News | December 25, 2015

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Student learns to reuse refuse to build ‘green’ homes

Marshall Nathanson was planning to study Asian culture and languages in order to become a monk in Nepal. Then he visited FGCU, connected with some of the university’s most environmentally focused faculty and experienced an epiphany: He would devote himself to preaching the gospel of sustainability.

“I don’t let an opportunity come by and not take it,” says the sophomore from Fort Lauderdale.

Marshall Nathanson does #WingsUp atop a home under construction in Taos, N.M.
Marshall Nathanson does #WingsUp atop a home under construction in Taos, N.M.

By September of his freshman year, he secured a SAGE (Student Associates for a Greener Environment) grant from FGCU’s Center for Environmental and Sustainability Education and began planning his trip to Taos, N.M., to learn how to transform garbage into housing through Earthship Biotechture. The practice involves using discarded items such as tires, soda cans and glass bottles along with natural materials to build “off-the-grid” homes that aren’t simply sustainably constructed and energy efficient, they look good, too.

“We need to figure out how to consume our garbage and start to clear our landfills,” he says.

Last spring, Nathanson spent a month at Earthship Biotechture Academy in Taos. Half of each day was spent in a classroom and the rest was spent on the job. His fellow students ranged in age from 20 to 60 and hailed from the United States, Iceland and France.

A barebones view of how tires, cans and bottles are used in building Earthship homes.
A barebones view of how tires, cans and bottles are used in building Earthship homes.

“It was people who are grandparents and want to make their own houses, and kids just out of college who want to change the world,” he says. “We all were there because we see that there’s a shift going on. Right now, power is in the hands of a few and these people want to bring power back to the many.

“Earthship is a way to integrate energy from the sun, natural water from the sky, incorporate plants into the home. There are no water or electric bills, no air conditioning or heating costs because of the sustainable methods of construction. ”

Building begins by filling used tires with dirt. Stacked like bricks, they become walls held together by stucco made of adobe – a mixture of earth and organic materials that’s widely used for construction in the Southwest. Cans and bottles can also be used as bricks.

Earthship homes are situated so that solar panels can be mounted to collect maximum sunlight and, hence, energy. Southern windows also bring in sunlight, charging the house like a battery and nurturing indoor gardens of edible and decorative plants. Rain collection systems capture water for toilets, washing and drinking. Even sewage is managed within the home, and greywater – from sinks and washing machines – is treated and reused for irrigation.

Bottles and cans are cut using a tile saw at the Earthship Biotechture Academy in Taos.
Bottles and cans are cut using a tile saw at the Earthship Biotechture Academy in Taos.

Nathanson and his classmates built roofs, dug trenches, installed glass and raised walls. Some students were living in finished Earthship structures in a community near the academy, so Nathanson was able to use their showers and kitchens while he conserved money by camping and living in his GMC Savannah van.

Earthship homes are growing popular out west, but they have yet to make much impact in Florida. Nathanson hopes to change that.

“Many kids go out looking for a job,” he says. “Out of my university experience, I am looking how to make a livelihood instead of learning to be an employee. I’m looking to build my own house and have my own garden. I hope I’ll have a community of people who want to do this. In the best and greatest community, every face will be a familiar face. We will live in a collective, an intentional community with an environmental philosophy. The Earthship is a new world, but it’s the way we should have always been doing things.”