Earthships land in rural Ontario

Inexpensive, durable, and carbon neutral, "Earthships" made of dirt and recycled rubber tires seem like the sustainable homes of the future for the throwaway habits of modern society. So what’s the catch?

Twenty years ago, Matt Code confessed to his girlfriend that he fancied living in a mound of used car tires, crushed pop cans, and dirt. Like most people, she was taken aback by the idea. “I don’t want to live in a garbage house,” she protested.

Today, the couple have started construction on an “Earthship,” working to sculpt a mountain of trash into a functional abode. The house sticks out in the quaint Ontario landscape near Blue Mountain that’s more known for subdivisions popping up with disquieting speed than sustainable architecture. Code and his wife only started building last summer, but already the rubbery skeleton stands firm, baffling everyone who walks by. Neighbours have “lots of questions,” says Code.

Wandering around the construction site, he explains that 80 per cent of the walls are stacked tires, the cracks between them filled in with empty cans and concrete. They’ll eventually be plastered over with clay. Plate glass windows will run the length of the front of the structure, letting in sunlight for warmth. He shows me a blueprint: there’s space for his wife’s studio and spare bedroom.

Though different in size and shape, all Earthships use thermal mass heating to get occupants through frigid northern winters. The dirt and rubber act as heat sinks, radiating warmth inward during the winter and outward over hotter months. Earthships collect and recycle rainwater, and generate their own power from a mix of solar and wind energy. Some dedicated dwellers grow their own vegetables in expansive in-house gardens. Modern life may be rubbish, but this to Code is living at its finest.

It sounds completely unfeasible, but there are entire communities of the “radically sustainable buildings” in New Mexico developed by American architect Michael Reynolds, who had his licence revoked for constructing his homes against local building codes. Only in recent years has the Earthship seen widespread approval.

Reynolds’ “biotecture” developed as a direct response to the squanderous habits of modern life. Decentralizing resources, for Reynolds and his supporters, means less waste and no need for carbon fuel. It’s meant as a conscious uncoupling of the private home from dependence on environmentally dodgy building convention. By living in an Earthship, a person can potentially support themselves without relying on industrial farming, gas heating, or new timber, effectively rendering “the existing system insignificant,” as Reynolds states on his website.

Here in Ontario we toss out more than 10 million used tires each year, according to industry-funded overseer Waste Diversion Ontario. Although manufacturers recycle 95 per cent of that waste into roof shingles and flooring, among other products, that still leaves half a million tires waiting for prospective Earthship builders to salvage.

Inexpensive, durable, and carbon neutral, the Earthship seems like the pragmatic home of the future. So what’s the catch? 

“Some people like [the Earthship idea] because it recycles, but it’s a lot of work, too,” says Code. He and a revolving door of volunteers have so far “pounded” more than a thousand tires to make the Earthship’s walls, a rudimentary process involving a sledgehammer, soil, and endless resolve. 

Besides sheer effort, there are other roadblocks preventing more Earthships from taking off. Code had no trouble getting construction permission from the City of Collingwood – as long as he heeds the structural engineer looking after his project, he’s allowed to keep his castle of trash. But would-be Earthshippers historically haven’t had it so easy.

The Collingwood Earthship isn’t the first to land in Ontario. Port Dover and Bancroft have their own sustainable Hobbit-holes, so do Manitoba, Quebec and B.C., all based on the same principles of design. Craig Cook, owner of an Earthship near Lake Erie says “almost anybody can do this.”

Showing off their home to visitors is a regular occurrence for the Cooks, who say they’ve inspired dozens of people — including Code — to consider building their own.

Last year they had some 250 visitors, all of them shocked at how comfortable the Earthship design appeared. “We have everything that everyone else has,” says Cook. “Except instead of having three televisions, we have one.”

They assure me they’ve only had to make “small concessions” to live here. And the cost of the home — just $70,000 — has made retirement a breeze for the couple, who left their jobs as custodians at age 55.

I ask what they’d be doing if not for the Earthship. “We’d probably still be at work,” Cook says. Now they spend their days tending the garden, painting watercolours and fishing. “Connie drags me kicking and screaming out to the lake,” Cook laughs.

“We have so many things to do around here,” he adds.

The Cooks’ home has a composting toilet that uses peat moss to turn human waste into soil, which also saves them from drawing from their water supply – a storage tank of filtered rainwater from the roof.

Aside from their landline and internet service, the Cooks live without bills, subsisting entirely on renewable power and a wood stove they almost never need to use, thanks to the “mass to space ratio” that keeps the house at an even room temperature year-round. Even their food costs are minimal. “There isn’t anything you can’t grow – the soil’s always warm,” Craig says, telling me about their greenhouse, where pineapples and bananas flourish.

“Ontario seems to be really open to it,” says Cook, calling the permit process “really simple.”

Back in Collingwood, I ask Code if the Earthship design might someday replace the model home. “I do not see this going mainstream,” he replies.

The Cooks, on the other hand, exude optimism. “It’s a really healthy way of living,” Cook says. “As much as people say it’s difficult – it’s not. You just have to take a leap.” | @nowtoronto

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