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Earthship A powerful medium of resource efficiency

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Miniya Chatterji

Miniya Chatterji, founder of Sustain Labs, Paris, a ‘sustainability incubator’ and Chirag Lilaramani, who runs a construction and real estate development business across UAE, New Zealand, and India write about earth-ship, a building with zero wastage. Chirag brings the concept and expertise of building earth-ships to India. He offers to build here earth-ship in all its entirety and beauty, yet sans every disadvantageous aspect. This, he says, is also cost-effective besides being a powerful medium of resource efficiency.

Chirag Lilaramani

Being sustainable today is leveraged for selling more. It is ironic as the only way for humans to not exhaust the resources that nurture the species and thus sustain themselves for a longer period of time, is by consuming less resources. But the human species needs to flourish. One way to do so is by creating jobs out of the circular economy. The circular economy is a resource efficient manner of life that produces no waste. All materials involved in the process are consumed, recycled or reused. When products, services and therefore businesses are anchored in the re-usage or re-cyclability of objects, then we are not only securing resources for the future but also flourishing today. While there have been a few – or rather very few – recent circular economy business models that have emerged, especially in India, by recycling waste to create energy, reusing clothes or even plastic, there has been lesser initiative in being circular about our habitat.

For example, an earth-ship is a building with zero wastage – a concept that is popular in Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, and a few other countries, are practically unknown in India. An earth-ship is built using recycled material – used tires, glass bottles, cans and clay that is usually dug up on site. Earth-ships can be styled in the most modern designs. They are a brilliant example of how aesthetics and lifestyle does not need to be compromised for sustainability.

Earth-ships are ideal to build at all school and university campuses to bring sustainability out of text books and in to the daily environment of students. They are also a solution for those who want to live off-grid, perhaps away in remote areas where there is no access to electricity, and therefore need to be resource self-sufficient. Earth-ships are apt for nature retreats, ashrams, bio reserves too, as it then merges in to the surrounding ambience, philosophy, and mission of these places. They are particularly useful for areas with lack of water, such as deserts. Especially in India, several aspects and benefits of an earth-ship are directly in line with Prime Minister Modi’s vision for smart cities.

So what exactly is an earth ship?

Essentially, in an earth ship power is harnessed from solar and wind energy sources located in the earth-ship itself, stored in batteries, while being used directly when they are fully charged. Kinetic energy, generated by human activity such as pedaling or walking or jumping, is not currently part of an earth-ship anywhere in the world, but can – or rather should – be incorporated. Incorporating kinetic energy will not only generate energy that is free of running cost, but will also ensure fitness.

This is how clean water in an earth-ship is generated – rain water is collected in huge cisterns or storage tanks that can store water throughout the year. The stored water will first pass through a natural filtration process such as gravel, sand, and activated charcoal (RO and UV filtration is also possible but the reject water would have to be redirected), and will be then used for drinking, bathing, and washing clothes and dishes.

And this is how grey water will be treated – the residue water from washing and bathing goes to an indoor botanical cell. This botanical cell serves as a green-house for fruits and vegetables. Most of the food supply could come from the indoor green house and outdoor plants. The residue water collected at the bottom of this botanical cell is then sucked out and used to flush out all toilet waste. The toilet waste water along with the biological waste goes to an outdoor solar heated septic tank to decompose all the waste and is then pumped out to the exterior garden to give nutrients to non-edible plants.

Earth-ships have several benefits, such as free electricity, efficient waste management, water conservation as the same water is re-used about 3-4 times, and earthquake protection because of the tyres and clay walls.

However there are certain disadvantages too. Recycled materials can create radiation and radon gas in the absence of cross ventilation. Energy storing batteries need to be replaced every 5 to 6 years. Also earth-ships are challenging to build in a crowded urban setting where the construction might interfere with the existing underground infrastructure and where tall structures might block the sun and wind. Earth-ships need to be built in India in a fashion that includes only the beneficial aspects and avoids the disadvantages. The walls, for instance, do not need to be built with tires so as to avoid the problem of radiation. Mind Space, an initiative by the Indian real estate development company Raheja Developers takes a lot of the beneficial aspects from the Earth-ship concept, and includes one or more of these aspects separately in to buildings

However earth-ships remains a new and innovative concept in India. Architects, urban planners, and more builders too in India need expertise in building earth-ships. The challenge in India lies in catalyzing the mind set change towards making the effort to be resource efficient in one’s habitat.

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