How an environmentalist architect made a house out of garbage

A look at when recycling mixes with real estate after the jump

TRD New York /
Jul.July 26, 2014 11:00 AM

 Before the birth of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, pollution and litter plagued America. Despite the obvious problems, architect Michael Reynolds saw an opportunity — making houses out of what he calls “garbage.”

“These materials are indigenous to the entire planet,” he tells Business Insider. “Everywhere you go, they’re present.”

After graduating from the University of Cincinnati in 1969, Reynolds became a proponent of “radically sustainable” living. In ’72, he built his first house, made almost entirely from beer and pop cans.

Using a process Reynolds calls “earthship biotecture,” a two-bedroom home, requiring about 70,000 cans, would cost $25,000 to $30,000 — 20% less expensive than traditional building at the time.

“The beer can houses kind of started everything,” he recalls. Reynolds now runs Earthship Biotecture, a global architecture firm focused on creating self-sustaining homes named after the process he used to build his home.

Documerica, a photo project in the 1970s from the newly established EPA, captured Reynolds’ humble beginnings in Taos, New Mexico, the location of the first beer can houses.

Michael Reynolds and his team built the Thumb House in Taos, New Mexico. Shown below, it’s the first structure made almost entirely out of beer and pop cans. The curved walls allow the cans to support more weight, resulting in pie-shaped rooms.

“The beer can idea started in the early ’70s when they first started doing TV [broadcasts] about old steel cans being thrown all over the streets and highways,” Reynolds says.

But constructing an entire house required many more cans than just litter could provide — about 70,000.

Reynolds calls these houses a “very low-tech, low-skill way to build.” Since his first house, Reynolds and his team often travel to developing countries to teach his methods.

Initially, he and his team created makeshift bricks, like the one below, from beer cans. Made of eight cans, it weighs 14 ounces and cost 15 cents.

Then, they mortared the blocks to form walls.

But Reynolds soon realized they could use the cans as-is. The air inside, along with foam sheets, acts as an insulator, keeping the structure energy-efficient.

Even within finished walls, cans stay visible, creating a unique aesthetic.

Reynolds even patented his brick design in 1973.

He continued making houses, calling the practice “earthship biotecture.”

Roof-lawns on some houses let residents grow much of their own food.

Reynolds even lived in one of his creations, shown below.

 

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