Saving Earthship Brighton - to inspire and educate for decades to come

View of the west side of the Brighton Earthship. Photo: Mischa Hewitt.
View of the west side of the Brighton Earthship. Photo: Mischa Hewitt.
Earthship Brighton, an award-winning off-grid community centre set in an organic farm within the South Downs National Park, has hosted hundreds of events and inspired tens of thousands of visitors over the last decade, writes Phil Moore, demonstrating green technologies and energy-efficient living. But now it's in need of a refit.
With new energy and water systems we'll be able to open up the building to community and environmental events once more, and expand our environmental education and training programme.

Earthship Brighton is a special place. Set in Stanmer Park, just outside the city, and surrounded by 17 acres of Soil Association accredited organic land, the unique community centre hosts environmental education for schoolchildren and courses in permaculture and green building.

It's one of a few hundred Earthships around the world - all of them based on the example of Taos in high desert plains of New Mexico, USA, where it all began back in the 1970s.

But first, what is an Earthship? It's a building that sets out to be genuinely sustainable and resilient in its local environment. So Earthships are designed to meet their own needs for water and energy, and are built from local materials and from recycled, and salvaged materials.

Imagine a building with no utility bills set free from rising gas and electricity. Earthships enjoy the weather by tapping into those very elements we hurriedly hide from in our homes.

If it's raining they catch free water, if it's windy they generate free power and if it's sunny they capture free heat and electricity. Water conservation and energy efficiency are at the heart of the Earthship.

From the High Plains of New Mexico to ... Brighton

The location in the New Mexico desert was chosen to test the self-sufficient quality of the approach in a highly demanding environment. The flat landscapes with extremes of temperature - very much the setting of a dreamscape - was a spin on the American dream, but with an ecological twist.

As well as recycling materials Earthships also recycle ideas from the architectural past, bridging the pre-fossil fuel age with 21st Century performance related sustainable goals. They are a style of architecture or 'biotecture' - a fusion of architecture and biology that has evolved from 40 years of work by the movement's founder, environmental pioneer Mike Reynolds.

As Reynolds explains, "The typical home has no engine. It's hooked up to a community water system. It's hooked up to a municipal sewage system. So it's dependent. [A typical home] is not a whole product and that's why we call then 'Earthships' and not houses."

This is the key to the Earthship approach: they reach out and use the land and resources immediately around them in their construction and day-to-day running, which means they have a low impact on the wider environment.

There are now three off-grid Earthship communities in Taos, and others have sprung up around the world, inspired by the vision that Reynolds and his followers have set out. The movement recently got a big boost when an Earthship-inspired structure in France was one of the popular TV series Grand Designs' most watched episodes ever.

With new energy and water systems we'll be able to open up the building to community and environmental events once more, and expand our environmental education and training programme.

That makes it easier to explain what an Earthship is: people often respond with an enthusiastic smile saying, "Oh! What that building on 'Grand Designs'?" The programme has since visited another Earthship - this time in Belize. Meanwhile Earthships have been built in countries as diverse as Mexico, Malawi, Chile, India. There's even three in the UK, including Earthship Brighton.

A green examplar since 2003

The Earthship Brighton project began in 2000, after Mike Reynolds visited the UK. Reynolds gave a public talk on Earthships in Brighton, and inspired a group of people to plan an Earthship somewhere in the area - long a focus for green and progressive thinking and action.

To make the Earthship vision a reality, the group formed the Low Carbon Trust. As luck would have it, one of its members was involved in Stanmer Organics in nearby Stanmer Park, just outsie the city. Stanmer Organics needed a facility where they could meet, and it was an ideal rural site for an Earthship.

Planning permission was complicated, as the site was within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (which has since become a National Park). On the one hand, the proposed Earthship would be a unique, low-impact green building for the area, to be built in response to community need. On the other hand, the site was outside the city's development boundary. The decision went to planning committee, and got through - it was passed 9 to 2 in favour.

Construction began in April 2003 when Reynolds and his crew from New Mexico visited for a memorably high-energy week to build the 'hut module' - the round room at the end. They trained local people in Earthship building techniques: tyre ramming, glass bottle brick making and clay plastering. The rest of the tyre walls were built over the summer, and the shell of the Earthship was completed by winter.

But now, it's time for a refit

In the decade or so that has followed Brighton Earthship has become a major focus for local green activities, and has hosted tens of thousands of inspired visitors.

But now the future of the building is now at stake. Being off-grid the Earthship needs a way to store the solar power generated to provide electricity whatever the weather. But the original lead-acid batteries have worn out with heavy use over the years. More efficient batteries are now available, and will have to be kept securely in a straw bale 'battery house' we are hoping to build in spring 2016 with help from volunteers and trainees.

Changes to water regulations also mean that our water harvesting and treatment systems need to be updated. A state of the art UV water purification system will make the rainwater harvested by the building safe for drinking - and chlorine-free too.

With new energy and water systems we'll be able to open up the building to community and environmental events once more, and expand our environmental education and training programme. The idea is to give the Earthship a whole new lease of life, and enable it to flourish for decades to come.

And in turn, we hope to get people thinking in new ways about their housing - and how to make it more accessible, more efficient, and much lower in its environmental impact. Earthships connect the dots between housing and carbon emissions. Having a real, functioning place that works to illustrate and inspire visitors on how we can create low carbon lives is vital.

And we've got our work cut out. Over 27% of the UK's carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions come from housing. Around 60% of energy in the home is used for space heating and 15% for hot water. The UK's energy-inefficient housing and high levels of fuel poverty compare poorly with other European countries.

It's also an examplar in terms of recycling. Visitors to Earthship Brighton are often surprised to learn that its walls are built from worn-out old tyres filled with earth: making a positive use of one of society's most intractable waste products, and making the point that energy-efficient green building does not have to cost the Earth!

But it is still going to cost some money to get all the work done - £20,000 to be precise. We're fund-raising for two new battery banks to store the renewable electricity generated on site, to build the straw bale battery house, and for a back-up generator to run off used vegetable oil.

If you're attracted by our ideas, vision and ideals, do consider supporting our crowdfunding campaign to relaunch Earthship Brighton - more wonderful than ever - in 2016!



Support our crowdfunding campaign - ends 11th December!

Phil Moore is campaigns manager at Low Carbon Trust.

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