Sat, Jul 23, 2016 - Page 9 News List

Welcome to earthships: an off-the-grid housing solution

A Canadian architect is hoping to showcase ‘earthship’ homes as a low-cost means of addressing the housing shortages that plague many of the country’s First Nations communities

By Ashifa Kassam  /  The Guardian, SIX NATIONS, Canada

Illustration: Constance Chou

Francine Doxtator is on a search for used tires. For months, the softly spoken 56-year-old has asked everyone she knows — and anyone new she meets — if they happen to have any lying around.

“I tell them to just drop ’em off,” she said, motioning to the hundreds of tires haphazardly piled almost 1m high behind her trailer.

Starting this week, these tires and hundreds more donated by an auto shop will be packed with dirt and stacked neatly to form the backbone of Doxtator’s new house — an off-the-grid home being touted as a potential solution to the housing crises facing many First Nations communities across Canada.

When Doxtator found out two years ago that she had been selected to receive a new, donated home, she did not believe it. Her current home is a rickety trailer — condemned years ago — that sits on a leafy, green lot on the Six Nations of The Grand River reserve, about 88km southwest of Toronto. Its weathered blue and white facade has been chewed at by rust and blankets cover its cracked windows. Inside, the trailer has been ravaged by mice and black mould. A leaky roof and several holes in the trailer send cold air whipping through the cramped space in the winter, while on this summer day it is stiflingly hot inside.

“There’s seven of us staying in here,” said Doxtator, who helps care for her five grandchildren and daughter who has a debilitating spinal cord injury.

Three of her grandsons sleep in one room, while her 17-year-old granddaughter has a small room to herself. Doxtator, her daughter and one of her grandsons sleep in the living room.

“We’re all looking forward to the new home,” she said with a smile. “But I still don’t believe it’s happening.”

In the next two weeks, on a small hill just steps away from her trailer, her new home will begin to take shape. Designed by US-based company Earthship Biotecture, the C$75,000 (US$57,148) sustainable home promises to do away with her monthly utility bills, which eat up about C$150 per month out of her social assistance check.

Instead, solar panels on the roof will supply electricity and rainwater will be collected in a cistern and cycled through the house for drinking, showering, toilets and feeding plants. The tires will be used to create a dense thermomass to help regulate the temperature of the home.

While several of these homes — known as earthships — have sprung up across Canada in recent years, this will be the company’s first time building one on a First Nations reserve in Canada. It is an idea that has been years in the making, said Michael Reynolds, the architect who has been championing self-sustaining homes made of recycled materials for 45 years.

The company regularly carries out humanitarian builds around the world, in countries such as India, Haiti and Sierra Leone. When he came across stories of First Nations families braving below freezing temperatures in tents or makeshift sheds with no water or electricity, Reynolds added Canada to the list, hoping to showcase earthship homes as a low-cost means of addressing the housing shortages that plague many of Canada’s First Nations communities.

The build comes just as the Liberal government, led by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, promised in its most recent budget to invest C$554 million in First Nations housing over the next two years.

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