Updated: Jul 20, 2020
We are hoping to build a house before winter sets in.
It’s August already. We haven’t started.
New Mexicans say that winter starts in September.
Hopefully our upper midwestern upbringing will push our view of that out a bit!
But really, this is the first big scary unknown. We came out here to make a home, and we really aren’t sure how that is going to go… We have spent two years researching and planning, and we think we have pretty good ideas about it. But there are still so many things up in the air…
When we came out to NM three years ago to scout out the whole state, one thing we did was to stay in an Earthship in Taos. We knew we wanted to use natural and recycled materials to build an energy-efficient home, and we ran across their website when looking into that.
Earthships are passive solar homes with thick, earth-bermed walls, and greenhouses along the southern face. They capture rainwater, recycle water (e.g., using wash water to flush toilets or water plants), treat water in ornamental grow beds… they use solar electricity and passive solar water heating, and use many discarded and recycled materials along with earth in their construction.
We loved staying in the Earthship (it was March in the high desert). With a little bit of management of the skylight vents and cooling tubes, it was easy to stay comfortable, and I do that type of adjustment anyway — in our Wisconsin home I’d open and close blinds or windows at different times of day to let in or keep out sun and air, depending on the season. I’m also among those who think that even indoors you ought to be wearing a sweater in cold weather and shorts in hot… when you have to bring a jacket to meetings or restaurants in August to protect yourself from the frigid air, something is seriously wrong!
We quickly learned that with Earthships you either have to lay out big bucks (hundreds of thousands of dollars for a small home) or a huge amount of grueling labor (pounding dirt into hundreds of individual tires with a sledgehammer just to get the shell in place), and neither would work for our retirement home. We chose to retire when most people would consider us fiscally unable to do so for another ten years… Even so, we waited until I was 60 and Chip almost there, and we are no longer interested in doing *heavy* physical labor to build our home, nor to work for years to get one built. The driving force behind the next two years of research was to find a home building method that could balance the cost on the one hand, with the intensity of labor on the other. We are willing to spend what we have, and are willing to do physical work, but we have limited funds, and aren’t as strong or energetic as we would have been ten or twenty years ago. We needed to find some sort of balance.
We found the excellent Natural Building Blog, and discovered earthbags. For a while we felt we would build an “Earthship-inspired” earthbag home. We designed a few with that in mind, bought Owen Geiger’s Earthbag Building Guide ebook, and kept reading and learning, and following others’ experiences with earthbags. Chip was a bit more skeptical than I, pushing me to look a little further into the details of how, exactly, the buildings came together. We watched a couple of documentaries, like My Little Homestead, which shows a family with four energetic young adult children all working hard together with their parents and spending months building beautiful spaces… it was very cool, but I had to admit it might still be biting off more than the two of us would be able to muster. We saw some folks using long tubes rather than earthbags which seemed like the least labor-intensive. I wrote to Natural Building Blog to mention our search, and even Owen Geiger himself wrote back and said that earthbags would be too labor-intensive for our situation, and that he wouldn’t want to build one any more at his age!
Back to the drawing board, we looked into Pumicecrete (but couldn’t find any current working information), SIPs (Structural Insulated Panels — but we wanted thermal mass rather than just insulation), modular homes (but they seem as expensive as conventional construction and we didn’t get why), shipping containers (not earth-bermable, restrictive in design, and don’t seem to fit our application), Ferrock (not commercially viable yet), rammed earth (very expensive, seem to cater to eco-mansion set), CEBs (Compressed Earth Block — seems hard for inexperienced to get it right the first time).
Finally we stumbled upon our current plan, which we hope hits the sweet spot — not too expensive, and not too labor-intensive: tire bale construction. A tire bale is made up of ~100 recycled tires, compressed into a one-ton bale on the order of 3’ x 3’ x 5’ and held with steel straps. Tire bales have been used for years in civil engineering projects like stream bank reinforcement. These giant bricks are then just laid out like legos, to make the walls of your structure. The walls, of course, end up three feet thick, plus mud or concrete plaster covering them completely. The result looks similar to an adobe building. They provide insulation, they do not harbor pests or rot, the mud plaster and floors in the building provide thermal mass, and they are well suited to a passive solar Earthship-type design.
I don’t even remember how we first heard of tire bale construction… I think I probably bumped into a tire bale house when googling earthships, maybe at one of the sites linked in the photos above.. This just sounded too good to be true: you use recycled materials that people have to pay to get rid of, so presumably you can get them way cheap. You do need big machinery to deliver and place them, but then the walls of the building can be erected in a day or two.
I spoke with the very encouraging and helpful Bill Myers in the state of New Mexico tire recycling program. He said that no one had built a tire bale house yet in New Mexico (I think most of the houses we found were in Colorado). He explained that it would be an alternative materials build, and would therefore require stamped engineering plans, but that the tire recycling program would be able to help link us up with appropriate tire recyclers and tire haulers. We would file a tire recycling permit after obtaining our building permit. He also put us in touch with Ted Brinegar of Foxhole Homes in Alamogordo.
We reached out to Ted, who is an amazingly energized person with a vision. He is designing a community for veterans, where vets can help build their own tire bale homes based loosely on an Earthship design. He is very encouraging of our efforts, and concurs that it is a very straightforward build to get the shell in place. They built one garden wall 100’ long and 5’ tall, and had the tire bales placed in four and a half hours!
As for houses, Foxhole Homes is taking the long view, rather than rushing into their first tire bale house build — they are working with the state to try to get tire bale construction written into the New Mexico building code. He is laying the groundwork for a whole community, so is treading carefully, one step at a time.
I learned Sketch-Up enough to try out several different designs (starting with our earlier earthbag plans in 2017.) . I made the above model for our tire bale house, to send to the engineers. It turned out we needed drawings in CAD format, so we hired an architect from Wisconsin, Ginkgo House Architects, who took our drawings and fleshed out a complete home design for us. We sent those drawings to our engineers out of Oregon but licensed in New Mexico: Precision Structural Engineering (we got their name from the Natural Building Blog, since they specialize in alternative materials).
We had some communication issues at first (with both the architect and engineer), because tire bale construction is so unknown... they were thinking of it as straw bale construction, where the tires would be infill rather than providing structure. We shared our research, including this engineering study done years ago in Colorado, and the state of New Mexico guidance for using tire bales in civil engineering projects. We all got on the same page, and Precision has been working on the engineering drawings required by NM alternative materials building code. We are now able to share a baby-step milestone: our engineering plans are done! Precision sent their review drawings on Monday, finished our subsequent revision requests, and will pop our paper plans in the mail today!
Here’s hoping we are immersed in a daunting and exhausting building project soon!