Beth is joined by Eco Artist Laura, who built her very own sustainable home – an Earthship – with her partner Dave in Almeria Province. After initially looking for an architect to design their house, they were impressed by how simple it is to build your own Earthship home. Tune in to hear how they built the home from a series of books, the impact of living sustainably, and what you can do at a smaller-scale.
- [1:17] How Laura found Earthship
- [2:35] Experience of building a home as a novice
- [4:24] Building the home from a series of books
- [6:43] The sustainable concept of an Earthship building
- [9:26] The architect behind Earthship
- [11:02] Climate considerations with the building
- [13:57] Impact of living a sustainable life
- [18:55] Documenting the process of building the home on a blog
- [20:00] Where to start with being sustainable with your property
- Happy New Year! And welcome to the Kyero.com Spanish Property podcast. This is where we interview people who recently purchased their dream home in Spain.
- They tell us what worked, what didn’t and what they’d do differently next time.
- I’m Beth Davison and today I’m speaking with Laura, originally from West Sussex, whose story of owning her dream home in Spain is a little bit different.
- As a special way to start 2020, Laura tells us not about buying a home, but about building one, and in the most eco-friendly way possible. Laura built her Earthship in the Almería region. If you're wondering exactly what an Earthship is, well, all will be explained.
- Remember, you can check out the show notes at kyero.com/podcast to find links and resources mentioned in this episode.
Body of Transcript
Laura: Hi, I'm Laura and I'm an eco-artist. I moved from West Sussex to Spain in 2002. We bought an crotijo that we renovated, and then decided that we wanted to move further into the campo and become even more eco-friendly and have a place to live in that's more eco-friendly. So, I started investigating, online, for architects who could build us an eco-friendly home. Then I came across Earthships. Basically, an Earthship is a build-yourself eco home, and you build it out of up-cycled materials the basis of which are tires, cans, and bottles.
I was just blown away by this. I showed it to my partner Dave and he, also, fell in love with them as well. They have a really hand-built quality. So, then we started investigating land. We were looking [at land located] about an hour's radius from where we lived [at that time]. Obviously, we thought that it was going to take awhile to build it.
In 2006 we bought a plot of land and went through the process of getting permission to start the build, and then building it.
Beth: I love this story so much. It's so unique. Had you ever done anything like this before, or known anyone who firstly built their house from nothing, and also had a really eco-friendly focus?
Laura: No, no, not really, when we were renovating the cortijo, we were the labour, if you like, alongside the builders. So, we did learn quite a bit about plastering and things like that from the builders. Dave's background is his parents used to run a girls school in Bogotá. So, his Dad used to do all the maintenance. So Dave learned from him. He can do plumbing and electrics and things like that.
No, we had no idea. Like I said, we were looking for someone to build the house for us. So then we thought, "Wow, we can build it ourselves?" This was part of the draw, I think, that really excited us.
Beth: And presents this incredible challenge. Were you both quite DIY savvy? I put up a shelf, now and then, and I'm quite proud of myself for doing that, but I don't build my own home out of tires.
Laura: Well, Dave learned from his Dad a lot of DIY type things. I have always been more on the finishing side. My background is design, so I have spent over twenty years in the graphic design industry. I always liked to work with my hands in 3D design. So, I was happy to learn the materials. Actually, when we first ordered the books. The incredible thing is that you can build these houses from a series of books. They take you through the whole process. We read the books and we just thought, "Yeah, we think we can do it." So, the rest is history, as they say.
Beth: Indeed, so, why was this important to you? Why not just go and buy something small in the area of Spain that you like and do it in the more traditional way?
Laura: Well, we did buy a cortijo and the whole idea was, actually, that I'm an artist and I was transferring to fine art when I moved to Spain. My idea was to find a sleepy little seaside village and eat cake and create art, and that was it. So, I never really thought I'd end up building our own place. It never really entered into my sphere of things to do. But, I have always been interested in sustainability. I used to love watching The Good Life, and the Wombels and things like that. We call ourselves the Wombels. We are the Wombels because we collect everything, everyone else's rubbish, in effect. So, it just grew, I suppose, from thinking we could build our own place to then, actually researching it and really thinking, "Yes, we can do it." The rest of it grew.
Beth: I think there are incredible measures of sustainability going on, because when you say that, I think perhaps people wouldn't understand quite the extent of sustainability that this house is. Can you give a little bit of a description? I particularly love the water that gets used, I think, is it four times through your system?
