Natural Life Magazine

Earthship North: Building a Home and a Community
by Jane Buchan

Thirty kilometres south of Bancroft, Ontario, Pat and Chuck Potter, environmentalists originally hailing from Dunnville, Ontario, Canada, made history in 1995. On 37 acres of mixed forests whose inhabitants include bear, moose, beaver, and the Potter's five huskies, the activists adapted the building specifications of New Mexico architect Michael Reynolds' Earthship to meet the challenges of eastern Canada's extreme winter conditions. The Potters used environmentally aware adventurers with a taste for the beauty of Ontario's forests to help complete the project on a working vacation.

While still a high school student, project manager Patricia Hayes designed her own co-op program with Michael Reynolds. After her first co-op experience as a member of an Earthship crew in Taos, New Mexico, she enrolled in the Architectural Technologist program at Toronto, Ontario's Humber College. Then, she completed an apprenticeship in Taos as an Earthship builder, working on four houses with many of Reynold's other apprentices. Once the Potter Earthship was completed and passed inspection, Hayes became licensed by Reynolds and able to oversee Earthship projects throughout North America.

The advantages of the Earthship technology are numerous. Firstly, the use of used tires as building components means our landfills are spared tons of hazardous waste. The Hagersville, Ontario tire fire, the worst in Canadian history – 14 million tires burned in 17 days – brought the advantages of Earthship technology home to the Potters. Committed environmentalists who birthed the Now I Must Be Involved (NIMBI) tugboat which took school children out on Lake Erie to explore its beauty and vulnerability to industrial polluters, the Potters saw first-hand the fallout from a tire fire near their home. Shortly afterward, they heard of Michael Reynolds' concept – a home that takes care of its inhabitants instead of the other way around – and were intrigued by architecture using potentially dangerous raw materials both as a means of providing shelter and of neutralizing their risk to the environment.

When asked about the threat of fire in Earthship construction, Chuck Potter demonstrated the process of filling the tires with earth, pounding them into place, and then cementing them into walls that contain no oxygen. Because their high ignition temperature (500 degrees C as compared to 300 for wood) makes spontaneous combustion or fire from natural causes impossible, experts conclude that all tire fires are intentionally set. Tires used in Earthship construction are rendered harmless because the lack of oxygen renders the homes' inner cement plaster walls harmless, even faced with an arsonist.

A second advantage to Earthship construction is the use of aluminum pop cans. Used as filler in the curved spaces between tires, the cans act as stabilizers for the cement that locks the tires into place and forms the inner wall. While the Potters have found numerous local sources of tires, their pop can supply is low. Most municipalities have recycling programs and aluminum commands a good price in the waste-for-profit business. For this reason, visitors to the site are asked to bring pop cans to aid construction. Because they will be spending the next hundred or so years encased in the Potter's cement walls, the cans used for building the Earthship will not contribute to the recycling industry's air and water pollution.

A third advantage to Earthship construction is its low maintenance cost. Intended to be completely self-sufficient, the Potter Earthship will be powered by electricity generated by the sun and wind, and detached from the energy grid, upon which other homes in the area rely for power. As well, Earthship construction makes central heating unnecessary because of the earth's natural warming and cooling properties. Designed to use mass as a heat source, the tire walls absorb the heat of the sun during the day and radiate it at night during the winter months. During the summer, the angle of the windows prevents direct sunlight from overheating the home.

When the Potter house is finished, the berm, or outer earth covering, will be planted in wildflowers. As one of the few necessary adaptations to the area's colder, wetter climate – and to the local building code – a vapor barrier has been used between the tire walls and the floor. Another accommodation to Ontario's colder weather conditions and building specifications will be total outer wall insulation instead of the four-foot-above-frost-line insulation used in the New Mexican, Californian and British Columbian Earthships. The roof will also be insulated against heat loss during the winter months.

As with other Earthships, the Potter home will make use of grey water recycling into planters in order to grow a portion of the family's year 'round food supply. Black water or toilet waste, which may also be composted or routed into a septic bed in Earthship construction, will be reduced to ash in the Potter's solar toilet. Further energy savers include a solar hot water tank, a cold box (an insulated, vented cupboard dug into the earth instead of a refrigerator) and a wood stove. The Potters will practice sustainable forest management. Besides getting most of its energy from renewable sources, Earthship construction requires very little wood, since the roof beams are the only timber required.

In order to continue to break ground in the environmental education field, the Potters intend to use their northern home as a place to explore and demonstrate sustainable living. Their Earthship home, their homesteading techniques and their permaculture gardening practices will all contribute to the educational nature of the property. 

Jane Buchan is the author of Transformation in Canada's Deep South. This article was published in Natural Life Magazine in 1995.


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