Also In The News – An Introduction to Earthships

By Kevin Stevens, Networx

Imagine a home that heats and cools itself without the need of a furnace or AC unit: one that produces its own zero-emissions supply of electricity, and is not dependent on a municipal source for water. This kind of home also processes all of its wastewater locally, and can even grow a quantity of its occupant’s food. Additionally, the home is built with local and recycled waste products, and it can be built with basic low-tech labor. Does this sound like the ideal home of a space age future? Believe it or not, these homes exist today (many have been built by builders in New Mexico) and have been in existence for over 30 years. This type of home is called an “Earthship” and it exhibits all of these features and more.

Heat and Cooling Naturally

Earthships are homes built with passive solar design principles. During the cool winter months, low angled sunlight enters the home and warms the floors and walls. Exterior and load bearing walls are constructed from a “core” of up-cycled tires and rammed earth. This high thermal mass core is covered with concrete or earthen-based plasters for a smooth and cosmetically appealing surface. The mass of the walls and structure “absorb” the sun’s heat, this heat is stored in the mass walls and is then released back into the living space after the sun sets. In summer, the cool base temperature of the earth around the home provides natural cooling. This is supplemented with convective air flow and skylight vents.

Power and Water

Earthships by their nature are off-grid. This means they are self-sufficient in terms of electricity and traditional service utilities. Solar panels and/or wind turbines generate electric power. The home’s roof surface acts as a “collector” for rain and snow harvesting. Water consumption is further enhanced by re-use. An Earthship’s water stores are “processed” by filtration and purification means for initial use. Grey water from sinks and showers is processed through a biological/planter bed before being used to flush conventional toilets. These planter beds can also be used as gardens (some people grow food in grey water-irrigated gardens; some do not). The waste water from the toilets is then processed in an exterior system that can be used for exterior landscape needs. With this system the water is actually used four times… which is a great savings in its own right. Hot water for domestic use is produced using thermal solar power.

Recycled Building Materials

One of the greatest advantages of Earthship construction is the use of reclaimed materials. The fundamental “building blocks” of an Earthship include tires, bottles and cans. Earthship “foundations” begin with old tires that are filled with simple dirt. This local material is compressed into the “form” of the tire and provides a strong solid and dense “brick”. These tire walls are built on three sides of the structure and provide both thermal mass and support for the home roofing system. Interior and decorative walls are often built using bottles and cans as the “core” materials. This integrated “matrix” of concrete and containers reduces the total amount of mortar that is needed and can provide a great decorative element.
Earthships are gaining popularity and can be found in nearly every climate type. One of the best known examples of this type of architecture and sustainable building style can be found near Taos, New Mexico. Here an entire community of Earthships make up the “Greater World Community.” This “subdivision” has been in existence for nearly 20 years.

10 Steps to Simpler Living

10 Steps to Simpler Living

  • Chaya, selected from Networx

By Kevin Stevens, Networx

When chatting with some friends or clients, it’s not uncommon to hear them say that they are envious of my “simpler life.” My response is generally that what is perceived as “simple” has a lot to do with my attitude; while some days are simple, others are not. Being a small business owner and trying to coordinate multiple clients, projects and schedules can be pretty draining and hectic. I have made some great steps to make my life simpler but there are still days when it can be a bit overwhelming.

I recently completed some custom bookcases for a client. During that project, a typical day might involve making the 30 second walking commute to my basement workshop for the “work” portion of my day. I must admit that building custom furniture is pretty much an ideal gig and I’m often in the best state of mind. But like many folks, this portion of my life is just a slice of what a week or month may bring. On a less than ideal day, I might have to commute 4 hours between 3 or 4 job sites, finish up a punch list, spec out some new project and fit in a few materials runs to the lumber yard or home center.

Given the fact that my life can actually get quite hectic, I have found these practices to be very helpful. They work for me; they could work for you.

1. Work is work and home is home. For most folks this is one of the first steps to simpler living. Being able to punch out at the end of the day and leave the work baggage behind is one way to make your life feel less stressful. Granted some jobs and career choices can influence this ability to disconnect your work life from “living,” the sooner you can remove this overlap, change can start.

2. Less is more. I feel that one of the biggest burdens to happiness comes from too much stuff in your life, whether these are material things or activities. Having more is not always better. Consumerism is contagious and a hard habit to break. People often equate “things” with happiness, but a life-long pursuit of more and more only leads to less happiness. Working 60 hours a week to pay for a too-big house filled with stuff you don’t need or use is a trap.