Laura: Yeah, yes it does. They're just amazing places. The base concept is that you use the mass of the ground, the earth around you. So, you build up the walls with tires and then the back of it, so the north side of it... You face it south so it gets the sun to heat it up in winter and the back of it you berm up with soil, which, when the sun comes in, when the sun is low in the winter, so it comes in and it hits the back walls and the floors, that mass sucks up all that heat. Then, during the night time, when the air temperature drops, it starts releasing it back into the living space. So, we don't need any heating in winter, only if it has been cloudy for quite a few days and the temperatures are way, way down. We haven't allowed for the fire or anything inside here, a stove or anything, because it heats itself. So, that's the basis of the construction.
Then you build the roof with a water catch. So, it's a flat roof and you've got a water catch tank at the end of it. Also, we've got outbuildings around the place where we catch more water as well. So, you're using rain water which you use to shower, wash, when you put it through a special filtering system you can drink it and cook with it and eat with it. Then that goes into the interior planters which the roots of the plants then clean that water enough that it can then be pumped back into the toilet and used for flushing the toilets. Then that goes out into an exterior planter which gives you an outdoor planting area. So, in ours we grow cane and papyrus in. Then, also, the roots of those plants clean the water as well. So, if you were going to be putting it back into the ground, it would be already cleaned water.
Beth: Incredible, it's a feat of engineering. It's just so clever. These are all concepts that are in the books that you were buying and the research you were doing? Or did anyone come along and say, "Hey, I've got a really good idea," and you just have to know the right person?
Laura: Well, the architect who designed them is called Michael Reynolds. He's an American architect. He has, maybe, two or three or maybe even four communities of Earthships in Taos New Mexico. That's how we found out about them. Taos is actually pretty much on the same range as we are in Almería, in Spain. The only thing is that they are a bit higher, so they get more snow and more freezes in the winters than we do here. But the conditions that they have are very similar to here.
Yeah, this is just one architect and he's a research architect and he's just an amazing person. He's been out to the Andaman Islands, you know, after the tsunami, and helped the locals rebuild their homes, but developing them in such a way that they were using all the materials around them that had been damaged and washed up, He was developing a house for them that would actually work with the local conditions. So, they were using underground water to cool the houses. He's just a really, really, innovative architect.
Beth: Do you think it's very climate specific? So, you mentioned that it's very similar from where you are to New Mexico. If someone wanted to do this in the north of England are they going to be able to? Or do you have to take into account the weather, the climate, all of those things?
Laura: Yeah, yeah, the Earthships can be placed anywhere in the world, in any climate. There are things that you need to do, and be aware of, for the climate that you're building in. So, there's an Earthship in Fife (Scotland). I think there's one in Ireland. There's one in Brighton. The ones in the UK, at the moment, are sort of visitor centres, but I have heard that there is an Earthship south of London, I think, that is going to be the first Earthship that is going to be used as a home. There are Earthships in Japan, in Sweden, so they can be made to work with different environments. So, in Japan, where they have a lot of earthquakes, they had to rework how they were going to do the walls to allow for that. But, you still have the basic berm up the back with the soil and the facing south to get the sun in. So, that theory still remains.
Beth: For you was it always going to be Spain? I know you had, obviously, lived there for a few years prior to starting this project. Had you decided that that was the country you wanted to live in, the lifestyle you wanted to live? What was it about Spain that really meant that you were going to set up camp?
Laura: Well, when I was in my twenties I visited my grandma, who used to spend six months of her year in Port de Pollença, in Majorca. She introduced me to her Spanish friends. I fell in love with the lifestyle, the light, and that whole Spanish relaxed way. I found it really, really friendly. I would have loved to have moved the Majorca, but it wasn't really where were looking. When we were looking we were looking more at mainland Spain. Anything up here, in the only semi-desert in Europe, was may not quite in our plans, but it is an absolutely beautiful environment. So, yeah, it was just one of those things that sort of happened.
Beth: A lot of people think that, with the type of living that you're doing, sustainable living, that you have to go without certain mod cons and perhaps there are people who think, "No, I just couldn't do that." Are there things that you feel like you have sacrificed living this way?
Laura: Ummm, oh...
Beth: Just to put you on the spot.
Laura: Yeah, because sustainability and the environment is so important to me and to Dave, we don't really see it as a sacrifice. Sometimes you think, "Oh wouldn't it be nice to have a lovely big swimming pool and not worry about all the chemicals that you are having to put into it, and things like that. There are ways around that, if we really, really wanted to. I think what it has done is it has made us realize what's really important to us, and therefore what things we can live without rather than feeling it as a sacrifice.
