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The Earthship – earth friendly

Nestled in the hills of Black Forest is a house built out of tires – used passenger car tires.Elaine and Don Dinwiddie began building their 3,900-square-foot house of tires in 1997 and moved in just before 2000. Don credits Elaine for the design, and Elaine credits the late actor Dennis Weaver for the inspiration.In 1990, Weaver built one of the first houses made out of tires in Ridgway, Colo., with advice from Taos, N.M. architect Michael Reynolds, according to Reynolds called the houses “Earthships” and wrote three books on how to build them.After many years in the real estate business, “I was tired of straight lines and 90 degree angles,” Don Dinwiddie said. “We wanted to live in a house with curves … made out of natural materials.”Dinwiddie tried building walls out of hay bales, another alternative material, but soon realized that finishing hay bale walls with adobe would take months. Finishing the walls with tires went much faster.”We invited friends over for adobe slinging parties,” Elaine Dinwiddie said. “It was important to have the energy of our friends as part of the house.”The tire houses are designed to be energy self-efficient, and it’s achieved in four ways:

  • The house is dug into the side of a south-facing hill; the hill protects the house from energy draining winter winds.
  • The tires, which are packed with dirt, provide insulation along the exterior walls. The walls are then coated with adobe, which “absorbs light instead of reflecting it,” Don Dinwiddie said.
  • A bank of windows stretching the length of the house faces the southern light. The windows are slanted, instead of vertical, to catch the most light. “The sun hits and the house charges like a battery,” Dinwiddie said.
  • Solar panels generate electricity to run household appliances and lights.
“We leave windows open all year round,” Elaine Dinwiddie said. Some parts of the house have pounded dirt floors and some parts have tile floors with in-floor heating. They used their in-floor heating for the first time last year, because of the number of overcast days.Elaine Dinwiddie designed the layout, and Don and two of their sons built the walls with guidance from Black Forest resident Michael Shealy, a retired aerospace engineer who refined Reynolds’ original designs. Subcontractors handled plumbing and electricity.”When you build a house like this, you have to expect to make mistakes and correct them as you go,” Elaine Dinwiddie said. For example, she said they realized they needed to get more natural light into the house’s interior, so they created a gap between the top of some interior walls and the ceiling.Concerned that noise might then travel from room to room, the Dinwiddies added indoor waterfalls and a stream that flows beneath the bank of slanted windows to mask noise. As it turns out, the adobe walls do a good job of absorbing sound, Don Dinwiddie said.”You live in a house like this differently,” Elaine Dinwiddie said. “Noise carries differently. You live in a quieter way.”Maintaining an Earthship is different from the traditional stick house. Occasionally, the slanted south-facing windows leak and require additional caulking, Elaine said.Building with tires is nothing new, according to Michael Shealy’s Web site, which features a picture of a retaining wall in Black Forest that was built in 1935.Shealy said he consults on two tire-house projects a year. Most of his clients live in Colorado, but he said two out of the last three clients lived in Canada. “All but one of my 34 clients has been owner-builders, electing to use their own labor and time to cut out the profit-loaded middle men,” Shealy said.The Pikes Peak Regional Building Department categorizes tire construction as “alternative construction” and requires house designs to be certified by a Colorado licensed engineer.In 1989, Shealy sought a building permit for his own Earthship, based on Reynold’s books, but the examiner’s reaction was “no way,” Shealy said. Over several months, Shealy was able to convince the examiner the plans were sound.Don Dinwiddie had a better experience. “It was very easy working with the building department,” he said. “They like people who are building their own homes. They were great.”Objections to tires as a building material include fire and out-gassing.There is no oxygen in a rammed-earth tire wall to maintain an ongoing fire. When completed, the wall is covered with a minimum of 2″ of stucco or adobe plaster, which will not burn at all,” Shealy said.He also said that after years of use, the surface of used tires is oxidized, which limits or completely eliminates out-gassing.In addition to houses, Shealy said tire construction is appropriate for outbuildings and courtyard walls. His Web site also provides information on building a goat shed out of tires.Shealy recommends using tires that are all the same size. “My preference is 235/75-15R, large passenger car, small truck tires,” he said. Many tire sellers, such as Costco and Wal-Mart, don’t allow scavengers to pick through their tires, but some like Big-O Tires, may be agreeable, he added.For more information, see “Earthship Vol. I, II and III” by Michael Reynolds, available at Pikes Peak Library District branches. Visit Shealy’s Web site at

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