As part of Satellite’s recent Show & Tell collaboration pairing artists and writers, writer Beth Ann Nyssen and photographer Jeroen Akershoek spent several days documenting the development of a new sustainability-focused community in the Netherlands.
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Although sustainable design has become a driving force in the architecture field only within the last decade, some models of eco-friendly building developed during the hippie era are still going strong. In the 1970s, New Mexico architect Michael Reynolds created the Earthship, a building form designed to be constructed with recycled materials and operated off the grid. With zero carbon footprint, Earthships are nine times more efficient than traditional homes.
I recently had the opportunity to witness the birth of a modern-day Earthship community while helping the Vereniging Aardehuis—Earthhouse Association in Dutch—create a new 23-unit settlement in Olst, Netherlands.
Earthships use dirt- and sand-filled tires to create insulated, fire-resistant walls that are then surrounded by earth berms. A glass conservatory filled with plants on the south-facing side maximizes the sunʼs warmth, directing heat into earth mass walls and floors that radiates within the house when the temperature drops. High-performance wood-burning ceramic heaters provide additional warmth as needed. During summer, inhabitants can lower temperatures by blocking windows. Temperatures are maintained at around fifteen degrees Celsius because of the stable temperature of dirt surrounding the building. Cool air enters through the front windows, and warm air is ventilated out through skylights.
The structure of the building is created with items such as straw, tires, dirt, wood, glass, aluminum, and plastic—typically locally sourced, preferably recycled. Solar panels provide electricity. Ground water is purified for drinking, grey water filtered for irrigation by a reed bed filtration system, and composting toilets employed for waste management.
Vereniging Aardehuis is the brainchild of Paul Hendriksen and Ruurdtje Van den Berg. Interested in sustainable practices, Paul volunteered at a Swedish Earthship building site. Upon his return to his hometown of Deventer, he gave an informative slide show presentation for friends. Soon 30 families had expressed interest in creating their own Earthship community, motivated by the desire to decrease their environmental impact while creating a better atmosphere for raising children.
In 2012, six years after the formal creation of Vereniging Aardehuis, ground was broken and building of the first home began. Several families dropped out over the years due to the stresses of finding a location and securing finances, but Paul Hendriksen and Ruurdtje Van den Berg (together with their two children, Marlinde and Jovanna) remain dedicated to the project, living in one of several small caravans along with other families while working to realize their dream. “I want to be an example of how to be connected with each other,” Ruurdtje told me. “In harmony, in a community.”
The adults of each family financially invested in the project are committed to four hours of communication and organizational work, in addition to one day a week of labor on the building site. Most put in more time, despite often having full-time jobs and families to care for. To keep costs low, a few paid professionals guide families and volunteers, most of whom have no previous construction experience.
Volunteers come from all over the world. One former volunteer, Martin Blind, was offered a paid position as a lead builder due to his skills and experience in carpentry. He has a patient and deliberate presence while he tells fresh volunteers how to build the roof, which is of a more complex design than most professional builders come across in their daily work.
When the team pounds tires, the most common phrase heard is “More dirt please!” The process consists of lining up old tires, inserting recycled cardboard circles inside to cover the hole, and then filling the tires with a mixture of dirt and sand. Sounds simple enough, but the pounding and compressing of the dirt and sand into the tires to properly fill them and create a stable wall is exhausting work. However, the team dynamic on the Earthship building site is upbeat and energetic despite the heavy labor. One day as we worked, Edion Jake and Peter Van der Kuil kept things lively by singing songs ranging from Harry Belafonte’s chain gang tribute “Swing Dat Hammer” to Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It.” “The people are the most interesting part of the project, not the houses,” Peter told me.
One volunteer, Eelke Bontekoe, a teacher and researcher of wind energy and sustainable technologies, is currently teaching life-cycle analysis at the Netherlands’ Noordelijke Hogeschool Leeuwarden University of Applied Sciences. Eelke, who has been involved in similar projects in the past, explained that he hopes to some day live in a community like this one. As a teacher, he encourages students to actively seek out ways to decrease their carbon footprint. “I try to inform them of these topics and ways to make a change, to inspire them by walking the talk, to find solutions and live solutions.”
I watched Mirjam Burema as she sawed away at old nails to make wood beams safe for reuse. Although she said the work was sometimes tedious, she remained positive by thinking of the day when she and her daughter, Isa, would be able to call an Earthship their home. The years of investment in this project have been draining on her family, but as she made soup to share at lunch the next day with members and volunteers, she spoke warmly of the way the community has come together, with differences between people only adding to the creativity, sense of purpose, and joy of the group.
The association uses a consent-based method called Sociocracy to ensure quick and respectful interactions while considering important decisions. Using this method, groups of members are formed to address particular issues, inviting anyone within the association to join in to ensure transparency. Decisions can only be made when no one within the group has a significant evidence-based objection.
The morning meeting is a time for sharing food and drink, conversation, and some good laughs.
“We are building the community while building the houses. We donʼt have to start a new life when we move into our home; we already have,” Marloes Gelsing, mother of Noa and Amy, told me. The Gelsings and two other families home school their children. Others look forward to their children going to school in Olst, where class sizes are smaller than those in the city.
There is an understanding that children are not just the parents’ responsibility, but that of the community as a whole. On the building site, it’s common to see children running in the grass, waving at trains, reading books, and playing imaginative games. One day, I watched as two small friends spent the day investigating strange occurrences around the area, collecting clues while wearing an oversized hat and dark glasses. Workers had a hard time keeping a straight face. Peter Van der Kuil, married to Willy and father to Julia and Lisa, chuckled. “When you see them playing here, in the trees, behind the dirt, you know itʼs right.”
Future visions for Vereniging Aardehuis include serving as a community center for family gatherings and a visitor center to educate the public about Earthships. Members are hopeful that the surrounding land can be bought and used for planting trees, permaculture gardens, and play areas with animals for children.
Wendy Sasse, who still lives two hours away by train in Den Haag with her two sons, Auke and Wessel, and husband Gerard, is eagerly awaiting the day her family can be settled in their new home. “I look forward to seeing what it looks like, all the energy and love. The air is different here.”