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Berm me up, Scotty

The earthships have landed might more be on the way?


Jason and Ellen Crow live happily off the grid in their - Peyton earthship. - PETER FECTEAU
  • Peter Fecteau
  • Jason and Ellen Crow live happily off the grid in their Peyton earthship.

One man's trash is another man's 1,600 square-foot house.

Today's El Paso County landscape is dotted with a handful of earthships, the most environmentally responsible houses on the planet, and these avant-garde, adobe-style dwellings aren't just homes of hippies anymore. In light of growing concerns about global warming and sustainable living, the humble tire home begs for widespread re-examination.

Recycled, rational and rock-solid, earthships marry cutting-edge technology with primal common sense to produce a level of comfort and efficiency impossible to find in traditional domiciles.

The architectural style is hardly new it was pioneered in the 1970s by Michael Reynolds of Taos, N.M., and can be found today on multiple continents but the houses function especially well in our climate.

They're constructed primarily of used tires rammed with dirt and covered with stucco. In the winter, the sheer bulk of the tires creates a thermal mass that retains heat, much as a slab of rock would do. In the summer, southern-facing windows and skylights provide controllable, circular airflow.

The result: a temperature hovering generally between the lower 60s and the upper 70s.

Many earthships rely on roof catchments and cisterns for water, and passive solar technology for most energy needs.

Bearing fruit

Michael Shealy is a 64-year-old Black Forest engineer with an analytical mind and a hearty sense of humor, without which he probably couldn't have cleared the biggest hurdle to becoming the county's first earthship owner back in 1990 the permit process.

"It took me six months of convincing," Shealy recalls. "The first thing out of [the engineer's] mouth was, "There's no way you're going to build that house in this county.' The last straw was when he threw my plans into the air and said, "Get out of my office.'

"After we resolved that little problem, we were buddies."

Shealy laughs so hard he loses his breath.

Today he acts as an engineering consultant, and has helped build earthships as far away as Quebec.

It takes Shealy between 12 and 15 minutes to pound approximately 300 pounds of dirt into each tire with a sledgehammer. He strongly advocates using newer technology, such as pneumatic machines or tire balers. Balers compress 100 tires into a brick, which is then bound firmly with heavy steel wires.

"You don't have to do any pounding at all; you just stack the bales," explains Shealy. "About six out of the last eight houses I've done have been tire-bale designs."

Although the bales are half the density of rammed-earth tires, they're twice the thickness, yielding the same energy-saving results in a larger footprint.

"It's a lot of work to build with tires, but it's very forgiving," explains Jason Crow, who, with his wife Ellen, built an earthship by hand in Peyton. "Nothing really has to be that perfect.

"The thing about tires," he adds, "is that they're here forever. We've used them once; we can use them again, and really help ourselves out."

Between teaching elementary school and raising twin 4-year-old girls, Ellen Crow has her hands full. She appreciates their low maintenance habitat and lack of electrical bills. She and Jason are completely off the power grid, utilizing propane to heat water and power a dryer, and a solar array for everything else. She generally leaves chores like photovoltaic battery maintenance to her husband. That, and wrangling the tomatoes.

"I planted four or five tomato plants, and they just went crazy," Jason laughs. "We ended up with this thick tomato jungle."

The Crows, like most earthship owners, employ planters to help recycle wastewater. With a constant humidity of about 45 percent, tropical plants not commonly seen in Colorado flourish rapidly inside these quarters. Michael Shealy's ridiculously content begonias haven't quit blooming for a decade. Yet he seems most enthralled with his pineapple, and just transplanted a lime tree outside that fruited for years under his roof.

His neighbors, Susie and David, have a row of banana trees growing in their earthship. Can daiquiris come any fresher?

What"s next?

With electric costs negligible or nonexistent, building costs between $20 and $90 per square foot (as compared to $80 to $200 for a conventional house) and a substantially reduced carbon footprint, it would seem logical to predict a booming market for this type of construction. But these El Paso homeowners don't see that happening on a large commercial scale any time soon.

"I think that it'll take a pretty dramatic twist to get people to move away from the housing economy as we have it set up now," Jason says, sighing.

Michael Shealy agrees. He believes contractors would rather draw from a ready pool of workers who have skills already tailored to assembling conventional housing than repeatedly train employees in the unique skills inherent to this type of production. He figures it takes a rare individual "with a mission" to undertake this sort of project.

"Capitalism is the bottom line," says Shealy. "The basic nature of humanity is to avoid change."

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