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  Volume No. 10 Issue No. 8 August 2014  

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  Earthship Village development
  Earthships reduce human footprint
  By Jason Gray

   Discarded tires, rammed earth and geodesic domes combine for luxury living, thanks to alternative building methods that are becoming more popular with people who want to reduce their impact on the environment. A 75-home subdivision of these types of low-impact homes is planned on 400 acres south of Falcon, along Highway 94 in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
   Competing styles of rammed earth homes, such as Earthship, Earthbag and Superadobe are popular among Colorado alternative home builders. Straw-bale, cordwood and engineered geodesic domes are other ways homeowners have tried to build living space out of low-impact or renewable materials. The unusual materials and methods could save on utilities and other costs, but the differences to traditional building make the homes difficult to finance, insure and permit.
   “In the mortgage world, if the homes are too different from what is in the rest of the area, they have a hard time deciding what the value is to put on that property,” said Chris Courtland, a Colorado Springs mortgage broker. “Realtors will say there is a certain market value; but, from the lenders side their mindset is if you default, they need to get this property sold as quickly as possible to get it off their books.” If the homes are too offbeat, the potential buyer pool is narrowed, Courtland said.
   Having a larger number of alternative homes in one area will provide additional comparable sales for appraisers, which could make lenders more comfortable, said Lindsey Mote, a real estate agent who helped clients purchase an Earthship home in Black Forest. “It’ll be good to see the comp sale situation improve for other homeowners who have struggled to get financing,” Mote said. “There are only a few lenders who will do non-standard homes.”
   The developers of Earthship Village Colorado, the 75-home subdivision south of Highway 94, said they are trying to help local banks understand the construction style. “We are having trouble identifying banks. Local banks are not exactly jumping in,” said Dr. Daniel Ziskin, a physicist turned sustainable building advocate, who, along with partner David Hatch of Boulder, is the developer of Earthship Village. “A lot of banks have told us that they want to participate, but they don’t want to be the first one,” Ziskin said.
   Michael Reynolds of Taos, New Mexico, created the Earthship name and design. His Earthship Biotecture company designs and sells plans for homes that incorporate used tires filled with rammed earth as the main load-bearing walls. The thick and dense walls provide strong shelter from Colorado winds, and the thermal mass helps regulate temperature in the home with less heating and air conditioning use.
   Earthships incorporate rainwater capture and gray water reuse systems to reduce the need for water from wells. Colorado water laws generally prohibit rainwater use, except in certain situations. “If you’re on a certain size acreage and permitted to use well water instead of municipal, then you’re allowed to capture rainwater for domestic use,” Ziskin said. “We’ve talked to the state engineer and the county water attorney. They’re all favorable for this, but our water lawyer is working with them to actually do this in a way that breaks new ground.”
   The thought of sharing a bedroom with a wall full of used tires makes some potential homeowners ask about chemical off-gassing and indoor air pollution. Ziskin said he understands the concern. “They’re not right there in your living room; they’re really separate from the living space in an airtight kind of way, covered in plaster,” Ziskin said. “In typically built structures, carpeting, paint and all kinds of plastics and the materials we cook with are much more of an environmental health risk than old tires encased in plaster separate from our breathable air.”
   Building a home out of materials that have little intrinsic value makes homeowners’ insurance policies more complicated, said Janet McMonigal, a Falcon insurance agent who arranged the Black Forest Earthship policy. “We ended up having to go through Lloyd’s of London because no standard carrier that I know of was willing to write it,” McMonigal said. “If they insure things like Tina Turner’s legs, then they’ll take higher risk or unusual properties.” Lloyd’s, founded in 1688, was willing to help the homeowners build what McMonigal described as an a-la-carte policy. “In a standard homeowners insurance policy, additional coverages like personal property are derived from the dwelling replacement cost,” she said.
   The Earthship Village has the potential for success because of increased value buyers place on carbon footprint and sustainability, Mote said. “People don’t see it as weird any more. Every buyer I talk to is very concerned about energy,” she said. “If it doesn’t seem like the freaks and weirdo community, then it will be extremely popular. Once buyers see the quality is high, I do think they will sell.”
   “This is a legacy for changing our relationship with nature, and I’m excited that I’ll be able to look back 10 years from now and be able to say I was proud of what we were able to create,” Ziskin said. “We are really excited about providing sustainable economic growth for the county, where people can come in and live there without further taxing the infrastructure and creating additional work for sewers and other utilities. It will be a great thing for the county: bringing tourism while having a very gentle impact.”
   Earthship Village Colorado has a Facebook page and website at for potential buyers, volunteers and builders.
   When Michael Reynolds of Taos, New Mexico, designed and introduced the Earthship concept, many thought the construction of the home would be much less expensive than a traditional
   home. However, costs greatly depend on the owner’s willingness to dig in. Hiring laborers can be expensive. Reynolds said the Earthship can cost anywhere from about $50,000 (basic) to several million dollars. He cites an average at $150,000.


(Click to enlarge)
This sketch shows how Earthships are built with tires and dirt. Adding solar photovoltaic systems significantly reduces energy and other utility costs. From

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