PHOENIX—An Arizona developer seeks partners for a project to build low-income housing using scrap tires as the main structural material. Robby Richards, president of Richards Development Inc. in Phoenix, bases his plans for scrap tire houses on the ``Earthship'' design patented by Taos, N.M- based architect Michael Reynolds.
Reynolds' company, Solar Survival Architecture, had some 300 clients last year, a company spokeswoman said. While Reynolds always has built his homes to order for single clients in desert and wilderness areas, Richards wants to apply the Earthship technology to low-income subdivisions in the inner cities.
``There's a tremendous need for low-income housing in Phoenix and other cities,'' Richards said. ``It's an unserved niche I've chosen to work in.''
The high construction cost of conventional building materials prices most low-income and first-time home buyers out of the new-home market, according to Richards. But using the principles of Earthship—including main walls constructed from tires packed with dirt and the buyers participating in construction—substantially could bring down the price, particularly with economies of scale.
``The median home price here is $130,000, and a lot of people can't come close to affording that,'' he said. ``I want to see if we can get that down to $80,000 to $100,000. With current interest rates, (low-income) people can afford that.''
In the Earthship design, load-bearing walls are made of steel-belted radial tires packed with up to 300 pounds of rammed earth apiece. Finished with mud, plaster or stucco, these walls have natural insulating capabilities to keep the home at a steady 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit without the use of artificial heating or cooling systems, according to material from Solar Survival Architecture.
Non-load-bearing walls are built with tin or aluminum cans and cement. These walls also are finished with mud, plaster or stucco ``to produce beautiful living spaces,'' the material said.
As envisioned by Reynolds, the Earthship home is a self-sufficient, environmentally friendly entity. Prominent features of his design include solar panels and wind generators to supply energy and cisterns to collect rainwater for water supply.
While many of those features are ``not quite suitable for an urban environment,'' Richards believes scrap tire construction—with its low materials cost and inherent energy savings—can be successfully adapted for the mass-produced, low-income housing market.
For example, a custom-built Earthship calls for using a sledgehammer to hand pack tires with dirt. Richards believes he can backfill the tires to create effective building materials quickly. He envisions each home using about 1,000 tires.
Each tire can be finished with earth to make ``a 300-pound adobe block'' and create an attractive adobe home, according to Richards. But Phoenix city officials are not yet convinced his plans are workable.
Richards is building a prototype house to show Phoenix officials and potential financial backers. He also has applied for a recycling grant from the state, and expects to hear the results at the end of October.
Finding sufficient scrap tires for his project is another ongoing task for Richards. He has had no trouble on his current small scale. Plenty of small tire dealerships and garages are willing to donate the tires in order to get rid of them, he said. But obtaining agreements for larger future supplies has been difficult.
Reynolds, who could not be reached for comment, has built Earthship homes in the U.S., Japan, Canada, Mexico, Australia and Bolivia. His major projects include an 80-unit motel and low-income housing in Bolivia.