In Ushuaia we visit a self-sustaining Earthship built with recycled and natural materials. A truly sustainable building example from the end of the world.

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Ever since we decided to sail to the Pacific Ocean via the “classic” route, we have been fantasizing about Ushuaia. As the southernmost city in the world, located in Tierra del Fuego at the very tip of South America, it appeals to the imagination. Founded by pioneers, it is surrounded by rugged nature and gets plagued by storms. We therefore expect a characteristic town. That illusion evaporates quickly when we go ashore and see how busy it is. Camper vans compete for parking space along the road, groups of motorcyclists pass by, while cruise ships pick up and drop off hundreds of passengers every day. The concrete buildings in town, some with a thin wooden façade, are uninspiring. It feels like we are walking through a hastily-built French ski resort.

“The city has grown spectacularly in the last ten years,” says Henk, our neighbour in the marina. He settled here many years ago and sails charters with his boat. We can see that the growth leads to ecological problems. Large areas of forest have been cleared to make way for homes. These are often badly insulated and heated with gas from bottles. Electricity cables, messily tied together, run above ground to a fossil-fuel-fired power plant. And a large chunk of the city’s waste ends up unsorted at a landfill site adjacent to a nature reserve.

Fortunately, some people in town are working on solutions to these challenges. We are happy to encounter an “Earthship” building, in which we recognize the hand of American architect Michael Reynolds. There are clear similarities with the sustainable school buildings that we visited earlier this year.

Sustainable Building According to Six Principles

Alejandro Bauducco manages the Nave Tierra, as the building is called here, and warmly welcomes us. We also meet the initiators, Argentine actors Elena Roger and Mariano Torre. “We wanted to create a place for the community, which also demonstrates that we can build responsibly” Elena explains. “The self-sufficient Earthship appealed to our imagination. It is a proven concept in which the ecological footprint is kept as small as possible, both during construction and during use” Mariano adds. “We achieve this by applying six sustainability principles.” As if he can read our minds, Alejandro suggests to explain the six principles during a tour of the building.

One: Using Natural and Recycled Building Materials

“To build the Nave Tierra, we used recycled and natural materials as much as possible” Alejandro begins. “Old car tires form the basis of the walls. Filled with earth and clay, they are extremely strong building blocks for load-bearing walls. The walls are so wide that they do not need a concrete foundation. That saves cement and therefore a lot of CO2, which would otherwise have been released for its production. We also recycle glass bottles and aluminium cans to reinforce the walls, which are finished with clay and natural dyes. Finally, the wood that we use for the window frames, doors and the roof construction has removed COfrom the atmosphere in order to grow.”

Two: Heating and Cooling with the Sun

Despite the cold outside, it is pleasantly warm inside without any central heating or the wood stove burning. How is that possible? “The inside temperature is controlled with natural cooling and heating methods.” Alejandro explains. “The double-glazed windows in the front face north to ensure that as much sunlight as possible enters the building. The windows’ good insulation and the thick walls retain the heat like in a greenhouse. If it gets too hot, we open the roof hatches to let warm air escape. Cool air can enter through ventilation holes in the walls on the south side”, Alejandro says while pointing out the air vents. “For very cloudy, cold days we use a rocket stove, which is a particularly effective wood-burning stove.” We can literally feel how well this simple heating and cooling system works.

Three: Generating Renewable Electricity

The third principle comes to no surprise, as we had already seen it when we arrived. “We produce renewable electricity with solar panels and two small wind turbines. It is stored in batteries for times when there is more demand for electricity than supply” Alejandro continues. “There is enough energy to cook water for my mate“, he laughs while taking a sip of tea. We nod in agreement; after all, we have a similar electricity supply on board.

Four: Collecting Rainwater

“And how do you get water?” we wonder. Alejandro takes us outside to the flat roof. When it rains or snow melts, the water runs along the edges of the roof to a pipe, which feeds into storage tanks. “From the tanks, the water is pumped through a filter to a pressure tank” Alejandro adds. “The tanks are almost full, even though we use this water for everything, such as for drinking and showering.” Must be the frequent rain here, we gather.

Five: Closing the Loop

Back inside, Alejandro continues his explanation: “Just as we have no connection to a power plant and water supply, we are not connected to the sewer system either. That is not necessary, because we feed the plants with the water and the nutrients from our waste streams. The rainwater from the roof is used no less than four times. The residual water from the kitchen and the shower goes to so-called botanical cells, where our indoor plants use and purify it until it is clean enough to be pumped to a storage tank. The toilets are flushed with that water, and the used toilet water is transported via a conventional septic tank to another botanical cell in the garden where it feeds the outdoor plants. “Of course we only use biodegradable soap, shampoo and cleaning products” Alejandro adds with a smile. The water and nutrient cycles are therefore completely closed here.

Six: Growing Local Food

Finally, we learn that the plants play an important role in Nave Tierra. “I just told you that plants are an essential link in the water and nutrient cycle. That is why plants and trees form an integral part of the design of an Earthship. But they have another function: as a source of food. In the hall and in the garden outside we grow as many vegetables, fruit and herbs as possible, “Alejandro explains. And we note that besides being useful, so much greenery brightens up everything in and around the house.

If It’s Possible Here, It Can Be Done Anywhere!

We are impressed by both the clever design and the implementation of the various sustainability aspects at the Nave Tierra. The many practical solutions also seem very much applicable in existing buildings. “If an Earthship building is possible here at the end of the world, it is possible everywhere,” Mariano summarizes. We couldn’t agree more!

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