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Discovering Biotecture: What are Earthships and Why Should We Care?

By Guest Author
25 Apr 2015
Image Courtesy of Ayo Animashaun

This post was written by Ayo Animashaun, a 2014 graduate of DePauw University. Ayo was an Economics major, Management Fellow, and Bonner Scholar. This article details his post-grad experience integrating sustainability and business with Earthships Biotecture Academy as well as his ambitions to bring the Earthship model to his home country of Ghana.

Graduating presented me with the opportunity to pursue ideologies that I had been obsessing over since the first semester of my senior year. A few months after graduation, I was accepted into Earthship Biotecture Academy in Taos, New Mexico. Earthships are radically sustainable buildings that were thought up by Michael Reynolds in the 1970s, and perfected in the last decade. Earthship design hinges on 6 principles: 1) Thermal/Solar Heating & Cooling; 2) Solar & Wind Electricity; 3) Contained Sewage; 4) Building with natural & recycled materials; 5)Water Harvesting; 6) Food Production.  Essentially what you find with Earthships is the personification of a man-made ecosystem, with closed loop energy and material cycles, minimal waste, and sustainability in the long term. The principles come together into a home that takes care of its off-grid inhabitants indefinitely without any utility bills or reliance on the grid.

The possibility of learning how to build an eternal off-grid house with all modern conveniences initially drew me to this esoteric knowledge hidden in the Taos desert mesa plateau 7,500 feet above sea level. My academy session was  six weeks long with eight hour days split evenly in the classroom and on the construction site. During this time, I was able to learn more about the Earthship design principles, philosophy, history, and systems. I decided after the academy to volunteer with the construction crew at Earthship Biotecture and learned everything from installing a roof, framing a greenhouse, stonework finishes, plastering, tiling, electrical wiring layout, and installing a greywater planter during the eight months I spent volunteering. I learnt enough to actually get paid doing some sidework for an African-American family building their very own Earthship 12 miles away from the biotecture headquarters. I had no construction experience prior to enrolling at the academy.

Although I can now confidently say that I have enough experience to enable me to build my very own off-grid Earthship-inspired house, I came away from the experience learning more than that. I came away learning more about sustainable living than the buildings themselves. Living in an Earthship is astoundingly serene, and also makes you quite observant and aware about being a burden to your immediate surroundings. For instance, the south-facing greenhouse in the front of earthships not only keeps the building warm as a passive solar home, but also helps you grow food. The food grown in the greenhouse is cultivated in a greywater planter bed which basically sits in your waste water from the shower and faucets. Whatever waste water that isn’t absorbed by plants, is then pumped back into your toilets to avoid using fresh water to flush your toilet. Unlike in modern architecture, this biotecture reminds you of the intimate relationship humans should have with plants. In order to be able to eat the produce you grow in a greywater planter bed, you have to become more conscious about what you put down the drain, the cleaning/hygiene products you use, and even the food/medicine you put in your body. This is largely because the energy the human body wastes in an Earthship is immediately passed down to the plant. Also on the isolated desert mesa you become conscious about your trash. We often repurpose aluminum cans, cardboard, and glass bottles for building, and are less likely to use plastic bags.

During my time at the Earthship headquarters, I met some amazing people from all over the world doing incredible things to change and challenge norms in their parts of the world. Learning from all these people empowered me to share the knowledge I had gained about biotecture with people back home in Ghana. As a result, I will be moving back home this summer not only to share my knowledge, but also to re-learn sustainable practices in more rural parts of Ghana and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa. I also have a prototype roof design that I am developing that would help existing homes in what I call Middle Earth (15°0′N to 15°0′S) be cooler, and more comfortable. The roof design will inevitably reduce the need for energy consuming fans and air conditioners. After graduating, I have found that I’m dedicated not only to cultivation of intellect, and the continual pursuit of knowledge, but also to helping others learn about how they can live more sustainably. Although I haven’t used my Economics degree in a conventional sense, I hope to make an impact where it’s need. I’m really excited about the work I’m involved with now and what is to come in the future. I hope to keep finding inspiration in unusual places. This summer I will be an instructor and particpant for a rammed earth workshop in Abetenim in Kumasi, Ghana. We will be leveraging pre-existing knowledge about earth building in the local village from local craftsmen and natural resources such as laterite and bamboo for the build. As a proud DePauw alum, I would love to see some DePauw input in this exciting project. Hopefully some cool students have an interest in volunteering.

Click here to contribute to Ayo’s Kickstarter campaign.

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