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EARTHWATCH : Recycled Home : 'Earthship' examines the transformation of 3,000 tires into a Santa Fe-style house, a lesson in innovative environmentalism.

March 28, 1991|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I went to a gathering of filmmakers last week. The site was Boulder, Colo., and the event was the World Congress of Environmental Filmmaking. Much of the talk among the attendees--mostly from the northern nations with guilty ecological consciences--was about a TV show by a father-and-son team from California advocating we build our houses from garbage.

Not yet scheduled for prime-time TV but already available in videocassette, this show, entitled "Earthship," is the ultimate home movie. It even has a big star. Early in the show Dennis Weaver, the father of the show's producer, Robbie Weaver, enters and tosses a used tire on the ground. He then proceeds to pound adobe dirt into it with a sledgehammer (he really seems to know how to use it too). And 3,000 tires later, with the help of four guys--who, oddly, seem less fit than the 62-year-old actor--we walk through a gorgeous Santa Fe-style home.

Film festivals in picturesque locales and major television stars attach some glamour to the idea of recycling. If I had said, at the top of this column, that there's a guy who likes to hike in the mountains above Ojai and wants to build homes out of recycled junk, readers might have been worried.

In fact, builders from San Diego to Big Sur--in other words, adobe country--are working plans through the permit process this spring so they can do in our state what folks in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona have been doing for a couple of years.

Los Angeles architects Brigit Brewer and Bill Mock and L.A. developer Bobby Shand (he's the hiker) are working independently to get permission from the Coastal Commission and professional bodies such as the Structural Engineers of California to erect and move into houses made of detritus as tires and aluminum cans.

We're not talking Tobacco Road here. We're talking regular-people housing which, although it costs half as much to build, looks like stuff that might be found in a New Ideas section of Architectural Digest. These are, in the words of Taos, N.M., architect Michael Reynolds (who designed the Weaver home), "self-sufficient houses built from recycled materials." It turns out that by substituting tires for metal lath and rods in an adobe wall, you achieve tremendous durability, structural (earthquake-resistant) advantages and cost savings--$50 per square foot overall compared to $85.

Tires were not Reynolds' first choice. "I tried 100 things," he said. But tires were best for "thermal mass." That's engineer talk for what I would call the "adobe advantage." These houses absorb heat during the day and cold during the night. But the miraculous thing is they give it back just when you want it.

Adobe houses tend to react favorably to any weather condition. The Weaver house, which is located in Colorado, has no heating or air-conditioning. Once, the family maintains, it was 20 degrees outside but the sun was shining. The family--walking around inside wearing shorts--had to open the window to cool off. I know from my own experience that when it's 90 outside in Ojai, an adobe house is so cool at noon that sometimes I need to put on a sweater.

I also know that the generous windows in the Weaver home and other Reynolds buildings are environmentally efficient, functioning like a greenhouse vis-a-vis indoor plants. Interior structures such as stairways are built of concrete honeycombed with aluminum cans, then covered with adobe, as are the tires. Self-sufficiency in heating and cooling is supplemented with photovoltaic cells for the conversion of sunlight into electric lighting. Gray-water recycling is built in too.

One major benefit of this "self-sufficiency" stuff, even if you're not into environmentalism, is the cost savings of building in remote places, as Shand plans to do. It's expensive nowadays to bring in gas and electric hookups, and Ojai is tight on water hookups.

On a global scale, this kind of energy-independent housing would be a boon. And the films I saw at the Boulder gathering help plant the seeds.

As always, however, there's the bottom line. And John Ryan, the San Diego hang-gliding shop owner who's building one of these houses, gave me the best bottom-line line I ever heard. When the truck arrived at Ryan's Lakeside, Calif., acreage with 800 used tires, he began to worry that he didn't have enough cash on hand. Before Ryan could say a word, the driver piped up with: "The best I can pay is half the landfill charge." Ryan got his building materials and the supplier paid him to take them off his hands.

* FYI

For a 28-minute videocassette of "Earthship" by Robbie and Dennis Weaver or a copy of architect Michael Reynolds' book on "Earthship" houses, write to Survival Habitat, P.O. Box 983, Malibu, Calif. 90265. Each item is $27; both for $44. Also useful is "Alternative Energy Sourcebook" from Real Goods in Ukiah, Calif.; 800-762-7325.

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