A Scottish farmer and his earthship | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 22.12.2012
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A Scottish farmer and his earthship

This year Alastair Dawson and his family will be celebrating Christmas in their "earthship," as they like to call it. After five years of hard work, the Scottish farmer has made his vision of ecological living a reality.

Fields and meadows, a gurgling stream, sheep in the fields: the central highlands of Scotland may not be where you would expect to find the latest in alternative architecture. Yet here, hidden away into part of a hillside, stands a unique sustainable house, one of he first of its kind in the country.

Five years ago, when farmer Alastair Dawson started to collect old railway sleepers, cobblestones, schoolroom floorboards and bakery flagstones, not to mention hundreds of used tires, his neighbors thought he was a bit eccentric. When he told them he was going to build an "earthship," they didn't believe it would ever happen, says Alastair. They thought he was, "all talk and no action," he says.

Alastair is first and foremost a farmer, who runs his property on organic principles. But in an increasingly competitive economic climate, the young businessman was looking for ways to diversify. Building and letting out holiday homes seemed like a good idea, in an area attractive to hikers and nature-lovers in search of peace and quiet. But, building conventional housing on his farmland was out of the question.

Sheep graze in a field in Kinross, Scotland. In the background, the roof of the earthship (Copyright: Irene Quaile, September 2012)

The well-camouflaged earthship roof is barely visible behind Dawson's field of sheep.

"Being a farmer, I've always been conscious of nature and the environment," Alastair told DW. "Farmers look very long-term. You don't own land, you're just a beneficiary, a caretaker for the next generation."

Learning from Africa

Travelling to other parts of the world, the Scots farmer was impressed by how different peoples made different shelters from the materials available to them locally. "In Africa I lived in a rondavel for a time and learnt a bit about adobe and earth structures there," Alastair says.

Back in Britain, Alastair set about finding the ideal structure for his local conditions. Books and articles, hours on the internet, conversations with architects, tradesmen, conservationists - eventually he came up with the idea for his own unique version of an "earthship," a building type developed in the USA, which uses local, recycled materials and often exists off the power grid.

Use of the word "ship" is supposed to stress the difference to a conventional house. Alastair’s version relies heavily on making use of the warmth of the sun. "The structure is south facing, to face the sun, and is mostly glazed to the south."

The curves of the earthship. (Copyright: Irene Quaile September 2012, Kinross, Scotland)

The earthship building is set into the hillside and is insulated with straw and sheep wool

Building sustainably

The structure is made mainly from rammed earth, an ancient building material in the area. The wall is compacted in layers which simulates sedimentary rock, Dawson explains. It regulates temperature and humidity naturally. The stones used for the building have all been taken from local sites - including the streets of the Scottish capital Edinburgh, where cobbles have been removed to make way for a new tramline.

Building the alternative house was no easy task, especially since Alastair has no architectural training. He worked with three different engineers before the earthship could become reality. Finding the expertise and getting building permission presented the enthusiastic farmer with a lot of problems.

Dawson had to make some concessions to rules and regulations, he admits. "We had to use a little bit of reinforced concrete. I must confess it was very much against my better nature, but ultimately the structure required a little bit of concrete here and there."

Floorboards from a school gym in the house's loungeroom Copyright: Irene Quaile September 2012, Kinross, Scotland)

The house has recycled flooring from an old school gym

As well as being built into the hillside, the house is insulated with straw bales and sheep wool from the farm - and recycled tyres, which Alastair says should have an indefinite lifespan. The technology, first developed by the US army engineers, says Alistair, is widely used in alternative building projects. Using tyres for buildings means they don't cause pollution getting burned, and the valuable materials are put to a good use. As long as the tyres are covered and not subject to direct sunlight, they do not give off any pollution.

Power needs taken care of

Despite, its unique building materials, the earthship has all the modern conveniences to provide Alistair, his partner Lisa and their two small children Mari and Sandy with year-round comfort. The electricity comes from two wind turbines Alistair installed on top of the hill. The modern bathroom has water from a nearby stream. And a high-tech mechanical heat recovery system sucks out stale moist air and brings in fresh air through earth tubes.

More importantly, he says, the house should be enjoyable to live in. "I wanted a soft feel to it, like it was hugging you when you enter," says the farmer-cum-sustainable architect. The soft browns of the earth walls have a warm feel, the wide window front makes the house light and airy.

In the future, Alastair is planning a second earthship to let out to holidaymakers. That should be easier, he thinks, based on the experience gained over the last five years.

Meanwhile, he and his family are looking forward to their traditional British Christmas dinner - organic turkey from a cousin's farm and locally grown vegetables. This year they will be celebrating - not in their own four walls, but in their own "earthship." Alastair is looking forward to having friends and family around - and showing them how he turned his "talk into action" - and his ecological dream into reality.

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