Extreme Earthships in Extreme Places

The so-called House at the End of the World under construction.What is an Earthship, you ask? Good question. It's a highly sustainable building created entirely from recycled and natural materials, typically integrated together in a seamless whole: think a mud wall with glass bottles inserted into it for light and ornamentation. These structures are designed to be self-sustaining, with rugged, beautiful architecture that makes them eye-catching as well as practical and environmentally friendly, and they're part of a larger architectural and social movement focused on using building materials wisely and treading lightly on the surface of the Earth.

Architect Michael Reynolds is the pioneer of the movement, and he brings his skills all over the world to build amazing showcase homes, assisted by his students, who take advantage of construction projects to learn about safely and efficiently designing Earthships. These homes take advantage of smart ecological construction and tools like passive solar heating, greywater recycling, and rainwater collection to support their residents. A well-built Earthship can take on Phoenix heating and cooling needs, harsh Boston winters, or oppressively hot Florida summers. In addition to cutting down energy use, this design is also highly suitable for homes in remote areas where access to utilities is limited.

Furthermore, Earthships are also easy for anyone to build, with minimal training. This reflects the 1970s origins of the movement, as this was an era when many people were returning back to the land and developing a strong DIY aesthetic. People can learn from Reynolds and each other as they work on projects, but they can also build their own with minimal supervision and guidance -- unlike many other green homes, which require extensive contracting and architectural skills.

So what are we talking about when we talk "extreme places"? Oh, just one of the Southernmost cities in the world: Ushuaia, an Argentine city that could practically shake hands with Antarctica. Set in the notorious Tierra del Fuego area, this city presents some unique building challenges, including extreme cold and limited sun in the winter. That makes creating a sustainable home even trickier, so the accomplishments of the Earthship team stand out even more here.

Reynolds took advantage of the extreme environment to create an incredible learning space for students interested in acquiring building skills as well as tips for building in challenging areas. It's one thing to build a passive solar home in a place like New Mexico (the home of the Earthship movement), but another entirely to get started with construction on a remote latitude. Everything from flooring and roofing needs to be reconsidered to take advantage of available resources and address shifting seasons that can be violent and intense.

The Ushuaia Earthship is small, a little over 500 square feet, but it's packed with features, including wind and solar power along with thick adobe walls that provide formidable insulation for the winter months. (Cob provides similar insulating qualities, but straw isn't in ample supply in Tierra del Fuego.) Furthermore, the construction helped clean up trash in the area, as students collected "garbage" and turned it into building materials for the stunning structure. Not bad for a month's work!

Katie Marks writes for Networx.com.

Updated September 16, 2018.

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