This House in Adelaide Was Built With $170K and a Lot of Used Tyres

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This House in Adelaide Was Built With $170K and a Lot of Used Tyres

An "earthship" is a home that grows its own food, collects its own water, and maintains its temperature using materials like dirt and beer cans. We checked out what might be Australia's first as it nears completion.
April 15, 2016, 12:00am

The nearly-finished earthship in early April. Photos by the author.

Night is close to falling across the Adelaide Hills as a permaculture group talks about what Martin Freney should be planting around his earthship when it's finally done. Down the hill is Marty's earthship, which is an ideal home for anyone who fears the coming environmental apocalypse and is looking for a cushy place to ride it out.

An earthship is an off-the-grid, entirely self-sustaining house that's able to provide all life's essentials. It grows its own food, balances its temperature, collects its own water, produces its own power, recycles its wastewater and is built using materials like dirt, used tyres, and beer cans—all stuff that absorbs heat during the day and pushes it back out at night.

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Martin Freney

Excusing himself from the group, Marty shows me around his nearly-complete home. He's not nearly that hardcore when it comes to the self-sufficiency side of it, although he keeps bee hives and chickens nearby.

"It's a good answer to lots of the problems coming at us with climate change and resource scarcity and expensive electricity, expensive water, expensive food," Marty said when I asked why he decided to build this thing.

Recycled bottles embedded in mudbrick

"The earthship helps address all those problems by being a home that provides them all and comfortable indoor living conditions with its own electricity. It is a bit like a spaceship in that sense, or a sailing ship in that sense, it just gives you everything you needs. It can provide the essentials of life, to a certain degree."

Earthships were first created in the deserts of Taos, New Mexico, by an architect named Mike Reynolds. Straight out of university, the shaggy-haired Reynolds went to work building houses from trash. He published his thesis in 1971 and became a renegade so critical of architecture as a profession that he disappeared into the desert with a ragtag group of followers where he kept on building his "radically sustainable" structures.

The promise of environmentally conscious houses attracted buyers, but the designs were experimental and with them came problems like leaky roofs or poorly built temperature systems. Eventually Reynolds pissed off enough clients that in 1990 the State Architects Board of New Mexico stripped him of his licence, only returning it 17 years later. To get his licence back Reynolds had to agree to follow their guidelines, which he did, albeit reluctantly.

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How the earthship was built. First recycled tyres were packed with earth and stacked in place. The following photos are courtesy of Martin Freney.

Reynolds has since been made an icon of the environmental movement and his designs have gone global, being sold to greenies, survivalists, and people who want something a bit different. The first earthship in Australia went up in Agnes Water, Queensland a few years ago. Marty's was the second to start, the first legal earthship in Australia and the first certified by Reynolds himself.

Back in the Adelaide Hills, Marty is admiring his own incarnation of the Reynolds dream. Marty started off building an outlaw earthship, he tells me, but stopped when he thought better. Once he got planning approval, he started up again. But because the council had him on their radar, they made him stop until he'd also been given building approval.

The tyres were then covered in mud

"They got a bit grumpy at me," he said, adding that there hasn't been much of a problem since. A bigger problem was his greywater system that pipes washing machine water into the garden to grown food. It's a system that wasn't approved by the health authorities who made him decommission it after he boasted of the system to a local reporter.

Marty's pretty laid back about it all now, though he says it's been stressful at times.

It's not the only change that has had to be made. Elements of the design had to be altered to suit an Australian climate because what works in North America doesn't always work here. It's why the glazing on the windows is vertical rather than angled to deal with the harsher sun and the greenhouse roof is designed to fit more solar panels. Marty retained the tire wall design though, saying it's fire retardant and therefore well suited to Australia.

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The rest of the house came together around an arched mould

In terms of price, a cookie-cutter home of the same size is probably cheaper if only because developers have them down to a fine art, although the idea is that an earthship will reduce living costs over time. It's why other earthships are starting to go up across the country and a lot of those building them first learned how by making the trip into the Adelaide Hills to help work on Marty's. As far as Marty knows, they're all outlaw builds.

As for Marty's place, it's almost finished. It's taken seven years and $170,000 to get to this point, but then that's because he never really had a schedule and was (for a time) working a full time teaching sustainable design at the University of South Australia.

A central A-frame roof went over the top

There's a floor in the entrance that needs to be sealed and then he needs to start work making the whole thing look less like a construction site. When it finally sets sail, he plans to rent the place out as a bed and breakfast, though he doesn't know how much he's going to charge and right now his 12-year-old son, Zephyr, mainly uses it to bash a drum kit.

"We'll finish it this summer," he said. "But I've been saying we'll finish this summer for three years."

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