, then it’sgoing to help you pay off your mortgagequicker.” says Martin.This doesn’t mean that we have to move intoshoe-box sized caves to save a buck. Anaveraged 3 bedroom Earthship is a roomy140m2 – 200m2, pretty good considering it can even grow your food indoors! (That’s more than I can say for myhouse which just grows mould and a decidedly unhappy ‘Happy Plant’). And it goes further than pure economicalsavings...Imagine living in a home that you are connected to, not the grid. You control it through your behaviour tomake it run effectively, rather than the home being connected to distant, abstract resources that seem to be limitedonly by your ability to pay the utility bills.“Put yourself in an Earthship, or any off-grid home and you start paying attention, or else you won’t be able to turnon the TV because you left the lights on and drained your batteries. It’s that simple. We have to conserve resources,and we’ve forgotten how to do that.” Martin says.Thankfully, living in an off-grid home doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice lifestyle- it’s more a matter of adapting ourcollection and usage of resources like water and electricity. We can still enjoy our mod-cons like high-speed Internetand wide-screen TV, just without taxing our planet and hip-pockets. “An interesting thing about the Earthship is theuser behaviour, you have to actually learn how to sail it as such.” Martin says. In fact, owning a well-designed,sustainable home with minimal utility bills could even mean that you don’t have to head off to work so often.Building an eco-friendly home in an urban Australian environmentMartin grew up in a regular home in the suburbs, which didn’t have any particularly eco-friendly credentials, but hedid draw some inspiration from his family beach house. It was oriented north to let the sun through in winter, andshaded by vines in summer. Martin began his journey into sustainable design after completing a permaculturecourse in the late nineties through The Food Forest in South Australia. Since then, Martin has built his own eco-friendly straw bale home in the Adelaide Hills. So what advice does Martin have for people who would like to buildor renovate in the suburbs?“The low hanging fruit is facing your house north (in the southern hemisphere), and ensure you have the appropriateeaves to shade your house in summer, and let the sun in during winter. Other beneficial options are to install a solarhot water heater and solar panels, and double glaze where you can.” says Martin. A relatively simple option is tobuild your house ‘reverse brick veneer’, putting the bricks on the inside of your home, then insulating and cladding
  4. 4. with materials such as weatherboard or rendered blueboard on the outside. This clever reversal of traditionalmaterials means your house will be better insulated from the fluctuations of outside temperatures.Michael Reynolds has also begun designing a two-storey Earthship for more compact environments, altering the‘earth-berm’ and insulation, and thus the need for long, north-facing blocks. Martin is encouraged that someday wemay see Earthships ‘landing’ in the ’burbs.Until then, Martin will be completing his PhD, extending his organic fruit and vegetable garden using permaculturedesign principles, and holding workshops at his Earthship, which he plans to open as a bed and breakfast. Allbetween building on his research, pitching in on a local Earthship construction in Kinglake, Victoria, before movingonto potential projects in Sydney and Vanuatu. Sounds like a man on an Earth-bound mission.Words: Lauren GranthamOnline Media TeamFaculty of the article provides an overview of sustainable houses in Australia, with a particular focus on Earthship homes.For further information on Martin Freney’s PhD and the School of Architecture, Landscape Architecture and UrbanDesign, please visit The University of Adelaide