Earthships — homes built on the concept of sustainable architecture using plenty of discarded consumer products — are here. Esther Elias takes us on a tour of Earthship Karuna, mainland India’s first such home, near Shembaganur, Kodaikanal.
In the Western Ghats, 1800 metres above sea level, a deviation off the road to Kodaikanal veers left onto a stony path to Prakashapuram village, Shembaganur. Over three steep kilometres, the stones give way to dirt and the unused track narrows to a jeep’s width. Green ferns, blue morning glories, pink lantanas and white daturas jostle with indigenous shola forests and eucalyptus trees baring white skin beneath stripped bark. The road ends. A trail of rubber tyres, filled with earth, begins. A 15-minute trek later, the forests break into an open space with a circular house, its sloped roof amidst clouds: mainland India’s first Earthship.
“As a citizen of the earth, I fully have the right to harvest water from the sky, grow my own food in my own home, to harvest energy from the sun and the wind, to contain and reuse my own waste on my own land, to make my shelter comfortable without the use of fossil fuels and to harvest what others throw away to construct my own home,” writes architect Michael Reynolds, who founded Earthship Biotecture in New Mexico. Over 40 years of experimenting with trash, he built homes that perform the above, called Earthships. British web developer Alex Leeor brings to India this global movement with his Earthship in Kodaikanal.
In April 2001, Alex, with 150 others, attended a conference in Brighton, England, where Michael spoke of Earthships and their ‘biotecture’ — his concept of sustainable architecture. Motivated by his vision, some of them formed Low Carbon Network which built England’s first Earthship — Earthship Brighton. “We met, and even exceeded, all of England’s strict building regulations. That’s when I knew I wanted to build my own Earthship. I just never knew where,” says Alex.
The right place
Five years passed; some spent in the U.K., others in the U.S. and even a short stint in Australia but no place felt just right. In 2006, Alex visited Kodaikanal, drawn by his devotion to Sai Baba who held yearly retreats here. He stayed at Karuna Farms in Shembaganur, a 20-acre expanse of Shola forests. “I stepped in and instinctively knew: This was it.” A small cottage in the Farms was home till 2009, when Alex began building India’s first Earthship — Earthship Karuna. Three years of toil later, he sits in his new home, against a backdrop of bhajans from an Ipad, his nose stud glistening in the rays of sunshine falling from a sky roof.
“Absolutely anyone can build these homes, even without any construction background. All you need is minimal intelligence,” says Alex, thumbing through frayed, stained copies of Michael’s Earthship construction guidebooks. Like Earthships the world over, Earthship Karuna has no foundation. Its weight-bearing walls are built from over a thousand reused tyres, compacted with earth from the very site of construction and stacked like bricks. The gaps between them are filled with discarded cola cans, held together with mud plaster. “The founding principle is of thermal mass,” explains Alex. “The tyres absorb direct sun rays when it’s warm and release the heat when cold. So, the Earthship self-regulates its temperature effectively enough for winter in just a t-shirt.” Earthships have kept inhabitants warm even in winters below -20 C, enough to glue your tongue to your lips.
The Earthship’s walls are also earthquake resistant since each earth-rammed tyre weighs 300 pounds. Interestingly, Michael’s team has built Earthships in the Andamans from just the debris left from the 2004 tsunami. It takes about 30 minutes to ready one tyre, if two work simultaneously. One person shovels earth while the other compacts it in. “I’ve had help from international friends, people from Auroville, even families with kids. Everyone uses their hands to build; no machines. Local and migrant labour have helped as well, often without a word exchanged,” says Alex.
Internal walls of the house were built with over 1,000 plastic bottles, retrieved from the Kodaikanal waste dump. Over 200 bottles were from a lady who’d stored her wine bottles for years under the sink, wondering how to dispose them. Similarly, rubber tyres were sourced through the Coimbatore Municipality which linked Alex to a private retreader who sent up abandoned tyres. “The wonderful thing about biotecture is that we ‘reclaim’ other’s waste into something useful. ‘Reclaim’ not ‘recycle’”, Alex emphasises, “because recycling involves one energy step further to convert the waste into something new. We use waste as it is, only differently.”
Earthships are also designed to be water-sufficient through rain-water harvesting. They are also water wise in that the same water is used up to three times. The first time, it comes through the kitchen taps, after which it drains into planters within the house. “In most Earthships, the run-off from here is gathered and pumped into flush tanks but since water is more abundant here than power, I don’t follow that step,” says Alex. From the flush, the water and waste is directed to an underground hole, also lined by tyres, above which plants grow.
“Living in an Earthship makes you alive to the earth’s goings-on. You notice the rains, the sunshine and the wind since you live in sync with them,” says Alex. Earthship Karuna is unconnected to Kodaikanal’s electric grid and is instead powered by one kilowatt solar panels. “And it’s not like I’m living under one light bulb. There are laptops, a printer, fridge, projector, jacuzzi, electrical kitchenware, even mood lighting — all the works in a regular home — only, these are hand-picked for energy efficiency.” Alex also harnesses the sun through a sky roof and glass windows which not only floodlight his home but also greenhouse the plants growing within. The year-old, in-house planter now has plantains, passion-fruit, frangipani, curry leaves and aloe vera among others. “My hope is to soon be self-sufficient from this garden,” says Alex.
Proving a point
“I built this home to prove that a sustainable lifestyle doesn’t have to be a difficult one. And, if you can build an Earthship on this terrain, it can be done anywhere,” says Alex. To reach the tyres to his home, workers trekked with eight tyres at a time slung across a stick over their shoulders. Alex even managed to bring up roof tiles, a jacuzzi and a four-poster bed. “Living this way is an extension of my belief that the Earth and us are one. But sustainable living aside, Earthships speak to even eco-sceptics, who believe global warming and resource scarcity are myths, since Earthships give you material freedom forever,” he says.
In a world where a lifetime’s assured supply of food, water and power are unguaranteed luxuries, Alex’s home is an enviable one. Earthships, however, aren’t all about living on the edge. Alex is reasonable enough to have one generator as electricity backup and an ill-used connection to a nearby stream for water. Even so, while Kodaikanal has power cuts often, he’s had just two shutdowns in the last year.
These advantages make the Earthship’s arrival in India a well-timed one. For those following the green-home trend, here’s one that goes beyond mere branding and still is more than a mud house. For the innumerable homeless in India, the homes Earthship Biotecture made from Haiti’s 2010 earthquake debris could be an example to emulate. “The beauty about the Earthship design is its materials are adaptable to any terrain and can be structurally modified to suit individual aesthetics,” he says. Thus design, and therefore cost, vary by the builder. Alex’s luxury, customised version of the Earthship is costly, but a basic one can start at Rs. 20 lakh, including the power systems and solar panelling. The Earthship design is however, unsuitable for multi-storied structures, unless built on a slope. Since 2009, Alex has received over 600 international and Indian queries about Earthship Karuna but few have taken their enthusiasm towards actually building one.
Two hours of conversation have passed, varied dogs, adults and kids have wandered in and the clouds which earlier hid the Earthship’s roof have lifted. Outside Alex’s window is a breathtaking drop to the valley below, the fall uninterrupted by tarred roads or tamed forests. The Earth echoed the Biblical psalmist’s voice, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.”