My friend Christopher – “Stophe” – Landis has never been a man of half measures. When he directed the first groups of Geekcorps volunteers in Ghana, he elected to live in a house without air conditioning, prefering not to make the switch between hot and humid outdoor spaces and cool indoor ones (and making a statement about environmentalism, acculturation and solidarity). On one of my trips to Ghana, I stayed with Stophe and his wife Shawn for a single night, before I concluded that I was, in fact, a man of half-measures. (It also turned out that the fan in room I was staying in was miswired so it was spinning backwards and failing to generate any cooling breezes.) I’m a wimp. Stophe is not.
I’d lost touch with Stophe when he, and then later, I, stopped working on Geekcorps. According to the email I received from him earlier today, he’s been a busy man. No longer focused on connectivity and technology in Africa, Stophe’s been building a house in Ithaca, NY, using the principled, uncompromising approach I knew from working with him in Ghana. Stophe’s not building a house – he’s building an Earthship.
I hadn’t encountered the Earthship model of building previously. Pioneered in Taos, NM, it’s a school of building that tries to create self-sufficient structures, which harvest and recycle rainwater, use hyperinsulation and passive solar construction to heat and cool, and attempt to use recycled materials as often as possible. The heart of the structure is a U-shaped berm made from used tires filled with packed earth. Internal, non-structural walls are made from cement and recycled bottles or cans. It’s hardcore treehugger construction with a good bit of scientific research behind it, and many of the structures built in the desert Southwestern US look very comfortable. (An unsympathetic commenter on an Earthship YouTube video suggests building your structure from recycled hippies, which is probably illegal, and which don’t generally provide sufficient R-value.)
Shawn offers a tour of the Earthship a month ago.
But it’s not always easy to adapt models from the dry, hot southwest to the wet, cold north. You can see how Stophe, Shawn and their friends are progressing following their videoblog on YouTube. There’s roughly a hundred video posts, accumulated over the two years of the project. It’s great fun to watch old friends pursue a dream, and amazing to see such an ambitious and beautiful project take shape.