Author: Suse Coon

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Friday, June 23rd, 2006 at 10:24 am
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The Earthship In East Lothian

The East Lothian Earthship features not alien invaders but a new approach to sustainable building.
As guardians of planet earth, we are truly stretching our welcome and you don’t need Lothian Life to tell you that. Whether you are a financial forecaster or a weather forecaster, the buzz word of the millennium is sustainability. Agenda 21, the local authority guideline for sustainable development, developed since the Rio de Janeiro summit in 1992, has been a major influence on planning and building control decisions ever since its creation. But what if someone were to develop a truly sustainable building, one which uses no energy that it can not create itself and which creates no waste? Is it possible in our Scottish climate?
Steven Wray of Haddington is finding out.
With our long, dark winters, creating high demands on energy in buildings, Scotland is an ideal testing ground for construction methods and materials that claim to deliver that energy at low cost. One of the most interesting experiments to come out of the latest surge of interest in ‘green’ architecture is the Earthship. Not only does it gather its own water, create its own energy and dispose of its own waste, its unique construction method uses products which would otherwise be consigned to landfill.
Designed and built for thirty years in the warm latitudes of New Mexico, it is now under test in Scotland’s more rigorous climate at the Craigengalt Ecology Centre near Kinghorn, Fife. The construction programme started in July 2002 during an intensive 8-day building programme led by Earthship pioneer Michael Reynolds, and 11 trainees from across Scotland and England. Since July 2002 more than 200 volunteers have completed the Earthship over weekends and work experience days.
The project was conceived by the Sustainable Communities Initiative as a prototype one roomed building. Its use as an office-cum-visitor centre did not require the same stringent applications of planning and building control standards as would be required for housing, but it is being regularly monitored and assessed over a three year period to secure permanent validation for Earthship building techniques in Scotland. Earthship Fife has been granted full planning permission and a 5 year building warrant. Although the building is to be used as a demonstration centre the housing standards were applied to both applications.
Now, Steven Wray is building his own Earthship in East Lothian, the first of these buildings in the UK to have a non-experimental use. Steven’s Earthship will be a workshop. He’s a woodworker and plans to work and teach at the new building.
A Health Improvement Officer with East Lothian Council, Steven’s love of wood and woodworking meant that when Blinkbonny Woods, near Gullane, came up for sale, he couldn’t resist stretching the budget and buying it. The site has no water supply, no services and no possibility of installing water or electricity supplies or sewers. Earthship East Lothian was the perfect solution.
Earthships are built using the principle of thermal mass to collect and to prevent loss of heat. Heat from the sun is collected and stored in massively thick walls.
The south facing wall is glazed to collect as much sun and heat as possible, while the thick north facing wall, which is ideally enclosed in a hillside, has no windows at all. Water is collected on the roof of the building and waste (grey water from the sink and black water from the toilet) is purified through garden plants grown in the south facing conservatory.
Electricity is generated from a wind turbine and from photovoltaic cells. At Earthship Fife, electricity is also generated from a hydro electric system but Steven believes that he will have enough electricity for his needs at Blinkbonny, as he works almost exclusively with hand tools.
This complete independence makes the Earthship ideal for rural areas and conservationists are also excited by the novel construction method – the walls are made from old tyres, compacted with earth. This is by far the hardest and most time-consuming part of the construction and Steven has been helped by teams of volunteers, interested in learning about the building. Measuring four feet thick, they are built, brick like, in overlapping layers, tapering backwards into the ground and forming a semicircle.
“I went round the local garages and offered to take the tyres off their hands,” Steven explains. “They have to pay to have tyres disposed of, so they were happy to let me have them for nothing.”
Spaces between the tyres are filled with crushed tin cans and glass bottles, then an adobe-type mix of earth, sand, straw and a dash of cement is applied to hold them in place and to provide a smooth outer surface. The construction method doesn’t require highly skilled tradesmen and so is suitable for communities where labour is plentiful but not necessarily skilled.
Steven plans a rough stone wall with sandstone boulders collected from the site to finish it off, while Earthship Fife has used natural stone and, with the established conservatory, is genuinely attractive. American models are typically finished in adobe but are often painted and decorated.
Plans are available from the American originator, detailing how to collect and purify the water. The roof, slightly bowl shaped and clearly waterproof, must be kept clean – there were problems at Earthship Fife when peacocks used it as a drinking bowl and left their mark! Water is collected in a tank and goes through two filters before being used for washing, while drinking water goes through a third filter. Grey waste water from the sinks is dealt with by plants in the conservatory at the front of the building and recycled for use in the toilet. Black waste water from the toilet is taken to a more remote greenhouse, although in America, both systems are combined. These systems are being monitored by Fife Council’s Building Control Department and Scottish Environment and Protection Agency (S.E.P.A.) and so far are proving functional. It is essential that plants thrive and have root systems which provide the necessary filtration, which means that greenhouse plants, rather than annuals, are used. However, the remote greenhouse boasts a flourishing selection of tomatoes and other edible goodies, which clearly thrive on such nourishing compost.
An earth compost toilet is an option but one of the main builders at Earthship Fife pointed out, “We want the Earthship to look as normal as possible, so that visitors from the cities are not put off by anything unusual like that.”
Steven, however, plans to build a separate compost toilet. As we go to press, the roof at Blinkbonny is in the process of being constructed. Then the masses of insulation will go on and the front wall and internal fittings will follow.
Building on your own, with occasional volunteer help, makes for a long term project. All the volunteers are enthusiasts, with varying levels of expertise and they enjoy exchanging ideas and suggestions for alternative, more or less environmentally friendly, more or less expensive, materials are passed on.
A farmer from Perthshire, who is considering diversifying into the holiday cottage industry by building a number of Earthships, wonders if his own sheep’s wool could be used for insulation. It is barely profitable to shear them nowadays.
“This site isn’t ideal,” Steven admits. “In order to face south, the building faces away from the view to the Forth estuary and the hills of Fife, which is a pity. But, apart from being the only option for a building in this location, I want to make as little impact on the woods as possible. By using waste materials, I am not only keeping my costs down, but I’m helping, in a small way, to reduce the impact of other people’s waste.”
To find out more about Earthships, contact:
Sutainable Communities Initiatives
Kinghorn Loch, Kinghorn, Fife KY3 9YG
email (for general enquiries) (to request a tour or book the earthship)
(01592) 891884
On their web site, amongst the information about the charity’s aims and objectives, details of their publications and links to other sites, you will find a number of interesting stocking fillers for Christmas presents. Based on recycled materials the items on offer include pencils made from recycled vending machine cups and retractable ballpoint pens made from recycled computer printer plastic; They also have tough pencil cases made from recycled tyre material and heavy-duty mousemats made from recycled tyres. There’s also a nifty energy meter that allows you to find out which appliances in your home are costing the most. Whether your fridge is working too hard? How much energy standby lights really cost? And what is the embodied energy in a slice of toast?

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