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Earth mover

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The earthships have landed - not aliens from another planet but self-contained, environmentally friendly dwellings that their creator says points to the future

Mike Reynolds is unequivocal in his view about architecture: he feels that it is failing, that it is irresponsible and that it is not taking seriously the challenges of protecting the planet. In fact, he does not describe himself as an architect at all, but a 'biotect', such is the level of his disaffection.

One of the world's foremost exponents of environmental architecture, Reynolds is responsible for designing and helping to build hundreds of structures, called 'earthships', across the world. They are autonomous buildings that do not require connection with utilities - electricity, gas, water or sewage - as they are able, in conjunction with the natural elements, to service their own needs.

They therefore have extremely low CO 2emissions.

We are in Brighton at the site of the first earthship in England and one of the first in Europe. It is situated just outside the city in Stanmer Park, in acres of rolling downs and characterful woodland on a south-facing chalk slope. The countryside is very English but American accents, including Reynolds', can be heard clearly on the site as a strong, blustery wind and driving rain force a halt to the day's work.

Reynolds is one of the last people to retreat indoors. For some the phrase 'getting your hands dirty' has been reduced to a metaphor; it means that you have merely visited the site or spoken to workers on the shop-floor. However, Reynolds, who is 57, has dirty hands, literally, and is exhausted after a day of hard physical labour.

But the bad weather is nothing new to him. 'We're used to it, ' he says. 'In New Mexico we have snow, rain, hail, wind - everything!' It is in the mountains of Taos County, New Mexico, that Reynolds is based and where he and his team have built most earthships. They are in Brighton to offer their expertise and experience to the project - an expertise that has seen them build structures in Japan, Bolivia, Belgium and South Africa, among other places. Work is already under way for a 130-home site in New Mexico.

'Because we've done it everywhere, in all kinds of climates, we know that they work, ' he says. He talks about a process of 'tuning' each earthship for the appropriate climate in order to 'perform differently in hot/dry, cold/wet, cold/dry, hot/wet, etc.' However, the fundamental principles are simple and remain constant whatever the environment.

Earthships all face south, with large windows to maximise solar gain. The temperature is then stored in the 'thermal mass' of the walls of the structure, which are made out of tyres and earth. 'We get the temperature with the sun and the thermal mass with the dirt beat into the tyres, ' says Reynolds.

But this places certain limitations on the design of the structure: 'You can't say: 'I'm gonna live in a house that has glass all the way around' and apply the principle of thermal mass. It just won't work. You have to surround yourself with thermal mass.'

Reynolds claims there is no better building block for storing temperature than tyres packed with earth. 'If I was paid £30 million to invent the best thermal mass brick I could, I would invent a tyre, ' he says.He admits that the concept of using tyres was initially contrived to try to recycle what is a massive waste problem, but says now he 'would not build any other way'.

He graduated in architecture from the University of Cincinnati in 1969, a fully qualified architect. While still at college he started to think that architecture was not responding to the environmental challenges facing it. On leaving university, he 'basically started responding to the news', which told him there were huge environmental problems - 'garbage problems trees being cut down' - along with the 'energy crunch' of the early 1970s.

He began creating structures out of rubbish - bottles and beer-cans - and then started to develop the concept of thermal mass housing.

He has been designing and building these structures for more than 25 years.

As well as being environmentally friendly buildings, earthships also have significant social implications by virtue of the fact they are autonomous and so low-cost to maintain. 'Typical citizens of any developed country are stressed - they're trying to make their mortgage payment or their rent and their utility bill and their car payment, ' says Reynolds. But with the earthship there is no heating bill, no power bill, no water bill.

'Consequently, ' he says, 'life is a lot more mellow - and that's beyond architecture.'

He feels that earthships have a vastly greater future than simply being singlestructure, small-scale projects. 'If someone was going to build a city right now, the first thing they'd have to do would be to spend millions of pounds on infrastructure: power, water, sewage.With these buildings you don't have to have any infrastructure - you just have to start building the buildings.'

In fact, the future he envisages will rely on this type of building. 'While other people and professionals may take this further in different ways, we're right now planting the seeds, and, if humanity is to survive, they will have to do something like this, ' he says.

These sentiments may sound extreme, but when put in the context of remarks such as those by Paul Hyett they sound rather less so.Hyett wrote in The Architects' Journal that we have 'an architecture that is increasingly incapable of serving its most primitive purpose: providing safe shelter. Our modern cities continue to be torn apart to accommodate ecologically destructive buildings that have insatiable energy demands for even the most basic functions of ventilation, lighting and cooling' (AJ 8.7.99).

Rather than viewing Reynolds as an extremist, perhaps he should be seen to sit firmly in a vanguard of pioneers who are demonstrating that architecture must be a lot less about 'design' and a lot more about the environment. 'Housing should be a result of biology and physics, not a result of design prettiness, ' he says. 'I am all for art and design, but if you make a boat really beautiful and it sinks, what the hell use is it?'

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