December 3, 2012

Saving the World, One Earthship at a Time. ~ Nika Durham

Photo: Nika Durham

Building a new house has a carbon footprint that’s about the same as adding five cars to the road. 

Building a biotecture-inspired home that’s made of earth, trash, and positive energy takes about five cars off the road. And you’ll have it forever, grid-independent.

Earthships are those futuristic looking fortresses with a curved adobe exterior, a south face made of glass, and blue and green mosaic windows. They’re what look like homes you’d see on the colorful pages of a Dr. Seuss story book. They also qualify as a net-zero building practice, requiring little more than some patience, a little help from your friends, and a lot of tires and beer cans. Since trash has become such a plentiful resource, building an earthship is rather convenient.

As James Fry, a Boulder resident and permaculturalist says, it’s construction that “makes sense.” James recently hosted a workshop in his own backyard, where like-minded individuals, including myself, got to learn the techniques and get our hands dirty. James graduated from the Earthship Academy in Taos, New Mexico this past summer and he’s been an enthusiast of anything organic for as long as he can remember.

Photo source: Nika Durham

“I felt a sadness that people don’t care about living in harmony with the earth,” says James, explaining why he was drawn to earthships in the first place.

“Earthships provide for you. They take conventional housing and put it on its head.”

At the Academy, James received hands-on knowledge of the building methods — including concepts like thermal mass, water harvesting rooftops, and the massive benefits of having a greenhouse in your home. He also met the biotect guru and innovator of the earthship, Michael Reynolds. Reynolds has gained worldly recognition since the 1970s, spreading these building models to places like France, Britain, the Andaman Islands, Haiti and all over the United States. Reynolds will actually be giving a talk on March 22nd this spring in Denver — if you’re in the area, I strongly recommend saving the date!

Luckily for Boulder, we have people like James extending biotecture knowledge right here in Colorado. The workshop was designed to familiarize the crew with earthship concepts and apply the concepts to a small model over the course of two days. That being said, we built a backyard chicken coop, which as James eventually told us, would actually be a home for ducks. He plans to fill the trenches that we dug out with water and create a set of duck ponds.

After a brief presentation on the methods and models, a group introduction, and a hearty vegan chili provided by James’ mom Kathi, we put our hands to work. The yard was set up with a pile of tires, a couple of shovels, sledgehammers, glass bottles and plenty of aluminum cans.

Photo source: Nika Durham

“We should be working with the land. Not against it,” says James, as he defines the meaning of permaculture.

Broken down to its etymology, “permaculture” means permanent agriculture and is another way of saying ecological design. For example, a permaculturalist carefully surveys the various patterns of the landscape, like wind patterns, sunlight patterns, or possibly ocean wave patterns. Instead of taking a land and conquering it, disregarding the elements that surround, permaculture is the fusion of ecology and construction.

The tires are what make the frame of an earthship, and they create a back berm to provide thermal mass and trap heat from the sun. James created a circle with the tires, leaving a small space as an entrance facing sunlight. He chose an exposed, sunny corner of the yard to be sure the ducks will have a warm living space.

On day one, we sliced glass bottles with a tile blade, crushed aluminum cans to have three even sides, and pounded the crap out of those tires using dirt and a sledge hammer. The sliced bottles were made into bottle bricks and with the crushed cans we nestled them into a mix of sand and cement while constructing the exterior on day two. The pounded tires also became bricks, weighing about 300 pounds each when pounded to their capacity. Needless to say, this coop wasn’t going anywhere.

Earthships are tsunami proof, hurricane proof and fire proof. In fact, in January 2011, earthship enthusiasts initiated project H.E.L.P. (Haiti Eco Living Project) in Haiti, which brought housing to hundreds of individuals, used material found in Port-au-Prince, and taught locals how to continue making these storm-resistant structures. More information on earthships and disaster relief can be found here.

James Fry
Photo source: Nika Durham

James and his business partner, Avery Ellis, intend to bring a stronger presence of ecological building and more efficient food practices to the Boulder area. The two “enlightened” entrepreneurs are also engaged in the practice of aquaponics, which is an organic farming method where fish farming meets hydroponics. Using aquaponics, plants grow without a need for soil, receive rich nutrients from the fish effluent, and the water in the system is continually purified. Aquaponics saves 90-98 percent of water compared to traditional farming, and the plants are growing at a rate that’s three times as fast with the enhanced diet of a super food that is, simply put, fish poo.

James and Avery are currently working on a business project that will embrace the aquaponics concept and allow a space for conscious consumers to enjoy farm to table fish and vegetables. It will be a “hub for people to enjoy the experience of a whole system, including a café, rooftop aquaponics system, on site organic waste processing facility and a classroom,” explains James. This enterprise is currently in the works and they hope to have a video out for it soon. Stay posted at James’ blog: GrowEverywhere.com.


 Nika is a grad student at CU Boulder, studying Mass Communication Research at the journalism school. An east coast native, Nika enjoys all the invigorating beauties that Colorado has to offer. Outside of school, she enjoys mountain getaways to hike or ski, and in Boulder you might find her in the kid’s section of Boulder Public Library, or testing another coffee shop’s Americano. Nika’s yoga practice could use some attention, and her main concern with journalism is to investigate planetary news but most importantly make the message matter. You can find her on Facebook, LinkedIn, and her blog or email her at [email protected]



Editor: Dareni Wellman


Like elephant Green on Facebook

Read 2 Comments and Reply

Read 2 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Elephant journal  |  Contribution: 277,736