MANATEE COUNTY — As Densie Pfalzer looks around her future homestead, the typical construction waste isn’t there. Instead, there are hundreds of cans littering the sidelines, piles of dirt and mounds of tires now organized into the structure’s walls.
For Denise and her husband, Michael, it’s a glorious site, indeed.
After more than a decade of dreaming, they are standing in the middle of history in the making. The couple is constructing the first Earthship home in Florida — right here in the East County.
As an Earthship, the home uses recycled materials and the earth’s natural resources and processes in such a way as to be totally sustainable and create no waste.
“This is where I want my future to be,” Denise said. “This is my contribution to our society. It looks strange because it’s so different, but there’re a lot of ways it makes more sense than what people are accustomed to.”
Michael Pfalzer had first been intrigued by the concept of an Earthship after seeing actor Dennis Weaver talk about the home on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson many years ago.
But after the Pfalzers got together in 1996, Michael’s dream quickly became a shared vision for their future. Even before the Pfalzers moved to Tampa in 1999, they knew building an Earthship was somewhere in the future, albeit still years away.
They began looking for property in 2004, before eventually purchasing a nine-acre plot near Hunsader Farms.
“We played around for a while, tried to get trees to grow without success,” Denise Pfalzer said. “We’d make it down here maybe once a week at most. Eventually, we felt ready to take it to the (next step).”
They spoke with the Earthship’s inventor, Michael Reynolds.
“Soon after that, the fun started,” Denise recalled.
They began collecting discarded tires, aluminum cans, glass bottles and other recyclables. The permitting process for the structure alone took about a year.
Finally, St. Petersburg-based Eco-Tech Construction began work on the house in early 2009.
With tire walls complete, the home is now less than a year away from being finished. Eco-Tech hopes to have the roof in place within the month.
Pfalzer is quick to point out that having a recycled, energy-efficient home doesn’t mean she and Michael will be living like cavemen. They will still have television and the other amenities they desire.
“For the most part, it’s going to be like living in a regular house with almost no footprint,” Denise said. “I get to be comfortable. This is a modern lifestyle.”
Their biggest worry once the home is constructed may be leaving a light bulb on unnecessarily because the Earthship uses solar power for energy. But other than that, many of life’s more burdensome financial matters will be minimized. There will be no electric or water bill to worry about.
“We’ll grow a lot of our own food,” Denise said. “That’s a lot of the money you (won’t be) needing month to month, day to day.”
The Earthship’s design is both simple and complex. Using laws of physics, thermodynamics and other scientific principles, Eco-Tech will condition the building for the earth rather than the other way around.
“The idea is that we use materials that would traditionally be disposed,” Eco-Tech Construction’s owner and general contractor Bryan Roberts said. “This building is giving me a chance to experiment with all sorts of materials.”
The Earthship’s walls are made of more than 1,600 discarded tires, each stuffed with six wheelbarrow loads of dirt. The combination creates a dense thermal mass excellent for storing energy and stabilizing temperature. The concept is much like taking a glass of water and a glass of air and putting them both in the sunlight. The glass with water takes substantially longer to heat than does the glass of air.
A soil-cement sprayed around the tires also will help insulate the home, as well as give its walls a more standard, uniform look.
Pipes running up to 12 feet below the earth’s surface weave through the walls as well as through the concrete floor. The cool water, once circulated, also will help the room stay close to the earth’s temperature, which is about 70 degrees underground.
Several dome-like structures with metal chimneys will serve to absorb solar heat, creating an updraft, or a convective current that also pulls hot air from the bottom of the room toward the roof. The chimney will allow the Pfalzers to release the heat if the room gets too warm, Roberts said.
Additionally, four cisterns will collect rainwater to use inside the home up to four times. The tanks store up to 5,500 gallons, or about three-and-one-half months worth of water for the Pfalzers’ home. A gravel filter will clean the water before it is distributed according to where it will be used, with less cleaning for toilet water and more for drinking water.
At the center of the 4,000-square-foot home is a wetland area that will be used to grow food such as bananas, peppers and tomatoes — any non-leafy vegetables.
Water from the showers and sinks, for example, will be funneled into the wetland, lending skin and hair cells, soap and other nutrients to the plants for growing.
“This is a way to reduce the impact of water usage on the environment,” Roberts said.
Water with “a high organic load” such as from the toilet is funneled to a collection basin, where waste is broken down anaerobically, or without air.
As the materials decompose, they take on a sludge form that is funneled to a wetland outside. The sludge remains underground so there is no associated smell, and it is absorbed by plants such as cattails and duck potatoes. Their starchy roots are easily converted into ethanol, which can be used to run a car or a generator.
“It’s done according to permaculture design practices,” Roberts said of the building. “It’s basically a philosophy of living. No waste. If you have waste, you have resources you haven’t figured out how to use.”
Roberts expects to have the Earthship’s roof on by September.
His company has been holding construction workshops at the site as a way to educate other builders and college students about the project and innovative green building techniques. Once the roof is complete, Roberts plans to host more workshops on how to use earthen and clay plasters on the walls, among other topics.
“The inside finish (of) this is really going to engage the public,” Roberts said.
Since starting on the Pfalzer’s Earthship home, Eco-Tech has developed a method by which it can use some of the basic principles to make earth-friendly homes at prices comparable with the regular housing market, Robert said. The Pfalzers’ home costs little in materials but is heavy in labor at about $100 per square foot. Eco-Tech’s new construction model will eliminate much of the labor involved in the process, particularly loading tires with dirt, which will no longer be necessary.
“I’m trying to bring sustainable (living) to as many people as possible,” he said. “I see there is so much potential for energy all around us.”
Contact Pam Eubanks at [email protected].
• Earthships are made out of recycled materials, such as tires and soda cans.
• Earthships catch water from the sky and use it up to four times.
• Water is heated from either the sun or by natural gas, but they can have city/county water as a backup water supply.
• Earthships produce their own electricity but can have multiple energy sources such as solar and wind-generated energy. The energy is stored in batteries and supplied to electrical outlets in the home.
• Earthships contain and reuse all household sewage in indoor and outdoor treatment cells. The waste is used for food production and in landscaping.
• Earthship toilets flush with greywater that does not smell.
• Because of the way they’re built, Earthships maintain comfortable temperatures in any climate.
For more information about Earthships and particularly the Manatee County project, visit www.earthshipfloridaproject.com.
For information about Eco-Tech Construction, visit www.eco-techconstruction.com.