The Garbage Warrior
Radically Sustainable Living



 
The Garbage Warrior
Radically Sustainable Living





Mike Reynolds is an American architect based in New Mexico and a proponent of "radically sustainable living".

His Thumb House, built in 1972, used beer cans wired together into "bricks," which were mortared together and then plastered over.

The brick design was awarded a U.S. patent in 1973.

 

What do beer cans, car tires and water bottles have in common? Not much unless you're renegade architect Michael Reynolds, in which case they are tools of choice for producing thermal mass and energy-independent housing.


For 30 years New Mexico-based Reynolds and his green disciples have devoted their time to advancing the art of "Earthship Biotecture" by building self-sufficient, off-the-grid communities where design and function converge in eco-harmony.

However, these experimental structures that defy state standards create conflict between Reynolds and the authorities, who are backed by big business. Frustrated by antiquated legislation, Reynolds lobbies for the right to create a sustainable living test site.

While politicians hum and ha, Mother Nature strikes, leaving communities devastated by tsunamis and hurricanes. Reynolds and his crew seize the opportunity to lend their pioneering skills to those who need it most.

Shot over three years and in four countries, Garbage Warrior is a timely portrait of a determined visionary, a hero of the 21st century.

Michael E. "Mike" Reynolds is an American architect based in New Mexico and a proponent of "radically sustainable living".

He has been a critic of the profession of architecture for its failure to deal with the amount of waste that building design creates.

After graduating from the University of Cincinnati in 1969, Reynolds began his provocative work almost immediately. His thesis was published in Architectural Record in 1971 and the following year he built his first house from recycled materials.

The structures built under his direction utilize everyday trash items like aluminum cans, plastic bottles and used tires.

Instead of using conventional (and energy-consuming) recycling methods, however, Reynolds takes the discarded item and recycles them as-is.

His Thumb House, built in 1972, used beer cans wired together into "bricks," which were mortared together and then plastered over. The brick design was awarded a U.S. patent in 1973.

Reynolds calls this practice Earthship Biotecture and has dedicated his life to it. He cites as an epiphany the moment he realized that any object, be it a pop bottle or an old tire, could become powerful and durable insulation when it was filled with dirt. He has written five books on the subject.

Soon he was building and selling his experimental homes while continuing to use trial and error to improve them. Over time, the Earthships incorporated features designed to make them comfortable to live in while existing off the grid. Solar panels and geothermal cooling were added. The homes caught the imagination of celebrities and environmental activists.

Actors Dennis Weaver and Keith Carradine each commissioned Reynolds to build high-end Earthships for them. Though Reynolds always stressed the experimental nature of his homes, that did not prevent disillusioned buyers from filing lawsuits and complaints over defects such as leaky roofs and inadequate climate control.

Spurred by a series of complaints and lawsuits against Reynolds, the State Architects Board of New Mexico moved to strip him of his credentials, saying his home designs were illegal and unsafe.

In 1990, Reynolds voluntarily gave up his New Mexico architecture and construction licenses after a year-long dispute with several clients.

Since then, the board of the American Institute of Architects has asked Reynolds to give a lecture at its headquarters in Colorado and had his license reinstated in 2007.

With the rise in concern over global warming, Reynolds has become a graying prophet of the green movement.

A 2007 documentary, Garbage Warrior, celebrates his life and work. In the film, Reynolds is quoted as saying he fell into depression after his licensing troubles. Faced with the end of his career, Reynolds agreed to follow state and federal codes, though not without protest.

Though he chafed at not being able to experiment freely again, Reynolds got his architect's license back and resumed building Earthships. In Garbage Warrior, Reynolds describes one of his new homes, called the Phoenix:

"There's nothing coming into this house, no power lines, no gas lines, no sewage lines coming out, no water lines coming in, no energy being used ... We're sitting on 6,000 gallons of water, growing food, sewage internalized, 70 degrees [or 21 degrees C] year-round ... What these kind of houses are doing is taking every aspect of your life and putting it into your own hands ... A family of four could totally survive here without having to go to the store."

Reynolds claims that his buildings can operate off the electricity grid, requiring little or no mortgage payment and no utility bills.