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Building for the Future
with Materials from the Past

by Pamela Williams

With the scare of the new millennium came concerns of Y2K and shortages of power and water. Those few who had homes that were built to be self-sustainable and off-the-grid feared little as the clock rolled-over into the year 2000.

Yet as we walk through a new millennium, many are taking a second look at the limitations of artificial power suppliers as well as the limitations of the earth in providing natural resources for building.

Hank and Karen Miller of Cornville have considered these things. They are building homes based upon the Earthship concept - houses made of tires and cans. The original design, created 25 years ago by Mike Reynolds of Taos, New Mexico, was born out of a desire to help sustain the worldÕs natural resources by recycling old materials while providing an economical way to build a home.

"The basic materials of building an Earthship are plentiful and cheap." Reynolds says. "Everywhere I go, I have found tires and cans. The materials are indigenous to this planet, and they are as plentiful as trees. But they donÕt give anything back . . . trees do. When designing the Earthship, we wanted to build it with something that we need to get rid of."

In Earthship construction, tires are rammed full of dirt and stacked in a brick-like fashion, creating weight-bearing walls. The exterior north, east and west sides are solid and buried into the earth while the south side faces outward to take advantage of maximum winter sun. This three-wall insulation creates a house with a thermal climate similar to the interior of the earth.

Internal walls of the Earthship are built with stacked cans and cement placed between frames. These walls, which can be molded into a variety of shapes are then finished with mud, plaster or stucco.

Although the houses may look 'trashy' from the onset, once covered with their finished material, they may have the same appearances as any other frame-built or adobe home. The basic Earthship design was created to be completely self-sufficient by utilizing passive solar energy, thermal mass, renewable energy through solar panels, and reusing of grey water. Miller's homes not only utilize these sources but do even more.

Inside of Miller's homes, large cisterns are built that help catch rain through an opening in the ceiling. The water is then recycled for drinking. This waterfall effect operates even when it isnÕt raining. The secret: a 9,000 gallon water tank buried in the ground above the house. The tank stores water pumped from the ground. This gravity and solar fed process that circulates the water from the tank into the cisterns via waterfall helps purify the water while providing the homeowner with an aesthetic atmosphere.

"The cisterns are built in the bedroom and living room," Miller said. "The sounds of a waterfall are very soothing. We design garden beds to be built around the pools of water so that the flow of water can also be used to water your garden and you can grow your own vegetables or herbs within your home."

Although the homes are built into the mountain and remain relatively cool during the summer, Miller has invented a device to help enhance the earthÕs natural climate control process. An outside pipe on the north side of the house pumps air in through a vent near the gardens. The cool northern air is sucked into the house by way of a vacuum-type-effect that occurs when skylights within the house are opened.

"When the air is pulled through the vent, it will pass through the herb garden and circulate wonderful fragrances throughout the house," Miller said. "The effect of the cold air entering the house is equal to having a cooler." Miller's houses also have recycled grey water systems and composting toilets.

"This way nothing is just poured into the ground," he said. As for his acres of orchards and gardens outside, Miller relies again on the circulation of rainwater being gravity fed through sprinkler systems. In addition, small turbines have been installed to capture the energy that is created with the water flow.

The solar panel for the 2,000-square-foot home is made up of eight panels and charges a 24-volt battery system. The panel is filled with a gas that when heated turns the system toward the sun, maximizing the energy usage. "It is my dream to create a whole community like this some day in Arizona," Miller said. ". . . To buy 1,000 acres and build a few homes on it, a place where people can share gardening and work together. . . The earth is running low with water and resources. We all need to think of a better way."

Having an Earthship home built may take on a higher price-tag than a stick-frame because it is so labor intensive, unless you build it yourself. With the lack of utility bills, the score will quickly even out though.

And if the drop in your electric bill isnÕt enough, the difference you will bestow upon the planet's resources may be the biggest savings of all. Once the Earthship is finished, its appearances are not too different from any other home. The biggest difference will be the one you are making upon the planet.

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