Creating beauty and shelter from trash
Innovative architects and companies are turning discarded items such as bottles, tires and jeans into earth-friendly building materials. And the results are anything but ugly.
© Kirsten Jacobsen, Earthship Biotecture
Can you build a house from beer cans? That's the question that inspired Michael Reynolds to start constructing homes from trash in 1969.
More than 40 years later, his "Earthship" home design is used all over the world — and it's just one example of how designers are reusing materials to build homes. An Earthship is a self-sustaining home that requires little heating or cooling and generates its own electricity and water. Earthships use readily available waste materials, including used tires and glass bottles. But it all started with beer cans — and a couple of journalists. (Bing: What do "Earthship" homes look like?)
"Charles Kuralt did a piece on the old steel beer cans being thrown all over the streets and national parks all over the world," Reynolds says. "He predicted a garbage problem."
Just before that, Walter Cronkite had predicted expensive housing resulting from a lumber shortage because of clear-cutting of timber in the Northwest. Both predictions would come true.
Combined, they were a spark for Reynolds, who had just graduated from architectural school. He started to make a building block with crushed beer cans. "The idea just kept going, and I figured out that modern society throws lots of things away that are really good," he says.
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Steel cans were soon phased out for aluminum cans, which Reynolds says were an even better option because they biodegrade so slowly. Then he started to think about automobile tires, which were everywhere.
"Scientists and physicists were talking about an energy crunch for the future and how the storage of thermal mass in a building would aid in heating and maintaining temperature," he says.
Tires, filled with soil, became walls for buildings and created thermal mass. Gaps were filled with cans and bottles. Those walls were covered with mud adobe, cement or stucco to create a smooth surface.
Inside Earthships, aluminum cans and glass bottles are used for partitions and interior walls. Some Earthships incorporate sheep's-wool insulation, metal paneling from discarded household appliances, adobe bricks for interior walls, straw bales as insulation and reclaimed materials from demolition sites.
Reynolds sells Earthship plans all over the U.S. and the world. Often, he will help get a project started and then let the homeowner finish it. Earthships also are available for nightly rental in Taos, N.M. And don't worry: Earthships don't look like they're made of trash. They're actually quite beautiful.
Reynolds has also taken his building method, which he calls "biotecture," to developing countries, including Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. "Every country has tires, cans and bottles," he says. "They are indigenous to the world, really. It's something that has really taken off in Third World countries."
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Keeping useful materials out of landfills
Reynolds isn't the only one raiding dumps and junkyards to create shelter. In Huntsville, Texas, Dan Phillips is doing his part to keep trash out of the landfill by building affordable housing out of anything he can get his hands on.
He has made floors from bottle caps, wine corks and beer labels. A ceiling from old broken picture frames. Siding from wood scraps. A chair from cattle bones. A roof from license plates and another from a hodgepodge of mismatched, used shingles.
"I'm trying to go through what would otherwise go to the landfill and say, 'Hmm, how could this be used? 'Before long, you realize there are a good many items that do not have to go to the landfill," Phillips says. "If something is of the right material and has the right shape, that's what you use. We've made doorknobs out of hood ornaments. The sky's the limit."
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Because he's working with unconventional materials, almost every project is an experiment. "I fail every day," he says. "There isn't anything written on how to install a wine-cork floor. There are no directions online. Same with a bottle-cap floor. You try this and try that. Everything is a learning curve all the time, but the failures inform all the successes. You can't really succeed unless you've failed a few times."
And every successful project adds to his knowledge base, making the next similar project that much easier, he says.
Phillips says he is often asked to leave Huntsville and work on projects elsewhere, but he says he's going to "stay and clean up my own backyard."
His backyard is getting more than creative affordable-housing options. It's also getting job training; Phillips says he hires only unskilled workers. He pays them minimum wage, but "if you spend a year on my crew, you have a lot of skills and can hire on with any contractor," he says.
Phillips and Reynolds prove that houses can be made from almost anything, but what if you don't want a home with a license-plate roof or rubber-tire walls? Luckily, there are plenty of recycled homebuilding materials that can help you save the planet while still blending in with the neighbors.