VOL.10 NO. 4 SPRING 2001
There are those for whom “recycling” means separating cans, bottles, and newspapers from other refuse. Then there’s Nancy Roux.
Roux, a 1970 graduate in English, lives in a solar house she built herself—of rubber tires.
But dispel the vision of a junkyard shack smelling of asphalt, worn-down treads facing the neighbors. “You wouldn’t know that it’s made of tires,” Roux says.
The house, situated on 40 acres in the New Mexico desert, took Roux seven years to complete, and she is just now settling in. Because there was no electricity on the property, she built it using hand tools. “It looks like a solar adobe house, stuccoed over, bermed into the side of a hill, with windows of glass on the south side that harvest the sun’s rays,” she says with builder’s pride.
She refers to her house as an “earthship,” a term that reflects an architectural concept originated by Taos architect Michael Reynolds in which the dwelling “rides” on the Earth like a ship. It is self-sustaining, consuming no energy but generating it instead.
Roux’s “ship” is nestled in the high desert foothills of the Manzano Mountains, 120 miles from Santa Fe. It’s six miles from any road in a place called “Mountainair.” At an elevation of 6,700 feet, her property is covered with piñon pine and juniper trees, and looks out over surrounding mesas. “It’s wide open and wonderful,” she enthuses.
Influenced by Reynolds’ experimentation with rubber tires, straw bale, and other recycled products in the ’70s, Roux decided to build her earthship out of tires. “I went with a tire house because it’s “active solar”—you don’t need any extra heat source, unlike a straw-bale house. The tires and the earth are the furnace,” she explains. “During the day, the sun heats the tires, then the heat that has collected all day in the tires radiates into the room in the evening. Even in extremely cold weather, the house is always warm.”
Her prime motivation for undertaking such a venture was to prepare for the future, and retirement. “When I’m 80 years old,” she muses, “I don’t want to have to cut eight cords of wood to heat my house. Now I won’t have to.”
Obviously adventurous, Roux, who is self-employed, drives back and forth between Mountainair and Salt Lake City every two months. Having grown up in Salt Lake, she still has a network of old friends to visit as well as a thriving massage practice to maintain. After spending two weeks in Salt Lake working on other people’s sore muscles, she heads back to her project in the desert to soothe her spirits.
On advice from her father, Roux built the house on the highest point of her land to avoid flooding. She also intended to take advantage of the view. “There’s a magnificent red mesa to the south that I wanted to be able to see all the time, and since the house needs to face south, I just walked around the land until I found the right spot.”
Once the general position of the house had been determined, Roux used a compass to cock it twenty-two degrees to the east to catch the early morning sun, maximizing the house’s exposure and the solar panels that run it. “My house is completely solar—I’m totally off the grid,” she says. “All the systems are photovoltaic,” meaning the sun’s rays are absorbed by the solar panels and converted into electricity, which is then stored in batteries. Her water well is pumped by power from these photovoltaic solar panels, as are all the lights and electrical appliances in the house. “Since everything is powered by the sun, I have no utility bills,” she notes.
Finding tires to use in building the house was easy, Roux says. “Since tire retailers have to pay a two-dollar recycling fee for each tire they junk, almost all the tire stores in the nearest towns will keep them for you and hope you’ll take more, because it saves them money.” The frame of her two-room house, which she considers small, contains 450 tires.
After securing the materials, Roux began the building. “The ground serves as the foundation for the house, so there was no need to pour footings,” Roux explains. The size of the structure was determined, then squared off and staked out. Starting in one corner, a tire was placed level on the ground, then filled with earth, rocks, or other materials, and pounded with a ten-pound sledgehammer until it was solid. Each tire ended up weighing about four hundred pounds. Another tire was then placed next to the first one, level with the ground and the adjacent tire, and filled again. After the first row was laid, subsequent rows of tires were added, each staggered over the one below, much like laying bricks. The process continued until the wall was as high as Roux’s preferred ceiling height of 11 feet.
Once the walls were up, a “bond beam,” constructed of aluminum cans and cement, was put in place to hold the house together. Then large round beams called vigas, often used in Southwestern architecture, were added. “In the spirit of an old barn raising, I had help with the beams,” says Roux. “They weighed 800 pounds apiece, so I obviously couldn’t raise them myself. Six ranching friends came with pipes and ropes, and we hoisted them up and secured them.” Finally, they placed one-by-sixes between the beams to create the interior ceiling.
On the outside, a four-inch rigid insulation was added and the roofing placed on top. Roux’s roof is made from a converted toxic-waste-dump pond liner, a seamless membrane that prohibits leaks. The roof was designed to slant just enough to be an effective water-catchment system, funneling water from the roof into cisterns.
Inside, the kitchen has hot and cold running water, a solar-powered refrigerator, and a propane line for the stove. The tire walls are layered over with adobe mud to create a flush surface. Plumbing, however, was a particular challenge. “I told myself I wouldn’t do it, but then I ended up laying the pipes. I figured the process of getting water from point A to point B couldn’t be that hard to figure out,” Roux says. She has a bathtub-shower, too, made from cemented-over aluminum cans, and a line for a septic tank, although she presently uses a composting toilet.
In the final analysis, what did Roux learn from this process? “When I started this house I didn’t have a plan for it,” she says. “It evolved organically. I didn’t know what the house was going to look like or where anything was going to go, so I had to retrofit a lot of things. I worked with a friend who is a ‘solar wizard’ to understand how the electrical system functioned. With the plumbing I made only one serious mistake—I didn’t glue two joints, and they blew under fifty pounds of pressure.”
But even errors were instructive. “Because I covered the house in cement,” Roux says, “there wasn’t any way of making corrections, so I had to look at mistakes in a creative way. I discovered there’s always a solution to every problem.”
The biggest difference between living in her rubber-tire adobe abode and a traditional house, Roux observes, is “the incredible silence—except for the hawks and eagles and coyotes. I don’t hear a furnace go on or any of the other usual household noises. I even experienced an earthquake in this house. It was six miles away and I could actually hear the tremors in the ground as it approached. It was amazing.”
Asked if she would do it again, Roux replies emphatically, “Definitely. I plan to continue living this way. I’ve learned a lot about rural America and I don’t want to be anywhere else right now. Rural living is all about family life, community life, and concern for the earth, shared by everyone. Primarily, it’s an expression of appreciation for everything. I thought that recycling was something new but soon realized that ranchers and farmers have been doing it for hundreds of years because they’re so far from the city. You soon become aware of nature and appreciate every drop of water.”
In short, she says, “For the past seven years, while building the house, I’ve been camping. I haven’t had a refrigerator, electricity, or lights. And I’ve begun to really appreciate what I have—which is very little, and it’s wonderful.”
—Ann Floor, who last wrote about paleontologist Scott Sampson for Continuum (Fall 2000), is a freelance writer.
Copyright 2001 by The University of Utah Alumni Association