Friday, June 15, 2012


date: Wed, 29 Sep 2004 13:50:49 +0100
from: "Gill Seyfang" <>
subject: BTOR - straw bale and earthships in the american desert -
to: <>

Gill Seyfang, CSERGE
Back to Office Report - field work and conference in the USA

1-sustainable straw-bale building in Crestone, Colorado
2-living 'off-the-grid' in Earthships in Taos, New Mexico
3-Globalisation and Environmental Justice conference, Tucson, Arizona

thanks to CSERGE and the school for funding this research trip.

1- I visited the small town of Crestone, Colorado which is known as the
capital of straw bale building in the USA. Straw bale housing is a
sustainable solution to building needs: it is low-tech, materials are cheap
and locally sourced, straw walls coated with earthen plasters are highly
insulative, and many houses also incorporate passive solar heating and
electricity. In addition to straw bale, there were also many people using
more innovative methods, such as 'papercrete', 'rammed earth', 'cordwood'
and 'scria bag' wall materials. I met with local self-builders and building
contractors and discussed their motivations for alternative building
methods. Primarily it was a concern to reduce environmental impact and
engage creativeley with their dwellings.

Crestone is also the home of Maurice Strong, figurehead of the 1992 Rio
Earth Summit, who gave large areas of land in Crestone to a wide range of
global spiritual centres in the interests of world peace and understanding.
This draws people to the area who are looking for a simpler, spiritual life,
away from the cities. Crestone is fairly unique in that it has land for sale
very cheaply, and very lenient planning codes, which allows this
experimentation. In other regions, as in the UK, planning regulations are
much more prohibitive against this sort of building technique. (In some
southwestern states, building codes for straw bale are being adopted, though
they are targeted towards the 'high end' of the market and still inhibit
low-cost self-build.) These factors combine to produce a hotbed of people
looking for alternative ways of living, and there are lessons for housing
everywhere which could be learned from these techniques.

2- I attended an Earthship Seminar in Taos, New Mexico, where I learned
about the development and building of 'earthships' - self-sufficient houses
that are 'off the grid' and independent of energy or water input. They are
also low-tech and built from the waste products of industrial society - old
tyres, cans and bottles! (covered in mud plaster, they're quite beautiful -
see the attached images).

So - they are the ultimate sustainable building - both adapting to climate
change (houses that don't require heating or cooling in any climate, that
function without being reliant upon utilities, that are earthquake and
hurricane-proof, and that empower people to self-build), while also
mitigating climate change (they don't require any fossil fuels for energy,
water, sewage or heating). They are high thermal mass, passive solar heated,
they collect rainwater and recycle it. They are about encountering the
environment and living sustainably with it. Designer Mike Reynolds claims
that they're not about 'saving the planet', they're about 'saving our asses'
when the fossil fuel energy and water infrastructure collapse (either
permanently or temporarily in power cuts). Again, it is planning regulations
which are hampering the development of these experimental buildings.
Reynolds proposes a 'test site' for sustainable buildings of all types, free
of planning codes, to speed up the evolution of these ideas and

I was initially quite skeptical about earthships, but living in one for 3
days, and learning about the logic behind them, I was won over and came away
harbouring dreams to build the first residential earthship in the UK! There
are currently 2 demonstration (non-residential) earthships in the UK, one in
Scotland and one in Brighton (this one owned by the Low Carbon Project).
Mike Reynolds and members of his team are visiting the UK in October for a
conference, and I am trying to arrange for a speaker to come to UEA. Visit for more information.

3- Finally, I attended the 'Globalisation and the Environmental Justice
Movement' conference in Tucson, Arizona. I gave a paper on the use of new
systems of money and exchange to build sustainable communities, drawing on
my research with LETS, Time Banks, and Green loyalty points, and this was
well-received. In addition to many papers on global issues, there was a
strong focus on cross-border environmental justice issues, with many
community activists from southern Arizona and northern Mexico present to
build networks and affinity groups. It was striking how much of ther
activism took the form of literature - in many cases, the stories of the
Native American tribes had never been written down before and so emergent
poetry or creative writing was a powerful tool for building identity and
recognition. The conference included a visit to several community projects
in Nogales, Mexico: a community revegetation project, a community college,
and we also met a group of maquila (export factory) activists.

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Dr Gill Seyfang
Centre for Social and Economic Research
on the Global Environment (CSERGE)
University of East Anglia
Norwich, NR4 7TJ, UK
+44 (0) 1603 592956

Personal web page:
Department web page:
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