The home that heats itself: Bristol’s new “Earthship House” nears completion

By Jack Firneno
Wire Editor 

JACK FIRNENO / WIRE PHOTO Silver Lake Nature Center's "Earthship House" requires no electricity for heating and cooling, and collects and recycles rainwater .

JACK FIRNENO / WIRE PHOTO Silver Lake Nature Center’s “Earthship House” requires no electricity for heating and cooling, and collects and recycles rainwater .

What’s one of the key components to Silver Lake Nature Center’s new zero-carbon footprint, sustainable energy building?

Rubber tires.

The new house, which is nearly complete, sits on the Nature Center’s property in Bristol Township. The project began in the summer of 2011 and is slated for completion early next year. This fall, the Nature Center is holding its last large-scale fundraiser while raising public awareness of why houses like this are gaining in popularity.

“We’re the only species who really doesn’t know how to house itself sustainably,” explained Lorraine Skala, project coordinator for the earthship. “I don’t know about you, but the house I live in uses a lot of fossil fuels to heat itself.”

The Nature Center house — the “global model” version of what are often nicknamed earthships — is a trend that’s already taking off in the western part of the country and overseas. These houses, said Skala, “cost no more than the houses we live in, but the operating costs are much less.”

The Nature Center’s earthship house looks like a regular small house, albeit one built into the side of a hill. But looks can be deceiving: it requires no electricity for heating and cooling, and collects and recycles rainwater for virtually all household needs.


JACK FIRNENO / WIRE PHOTO The Earthship house uses an external layer of old tires, dirt and other materials to trap heat.

And it uses rubber tires to do it. That, and passive solar power. The outside roof and rear of the house are covered with nine layers of them, 360 used automobile tires in all and each packed with nearly 300 pounds of dirt. Over that goes a berming layer of soil and other materials — “Like pulling the earth over you like a blanket,” explained Skala. On top of that are containers for capturing rainwater.

It’s a monolithic structure that withstands earthquakes and hurricanes, and allows the home to maintain a “comfortable, consistent” temperature year-round. These layers act as a thermal shield, trapping heat that comes through the large glass windows. Inside, a system of vents allows people inside the home to further control the temperature.

Meanwhile, the rainwater that’s collected from the roof is cleaned and recycled for use throughout the house. Waste water is filtered out and used for fertilizer.

“For me, the biggest thing is no heating or cooling system,” Skala noted. “It’s something that can be built in any climate, at any time.”

And, the climate on the East Coast is changing, at least in terms of people warming up to the idea of a sustainable house like this. The Nature Center’s house is built by an all-volunteer crew, and Skala expects this season’s fundraiser — the Build-A-Brick-Campaign, where donors purchase commemorative bricks that will make up the house’s floor — to be just as successful as their previous efforts.

The Nature Center’s building will be used as a classroom, and it’s the first public structure of its kind on the East Coast. But that won’t be the case for long: other organizations are planning to build similar structures, and Skala hopes people will become more familiar and comfortable with the idea by exploring the one at the Nature Center.

Earlier this week, representatives from Nature Center spoke about the project at a conference in Philadelphia hosted by Earthship Biotech, a company that plans to build similar structures in the region. Later this month, the Nature Center is holding a public workshop about the buildings.

It’s all part of the effort to raise awareness of these homes as an alternative to energy-guzzling designs that require HVAC systems and excessive fossil fuels to maintain comfortable temperatures. “We build these square structures and expect them to do amazing things for us,” she noted.

Skala said the idea is catching on, but admits they’ve got a long way to go before earthship houses are in the mainstream. “It’s different. It’s radical,” she said, “But I like radical.”

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