Creating the Freeville Earthship

This is the front of the home looking east. Southern exposure ensures that the greenhouse windows and mounted solar panels receive maximum benefits from sunlight.

Michael Reynolds, an eco-architect and subject of the 2007 documentary, “Garbage Warrior,” doesn’t care about anything except the planet. For over 40 years he’s carried out his sacred quest to perfect the design and building of affordable, self-sustaining housing.

A 1969 graduate of the University of Cincinnati with a degree in architecture, Reynolds’ homes are beyond “green” – they’re living bionetworks that rely on a balanced exchange of requirements between their human occupants and the natural environment. He christened them “Earthships.”

Today, these fascinating dwellings can be found all around the world, with multiple design modifications to accommodate climate, moisture, building site and available resources.

Given the deep regard many Finger Lakes’ residents hold for the beauty and bounty of the region, it’s not surprising that Earthships have “landed” here. In fact, one is cradled into a lush hillside just outside the village of Freeville, where Courtney and Chad DeVoe are putting the finishing touches on their own Reynolds’ creation.

Devoted to each other and the planet

Three years ago, Courtney and Chad made two commitments: 1.) get married and 2.) build an Earthship – a housing choice that fit their mutual concern for preservation of natural resources. According to Courtney, this combination of promises made for some interesting wedding gifts from friends and family, like bags of empty cans and a sledge hammer.

When you turn onto Ed Hill Road from NYS Route 366 less than a mile past Freeville, the asphalt cuts a long, upward path that appears to get swallowed by woods at its apex. I wasn’t exactly sure where the house was located, but I found it easily thanks to the inverted, cobalt blue wine bottles staked like shining sentinels on either side of the dirt driveway. The location offers an ideal combination of road access, southern exposure, meadow acreage and a stunning view.

As I followed the curved drive, a wooden barn and chicken coop appeared. Though I’m a construction klutz, even I could tell these were finely crafted structures. And then I saw it, or rather, I saw the main entryway, an edifice of curving, cement walls painted in earth-tone colors and inlaid with sparkling rounds of glass. On one side of the semi-circular archway that leads to the interior door, there is a distinctive porthole encircled by a pattern of colored glass similar to that of a stained glass window.

The 2,200-square-foot, one-story structure looks like a passenger train observation car that’s been placed lengthwise into the side of a grassy knoll, large windows facing out. In fact, the south-facing exterior wall of the house is made completely of glass topped by a row of solar panels.

Framed in wood, and with interior exposed beam ceilings supporting the roof, three exterior walls are constructed of dirt-filled tires, each weighing approximately 300 pounds, and repurposed bottle and can “bricks.” The tires are layered – larger ones grace the bottom and gradually shrink toward the top. Once assembled, the earth, rubber, glass and aluminum materials were covered in a thick coating of cement. In total, the DeVoes have used 700 tires and collected about 1,000 bottles, an inventory that will eventually be exhausted once all the decorative details have been added.

Inside, rooms are laid out in a row, similar to a “railroad apartment,” with the living/dining/kitchen area at one end and the master bedroom/bath at the other. The hallway between the two areas leads to another full bath and two bedrooms.

The south wall of every room is either partial or fully glass, and looks onto a narrow greenhouse that spans the length of the residence. In addition to providing fresh fruits and vegetables, this feature also creates a buffer zone that keeps the house warmer by holding heat longer. Skylight vents in the roof directly over the greenhouse can be opened to maintain air flow and temperature consistency.

Household water is supplied by captured rain and snow melt, stored in cisterns. Utilizing a series of internal filtration systems, the water’s first use is for personal needs such as drinking, washing and bathing. The grey water from those activities is then cycled for plant use in the greenhouse, with that drainage water finally used for sewage. Solar-generated energy powers the home’s electrical and heating systems.

Most of the structure is surrounded by a thick wall of earth and rubber, but the overall ambiance is airy, light, green and tranquil, coupled with a sense of coziness independent of outside temperature.

Not just a house, but a home

Chad and Courtney share their “ship” with three contented animals: Koda, a chocolate lab mix; Darwin, a ginger-colored cat; and Ellie (a.k.a Princess), a long-haired, calico. And, on occasion, the two public school teachers also share it with curious visitors who call with questions about the residence. The two make sure to patiently answer all questions about the design and operation of their dwelling, and will cheerfully give room-by-room tours with narrative.

As we walked through the building, Courtney remarked there was a story behind every piece of stone, wood and glass. The elegant, polished floor of slate is constructed from discards donated by a local tile business. Cunning lighting fixtures are crafted from recycled wine bottles donated by family, friends and strangers. Doors, cabinetry, shelving, bedsteads, headboards and flooring were built from salvaged and donated wood, including boards rescued from field bleachers that were torn down at a nearby high school.

Courtney, having never built so much as a matchbox before this project, has become a talented and passionate woodworker, tackling bathroom vanities and dressers with dramatic results. Chad, on the other hand, was a veteran of residential construction having worked on summer crews while in college.

In Mother Nature’s good graces

The construction practices that make this house so compelling, have also made it appear extreme.

To fully appreciate the radical nature of the DeVoe’s home, it’s important to remember an Earthship is defined as, “1.) a passive solar home made of natural and recycled materials; 2.) with a thermal mass construction for temperature stabilization; and 3.) a renewable energy and integrated water system … an off-grid home with little to no utility bills.” In short, these structures don’t readily conform to the local building codes and regulations found across the country.

While affordable housing that keeps tons of materials out of landfills, gets litter off the streets, conserves water and reduces reliance on fossil fuels would seem like a winning option for everyone, local governments and conventional finance institutions have been slow to embrace “biotecture.” Michael Reynolds’ constructions have been controversial. He’s drawn criticism from architectural skeptics and anxious politicians wanting to avoid any regulatory change that even hints of global warming.

Chad and Courtney’s venture, however, was touched by good fortune. They found private financing support and generous local businesses that generously donated supplies. Volunteers, many of which were strangers, provided labor, food, shelter and cans. Also, “Local building officials have been great to work with,” notes Chad, “as they helped us navigate the permitting and variance procedures.”

It’s been a year of hard work, stress and endless decisions, a tough strain that would tax even longtime couples. Courtney happily observes, however, that their commitment to both marriage and the planet survives. “We got through this, and we learned a lot. We look at everything now, everything around us, for how it might be recycled, re-used or reclaimed for some cool purpose.”


by Jan Bridgeford Smith