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Featured Outlaw: Michael Reynolds



By Tyler Allen Staff Writer

Twenty-five years ago, Michael Reynolds assembled progressive architectural prototypes into one seminal idea: Earthships.

Integrating solar, wind, thermal mass, rainwater harvest, gray water recycling and indoor food production, the Taos, New Mexico-based architect builds homes from re-purposed garbage. The exterior shell and interior walls are made from used tires pounded full of dirt, glass bottles and cans, stacked and mortared together with mud.

“I don’t call anything garbage,” Reynolds says. “We can use anything for building materials.”

The structures are off the grid, and off the map of conventional home construction, which is why the county tried to shut down his Greater World Earthship Community test site.

Even a seven-year permitting battle with Taos County and an exhausting effort in the New Mexico legislature to pass a new sustainable building act couldn’t break Reynolds’ resolve. In 2007, he returned to his life’s work: changing the world one house at a time.

His company Earthship Biotecture, given notoriety by the documentary Garbage Warrior, has built more than 1,000 of these buildings, while do-it-yourselfers have built another 1,000. Taos has been the training ground, though Reynolds has built Earthships from Illinois to Vermont, Canada to Haiti, and France to Australia; as well as on islands in the Indian Ocean stricken by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

Monte Koch lives in an Earthship northeast of Big Timber, Montana. “I’m not a huge global warming environmentalist,” he says. “But the efficiency and economics make sense. If you take care of this house, it will take care of you.”

It’s so well insulated, Koch can’t even hear the notorious Shields Valley wind that rips over the barren steppe east of the Crazy Mountains. During winter storms, he uses a giant squeegee to keep snow from piling up on his giant south-facing windows.

“This deal isn’t for everyone,” Koch says. “But everyone can learn from it.”

The Earth’s mass stores heat – about 48 degrees below the frost line in Big Timber – which is conducted by the mass of the building. That means it only requires enough energy to raise the indoor temperature 15 to 20 degrees to a comfortable living climate.

The south-facing glass wall of Koch’s house filters light into an 80-foot-long living space that is bright and warm, even by the rear, tire-filled wall. Glass bottles in the interior walls refract ambient light, while the aluminum cans reflect it, bouncing sunlight throughout the rooms. Orange trees, dwarf giant bananas, parsley, pepper plants and concord grapes grow in his greenhouse. In addition to producing food, they filter the gray water created by daily living, which is then drained into a treatment and containment system for later use.

Reynolds believes these homes can be built anywhere on Earth humans live. In the next year, he’ll bring Earthships to Guatemala, Tierra del Fuego, Sweden and mid-town Manhattan.

“It keeps getting more and more exciting,” he says. “We’re building in more strange places around the globe and looking for more challenges.”

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