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Home on West Side being built from old tires, cans

Architect: Earthship home won’t need cooling

The walls of James and Elizabeth Wilson's house are made from used tires, recycled soda cans and adobe. Local dirt and straw were used to make the adobe and the shower walls will be made from glass bottles.

The walls of James and Elizabeth Wilson's house are made from used tires, recycled soda cans and adobe. Local dirt and straw were used to make the adobe and the shower walls will be made from glass bottles.

A house going up on the West Side is paving the way for a new type of energy-efficient home or business in southern Arizona.

James and Elizabeth Wilson’s Earthship is the first home in Pima County built largely of old tires, bottles and cans – and the architect swears it will not need any kind of cooling system, even in the height of summer.

“I just can’t seem to resist a challenge,” homeowner James Wilson said Wednesday at the construction site near Irvington and Mission roads.

The 2,000-square-foot, two-bedroom home, which the retired Air Force master sergeant expects to finish by July, also will not use central heating. It will collect, store and filter rainwater for use everywhere but in the kitchen. Numerous planters in the atriumlike living room will help keep the inside air fresh.

The Earthship concept (and name) originated in New Mexico in the 1970s, when architect Michael Reynolds built the first one near Taos. Since then, the idea has grown to more than 1,000 homes worldwide, including a 10,000-square-foot one built in Colorado by actor Dennis Weaver that was featured in a documentary. There is also a 650-acre subdivision of 130 of them in Taos.

The design calls for the interior temperature of the Wilsons’ home to get no higher than 75 degrees – without cooling – even when the outside temperature soars to 115 degrees, Reynolds said.

“I’m certain it will work,” he said.

A similar home in Phoenix – even with incomplete insulation – never got above 80 degrees inside last summer, Reynolds said.

Earthships are basically masonry homes – but the “bricks” are tires.

The tires are packed with dirt – in the Wilsons’ case dirt from excavating the lot for the house – and laid in courses the same way bricks are stacked.

Cracks between tires are then filled with old soda cans and dirt, and the interior of the 36-inch-thick walls are covered with adobe, then plaster.

Exterior walls are covered in plastic for waterproofing, then backfilled with dirt. The finished home will have just one wall – the south face – exposed. The rest of the home will be basically buried for insulation.

It took some work to get the Earthship off its moorings.

When Wilson took his plans to Pima County Development Services in December 2007, county officials were left scratching their heads.

“We basically had no code to review it by,” said Plans Examiner Rick Hicks.

After checking the drawings, the county asked for an engineer’s opinion. Wilson went back to Reynolds and brought the county a suggested building code amendment.

“That’s what we used to review it,” Hicks said.

Though the standards were never written into the county code, they are on hand for future project reviews.

“It’s going to make it a lot easier for everybody,” Hicks said.

Approving such a home in Tucson could be accomplished in much the same way, said Development Services Director Ernie Duarte.

“The Tucson and Pima County building codes are exactly the same, for all intents and purposes,” Duarte said.

Though plans were sent back from the county for minor changes, such as electrical outlet spacing, once the county had the engineers’ assurance, the plans passed easily, Hicks said.

Reynolds decried the red tape that delayed the Wilsons’ home by almost a year. He has encountered such reluctance from coast to coast. It isn’t anyone’s fault; it’s simply fear of the unknown, Reynolds said.

“I don’t want to come off as bad-mouthing Pima County, but until the last six months, when they made an about-face, they were one of the worst,” he said.

Wilson decided to build an Earthship after seeing the Weaver documentary. He later drove his RV to Taos for a three-day seminar and then started planning. Neighbors didn’t know what to think when the Wilsons began piling up old tires. One sent a letter to inform him that someone was dumping trash on his lot.

After he told the neighbor the hundreds of tires were his, he got a call from the state Department of Environmental Quality. When he erected “no smoking” signs and put a fire extinguisher next to the piles, ADEQ backed off, Wilson said.

The house has gained attention across the state, perhaps because of the Wilsons’ extensive Web site.

“I’m getting e-mail from people wanting to build one in different parts of Arizona,” Wilson said.

There are nine other Earthships in Arizona – though none are as far south as the Wilsons’.

To combat possible summer overheating, Wilson designed a cooling tower that will draw cool air in to replace warm air escaping through skylights.

He could also pump cooled water through a radiant heat system under his floor – a system he is installing to meet a county code requirement for “mechanical” heating and cooling systems, he said.

“The architect tells me I’m not going to have to (use) that,” Wilson said.

At first, the Wilsons bought tires, but they soon found dealers who were willing to part with them for free.

“They’re willing to give them to us so they don’t have to pay to have them disposed of,” Wilson said.

Bottles and cans are also donated.

Despite the prospect of having a climate-controlled place to hang their hats, the Wilsons won’t stay tied to Tucson for very long.

They spent the past 15 years roaming the nation in their motor home – which is now parked at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base while they build their dream home.

The open road awaits.

“As soon as we get this done, we’re going out again,” he said.

James Wilson, 74, explains the construction of his house. The walls are made of stacked tires filled with dirt, then covered with adobe.
Hundreds of old tires will be used to build the Wilsons' Earthship, the first house in Pima County and the farthest south of any in the U.S.

Hundreds of old tires will be used to build the Wilsons' Earthship, the first house in Pima County and the farthest south of any in the U.S.

James Wilson, 74, stands in front of one of the rooms of his partly constructed



2,500 tires

2,700 bottles

25,000 aluminum cans

2,000 square feet

$250,000 estimated final cost

Source: homeowner James Wilson



For information and history about Earthships in general, see Earthship Biotecture: www.earthship.net

For information about the Tucson Earthship, see Arizona Earthship: http://arizonaearthship.com

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