BUILDING AN EARTHSHIP One Day at a Time
Hickman’s partner, Rosemary Kimble, returned home one day from the local library with Garbage Warrior, a film by Oliver Hodge about Earthship architect Michael Reynolds and his fight to build sustainable, off-the-grid communities. Within five minutes of beginning the movie, Hickman was in; he recognized it as a spiritual journey and wanted building this way to be his next path in life. He had the time, the ability to obtain land and materials and a partner who was willing to support him through the endeavor. He knew it would be risky, and they were both willing to take that risk.
Hickman and Kimble let go of everything they owned and lived in the Airstream while their new home was under construction in Royston, Georgia. Due to the fact that they had borrowed no money, the project took four years.
“I felt like I was doing something really big for the planet and for human beings,” Kimble says, “something that would hopefully change the way people would live, or thought about living sustainably forever.” With traditional financing, Hickman estimates the project would have taken a year or less with extra labor. They spent about $40,000 per year on materials while living minimally as Hickman was building his dream with his own two hands.
They used Reynolds’ Earthship Biotecture model as inspiration, but also kept some conventional components in the design. His Earthships are built using rammed earth and tires packed with concrete for the foundation and walls. Hickman elected to use a traditional concrete foundation and wood framing because he knew about the difficulty in obtaining building permits for structures using tires.
Reynolds himself was stalled for years by this fact, so Hickman wanted to make his buildings compliant with structural codes. “I can be a rebel, but I didn’t want to fight,” he says. “I wanted to normalize sustainable building. We wanted to show the world that you don’t have to be strange to build sustainably.”
This method worked, and inspectors loved the house. Hickman kept the lines of communication open, explaining his methods and reasoning in detail. Permitting never became an issue.
The home can be 100 percent off-grid, but wiring into the grid adds the ability to use central air conditioning, a quality-of-life convenience Hickman didn’t want to sacrifice. Grid connection also provides a backup in case the solar power stops working. This avoids the expense and the hassle of a noisy, polluting, gas-powered generator. The home uses little to no energy from the grid most days of the year. “Seeking balance is key between sustainability and the way of the masses,” says Hickman.
If he could do it all over, Hickman says, “I would build a more traditional, standard, house using solar power with grid connection. I would have a metal roof. I’d use lots of insulation and passive solar technology. You can build a two-story home with the same benefits and more comfort that costs less. You can build traditionally, but incorporate technologies of modern sustainability.”
Hickman uses his experience to design earthen homes for others that are being built now, and is eager to share his wisdom about the advantages and the pitfalls of a project of this magnitude. He advises homeowners and investors to build in a like-minded community where neighbors help and support each other, accepting differences and diversity. Without community, isolation could become a problem.
These days, Hickman has chosen to embark on yet another new path. The project and the lifestyle took its toll on his partnership with Kimble, and they have since separated. “It was challenging for both of us,” he says. “I couldn’t have done it without her. We couldn’t have done it without each other.” Kimble echoed Hickman.
“A lot of people were inspired and learned so much from watching it happen,” says Kimble. “It was one of the most beautiful and intense things I have ever done. We could not have done it without each other.”
After four years of earth-building labor, Hickman looks at that time of his life as a growing period. “I have no regrets. The experience taught me a lot about myself. I’m glad I did it,” says Hickman. “It taught me about follow-through. It took me to new levels I could have never reached without this experience.”
For more information, visit Tinyurl.com/EarthshipJourney.