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One Man’s Trash. . .


Interview by Aleksandr Bierig

Soon after Mike Reynolds graduated from architecture school in 1969, he disregarded much of what he had been taught and began a 30-year practice of building “earthships”—off-the-grid dwellings built from what the rest of society deems garbage (discarded cans, bottles, and tires, among other items). His radical and unusual structures have received resistance from zoning and code legislations, spurring a continuing struggle to change the building permit process.

Photos © Kirsten Jacobsen

The hand-made quality of Reynolds’ work is hard to miss; featured projects make use of aluminum can and glass or plastic bottle walls.

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GreenSource: You have said that right after architecture school, you began to feel that the architectural field was “worthless.” How did you arrive at that conclusion?

Reynolds: I was trained as a conventional architect and was taught about 2-by-4s and bricks and flamboyant artistic ideas about design. I also learned to turn the heating and air-conditioning and electrical and plumbing over to an engineer. Since then I’ve discovered that a building in today’s world is a machine that has to be designed by someone who understands all of its layers.

GS: Your operation seems to involve a lot of trial and error.

MR: I think one of the major factors is that we’re not respecting is failure. We’re not going to learn anything from doing everything right. You can do the math, you can do the design, you can figure something out to a T, but in nature there are circumstances and nuances that can make things work different ways. Right now, the architectural community does not allow failure—you get sued or you lose your license, both of which I’ve done.

GS: Can you describe an instance where you’ve failed at something and the lessons you learned from that episode?

MR: Well, when you take a roof that, in conventional architecture, is meant to shed water, and you turn that roof into a basin to collect water, its whole nature changes. You can make a minor mistake on a steep roof that sheds water and not have a crisis, but if you make a minor mistake on a roof that is a basin to collect water, then you have a crisis.

GS: Do you feel that at this point the earthship model has those problems worked out?

MR: I’ve been failing at things for so long that now I have tuned it to the point where it is actually more reliable than a conventional building in many ways. We have a product now that can be adjusted for any climate.

GS: Is your method the only effective sustainable building practice you’ve seen, or can you suggest other approaches that have inspired your work?

MR: The inspiration comes from animals and plants. The tree is a mechanism that I model a lot of my thinking on. It’s got built-in water harvesting; it’s got built-in energy harvesting; it’s got everything. Its relationship to the earth is really a great model.

GS: What about the aesthetic character of the earthships?Is there an intention or do you see it as driven purely by function?

MR: The core of the building design is driven by function: There’s no question about that. Once we get it working, then we can play with the looks. Looks and aesthetics end up getting into economics and value, too. We have a very straightforward version that is really a product of function, and we have taken that and have decorated it and played with it and sculpted it. But my point is that there is no sense in sculpting a beautiful ship that doesn’t float.

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This article appeared in the January 2010 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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