The Running Commentary





  • – Guest Post by Derek Smith

I have always been fascinated by the bizarre, the strange, the thoughts and actions of people that practice their craft and follow their dreams outside conventional boundaries.

It is well known that Galileo Galilei is considered to be the father of modern astronomy, physics and science. What is less well known is that Galileo was viewed as a heretic by the Catholic Church and ordered to stand trial on suspicion of heresy in 1633.

The sentence of the Inquisition was that Galileo renounce his opinion that the sun lies motionless at the centre of the universe, and also that the earth moves and circles the sun. The idea that the sun is stationary was condemned as “formally heretical” and Galileo imprisoned; the sentence was later commuted to house arrest. Galileo died under these circumstances.

The way the Catholic Church handled the Galileo affair was only rectified in 1992. Pope John Paul II expressed the regret of the Church and officially conceded that the Earth was not stationary, as the result of a study conducted by the Pontifical Council for Culture.

A little bit late, but acceptance by church and government sometimes takes time I suppose.

But this post is not about Galileo but about Mike Reynolds, American Architect extraordinaire based in New Mexico.

This “Garbage Warrior”, is a proponent of the idea of “radically sustained living” and falls firmly within my description of a visionary, maniac and wide-eyed dreamer. He has been a forceful and controversial critic of the profession of architecture for its failure to deal with the amount of waste that modern building design creates.

Simply put, Reynolds builds houses out of rubbish and recycled materials. The structures he erects utilize everyday trash items like used beer cans wired into “bricks”, discarded plastic bottles and old car tires which become powerful and durable insulation when filled with dirt. Instead of using conventional (and energy-consuming) recycling methods Reynolds takes these discarded item and uses it “as-is”.

Reynolds calls this practice “Earthship Biotecture” and has dedicated his career to it. Though Reynolds always stressed the experimental nature of his homes the state Architects Board of New Mexico moved to strip him of his credentials in the late 1990’s, stating his home designs were illegal and unsafe. In 2000, Reynolds voluntarily gave up his New Mexico architecture and construction licenses. Since then, the board of the American Institute of Architects has asked Reynolds to give a lecture at its headquarters in Colorado about his ideas and has reinstated his license.

The turning point for Reynolds was his efforts in the Andaman Islandsto build shelters and houses after the December 2004 Tsunami. Some 200,000 people were killed in the area and many more left homeless. He continued with his “revolutionary” constructions in Matamoros, Mexico after the devastation caused by Hurricane Rita.

Mike Reynolds story is told in Oliver Hodge’s excellent documentary “Garbage Warrior” which I trawled of the internet the other day. “I’m trying to save my ass,” Reynolds says in the opening moments of the documentary, which is a superb chronicle of his 30-year quest to bring sustainable housing construction into the mainstream. By this he does not mean saving his reputation but how to live in an age of global-warming and an ever dwindling supply of natural resources.

In “Garbage Warrior,” Reynolds describes one of his new homes, called the Phoenix:

“There’s nothing coming into this house, no power lines, no gas lines, no sewage lines coming out, no water lines coming in, no energy being used … We’re sitting on 6,000 gallons of water, growing food, sewage internalized, 70 degrees year-round … What these kind of houses are doing is taking every aspect of your life and putting it into your own hands … A family of four could totally survive here without having to go to the store.”

Reynolds claims that his buildings can operate off the electricity grid, requiring little or no mortgage payment and no utility bills. All this in the middle of the desert in Taos, New Mexico where the temperature drops well below zero in winter with long periods of drought throughout the year.

How cool is that? When I watched this documentary I was thinking of the housing situation in South Africa. The thousands of homeless, the squatter camps, the shanties and also the abundance of rubbish found everywhere. One mans rubbish is another mans building material.

Maybe we should start looking outside the normal approach of construction to solve the ever increasing housing problem. We should stop building inferior RDP “boxes” that falls to pieces within a year or two due to bad building practices. In the process people can be taught to help themselves and utilize what is so easily available.

Check out the documentary “Garbage Warrior” if you can get hold of it or visit Reynolds website; You will be mightily surprised.

Here’s to a true maniac, visionary and wide-eyed dreamer!

buildingearthshipgarbage warriorGreenRDP

Mike • September 25, 2008

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  1. Derek Smith September 26, 2008 - 7:18 pm

    After my initial post I’ve discovered that there is actually an Earthship Africa going right on our doorstep. Haven’t had time to read in in depth yet but apparently they’ve got some projects going in Swaziland

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