The Earth is very resilient. Archeologists dig deep to find ancient civilizations that have been swallowed up through time by nature. Sometimes entire cultures have been built on top of others and you wonder if they were even aware that someone else was there before them. Through wind, rain, rivers and vegetative growth, the powerful force of nature can rebuild itself if we can give it time and space.
We often look at protecting the earth by looking at CO2 emissions, increasing gas mileage, wind power and water-saving fixtures. We also need to look at the damage that is happening physically to the earth to collect raw materials to make the products we use. For example, if you look at images of lignite mining (low- grade coal) it is incredible to see the vast wastelands that are left. It’s been calculated that we bring 100 billion tons of raw material out of the earth every year.
In order to cut down on the amount of materials we need to mine and let the earth heal, the three Rs—reduce, reuse and recycle—are as important as ever. In addition, there is a fourth R—rethink—that is becoming more relevant. Reduce means using less, and can be as simple as printing two-sided, using glass containers instead of foil on leftovers or not using a bag when you are only buying a couple of items at a store. Reuse is being conscious of buying quality items that will last or giving away unwanted items to charity instead of just putting
them out to the curb. Recycle gives an opportunity for materials to be reused versus stripping the earth for more.
Rethink asks us to pay attention to the daily choices we make. We can look into the details of what we purchase, how they were made and packaged. Designers, architects and creative people are rethinking design solutions to focus on repurposing what we have. The good news is that there are a lot of people who searched for solutions in the past who are influencing the present and providing hope for the future.
In the 1970s, young architecture graduate Mike Reynolds moved to Taos, New Mexico, with a vision to reuse waste and live off what nature provided. He developed Earthships, off-the-grid homes built from approximately 40 percent garbage and dirt.
One of the main building materials is used tires, packed with 400 pounds of dirt, to make walls and foundations. Another great waste material is colored bottles, used to create beautiful glass mosaics that let light in through the exterior walls reminiscent of the work done by Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi.
The “Vessels,” as Reynolds calls them, are designed with large south-facing windows to heat the interior and grow plants and food. Typically 25 to 50 percent of the food consumed is grown in the home.
Reynolds acknowledges that at the time his ideas weren’t always seen as common. “They were talking about a freak in the mesa in New Mexico building buildings out of garbage. That was scandalous,” he says. Over time the project has grown to a full community of people living on 630 acres, as well as Earthships constructed all over the world.
As climate change is now a common topic, more attention is focused on what Reynolds has accomplished. Now, more than ever, we are seeing the value. To teach others, he started Earthship Biotecture Academy where individuals can learn about the construction techniques and philosophy, and partnered with Western Colorado University’s two-year Master in Environmental Management graduate degree. Sometimes the future is not all about high-tech solutions and can be as simple as a young man asking, “What should we do with all this garbage?”
Construction and manufacturing are looking for ways to create a circular economy, which reduces waste at the end of a product’s life by channeling the materials back into use versus a traditional linear economy that mines, makes and throws out. If we think about a circular economy when the first use of the material is being designed there is a higher likelihood it can be used again. For example, a construction project could use screws and bolts instead of welding and glue so that the materials can be disassembled easily in the future. There is a concept called “design for deconstruction.” At the 2012 London Olympics, accommodations were built to house 17,000 athletes. They were designed to come apart after the Olympics and be reused for sustainable homes for locals.
If we are designing based on products and materials that are already in use today, then we can mine existing buildings that are being torn down in the same way we would mine for raw materials. For example, bricks can be cleaned up and reused in walls or floors, concrete can be ground up as a sub-base and lumber can be reused for framing new structures.
The future could involve using renewable resources like algae and mushrooms that don’t require any mining of materials. Christopher Maurer of Redhouse Studios is working on using mushrooms to not only grow building materials but help make societies sustainable. They are leveraging technology to use waste to create food, jobs and shelter. He is currently working on a prototype project in Namibia in southern Africa.
The team has developed a process to grow mushrooms in a standing cage, harvest the nutritious portion of the mushrooms to be sold for food and make building materials from the waste. Mushrooms are very easy to grow and they grow very fast. They require little other than moisture. There is a lot of waste in mushrooms, typically three pounds of waste per one pound of food which is a problem in a typical linear economy.
But in this circular economy, microbusinesses in Africa can be started by individuals who grow and sell the food with very low investment to give locals an opportunity for income. The waste material can then be turned into bricks or wall panels that can also be antimicrobial. The building materials can then be turned into affordable housing, refugee shelters, schools and commercial facilities. The process is easily replicable with no mining of the earth.
Looking far into the future, growing mushrooms is also being studied in order to grow building materials for structures in outer space where transporting material would be very difficult. The team is currently working on concepts that can build structures on the moon and then... to Mars!
David Krebs is a registered architect and member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). His company, AoDK Architecture, is based in Cleveland, Ohio.