Family builds underground ‘Earth Ship’

©1996, 2011, 2015 By Bob Litton

NOTE TO READERS: Okay, guys! Here’s another oldie but goodie from the remainder of my stack of feature articles and columns—this one from the Alpine Avalanche. It was a fun story for me to interview for and write about because it had so many unusual, fascinating elements in it, which you will discover as you read.

Of course, the events related are 19 years in the past now—ancient history. I have not had any subsequent contact with David and Rebecca Hart or their daughter Abby since the day I interviewed them. And I don’t recall where their home is (or was); nor are they listed in the phone book, naturally enough these days, since cell phones are ubiquitous now. However, I am preparing this post on January 31—a week before it is to be published—so perhaps I will find some way to reconnect with them before next Saturday and I can obtain a brief update. <<See comment at bottom of page.>>
— BL
 

∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗

There’s a house being built southwest of Alpine that would warm the cockles of any diehard recycler’s heart.

Looking more like a metal lean-to/storage-shed from a distance, the home of David and Rebecca Hart is mostly underground — four feet below ground level — with only about three feet of structure above.  And it’s built almost entirely of old car tires and aluminum cans plastered with adobe.

“Michael Reynolds (a national expert on solar passive architecture) calls this type of structure an ‘Earth ship’,” says David. “It’s in tune with its surroundings and it takes advantage of the sun to heat the house and of the earth to keep it cool.”

David Hart grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and lived in Borger, Texas, about five years, where he earned his living first as an architectural draftsman and then doing drafting for the Department of Transportation.

On vacation once, the Harts visited Balmorhea “and just drove around” until they discovered Alpine. “We saved our money so we could come down and I could build the house,” David recalls.

After buying the four acres on which they wanted to build, the Harts returned to Borger wondering what kind of house they wanted.  “On the way back to Borger we picked up a Mother Earth News,” Rebecca adds, “and there it was in an article by Michael Reynolds, so we found it serendipitously.”

The couple moved with their daughter Abby, now nine years old, to Alpine in 1993, and David started working on the house while Rebecca got a job as teacher at the Alpine Montessori School.

Johnny White dug out the area for them with a front-end loader and a backhoe and then bought the dirt from them, so they broke even on the excavation, David says.

They managed to accumulate the tires —all 1,700 so far — and aluminum cans for free, too.  “Once you start with one size of tire, you want to stay with that size,” says David, “because, as you fill them with dirt they expand.”

As he got each tire placed, David used a sledge hammer to pound the dirt into its air space.  “Each tire weighs two hundred to three hundred pounds once it’s filled,” he points out. “We averaged about nine or ten tires a day.”

“We?”

“Mostly just me, but occasionally a friend or my brother would come over.”  (And his two sisters and his father, all of whom came from Albuquerque to help David hammer dirt into old tires.)  “We did nothing but pound tires for about six months,” recalls David, “so it’s really labor-intensive.”

Also, some friends in Alpine poured the concrete slab floor, mixed with a dye to match the reddish-brown color of the adobe-plastered walls.

The aluminum cans were used to fill in the curved spaces between the tires and for short walls.  Holes and tabs were left facing outward.  “They were left outside so they can serve as a lath, like the metal mesh that’s put over walls before plastering,” David explains. “Also, the tires — if they have any tread — that acts as a lath, too.”

After the walls of a room are complete, the tires and cans are covered with the adobe plaster which comes right out of the Harts’ front yard.  Eventually, the house will consist of six rooms — counting the kitchen and living room — but the family moved into the existing two rooms a year ago.

The slanting metal roof will allow them to collect rainwater “if it ever rains” in a planned cistern as a supplement to their water well.

They have in fact figured ways of meeting two aspects of West Texas’ moody weather.  Besides the planned cistern to collect needed water, they have already built a 2-1/2-ft. dike around the house and dug a deep hole outside it where water can be pumped in case it rains too much.  “Friends have told us this place can get flooded,” David notes. “Normally this type of house is built on a south sloping hill, but we just have to make do with what we’ve got.”

The metal roof is still visible from inside the house.  “We don’t know what kind of ceiling we want yet,” says David. “Probably sotol or stalks of wood.”

Their more pressing need is a shower stall outside.  “The walls will be aluminum cans and mortar columns with sotol stalks to block the view and the wind,” he explains.

Rebecca lifts a black plastic bag that resembles a hot water bottle but is in fact a “solar shower bag” that can contain five gallons of water.  “You set it out in the sun to heat up,” she says, “and you press this lever to let out water, so you can soap up and then rinse it off (without needing a continuous spray as in conventional showers).”

The Harts’ home is hooked up to a natural gas source which powers their refrigerator and kitchen stove for about $10 a month, but their lights, television and VCR are powered by 12-volt batteries which receive their energy from photo-voltaic cells.

The solar-powered batteries are adequate most of the time.  “About Christmas we had seven cloudy days when we thought they might run low,” David recalls, “but we do have a generator for backup.”

The Harts have adapted to their two-room lifestyle well enough that they don’t feel any pressure to complete the house quickly (except for the shower stall). “Target dates have come and gone,” says David, smiling.

Alpine Avalanche, April 18, 1996

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Will and Ashley Baker bought the house from David and Rebecca a few years ago and seem to like it very much. I’m not sure where the Harts went when they moved, though.

  2. Much thanks, Chris!!! I should have asked you about the Harts even before I published the feature article, knowing what a recycling “nut” you are. I had intended to ask the county’s chief appraiser, whose predecessor led me to the story back in ’96; but I plumb forgot about it. I would like to know why the Harts moved after expending so much time and labor building the house, but I doubt that the current appraiser would know that. Thanks again for the update.

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