Living Large...Off the Grid
Solar Passive Home of the Future - the Sustainable Dream
I remember driving through Taos, New Mexico with my husband noticing an unusual cluster of homes—a colony of small mounds, with windows peering west—their eyes wide open, built right into the side of the hills. I remember thinking, what an odd way to build a home. Who would want a house like that? It must be a hippie commune. I didn’t think much about those strange homes again until I met Paul Senecal. And after seeing what could be done with a few tires and a mound of dirt (add to that a few years of global warming hype, a Mid-East oil crisis, water shortages and war), I’m ready to build my own Earthship and retire off the grid in the countryside neighboring Portland under the watchful gaze of Mount Hood.
When Paul Senecal saw a picture in a magazine of an Earthship more than ten years ago, he said, “Someday I’d like to build a home like that”. So at 62 years of age, when Paul began building his passive solar Earthship in Durango, Colorado, it came as no surprise to his wife Pat.
The Senecals took approximately two and one-half years to build their 1,000 square-foot Earthship dream home southwest of town. They were very particular in selecting their location because one of the main features distinguishing an Earthship home is that it face south for maximum solar gain (if we were south of the equator, however, this would be reversed).
Another characteristic of most Earthships is that they are built directly into the hillside with dense walls that take full advantage of the earth’s ability to stabilize its temperature. The Senecals’ was no different. Paul and Pat Senecal’s Earthship is bermed directly into the hill on the north and west sides with a wall of glass windows on the southern-facing side that capture the warmth of the sun. (Paul has left the east side open with the plans of building an additional room for guests.)
The roof is covered in plants, insulating the home, and features a water collection and storage system used to water all the indoor and outdoor plants. There is even a wastewater treatment and distribution system for contained grey water and black water.
Paul purchased his designs from Earthship creator, Michael Reynolds and modified them, with Reynolds’ approval, to better suit their own needs in Durango. Reynolds sells complete kits, with pre-designed drawings and partially prefabricated construction packages or customized options.
The general Earthship structure is manufactured entirely of recycled products and materials that are indigenous to the planet so as not to deplete the Earth’s natural resources. Tires are filling landfills at unimaginable rates—they don’t ever degrade and they can’t be burned. Being able to utilize these waste tires for a productive purpose is one small step in the direction of solution. 600 same-sized tires were used to construct most of the infrastructure of this home, which itself took one full year to complete. Paul says that getting the tires is easy; he purchased 450 of them from one person for only $75.00. The tires, packed with dirt and laid like bricks, were covered with cellulose insulation and then finished with natural ochre and chestnut-colored earth plasters made from clay, straw and sand.
In two of the walls, recycled aluminum cans also filled with dirt, laid like bricks and covered with the same earth plaster, were used for the construction. In addition to the functional use of the recycled tires and aluminum cans, their use is aesthetically pleasing as well. Because of their unique shape, the walls can be curved and custom molded, with sculpted shelves and carved niches; something Paul really took advantage of this in their home. These niches now display distinctive works of art that are in perfect balance with the home.
The exposed south-facing wall of all Earthships, including the Senecals’, is made up entirely of windows to maximize the solar heat potential. On cold winter days, Pat and Paul lower their Roman shade thermal curtains (custom-made by Pat and Paul themselves). The blanket-style curtains are attractive fabric on one side and heat-absorbent Mylar on the other. In the traditional Reynolds’ Earthship, the windows are slanted, but Paul found that in the Southwest region heat build-up could be too great, so he installed straight windows, which they find to be working well. Their floor is concrete, absorbing the heat during the day and releasing it back into the home at night—taking full advantage of the planet’s natural processes. There are skylights that open to help circulate air and prevent heat build-up in the summer. Paul also designed a ventilation system in the floor that when opened, will draw fresh air in through tubes located ten feet underground and travel forty feet out to the fresh air source.
Pat and Paul opted for a simpler and less complicated way of life and have achieved such in a comfortable, unique and elegant home. They intentionally chose to live in a smaller, more usable living space, for the simple reason that there’s less to maintain and less to heat and cool. Instead of vaulted ceilings that waste a lot of heat, Paul has designed “floating ceilings” which give the illusion of height in the room. Pat and Paul say that they haven’t had to sacrifice anything to live a lifestyle that takes little in the way of energy to sustain. They just had to change the way they do things a little.
There is a perception that an Earthship home is for hippies, but Pat and Paul are going a long way to break down that stereotype. They have all the modern conveniences, a beautifully decorated home, an exceptional kitchen and bathroom, electricity, T.V., a computer and even supplemental heaters, if they need them. There are energy efficient appliances, specially purchased for the home, such as the refrigerator, water heater, washer/dryer and dishwasher.
Admittedly, these items do cost slightly more than commercial brands up front, but the Senecals assert that they last twice as long and use considerably less energy, not only saving you money, but also conserving a substantial amount of energy in the long run.For example, there is a demand water heater which only heats the water when you turn on the faucet, as opposed to the traditional water heater that keeps the water hot at all times. Paul told me that 14% of the average heating bill is spent just to keep the water hot. Their appliances are all electric-start with no pilot lights to waste energy. Pat is an advocate for saving “Phantom Energy”, which is energy we waste without even knowing we were using it in the first place, such as pilot lights, appliances and electronics left plugged in, poised and ready for our use (think Tvs, computers, stereos, microwaves, coffeemakers, toasters, alarm clocks, lamps...).
Since building their home, the Senecals have become very involved in the practice of renewable energy. What they probably didn’t expect is that they would become ambassadors for the concept of sustainable living. Paul says, “The more you get involved in renewable energy and its uses, the more you get back in understanding how nature works and its cycles.” “It causes you to pay attention”, says Pat.
In order to educate the community about what’s available in alternative energy, the Senecals have organized the Solar Home Tour for many years, showcasing Solar Homes in Bayfield and Durango, Colorado for the public to tour every October. They would like to change people’s perception about energy use, to see our nation shift from an oil-based country to a hydrogen-based country. Paul says, “We need to think that buying a home is just like buying a car. You don’t want to buy a car that gets only five miles per gallon, you want to buy one that gets 25 miles per gallon. The same should be true for your house”.
The Senecals offered me a rare glimpse of a home both beautiful and functional, elegant and comfortable, sophisticated yet inviting, and most importantly, I saw a home that was thoughtfully chosen in everyway, first and foremost environmentally responsible but also taking into account every aspect of nature, geography, engineering, design and—yes this even surprised me too—luxury.
I’ve lived in Portland now for five years and as I drive the expanse of the state, I see many locations that would be perfect to land my dream Earthship. The east side of the state seems an obvious choice, but I seek the perfect spot just far enough outside of Portland to be in the country, while remaining close enough to take advantage of all the benefits of this remarkable city.
There are many things homeowners can do to reduce the amount of energy they consume.
- If you are building a home or purchasing a home, choose a location that it is oriented to the south to take full advantage of solar heat opportunities.
- Purchase low-energy light bulbs.
- Consider non-pilot alternatives and energy-efficient appliances.
- Unplug. Be especially aware of the phantom energy you are using. Appliances and electronics that are plugged in but not in use require a certain amount of energy to just be plugged in waiting for you to use.
- Collect rainwater for all hand-watering (inside and out).