Coming from the north, east or west it seems like a little hill grown over by grass. Approaching the Earthship from the south, one finds a crystal-like greenhouse instead. Surprising, but with a moment’s thought, you realize that the windows are facing south for a good reason. They are directed toward the most sunlight, toward where the sun gives life – in the Northern hemisphere, anyway. And this is one of the key concepts of what Earthships are all about: to enable one to live comfortably with what nature has to offer.
Public Park Nooterhof in the city of Zwolle (the Netherlands) lodges one of these Earthships. This Earthship functions as a public tea house, opening its glass doors to visitors fascinated about living in and with the earth, and outside the paradigm of the modern urban world.
THREE EARTHSHIP PRINCIPLES
Known as radically sustainable green, these curious buildings covered in dirt, not only spare the environment, but help improve several issues the environment is faced with nowadays. As is often the case with brilliant ideas, the principles behind an Earthship are surprisingly simple. In fact, the buildings leave anyone first looking into their concept startled by its simplicity. Three principles make Earthships extremely green: the use of recycled products, self-sufficiency for its inhabitants, and the implementation of sustainable technologies.
STACKED TIRES FILLED WITH EARTH
Standing next to the Earthship’s several feet thick walls makes you realize that they are nearly impossible to penetrate, or even to disturb. It is discarded car tires, stacked like bricks and jam-packed with earth, that make up the building’s frame. Visitors of the tea house are allowed a peak into the Earthship’s outer walls. A small piece of the northern wall has been left unfinished. It shows a couple of the thousand discarded car tires that shape the walls.
However impressive, not car tires but earth is the humble secret ingredient that makes up the Earthship. Just as the building’s name suggests. Earthships use earth as their weapon in a building’s
never-ending battle with the ambient air temperature with hardly any intervention of air conditioning or heating. Earth functions as thermal mass that passively absorbs natural heat when the sun is out. During the night or on cloudy days, the earth gives its stock of warmth back to the room. This way, even in climates as chilly as the Dutch have, Earthships provide for a constant indoor temperature year-round with a minimum of utility bills.
Don’t assume that an Earthship will have an aesthetics deficit. Quite the contrary. Its car tire, earth-filled walls are normally plastered and painted over making them appear similar to those of an elegant, modern adobe style house that would fit into any community. The inside walls, however, are the walls that allow for creativity in interior design. Looking at these artsy walls you would almost forget that they are sound-damping, temperature moderating as well as fine-looking.
EFFICIENCY AND SELF-SUFFICIENCY
Now that the ‘earth’ part of the concept has been explained, the mystery remains why these buildings are dubbed ships. This piece of the puzzle will fall into place at the moment one enters an Earthship. Walking into one of these self-sufficient capsules feels like boarding a ship. Suddenly you are separated from the world – autonomous even. For Earthships are not connected to any power, gas, water or sewage lines, they are fully self contained. Not only does this trigger a strong feeling of independency, it also allows for more efficiency in terms of energy, water, economics and environment.
Rainwater that hits the Earthship’s roof is collected, filtered in plant troughs several times, and then used and reused. Starting off as drinking water, it seconds as shower, washing machine, and toilet water, after which it is finally used to water the plants. And solar panels on top of the roof generate enough electricity and warmth for a family to get through a normal day.
THE FIRST EARTHSHIP
One tire at a time, an experienced international Earthship crew finished construction of the Dutch tea house in 2009. This was the first Earthship built in the Benelux Union area of Europe, but certainly not the very first of its kind. Introduced by American eco-architect Michael Reynolds, the prototype Earthship was built in the desert of Taos, New-Mexico.
Reynolds has been devoted to building houses out of natural resources and discarded items since graduating from the University of Cincinnati in 1969. His conviction that, with the right formula, products can be recycled to form buildings that won’t spoil the resources and beauty of the earth, led him to design the first Earthship in the 1970’s. He has authored five books on the topic, and directed the film ‘Garbage Warrior’ in 2007.
The tea house in Zwolle is just one of the many Earthships that can be found worldwide. After some start-up trouble, they now have reached global celebrity status. Around the world today, you will find hundreds of Earthships with dozens of specialized crews building more of these uber green structures. Each building is custom made to fit the climate it is placed in, and through a process of trial and error, each new Earthship is a bit better than the last.
As for the Netherlands, after having introduced Earthships to the Benelux, the country is currently the first in Europe to develop an official Earthship district. Last spring construction began on twenty-three more of these exciting self-sufficient buildings in the city Olst.
YOUR CUP OF TEA?
Earthships are remarkable buildings that enable civilized living while helping to restore the exhausted and damaged environment. Anyone interested in these sustainable and recycled buildings can visit the tea house Earthship in Zwolle.
Reflecting over a cup a fair-trade tea here makes you realize all too well the beauty and comfort of radically sustainable living. And while you are there, don’t worry about enjoying that piece of pie: it has been locally grown.
Earthships are growing more popular. This off-grid building style that makes use of recycled materials is being used to build both homes and public displays around the world. It’s amazing what you can do with things like glass bottles, cob mortar, and old tires. Some of these structures have absolutely beautiful features. Each is unique, and offers the inhabitants everything needed for a comfortable lifestyle, and fresh produce grown year around — no matter what weather conditions are like.