Mike Reynolds-Authentic Architecture
I’ve always been interested in folks who pursue the ‘unexpected’ and if it’s ‘functional’ all the better. I met Mike Reynolds, architect, sometime about 25 years ago. At the time, I was traveling around the U.S in the style of most motivated and insolvent young folks, one adventure to the next. I had always been interested in building science and nature, which can often times seem mutually exclusive. During that particular adventure, I was interested in seeking out non-traditional residential buildings. That year, I met folks who lived in tricked out grain silos, railroad cars, underground dens, rock caves, potato barns, even one in a derelict airplane. Capable creative folks are the most fun to watch, which brought me to meet Mike Reynolds. While staying with a family up in the outbacks of Wyoming residing in a resurrected stone house, originally built sometime in the mid 1800′s, they told me about a guy down in the southwest making houses out of garbage. This I had to check out. South I headed, several adventures later, I caught up with Mike Reynolds somewhere outside of Taos, New Mexico. Sure enough, I walked along a road carved into the desert and came across a long-haired ‘hippie’ dude with purple John Lennon glasses hauling a wheel barrel full of ‘refuse’ headed to… a house semi-built… made of refuse. Mostly bottles and tires and concrete. It was just great. I recall Mike as being a bit eccentric (big surprise), gracious, and very involved with his ’cause’.
A couple weeks ago, while flipping through the Green Source Magazine, I turned a page and saw the picture below, I knew instantly who was in that picture. It was fun to discover that Mike Reynolds is still going strong.
Interview by Aleksandr Bierig
Soon after Mike Reynolds graduated from architecture school in 1969, he disregarded much of what he had been taught and began a 30-year practice of building “earthships”—off-the-grid dwellings built from what the rest of society deems garbage (discarded cans, bottles, and tires, among other items). His radical and unusual structures have received resistance from zoning and code legislations, spurring a continuing struggle to change the building permit process.
GreenSource: You have said that right after architecture school, you began to feel that the architectural field was “worthless.” How did you arrive at that conclusion?
Reynolds: I was trained as a conventional architect and was taught about 2-by-4s and bricks and flamboyant artistic ideas about design. I also learned to turn the heating and air-conditioning and electrical and plumbing over to an engineer. Since then I’ve discovered that a building in today’s world is a machine that has to be designed by someone who understands all of its layers.
GS: Your operation seems to involve a lot of trial and error.
MR: I think one of the major factors is that we’re not respecting is failure. We’re not going to learn anything from doing everything right. You can do the math, you can do the design, you can figure something out to a T, but in nature there are circumstances and nuances that can make things work different ways. Right now, the architectural community does not allow failure—you get sued or you lose your license, both of which I’ve done.
GS: Can you describe an instance where you’ve failed at something and the lessons you learned from that episode?
MR: Well, when you take a roof that, in conventional architecture, is meant to shed water, and you turn that roof into a basin to collect water, its whole nature changes. You can make a minor mistake on a steep roof that sheds water and not have a crisis, but if you make a minor mistake on a roof that is a basin to collect water, then you have a crisis.
GS: Do you feel that at this point the earthship model has those problems worked out?
MR: I’ve been failing at things for so long that now I have tuned it to the point where it is actually more reliable than a conventional building in many ways. We have a product now that can be adjusted for any climate.
GS: Is your method the only effective sustainable building practice you’ve seen, or can you suggest other approaches that have inspired your work?
MR: The inspiration comes from animals and plants. The tree is a mechanism that I model a lot of my thinking on. It’s got built-in water harvesting; it’s got built-in energy harvesting; it’s got everything. Its relationship to the earth is really a great model.
GS: What about the aesthetic character of the earthships?Is there an intention or do you see it as driven purely by function?
MR: The core of the building design is driven by function: There’s no question about that. Once we get it working, then we can play with the looks. Looks and aesthetics end up getting into economics and value, too. We have a very straightforward version that is really a product of function, and we have taken that and have decorated it and played with it and sculpted it. But my point is that there is no sense in sculpting a beautiful ship that doesn’t float.
Ps. I’m currently on the road with my husband, Randy, and dog, Eddy. Yesterday we visited the town of Rhyolite, a ghost town near Death Valley that had sprung up in the early 1900′s as a gold mining town. In Rhyolite, we discovered a home built in 1906, made of… bottles and concrete! I took some pictures and will make a post in the next couple days. It’s all so interesting!
Posted on March 17, 2010