Beth: I think there's a level of you starting to think about what is possible and you really question why you do things a certain way when, if you look at these options, that you could do it a different way. I think that's what is really impressive about what you guys have done.
Laura: Yeah, when people come and visit the place, and they walk into it, they really say, "What a lovely, lovely atmosphere the place has." It surprised us as well, actually. The way I describe it is that the building is giving you a hug. It really does feel [that way]. So, living in that sort of environment it's lovely. If I could, every now and then, pick it up and maybe go and put it by the coast for few months, and then maybe go and put it somewhere else for a few months, that would be nice. But you can't do that with any house. So, there's always that part of it, isn't there?
Beth: I think that it's only increased over time, the popularity of sustainable living. We're living in a time, now, where this is the number one agenda for lots of people. It's really, really being talked about. That must have been quite a big shift in consciousness. Was it 2007 that you started this?
Laura: Yeah, we bought the land in 2006 and it took us a year to get the initial approval for starting the building. We started almost a year, to the day, after we bought the land. So, in 2007, April, we started the build.
Beth: Have you felt that shift in consciousness? Have you felt people's awareness to sustainable living change over time?
Laura: I see more and more in the news and in the general public's perception, now. Yes, I think, just generally, it had to be really, hasn't it? We've got things happening to the climate. So, I think it has. But then, right from the start, because we made the decision to do the blog every time we came here. The next day I would write up the blog on what we had been doing that day. We had quite a lot of people contact us and come and volunteer with us to learn on the build, and come see it because they wanted to build something sustainable, or they had heard of Earthships. So, we were quite surrounded, I suppose, by people who were very interested in sustainable building right from the start anyway. I guess it's more family and friends who, maybe, are a bit more mainstream, who are now beginning to understand it a bit more.
Beth: I think it's going to be so interesting just to see whether this becomes much more the norm than it is at the moment. It's still definitely an untraditional way to live. Do you think that it's growing in popularity, that there are more of these happening all the time?
Laura: I think so. Well, I hope so. We still get quite a lot of people contacting us, via the website, to ask us advice. We did write that little booklet just to help other people go through the planning process so that people understand what you have to do. So, we have heard about a lot of people who are wanting to build an Earthship in Spain, or in other parts [of the world]. We were contacted, a couple of years ago, about a couple who wanted to build one in the Galapagos Islands, which interested me. Yeah, I think they are becoming more popular as people are finding out about them.
Beth: I think the amount of teaching that you do, through the blog, through your website, there really is a comprehensive guide of how to start this process, for yourself. Have you found that people that you have met and people you have hosted, at your place, have gone away and built similar places of their own?
Laura: Yeah, we've had a few. There's been a lot of people who have come who have said, "It's on the back burner, and it's something that we're aiming towards." But, we have also had people who have come... There's a lovely couple who came over a long weekend, one Easter, and then are building a sustainable life and still have plans of an Earthship. I don't know how far they are with it now. I think they have been doing planting and perma culture and things like that. But they're down in Uruguay. So, it's always really, really nice to keep in touch with people who are continuing that journey.
Beth: If someone wanted to start small, perhaps, are there things that you can do and things that you can learn rather than going in big and building a whole sustainable place? Are there small bits of sustainability that you teach people to incorporate into everyday life, or is it slightly different from that?
Laura: You could... Maybe, if you want to build an outbuilding, I would suggest to try it in tires and give it a go. Some friends of ours, they came here and did a day with us, and they have been part of... We used to belong to a garden club and they all got together and they were collecting bottles and cans for us to build, so that we could build our walls, our interior non-load bearing walls. They ended up building their shower screen for their pool out of cans and bottle bits, using that same thing. So, yes, you can, you can do it on a small scale. I think he even ended up building out a little greenhouse, out of plastic drink bottles.
Beth: Incredible! I love the idea, and the pictures really are amazing. What do people who are more traditional (the people that you left behind in England, or before you moved, or friends that you have made in Spain) what do people generally think of the way that you guys live, the initial build? How supportive was everyone? Were there people who really did raise an eyebrow?
Laura: I guess we had a mixture of everything on the scale. So, for my Mum saying, "Oh, what happens if you have an accident?"
Beth: Ah, classic parenting, classic parenting worries.
Laura: Exactly, exactly, then [there are] other friends who have consistently come here, and when they're here they pitch in and help. So, there's the full range of support. I think a lot of people think we're a bit balmy, "What on earth are we thinking?"
Beth: But, you have done it and you have made it work.
Laura: My brother says, "Oh yeah, that's my sister. She's living in a hole in the ground in southern Spain."
Beth: (Laughter) That's nice. Brothers, they can never be the most supportive.
