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Viewpoint: Off the grid

BY BRIDGET HENLEY

Published May 8, 2011

Throughout my education and life outside of college, I've realized how overwhelming environmental issues are. People don’t even know where to begin: from protesting plastic water bottles, to driving hybrid vehicles or even trying to live without producing any waste — the possibilities for involvement seem endless. Yet many people allow themselves to believe they are doing their part just by putting their recycling on the curbside every week for pickup.

Have you ever heard of Michael Reynolds? No, probably not. Well, he is making a difference, or at least trying to. Using materials that would otherwise be headed to a landfill, Reynolds builds architecturally brilliant homes that are spacious and aesthetic while being completely off the grid — meaning the homes are not connected to any electricity or water services, nor do they need sewage lines to dispose of their waste.

Earthships, as Reynolds calls his projects, are uniquely designed to function without a heating system. Using sunlight and angled windows, the houses can maintain a year-round temperature of approximately 70 degrees. The homes consist of walls built with cans cemented together on top of a foundation of tires pounded full of dirt, providing necessary insulation.

Comfortable temperatures are maintained even in the wide-ranging climate of New Mexico, the location of the majority of Earthships, where summer days can exceed 100 degrees and frigid winters can dip below freezing and even drop to subzero temperatures. This sounds like a place where you would want a reliable heating and cooling system and that is just what Earthships offer — for free.

Reynolds demonstrates that garbage doesn’t have to be ugly. In many areas, wine bottles cannot be recycled because they are made of colored glass. But for Earthships, wine bottles have become an integral part of the beauty. These homes feature Reynolds’ signature domed rooms lined with concentric circles of wine bottles built into the walls that span from floor to ceiling, resembling a stained glass cave — now that’s recycling.

In 2007, "The Garbage Warrior" was released, a documentary following the building projects and struggles that Reynolds has faced. The steadfast opposition that Reynolds received from the state of New Mexico for his building practices is embarrassing to the state’s legislative system. The most appalling was the revoking of his architecture license in 1990, for not meeting standard building regulations (which he did not regain until 2007). But that is exactly what he was challenging with his sustainable homes. How can we make progress if experimentation is punished and we constrain ourselves to age-old methods?

Rigid laws created decades ago should not continue to regulate how we build our homes today. We have far greater knowledge of environmental implications, and with our ever improving technology, we are fully capable of doing something. If one man has been able to make such great strides in the right direction, shouldn’t we all feel a little inspired to practice more sustainable lifestyles?

Reynolds took his passion for architecture and applied it to his concern for the environment. He demonstrates that whether or not you have directly studied the environment, you can incorporate other interests and hobbies into contributing to the health of our planet. Don’t be content with simply taking small actions — there is always more that can be done.

Bridget Henley is a University alum.


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