Lorraine Skala did not cut a ribbon to officially open the Earthship house at Silver Lake Nature Center. Instead, she clipped a vine.
The move added symbolism to an already symbolic gesture, but in the case of the Earthship, it seemed especially appropriate. The building was constructed over the last few years with recycled products, including 360 rubber tires, glass bottles and other materials. On Sept. 16, it was opened to the public for the first time.
“It couldn’t have been done without everybody here. Blood, sweat, tears and then some,” Skala said before cutting the vine. “I just feel really fortunate that I work in this community, where things like this are possible.”
She and her husband, Jim Skala, led dozens of people through the building. It was Lorraine’s “hairbrained scheme,” but Jim, a union carpenter, helped make it a reality. He organized construction for the Earthship, spending countless hours of labor to build his wife’s vision.
“I had the ideas and he had the skills,” Skala said.
Skala is also education director at Silver Lake, located at 1306 Bath Road in Bristol Township. The Earthship, she said, has an educational function, showing people that sustainable living is possible. At around 1,000 square feet, the building is designed to be fully sustainable and produce zero carbon footprint.
With solar panels, it can function with no connection to the electrical grid and it does not need a water or sewage system. The soil-filled tires that make up most of the wall operate as a thermal mass that stores heat. The large windows across the front side of the building allow that portion of the house to work like a greenhouse, complete with a garden maintained by recycled wastewater.
To regulate heating and cooling without electricity, there is a convection vent that stays open in the summer and closed in the winter. In the summer, the walls absorb excessive heat, creating a cool atmosphere inside. In the winter, sunlight pours in and the surrounding earth radiates heat, which does not easily escape.
“You’re working with nature to supply your needs. It’s all about intentional living,” Skala said. “You don’t wake up in the morning and take everything for granted.”
She compared the comforts of American living with that of people elsewhere, who don’t have easy access to drinking water or live in homes with electricity or heating and cooling systems. Structures like this, she said, may be a solution to both mitigate some environmental concerns and provide a model for sustainable living across the globe.
The effort to build the Earthship involved many community members. Funds to get the project started were supplied by a $25,000 grant from the the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development. Individuals contributed through the “message in bottle” fundraiser, where they would donate and leave a message in one of the bottles that make up parts of the wall. Others bought commemorative bricks for the floor.
Tires and other materials were taken from area landfills, and Tire City in Bristol supplied old tires to round out the construction.
The idea of Earthships was conceived by Michael Reynolds, an architect based in New Mexico. He is the main inspiration for Skala’s design at Silver Lake Nature Center. Over the years, he has written five books on the topic and constructed several Earthships with designs incorporating water catchment from roofs, composting toilets and indoor gardening, all of which are elements of the Silver Lake Earthship house.
“Earthships are not catching on around here, but they are elsewhere,” Skala said. “We did it as an educational piece to show that you can live comfortably without consuming a lot of fossil fuels.”
For information on the Earthship, visit www.silverlakenaturecenter.org.