Architect Michael Reynolds has built more than 1,000 homes from materials including used car tires and glass-bottle bottoms. He calls his self-sufficient designs "earthships" because they require little heating or cooling and generate their own electricity and water. His company, Earthship Biotecture of Taos, N.M., designs and builds sustainable homes world-wide.
Q: I hear you were a maverick even in architecture school.
A: I discovered early on that architecture needs to embody the needs of people. Most architects have impractical ideas that are wasteful. That's why I've drifted away from what you know as architecture. The University of Cincinnati had a co-op program where you could work for three months and go to school for three months. It took me six years of working in a lot of architectural offices around the country to discover that I didn't want to do architecture the way it was being done.
Q: Where did you get the idea to use trash?
A: Walter Cronkite did a piece on clear-cutting timber in the Northwest. Even in 1969, he predicted massive deforestation would result in wood scarcity and would affect our oxygen levels, things that have become big issues today. Charles Kuralt did another piece on beer cans being thrown all over the streets and highways. So I started playing with beer cans and trying to make them into building blocks. It was a way to kill two birds with one stone.
Q: How did you go from cans to car tires?
A: I later decided to try a different material and thought of the mountains of discarded tires that can be found everywhere. Pack them with dirt and they will store energy. Plus they're strong and resilient, so I built an entire house out of them. I went on to add photovoltaic panels, windmills, water collection and onsite sewage treatment.
Q: It didn't sound like you got many takers in the beginning.
A: We did sell houses here and there. I wasn't trying to build a big corporation and, of course, our overhead was low. I just needed to get the idea out there. I was also a licensed contractor so I could work on other projects.
Q: Who were your early adopters?
A: When I started, it was young hipsters who were not afraid of trying something new. As recycling and conservation became more mainstream, it became a wider variety of people ... from all walks of life.
Q: You relinquished your state architecture license in 2000. What led to this?
A: Some of the houses were too hot, went over budget and some roofs leaked. The customers complained and the investigators who were sent saw that I wasn't following any of the rules. In the end, I was told if I relinquished my license, I could do more as a private citizen than under the cloak of an architect. Otherwise, they could fine me forever for violating codes. [He got back his national architecture license.]
Q: That's when you took your fight to the state legislature?
A: I wrote a bill [that] makes it easier to build experimental homes [without the need for an architecture license]. It took three and a half years to get it through. Governor Bill Richardson signed it into law in 2007.
Q: And you went overseas with your ideas?
A: For awhile, ... I went wherever there was a desire to use my ideas. After the earthquake and tsunami in 2004, an architect [from the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean] that lived right in the middle of the disaster saw our Web site and asked us to come.
Q: What did you see in the Andaman Islands?
A: Their whole community was just wiped out. We paid the local kids to bring us bottles, and we built a house out of them that collects its own water. We gave the plans to the engineers.
Q: What's next?
A: We're launching a village project called Eve: Earthship Village Ecology in Taos. The focus is complete independence. We're specifically working on food production in the home, and we've dedicated 50% of the floor space to gardens.
Q: How efficient are your earthships?
A: We're building homes today that don't draw from the grid and have a $100 per year total utility bill. And they have flat screen TVs, broadband Internet and all the other comforts. The reason why more people are not doing it is because it takes forever for somebody doing a radical green project to get a permit.
Thanks to wsj.com 6/16/09
Write to Dennis Nishi at firstname.lastname@example.org