In 2009, Michael Reynolds, an architect from the USA, visited Martin Freney’s property in the Adelaide Hills. Together with 20 volunteers, they created a knee-high wall with used tyres filled with earth. Little did Freney know, that six years and 800 tyres later he would have built the first DA-approved Earthship in Australia.
An Earthship is a unique, earth-rendered building, with the northern wall made of glass. One wall is built into the side of a hill and lined with earth filled tyres, which are hidden under earth render. The other walls are dotted with used, glass bottles of all shapes and colours, giving the building a rounded mosaic look. The house is totally self-sufficient and not connected to electrical, gas, sewerage or water mains.
Electricity is generated by solar panels lining the roof and batteries store the electricity generated, but no energy is required to heat or cool the building.
“In the summer, instead of 40 degree heat, the soil temperature [of the walls] is 20 degrees. That soil temperature conducts into the building,” says Freney. “In winter, the walls feel warmer than the air temperature. It’s conducting the heat out of the earth and into the building.”
Vents are also open and closed to regulate air flow, similar to the sails on a ship. The north-facing glass allows warmth and sunlight into the building in winter.
The building of an Earthship created a lot of interest, so much so that more than one hundred people volunteered their time with labour. “I lost count of how many volunteers we had,” says Freney.
Most came from Australia, but Freney had volunteers from Taiwan, Canada and Germany who filled tyres, cut glass bottles and rendered walls with mud. The volunteers camped on site and Freney took out public liability insurance, fearing the worst, as many volunteers had little to no experience with building. Luckily, only a few bandaids were needed.
Filling the tyres is the most labour intensive part of the build, taking on average 10 to 15 minutes to fill and pound earth with a sledge hammer. Freney averaged 10 tyres a day, so considering his house required 800 tyres, that’s a lot of pounding.
The volunteers provided free labour, but it also provided them with experience and educated them in sustainable building.
While the Earthship uses a lot of old bottles and tyres, it is a common myth that it is cheap and built entirely of recycled material. The biggest expense was the battery, solar panels, inverter and renewable energy installation which came to $16,000. “The house is 10 per cent more expensive, but then you don’t pay for bills,” says Freney.
One surprising problem Freney encountered, unique to South Australia, was the 10c bottle return scheme. This scheme encourages recycling but makes it difficult to locate empty glass bottles for an Earthship. The volunteers couldn’t even drink enough beverages needed for the house. In the end, Freney had to buy empty used bottles to finish his construction.
Another problem that had to be addressed for council approval was the grey water. Freney wanted to divert the washing up water from the washing machine and shower to water the indoor garden. After some wrangling, it was decided he could irrigate the trees outside with the water, but not the indoor greenhouse.
Freney’s favourite part of his home is the lush greenhouse. “The greenhouse is a beautiful indoor garden,” he says. “Last winter we harvested one hundred bananas, kale and tomatoes.” The plants are planted into the ground along the northern window, forming a long green corridor.
Currently, around the country there are about eight Earthships under construction. But, could Freney see Earthships popping up in suburban Australia? “I sure hope so,” he says.