November 2006

What does social change in response to climate change mean for housing justice? Does it just mean that there will be less pavement-level ventilation ducts blasting out blessed warm air on cold days? Or does it mean asking fundamental questions about land-use and land ownership? Or perhaps it will mean the homeless pioneering self-build lo-impact, lo-cost housing - which unlike their first draft cardboard models under railway arches - are designs which the rest of the population want to copy and live in themselves?

I’m talking Earthships. Oh yes. These are low-impact, sustainable dwellings where you never have to pay a utility bill ever again. They look like Gaudi sculptures all curvy and wavy, but their internal cavities are made from old car tyres and rammed earth to make a compacted earth brick encased in steel belted rubber. The cavity is covered with adobe cement - studded with glass bottles and cans - which is then sealed with linseed oil. The walls are three foot thick so as to be warm in winter and cool in summer; floor to ceiling windows are angled to maximize sunlight, and there’s internal flowerbeds for recycling of black to grey to white water.

The concept is that, once granted a plot of land, people can build their own homes with materials that are free, by-products of those crazy homes that need all those dirty wires in the sky. There’s colonies of earthsips in Mexico, Bolivia, USA, Canada Japan , Belgium and Australia, and post-tsunami Thailand. And as the Earthship guru Michael Reynolds says:

“Earthships... produce their own electricity with a prepackaged photovoltaic power system, collect their own water from a unique metal roof silt catch and cistern system, and deal with their own sewage through food producing greenhouse technology that allows flush toilets. These homes are absolutely independent and can be built in any climate”.

I’m not convinced about the flush toilet part, (you can’t beat a good compost toilet); nor about the never-needing-fossil-fuels-ever part (most people who live in Earthships do have a big old propane gas cylinder out back for the gas-ring and the piping hot bath water). But as the middle-classes desert suburbia because of rising oil prices, new brownfield sites now appear for those who never cared much for commuting anyway, such as the homeless. Self-build earthships could regenerate South Wales and peple could be given grants to build ‘em and move in, or build ‘em and sell ‘em. Yes, Earthships’ need for direct light means they are on the edge of town and this does create problems if you need to get your scrip or if you need to cop. But if they come with regeneration grants to be built in South Wales, this won’t be a problem.

One of the reasons why they are called Earthships is perhaps because the dweller is in an ongoing process of attending to and adjusting their function like a sailboat - opening a convection window here, putting the grey water on the internal flowerbed there - which is very empowering.

There is a large colony of Earthships in New Mexico, where they are popular with affluent greenies. But here in Britain I reckon it’s best pioneered by the homeless, just in case the whole concept doesn’t work and it turns out that they are freezing.

But also because as with climate change, so with housing justice: there is no market-based solution to a market-based problem, so we have to take action ourselves. What’s more, when East Anglia goes under or the Thames Gateway is discovered to have been accidentally built on a flood-plain, there’s going to be a whole lot of people losing their homes, all of whom, like the rest of us, are going to have to find a way of living while keeping fossil fuels in the ground.

From Roof magazine - Shelter's publication which deals with issues of housing justice.