'Garbage Warrior' Turns Trash Into Green-Built Houses

Would you live in a house made of empty beer cans, old tires and discarded soda bottles? Garbage like this is what renegade architect Michael Reynolds transforms into "earthships" — eco-friendly homes with surprisingly pleasing aesthetics and tiny (or nonexistent) power bills.

Author of six books on green building and energy-independent, eco-friendly homes, and the subject of the Earth Cinema Circle film "Garbage Warrior", Reynolds has experimented for 35 years with radically sustainable architecture and off-the-grid, energy independent communities.

 We talked with him about his claim to fame and the solutions he's contributing in the race against global warming and environmental degradation.

Q: How did you get the moniker “Garbage Warrior?”

Reynolds: Oliver Hodge, the producer of the film "Garbage Warrior" came up with that name. I’ve been called King of Garbage, Garbage Architect … things like that.  After the tsunami, when we went to India, the locals called us Tsunami Warriors.

What is an earthship?

Earthships are a highly energy-efficient, resilient and earthquake-proof method of building. We use mostly discarded materials rather than new materials. Studies show that an earthship-style home can last a thousand years.

You can rent one of our earthships in Taos, New Mexico. We also offer workshops on building with byproducts of our society, and on related topics like solar thermal heating/cooling and solar and wind electricity.

What inspired you to build with tires and mud?

Michael Reynolds, the Garbage Warrior, pounds tires

Everything we are doing comes from a response to the media. As early as the 1970s, I read that we are running out of fuel and water. I was inspired to create a way of life that responds to those problems.

There are mountains of tires around the world, and no one knows what to do with them. Hawaii actually ships its used tires to California. Once I added the concept of thermal mass by beating dirt into a tire, I created a low tech, readily available and easy to learn method of building. I couldn’t have conceived of a better material than tires to build with.

What other materials go into your earthships?

We now go to the garbage dumps and harvest the mountain of appliances, refrigerators, washing machines and dryers — we take the baked-n enamel covers and use the panels as scaled roofing to help capture the water. We are constantly finding new materials that are thrown away that can be built into houses.

Do you see a future in which subdivisions are filled with earthships?

Yes! I definitely see cities, villages and towns filled with earthships or buildings that passively heat and cool themselves — and homes that provide their own electricity and water and food, contain and treat their own sewage … . All of these utilities can be supplied off the grid in a self-sustaining community.

Architecture is clearly not addressing the needs of our times. Biotecture — a word I invented, a cross of biology and architecture —  better describes what I do. So many parts of the world — Nicaragua, Jamaica, Norway, United Kingdom, France — are embracing the need for the biotecture method, regardless of what they call it. They are recognizing that conventional housing systems are not panning out.

It used to be a nightmare to get a building permit for earthships here in the U.S. Now it's getting easier.

Do you have hope for our planet?

We need to live on this planet in such a way that our very existence contributes to the world around us. A tree is constantly making new soil so new trees can grow; trees are contributing to the world around them. Humans are exploiting the world. And humans don’t seem to have the sense to see that the world as we know it will cease to exist and humanity will become extinct.

But things are getting bad enough that people are finally looking at this [green] kind of thinking. It’s causing people to make a change. Maybe it won’t be too late. I can’t change the world, but I can make change anywhere that I am.

What’s it like being the star of a documentary about your life’s work?

It’s surreal — but gratifying to be recognized for doing something reasonable. I’ve been doing this for 37 years. Repeatedly, I've been simultaneously condemned and praised.

Interview courtesy of Earth Cinema Circle, a DVDs-by-mail service featuring films about hope and environmental solutions for our planet.

For more information on how to own or build your own Earthship, visit www.earthship.org. Watch for Reynolds' upcoming coffee table photo book, "Journey," covering the past 30 years of his career.

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