‘For 35 years, architect Michael Reynolds has been experimenting with radical sustainable living in New Mexico’s desert … He believes that progress evolves through making mistakes…but not everyone sees it his way.’
So begins this excellent documentary film charting the trials and tribulations of Reynolds’ distinctive building techniques, or Earthship Biotecture as he’d prefer to call it. His work is imbued with a deep green philosophy of environmental responsibility to the planet, The American dream is now, he says, ‘How do we survive the future?’and so this follows on nicely from our post on the work of Brenda and Robert Vale. However, where the Vales were concerned primarily with a building’s autonomy, Reynolds verges towards survivalism. The American dream is now, he says, ‘How do we survive the future?’.
Reynolds’ Earthships are passive solar houses constructed from used tyres, rammed earth and a miscellany of consumer wastes such as beer cans and glass jars. They’re typically off-grid, ultra low density and usually self-built. Coupling New Mexico’s abundant sunshine with high thermal mass, the houses make it through the hot summers and harsh winters with no conventional heating or cooling systems. Frustratingly, the film doesn’t give much detail about how well his buildings perform in terms of thermal comfort, except to say that the Phoenix House maintains an internal temperature of 21ºC. However, not all of his projects have been so successful, and some disillusioned clients have apparently sued him over leaky roofs and poor climate control. To Reynolds, mistakes are just part of the process, although they did cost him his architect’s license.
Experimentation is the key theme of the documentary. The local planning department insisted that building codes are in place to protect residents, but Reynolds insists that his branch of sustainable building must evolve through trial and error. ‘If humanity takes the planet down the tubes … I’m dead. I’m trying to save my ass! And that is a powerful force!’ The great irony is that New Mexico was used to test (environmentally destructive) atomic bombs, and yet he couldn’t test new ways of living sustainably. The film covers Reynolds’ attempts to persuade the state legislature to pass a bill permitting such experimentation. His persistence is overwhelming. ‘If humanity takes the planet down the tubes … I’m dead. I’m trying to save my ass! And that is a powerful force!’
The environmental science of sustainable design has moved on considerably in the 40 years since he began building Earthships, but we still need thinkers like Michael Reynolds to question the boundaries that we create for ourselves. Watch this film, even just to be infected by his enthusiasm and persistence.
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