Beer Bottles, Bricks and Mortar

One man's garbage is another man's home, as Jodi Adams discovers.

One man's garbage is another man's home, as Jodi Adams discovers.

In these days of anonymously designed, cheaper by the dozen housing estates and governmental pressure for "urban consolidation" (read: more high rise apartments), the expression "maverick architect" seems quaint and old fashioned, something belonging to the days of gentleman designers such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Alistair Knox, Walter Burley Griffin - as well as a seeming contradiction in terms.

For while most architecture students would view themselves as part of a creative, innovative profession, the reality is that the majority who manage to find work in their industry will discover that creativity and innovation - let alone really maverick thoughts of combining recycling and sustainability - are far from welcome in 21st century Australia!

Or in America, where architect Michael Reynolds has battled for many decades for the right to design and build "radically sustainable" Earthship homes from a combination of natural and manmade (and usually discarded) materials such as tyres, beer bottles and even old stoves!

The focus of an acclaimed documentary, Garbage Warrior, which was screened in Australian cinemas last year, Reynolds is due to visit Australia next month to be a key speaker at a series of Victorian events including the Banksia Environmental Awards, the Design For Extremes - Living With Fire Forum and a City of Bendigo public talk.

Interviewed recently for NOVA, he maintains a positive outlook in the midst of a global economic crisis which ironically mushroomed from unsustainable housing loans.

"I think [the crisis] will cause people in wealthy countries to start living more simply and force them to set up a method of living that is less dependent on pure economics," he says, adding, "The economy should be a product of a sustainable society and not the other way around as it is at present."

Reynolds' commitment to building with recycled materials began shortly after he graduated from university in 1969. By 1972, he was building the Thumb House from beer cans wired together into "bricks" which were then mortared together and plastered over.

This design was awarded a US patent the following year. He has also used beer bottles to make "bricks" - in fact, he proudly told NOVA, his oldest still standing and occupied house, built 40 years ago, is constructed of bottle bricks.

Another source of pride is that in Jamaica (one of many countries, from Scotland to Swaziland, in which Reynolds and his Earthship Biotecture organisation work to promote the reuse of materials in building solid, energy efficient homes for the poor) a bottle brick factory has been built next to a large dump, thus providing not only reuse of otherwise wasted materials but much needed jobs as well!

Six principles guide the construction of an Earthship:

* thermal/solar heating and cooling
* solar and wind powered electricity
* contained sewerage treatment
* construction with natural and recycled materials
* the harvesting of water
* the production of food.

The structures that have been built using these guidelines include individual family homes, multihome residential developments, commercial structures, and disaster relief housing.

Ironically, Reynolds finds that his biggest challenge in building this form of housing lies not in developing or Third World countries, but in locations like Ireland, the afore-mentioned Scotland, and in America.

"A current barrier between providing sustainable green living and low cost housing is building codes and the time it takes to try and force new ones," Reynolds complains.

"People in Scotland who won a lottery grant to build sustainable community housing chose an Earthship design to build - but it has taken them over two years to get the permit. Ireland has set aside $4.4 million for building green housing, but has no current permit system to build Earthship housing.

"In Southern California, a group wanting to do a green building project are struggling with having to fit in with existing heritage codes that require it to look like a 1905 structure. And in 1905, buildings didn't have a lot of glass or windows to take advantage of solar energy.

"You could build a facade to fit in, but it then throws out the building's planned energy efficiency...it's a real problem. I can understand why groups like Habitat For Humanity [an international not for profit Christian ecumenical group which has built more than 300,000 houses for the world's poor since 1976] find that it's easier and quicker to build homes to existing building codes rather than trying to force new ones."

Reynolds knows a lot about building codes and the battle involved in changing them: the Garbage Warrior film highlighted his long time battle against New Mexico authorities when some of his architectural clients, despite being told that the homes he was building for them were experimental, filed lawsuits against him over structural defects.

Although Reynolds claimed these defects (leaks and temperature issues) were solvable, he was forced to voluntarily relinquish his New Mexico architecture and construction licenses in 2000. (He adds that none of these houses has been torn down, all are structurally sound, and most have subsequently been retrofitted to solve the problems.)

During many years spent in and out of the court system, Reynolds maintains it is critically important that architects and builders be allowed to experiment with housing design, as it is only through experimentation that new developments can occur in any field.

He has subsequently been given back his architect's license, been allowed to continue with his Earthship projects - and invited to address such prestigious organisations as the board of the American Institute of Architects and most recently a fundraising UN Exprize charity event at which "35 innovators from around the planet will address politicians and philanthropists including Bill Gates and Steven Job".

And while the banking crunch and ongoing credit access issues are affecting the numbers of people they can build homes for in their American and European Earthship communities, the move towards more flexible, environmentally aware building codes continues. "Although in California, Arizona and New England, it's very difficult to build sustainable recycled housing, in the rest of the US it's now much easier, and the interest in what we're doing has been steadily growing and is bigger than ever," Reynolds says.

Reynolds and his team have also been increasingly engaged in welfare and aid projects, including those involving working with Native American communities where, "the US Government housing that has been provided is not practical nor useful for those communities, doesn't address cultural needs and often ends up being trashed". Also in focus is the privately funded Swaziland project and plans "to build orphanages and schools for children displaced through the AIDS epidemic".

Another project is a building called the Phoenix which is aimed at sustaining "a family of four and needs no outside supply of power, water, sewerage and food: the inhabitants can grow vegetables, fruit, fish as it has an equal amount of space for housing and for food production".

Along the way, new discoveries are being made and new (recycled) materials are being utilised. "We recently built a building out of cardboard boxes for a school in Norway, and have learnt that in cold climates you use a linear design for collecting solar energy, whereas domes are fine for tropical areas.

"We are using a lot more plastics, such as plastic bottles, in our housing construction now as there is so much plastic waste that can be utilised, and we have started harvesting old appliances such as washing machines and stoves for their baked enamel finish, which we have been making roofing tiles from."

So what would Reynolds - obviously a thinker and dreamer - claim as one of his greatest dreams?

His answer is very reminiscent of those tea towels and T shirts which sold in the millions during the Vietnam War and read: "If only the armies of the world had to hold fetes and garage sales to raise money for their weapons..."

For Reynolds the message is: "If every soldier in every army would drop their weapons and start building green housing, then the world's housing problems would be solved tomorrow. I believe the our current form of economy is destined to die unless we start investing in taking care of people, not just in shareholdings. That would be a living economy!"

Michael Reynolds will be in Melbourne for the State of Design Conference in July. He will be a keynote speaker at two public talks in Melbourne and Bendigo on 24 and 25 July. See www.stateofdesign.com.au for more details.