Earthship Rebuild After The Fires

earthship
View from the north west of the underground fire bunker to the west and the greenhouse to the north with the berm with fire-resistent trees behind. Photo by Jacinda Brown

Daryl Taylor lost his home in the firestorm that destroyed most of Victoria’s Kinglake in February 2009. On that day, 173 lives were lost and more than 3500 buildings destroyed. Following the fires many people left the community. Daryl, an elected member of the recovery committee, was pivotal in rebuilding the Kinglake community.

On the day of the fires Daryl, partner Lucy and daughter Maggie were caught at their friends’ property as the firestorm hit. The house they were in burnt down around them and they were lucky to escape with their lives. On returning home, Daryl found the fire had burned through the pine timber structure and up into the roof. It took him 20 hours to put out this fire. By that time, inside the house was burnt and ruined, the roof was destroyed, and only the mudbrick walls remained standing.

‘Our little muddy has always been a social setting and as a community development worker this is important to me. Prior to the 2009 bushfires, we would regularly host dinner parties at our ten-seater table. We were close friends with 15 couples who regularly graced our dining room. Sadly, most have separated and moved on since the fires,’ explains Daryl.

Nine months after their home was destroyed, Daryl and his family were able to move back to the property, living in a 1940s hardwood cottage they had salvaged from demolition. They installed a new vegetable garden, re-established the orchard, brought home ducks and chooks and began planting deciduous, fire-resistant plants. Although they were living in cramped conditions, Daryl felt it was the right decision to get back on the property as soon as possible after a fire.

‘My daughter was so happy to have the animals again. It was her job to attend to the chickens and the ducks.’

Rebuilding In The Pyrocene

Daryl was invited to speak in New Orleans (USA) about his experience of disaster recovery and, while in the United States he visited the earthship community in Taos, New Mexico. He invited earthship/biotecture founder, Mike Reynolds, to visit Kinglake. He also took Mike to explore David Holmgren and Su Dennet’s Melliodora permaculture property in Hepburn Springs.

Dave and Mike plumbed a deep vein of common values and complementary experiences. Daryl’s decision to call his education business ‘bioculture’ – a contraction of biotecture and permaculture – was validated that afternoon and is reflected in the build.

Bioculture frames how we might unite the life and physical sciences and the social sciences, arts and humanities in the context of the Pyrocene. The Pyrocene geological epoch was proposed in 2015 by Stephen Pyne, a firefighter, environmental historian and emeritus professor at Arizona State University. It describes how we’re moving out of an Ice Age and into a Fire Age, how we’ve co-evolved with and co-domesticated fire, and how it’s impossible to be human without fire included as an anthropomorphic catalyst in our lives and landscapes.

Stephen refers to the unintended consequences of fire suppression and fire famines, and the impact of climate change and extended drought, creating more feral firestorms such as those experienced across our continent during the horrific summer of 2019–2020.

The Earthship Design

Earthships represent the best style of building construction to resist not only the increasing risk of fire but could also cope with a warming climate. An earthship is a house that is built around the six design principles:

  • Building with natural and re-purposed materials
  • Thermal or solar heating and cooling
  • Solar and wind generated electricity
  • Water harvesting
  • Contained sewerage treatment
  • Food production

Usually earthships are built with a rear wall made of earth rammed into tyres, creating a wall of thermal mass that helps to insulate the home and improves resistance to heat and fires. Because the walls of his original mudbrick house were still standing, Daryl wanted to keep that infrastructure and build around it.

So the current design has the tyre wall wrapping 30 metres along the back of both buildings, extending behind the back wall of the original mudbrick home and creating the rear wall of the new build. A key design element is that this wall is underground and runs to the south and west where the property is most vulnerable to catastrophic fires.

Behind the tyre wall are the water tanks, and behind that the area has been back-filled with earth and a berm created over the top at a 45-degree angle leading up to the roofline. The theory behind the design is a fire would flow up the berm and over the house.

The north side of the house is a 4.3 m high glass wall that acts as a greenhouse, creating a place for growing food year-round in a warm environment and warm the house through passive solar design. Currently there are bananas, avocados and other subtropical plants growing in the greenhouse.

earthship
Photo by Jacinda Brown
earthship
Photo by Lucia Rossi

Clockwise from above left: The beginnings of the tropical garden inside the greenhouse space; Earth rammed into the tyres build the back wall; The ‘earthship warriors’ breaking for lunch; Learning how to make mudbricks.

earthship
Photo by Lucia Rossi
earthship
Photo by Lucia Rossi

Using Design Principles For Fire Resistance

Daryl has used fire-resistant design principles throughout the rebuild. The nature strip and berm are to be planted out with fire-resistant food plants. The integrated design means Daryl and his family will be off-grid for water, sewerage, electricity and food. The internal fire bunker is a sealed room housing the controls for the generator and sprinkler systems.