3. Time never sleeps. People often say their lives are too busy because they “don’t have enough time.” Time is a fixed thing. Each day only has 24 hours. It’s not the day that is too short, but the list of things stuffed into the day that is too big. Here priorities will allow you to thin the list to what will fit or needs to fit. Some things can wait ’til tomorrow, or even go away completely.

4. Bye-bye TV. Some numbers to think about: The New York Times reported, “Americans watched more television than ever in 2010, according to the Nielsen Company. Total viewing of broadcast networks and basic cable channels rose about 1 percent for the year, to an average of 34 hours per person per week.” 34 hours per week is like having a second job. If you’re having trouble with the “time” issue above there is a pretty easy fix. Push the “off” button on the TV remote.

I terminated my satellite TV service back in January, and I have not missed it a bit. The 3 shows I have grown to love are viewed on demand via my internet connection. Saving the $60 to $100 a month is a bonus, too. Some people like to watch the morning news, but I listen to NPR’s Morning Edition, and for weather reports I look out the window.

5. Don’t swap one time waster for another. As I mentioned above, my TV service is gone. The trick was to not fill that space with other equally distracting events. I still watch a DVD now and then, but dropping your TV service and replacing it with endless streaming content or stacks of DVDs is not an improvement.

6. Limit online social time. This can be emails, Facebook, Twitter or simply texting (a new thing for my 12-year-old daughter). Fitting in a set time for this, and limiting that time, will do wonders. Twenty years ago people got by just fine with out any of these “conveniences.” Just because you can, does not mean you must.

 

7. De-clutter. Distractions can make your brain work harder than it needs to. An active working brain can keep the Alzheimer’s away, but the difference between “thought” and “noise” is key. Physical clutter can add visual stress and frustration to your day. Most people will agree that walking into a tidy room (whether it is the kitchen, living room, office or bedroom) puts their minds into a more peaceful state. When the space is clean maintaining it, in its clean state, is much simpler. (I’m pretty good in the kitchen, living room and bedroom on this; it’s just my desk that can get a little troublesome).

A few years ago I realized that letting go of stuff is very enlightening. I have seen more stuff leave the house lately than come in. I have been collecting stuff for 20 years in this house. I’m now working my way down the other side of this mountain by getting rid of things. If I have not used it in a year or more it gains a spot on the “out list.”

8. Have some hobbies and personal time. A good example of someone who uses this practice to keep life sane and simple is my fiance. She has a hectic work schedule and occasionally has to work at home. When she does finally get to punch out, she heads to her crafting/studio space and works on her “fairies and miniatures” or kicks back to listen to an audio book. This is a cleansing and Zen-like practice for her. A good portion of my work is in a field I enjoy so my hobby/work boundary is a little more fuzzy than hers is. If you can spend your time doing things you love, your life will feel simpler and more fulfilling.

9. Foods for thought. Just as a hobby can provide a retreat, many also find solace in the kitchen. The body’s basic need for nutrition and sustenance could be met with basic beans and rice and some tossed greens, or it can be meet with a 7 course meal of escargot, stuffed mushrooms, carbonnades flamandes, cognac shrimp with Beurre Blanc — well you get the picture. Spending a few minutes Sunday night with dinner ideas for the rest of the week may have you streamlining your evenings. One of my tricks is to make a large batch of something on the weekend that can be munched on during the week, like a large pot of stew or gallon of homemade pasta sauce. A little reheat and dinner is served. Clearing out the fridge at the end of each week keeps things from getting buried and allows for less clutter.

10. Downsize everything. I’ve worked with clients who have begun the process of downsizing their lives. Many are doing it for green reasons; others are transitioning as empty nesters. A smaller home = a simpler home. When we take trips to our cabin (it is a small 200 sq foot, off-grid retreat) our basic needs are met in a simple way. We have a small PV system that provides some lights, we cook on a camp stove or over the wood stove, water comes with us in 5 gallon jugs, a cooler keeps the food fresh and a sawdust composting toilet handles the other end of business. A week will pass with reading, music, hiking and playing with the dogs. Sometimes a little more work gets done on the cabin itself, or to the surrounding landscape. The cabin provides even more relaxation and simpler living than car camping. Life at the cabin can exist without TV, cell-phones, a giant mortgage, utility bills and a closet full of shoes.

If you have ever traveled much, you have probably seen countless small cabin “Vacation Resorts” that cater to those looking for a little down time, or to take a break from their overstimulated lives. Think about it: people pay money (and in some cases a lot) to do what most can do with some basic lifestyle changes. Why is it that people feel so relaxed after one of these vacations? I’ll tell you a secret — it’s the simple and uncomplicated lifestyle that recharges our spirits.