I really do think that the proof is in the pudding kind of thing. You have been there for eight, no longer... How many years have you lived there?
Laura: We moved in five years ago in September. Yeah, just over five years.
Beth: So, you've been there five years and it really does show that it's doable and that it's really working for you.
Laura: Yeah, like I said, it's just a beautiful place to live. It's filled with light. In the winter people are amazed, actually, for the first few years, if it's a cold day outside, because it does get cold in Spain, despite it being sunny, it can get cold. We walk in, and for the first couple of years, I kept thinking, "Oh, I don't remember putting the fire on." Because you walk in and feel the warmth of the room. People will often come in, in the winter, and say, "Oh, where's your fire?" So, you really do get that year round warmth.
Beth: And that, largely, is to do with the insulation of the tires that regulate the temperature indoors, am I right, after you have gathered it from the sun?
Laura: Yeah, it's to do with the mass walls. So, we've got a lot of insulation in the roof. More than you would put on a normal house. Then you've got this mass at the back. The Mass walls with the tires, and the extra soil, and that is what regulates the temperature because the heat gets sucked into that and then released back out. I would say that's one of the key things for making this really nice environment that then you don't have to heat or use absolute minimum heating, if you even did it.
We thought we were going to be able to do without an oven, a cooker, and I was just going to have a hob. But I do like to bake, so we did treat ourselves, last year, to a cooker. So, now, we do have quite a few grey days, and if it is down to four or five degrees outside, so I'll say, "Well, I'll just bake us a cake and we'll warm ourselves up at the same time."
Beth: So, what are the supplies? Do you have an electricity supply? This is me just asking very obvious questions. So, what's the supply to that cooker? Do you have a gas supply?
Laura: It's a gas cooker. So we're on bottled gas for that. Our electric is solar because we're off the main grid.
Beth: Off the grid, OK, amazing, and it all works brilliantly. Well, I think it's such an inspirational story.
My last question is (this is what we ask everyone) if you were going to give some advice, for people toying with doing something like this, or even just starting the ball rolling (I know you mentioned planning was tricky) what advice would you give people?
Laura: Do your research. The Earthship books are available as PDFs. I would recommend buying the hardbacks, if you are going to, but, maybe invest in PDFs to start with. Just read through and see whether it's something that you feel comfortable taking on. Read the planning PDF as well, so have a read of that. Is that something that you're happy to take on as well?
The planning laws do change, as you know, in Spain. Things move on, so, maybe if there was a particular area that you're thinking you'd like to live, go and talk to the Town Hall, the Town Planner and see what they think about it. We started out our planning process by just going and talking to the local Town Planner about what we wanted to build, just to get his initial response, which was, "Oh yeah, I've heard of tire houses and it's going to take you a long time to get the approval. So, we then said to him, "Well, how can we start the build and go through that whole process of getting approval to live in it?"
So, they can be really helpful. They can be really helpful as well. So, I would just say research as much as you can.
Beth: And give yourself lots of time.
Laura: Yeah, when we first started planning it, you have all these ideas and we'd actually gotten permission to build something much bigger than what we have, which was only ever meant to be the test one. We were thinking, well we could rent this one out and live in the main one. But, actually, living in this one we've realized that we don't really want a bigger living space. We need, maybe, more storage, but do we actually need a bigger living space? Probably not, so, giving that time, and doing the test one, helped us to realize that we didn't have to go big. I used to sit up watching Grand Designs and all these programs and you get wowed by these fantastic places. But, actually living in something, we realized that we didn't need as much as we thought we initially needed. You just need to have good storage I think.
Beth: Yes, I feel that way in my flat - I need more shelves.
Well, thank you so much for talking to me. I've just really enjoyed researching it and reading everything that's on your website. So, I do encourage anyone listening, if they fancy it, to go and check that out because there's a wealth of information on there. It's so great that it's going strong and that you guys have done it.
Laura: Yeah, thank you. And thank you for your interest and yeah, it's been really nice talking to you.
Beth: Brilliant, have a great day, Laura.
Laura: OK, bye.
- Thank you for listening and thanks to Laura for sharing her experiences.
- I loved that her inspiration came from her grandmother, and that there are so many ingenious touches within the Earthship that create a truly eco-friendly environment.
- As Laura mentioned, you can head to earthship.es, but if you're a little more traditional when it comes to your property hunt you can search our agents properties and more on Kyero.com
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- They conducted their search over three years. Find out if all their research paid off.
- I’m Beth Davison and you’ve been listening to the Kyero.com Spanish property podcast. I’ll see you next time!