The greenhouse to the north is a highly productive food garden that regulates internal temperature and processes grey water from the kitchen and bathroom. Solar panels and a wind generator will power the house exclusively when the building process is complete. Heavy metal shutters are installed to cover the north-facing greenhouse windows to regulate temperature in the building during heatwaves and to stop embers from breaching the windows during a firestorm.

Starting To Rebuild After The 2009 Fires

It was a long haul to get to the point of building, with many challenges from the very outset. After waiting five years to get building approval, work on the earthship began in September 2017, with a small crew of ‘earthship warriors’ who together laid the foundations for the southside tyre wall.

‘The week we began was freezing weather and rain absolutely bucketed down. We were up to our ankles in clay, mud and slush,’ says Daryl. ‘My friend, Sam, brought his pneumatic tyre pounders. Once we got a bit of drainage happening, these proved to be a fun asset.’

The base layer of pounded tyres emerged from the slush and mud just in time for the arrival of the 30 young people who had responded to Agari Natural Building’s call for expressions of interest to be involved in an earthship build.

‘Dani, Agari’s founder, has an impressive network and these people arrived from every continent except Antarctica, bringing tents and swags, vans and tiny houses. Every spare inch of grassed flat land was occupied.

‘Everyone had come to learn. We established a natural building school and ran classes about solar-passive home design, mud-brick, cob, light-earth and tyre brick construction techniques, renewal energy systems and grey and black water management systems. We encouraged learning at every step and were excited when our interns suggested innovations to the draft plans. They were even more excited when we included them.

‘To date we have included 37 innovations suggested by students. When they have finished a month on site, most participants have a sense that they could one day build their own house. The facilitators were fantastic and everyone felt empowered.’

Building Site Magic Happens

‘Consistent with my aspiration of building community, living on site was wonderfully convivial,’ says Daryl. ‘When each day was done, tired from our labours, we’d gather around the campfire, a plate of hot dinner cooked by our peers on our laps, to share stories and wax lyrical under the night sky, prior to retiring spent and stiff, before getting up the next morning and doing it all again.’

By month’s end the willing workers had pounded more than 1000 tyres and laid 12 courses over 30 metres. It was long enough to buttress the south side of the original mud brick house and extend westward to nestle the new two-bedroom earthship, all under the one roof.

‘We lined the structure with waterproof swimming pool rubber and, beyond that, vertical cool store insulation panels from Footscray Wholesale Food Market. It was a sight to behold,’ Daryl says.

‘Luckily my friends, Wayne and Linda, had recently excavated their property to build their new home and they offered me their fill. Sean, who stayed on after the workshop in a project manager–jack-of-all-trades role, and I installed the semi-submerged landscape water tanks on the southern boundary. Damien, my plumber neighbour across the road, had a tip truck and a bobcat. In next to no time he had filled the gap between the tyre wall-insulation panels and the water tanks, with fill and topsoil.’

Creating The Berm, Roof And Greenhouse

‘We created the beginning of a berm on the fire-vulnerable south-side nature strip. The berm is designed to lift a fire coming from the national park below the escarpment to the south, over the top of my property,’ Daryl says.

‘Next we had to build a roof and frame the greenhouse. Despite a predilection for using second-hand materials I used new industrial strength cliplock metal roofing. Carlos the Colombian carpenter was enthusiastic and brought his master craftsman skills to the woodworking. I collected timber, and old hardwood floorboards now have a second life as ceilings. Recycled pylons from Melbourne’s docklands are posts and bearers. Timber from a collapsed bridge in Gippsland and navigation markers out of Corio Bay became window frames.

‘Carlos turned timber we collected into kitchen cupboards and an island bench and window pelmets. Through industry contacts he sourced second-hand double-glazed glass around which he built the north-facing greenhouse windows.’

earthship
The earthship in its final stages of building. Photo by Jacinda Brown

Interior Walls Go In

With the roof firmly affixed and the window frames and glass in place, the next community workshop was about forming the interior walls. The wall that ran between the bedrooms was made of cob and a mixture of clay, sand and straw. They used second-hand mudbricks to create the wall between the second bedroom and the bathroom, laundry and larder. Light earth – straw pulled through a mud slurry – was the basis for the wall between the bathroom and kitchen.

Planting The Greenhouse Garden

The next workshop with Jamie and Taj was to plant the greenhouse gardens. Jamie brought his soil, replete with secret ingredients, and Taj gathered a range of tropical food plants that would flourish in the hot and humid greenhouse environment.

‘Something was emerging,’ explained Daryl. ‘We had become more than the sum of our parts. There was a self-organising systems feel to what we were doing as a community. ‘Kinship’ is the name of my Kinglake property, a contraction of Kinglake Earthship, a homage to relationality and an acknowledgement and reminder of our socio-ecological embeddedness and entanglement.’

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