The owners of an off-grid house inspired by a New Mexico hippy commune say the innovative eco property feels part of their identity.
“Before, it did not really matter where we lived,” Pauline Massart told The Connexion.
“We rented flats and houses without much attachment to the place we were living, other than thinking it was close to the beach, or to work, things like that. But after four years, this house has become much more than simply a place to live in – it is part of who we are.”
The property was built outside the village of Biras, Dordogne, according to ‘earthship’ design principles, the brainchild of a US architect called Michael Reynolds.
These homes need no heating other than the sun, are autonomous for water, electricity and much of the food grown in them, and use building materials which are difficult or expensive to recycle, including tyres, cans and bottles.
Inspired by architect in New Mexico
Pauline and her husband Benjamin Adler, who were both working as journalists in Los Angeles, met Mr Reynolds in Taos, a small town in New Mexico where hippy communes from the early 1970s survived.
Both had ‘green’ leanings, and were so taken with his homes that they decided to build only the second earthship in France – and to open the worksite as a training school for others.
The couple have recently published a book detailing the experience, La maison magique. It includes how they overcame difficulties getting a bank loan, and their feelings during the highly stressful six weeks in 2017 when 100 people camped on their land and completed the main structural work on the house.
The Connexion was one of many media outlets that followed the innovative build, where old tyres, filled with earth, form the main load-bearing structures, and double as a heat storage and release system to regulate temperature.
Read more: ‘Earthship’ eco-home lands in Dordogne
One of the couple’s main problems was finding someone to do the preparatory groundwork, which involved digging down three metres.
“We thought that if we contacted someone two months in advance, it would be no problem. To our horror, we found that they were fully booked for two years in advance.
“We eventually found someone who said he would try to fit us in between two orders, but then we found that the soil was only one metre deep, and the rest was rock,” said Pauline.
Instead of two days, the job took two weeks, with the contractor being continually harassed on the phone by other clients.
“We really thought he might leave us, but he did not, something we are very grateful for.”
During construction, the couple were kept busy cooking lunch for between 75 and 100 people each day, plus handling deliveries of materials, their storage, payment, and other administration. Their young daughter was looked after by grandparents who live 40 minutes away.
Once the main building was finished, Pauline could start on the interior, which took another year to complete. Benjamin, meanwhile, had to find quiet corners with his computer to keep some money coming in.
The house did have problems
Since then, the house has given them three scares. The first came when a torrential downpour led to a flood, which entered from the door. Other houses in the village suffered worse.
Then they discovered their water supply was very low, despite abundant rainfall. Fearing they might have to dig up the three large plastic tanks buried behind the house, they were relieved to locate the problem in a cracked link between the tanks – something they could fix in a day.
Their final test came when the electricity control panel showed a red warning light – traced eventually to a loose battery connection.
The house faces south and a large glass conservatory runs across the façade. Temperature and fresh air are controlled by opening shutters and so-called ‘Canadian wells’, where air from the outside passes through pipes deep in the soil.
Room temperatures are constant and pleasant
When The Connexion visited on one of the coldest days of the year, with -1C registered outside, the entrance lobby was around 10C, the conservatory with shutters open at 15C, and the rooms 20C – with Pauline insisting temperatures do not vary much.
“You have to adjust the shutters and air intake – you look after the house and it looks after you,” she said.
A small banana tree, with ripening fruit, was the star of the conservatory beds, watered automatically with the grey water from sinks and showers.
The constraints of the batteries and water system have necessitated some lifestyle changes for the family. The electric coffee machine is for bright sunny days only, and instead of having a kettle on the go, water is boiled in a large saucepan in the morning and kept hot in vacuum flasks.
The couple are now exploring alternatives to the gas – three bottles a year – that they use for cooking.
“I do not see the changes as restrictions, or a reduction in comfort levels,” said Pauline.
“We live very comfortably, and simply make adjustments for circumstances – not having any heating or water bills and knowing our house does not add to greenhouse gases makes a huge difference.”
They would have done things differently
With hindsight, she says she wishes they had insisted on more ecological insulation on the roof – blocks of polystyrene-type material were used.
“Mike Reynolds said other materials either decline in efficiency over time or are unproven. I would now like to have cork or something similar.”
She would also like to have had concrete water tanks instead of plastic – plastic is lighter and the tanks could be manoeuvred into place without cranes – and to have found finance outside the conventional banking system.
Crédit Agricole Charente-Périgord gave them a mortgage after they were turned down by ‘green’ banks.
However, building the house has proved a catalyst for positive change in the couple’s professional lives.
Pauline is now president of Zéro Déchet Dordogne, an association which aims to reduce waste, and also works for a group improving collective action by environmental groups.
Benjamin, meanwhile, works for a communications agency specialising in helping companies become greener.
He has also co-founded Game Earth, an association to help sport become better involved in action against climate change.