Despite slow uptake in Europe, earthship housing is a worthwhile green build alternative, says Bill Randall
Five years ago Brighton & Hove Council gave planning permission for 16 earthship homes on a site overlooking Brighton Marina. A scheme on this scale would have been a European first, and six of the new homes were to be transferred to a housing association.
Blown off course by a ‘not in my back yard’ wind, the scheme finally ran onto the rocks of recession. The planning permission has now expired, and Brighton is left with one earthship - a much-visited demonstration and community project that fits comfortably into the South Downs National Park on the city fringe. I would go to live there tomorrow, not least to savour the changing seasons and wildlife through the long, south-facing window (essential in northern hemisphere earthships).
Kevan Trott, part of the team behind the bigger Brighton scheme, took his idea to Normandy where he and his wife Gillian built the first full-blown residential earthship in Europe. The Normandy house is cheap to run and maintain, Gillian says, and provides a fantastic living space. However, the construction costs may cancel out the financial gains of living in a virtually self-sufficient building.
Mischa Hewitt and Kevin Telfer assesses the Trotts’ work in a new edition of the book Earthships in Europe, along with the house I covet in Brighton and others in Fife, France and Spain, all of which are self-build schemes.
A green alternative
Earthships, the authors argue, are not part of some wishy-washy left-wing dream. Instead they are a practical response from people discontented with the restricted and energy-hungry choice available from highly unimaginative and conservative house builders. All those involved share a strong belief in self-sufficiency and a commitment to green living.
Pioneered by Michael Reynolds in New Mexico, earthship homes are fashioned from earth, recycled tyres, cans, bottles and almost any other materials builders can get their hands on. In their purest form they make no call on the national grid and finite resources are designed to generate their own energy, harvest their own water and treat their own effluent. While not all the projects in the book reach these standards of purity, all are good friends to the environment.
A first for Europe
Another central tenet of Mr Reynolds’ philosophy is that enthusiasts with no construction experience should be able to build earthships, which is generally the case in Europe. However, four of the projects sought his advice and he was actively involved in their construction. Among them is Earthship Fife in Kinghorn Loch, built by charity Sustainable Communities Initiatives. A visitor centre and the first completed scheme in Europe, it is a pioneering experiment and demonstration project.
Working with and training 10 UK volunteers, Mr Reynolds and his team started the build in 2002. Another two years passed before the building was completed, not least because it was a complex task and more than 200 volunteers, most of them completely unskilled, helped with the construction. On several occasions jobs had to be redone. Critically, all the challenges raised by planning and building controls were met, and renewable energy is generated by a hydro-turbine from a nearby stream, a wind turbine and four PV panels. The build cost is impossible to estimate because of the extended use of volunteers.
Earthship Brighton was three years in the building by the Low Carbon Network, largely because of the time it took to raise the £330,000 building cost. The site is cut into a chalk hillside, and the soil removed was used to fill tyres, bottles and cans to create the earth shelter around the building, a green act in itself that dispenses with the need for bricks and mortar miles. Used as a demonstration and community centre, its energy requirements are met by a wind turbine, 18 solar PV panels and a pellet-burning stove.
Extensively monitored since 2004 by Brighton University’s School of the Built Environment, the performance of the project is ‘consistently higher than predicted by the model’. While there have been issues with thermal performance and ventilation, the Low Carbon Network says the monitoring information will fuel significant improvements to earthship design in thermal climates.
The future for earthships in Europe is unclear. Mr Reynolds argues they will develop like the car, with today’s Model T replaced by tomorrow’s Porsche. More successful in the US where hundreds have been built, they fit into the ‘Easy Rider/On the Road’ counter-culture. While the Brighton and Fife projects attract tens of thousands of visitors, just two other projects have been started in the UK.
It is a great pity the 26-home Brighton project did not go ahead. It would have been the first commercially built scheme in Europe, providing the opportunity to monitor earthships on a larger scale. Furthermore, it aroused great excitement and a queue of potential buyers.
Passivhaus design remains the main international contender for the low-energy design crown. More than 30,000 houses, schools, offices and other buildings have been built to this standard across the world. Inside Housing revealed details of the UK’s first large-scale Passivhaus retrofit scheme last month (13 July).
However, while earthships will remain on the housing margins, many of the main principles will continue to be applied to conventional buildings to produce high-density, low-carbon housing, like Peabody’s Beddington Zero Energy Development scheme in south London and One Planet Living schemes around the world. Thankfully, determined, green self-builders will continue to pursue their earthship dreams.
Bill Randall is a Green Party councillor, mayor of Brighton & Hove Council, and a housing journalist