HUNTINGTON — “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” is more than an old proverb for Amitava Biswas. It is literally the foundation of a new ultra-green home that he and his wife, Phetcharat Saelim, are building into the side of a hill in rustic Huntington.
Wednesday saw more than two-dozen people — many of them volunteers — pouring cement and organizing the plumbing for the couple’s “Earthship,” a passive solar house made of natural and recycled materials, including more than 1,000 used tires and too many cans and bottles to count. Those materials are being bound together with copious amounts of concrete and adorned with expansive south-facing windows, solar panels and architectural flourishes to create a 2,000-square-foot home that will meet all of its own heating and energy needs — except for one creature comfort: A Jacuzzi that will be the domicile’s lone, begrudging connection to the electricity grid.
“You’ve got to preserve the marriage,” Biswas, who goes by the name of “Ami,” said with a smile.
The home is being built, in whirlwind fashion, under the direction of Mike Reynolds of Taos, New Mexico-based Earthship Biotecture. It is a small company that has gained international renown for its Earthships, which Reynolds and his crew have built for clients through the country and the world.
Ami and his wife, nicknamed “Nung,” have been primarily based in Asia in recent years. Ami is an international consultant who focuses on business start-ups. When they decided to lay down more permanent roots, they could have picked most any spot on the globe. They chose a 28.5-acre parcel off Sherman Hollow Road in Huntington on which to settle, and they knew they wanted a special kind of home — something utilitarian rather than ostentatious.
Ami was inspired by the movie “Garbage Warrior,” a documentary about Reynolds and his efforts to introduce his environmentally sustainable brand of housing into mainstream society.
Ami interned with Reynolds’ crew for a month in Taos and decided to get his own Earthship.
“There is a lot of stuff in this that, to me, makes a lot of sense,” Ami said of the Earthship concept, which maximizes the use of recycled materials and surrounding topography while eschewing fossil fuels.
Ami proudly described the main features of the budding home during a site tour. It is a horizontal, single-story structure made up of five, side-by-side, U-shaped compartments that form the various rooms of the abode. Each compartment has a foundation base of used, earth-filled tires, covered with concrete and other recycled support materials that will ultimately be plastered over to create a smooth surface. Some of the interior and exterior walls are honeycombed with used soda bottles and cans, most of which will be plastered over, but in some cases left visible to create an aesthetic pop.
The five compartments are fronted by a thin greenhouse spanning the front, south-facing façade of the Earthship that will drink in the sun. The dense structure of the interior walls provides thermal mass to harness the sunlight and ensure an in-house temperature of at least 65 degrees — even if it is 20 degrees below zero outside, according to Reynolds.
“The angle of the (window) glass is such that the low winter sun goes all the way to the back of the walls, gets absorbed, and then at night, it radiates out,” Ami explained.
During the summer, the hot sunlight pours down into the greenhouse area and rises through a series of skylights above. Meanwhile, cool air is pulled in through a series of tubes that stretch through the 50-foot tall berm in which the Earthship is encased on its north, east and west sides.
“There is kind of a natural convection, air conditioning going on,” Ami said.
The home will, however, be equipped with two wood stoves in case the sun is obscured for extended periods during a frigid Vermont winter.
Solar panels above the greenhouse windows are designed to generate enough electricity (to charge batteries) to power the home. A well will provide water. Cisterns will handle waste.
A broadband connection will help Ami tele-commute to work in Asia.
Matt Boschen, from southern New Hampshire, was one of the many volunteers toiling away on the Earthship on Wednesday. Like Ami, they are putting in the time to get a true sense of what it’s like to build such a home, ultimately hoping to make one of their own someday. Workers on the Huntington project have stayed at local homes or area hotels for the month-long duration of their stay.
“It has been awesome,” Boschen said of the build, his second. He also helped build an Earthship in Wyoming.
Most of the workers were scheduled to scatter on July 28, after having left Ami and Nung with a basically habitable home, with functioning bathroom, cooking facilities and bedroom.
“We will be sealed in, with power and water coming to the house, and sewage leaving the house,” Ami said. “We’ve got a bed, we’ve got a bedroom, we’ve got a shower.”
It will be up to the couple to complete the project, either by themselves or with the help of subcontractors.
Reynolds has no doubt he will be leaving the couple with a good product. He has built hundreds of Earthships during the past four decades. The design, he said, continues to evolve and provide habitants with more amenities.
“The early, early ones would keep you alive without fuel… I compare them to like a ’47 Ford, or something,” Reynolds, a commanding presence crowned with long gray hair with matching stubble, said between a few sips of cold beer after a hot day of work on Wednesday. “We are at about the 1995 BMW phase right now. They are working really good and could keep improving and evolving. But they will take care of you.”
Reynolds is convinced that Earthships will only increase in popularity as citizens confront the rising costs of heating fuel.
“You don’t have any fuel for heating, you generate your own electricity. You are not dependant on any corporation or any government or anybody. You harvest your own water, which you know is clean and not full of fluoride and chlorine; and you contain and control your own sewage, so you know it isn’t going into any river or stream. You are using a lot of garbage in doing this, and you are providing yourself with a lot of food (through the greenhouse),” Reynolds said. “(Earthships) address the six major issues of any city and country.”
Reynolds and his crew were scheduled to leave Huntington on Friday for a new Earthship site near Ithaca, N.Y. Then it’s off to the next one on Terra del Fuego in South America.
“You probably can’t name a country we haven’t built one in,” he said.
Tiffany Eglin has worked with Reynolds for seven years and never tires of building Earthships. They are homes that are competitively priced with conventional stick-built homes, she said. The next step, Eglin said, is to get the cost below that of conventional homes.
“You are never going to pay another utility bill in your life, which is the biggest cost of living in a home,” Eglin said, calling Earthships “in and of the earth, sailing by itself, completely unaffected by what’s going on around it.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].