Earthship Kansas: A Home Made of Old Tires

A couple spends two years building a massive, yet light and airy, home out of old tires.

| May/June 2004

  • Ye old cement mixer
    Photo By Lark Smothermon
  • Marble reclaimed from a Kansas City hospital graces the floor of the Millsteins’ curved entryway. The circa 1974 stained glass panel inset into the Millsteins’ front door formerly decorated the entrance to a local art glass business. Tinted plaster covers all interior walls, eliminating the need for paint.
    Photo By Lark Smothermon
  • Curves are infinitely more appealing to David Millstein than angles. The core of his family’s modified earthship is egg shaped and whimsically ringed with Navy-surplus portholes.
    Photo By Lark Smothermon
  • Recycled building materials are one of the cornerstones of the Millsteins’ modified earthship home. Windows shown here are framed with recycled cypress wood, rescued from a mushroom barn near Kansas City.
    Photo By Lark Smothermon
  • Each tire in the concrete wall is filled with roughly 350 pounds of dirt. Twelve hundred tires were used in the project.
    Photo By Lark Smothermon
  • Red oak shelving milled on-site and a tinted plaster ceiling grace this nook on the second floor landing.
    Photo By Lark Smothermon
  • The Millsteins’ passive solar sunroom is paved with squares of limestone and shale. Because of county building codes, the sunroom’s plants cannot act as filters for graywater as in classically constructed earthships, but tropical and semitropical plants and herbs thrive in the indoor environment.
    Photo By Lark Smothermon
  • The 3,000-square-foot house feels open yet massive and secure at the same time.
    Photo By Lark Smothermon
  • Susan and David Millstein own and manage the historic Liberty Hall in Lawrence, Kansas, a 1,050-seat theatre for concerts, films, and performing arts.
    Photo By Lark Smothermon
  • A walnut cabinet stands near the doorway between the activity/dining room and the living room. Both rooms feature recycled maple floors and tinted plaster walls.
    Photo By Lark Smothermon
  • The master bathroom’s shower features a Navy surplus porthole and cobalt blue one inch by one inch tiles.
    Photo By Lark Smothermon
  • The Millsteins’ floorplan shows off the house’s graceful aerodynamic shape.
    Illustration by Gayle Ford
  • Curves are infinitely more appealing to David Millstein than angles. The core of his family’s modified earthship is egg shaped and whimsically ringed with Navy-surplus portholes.
    Illustration by Gayle Ford

On a former soybean field in the rolling hills of northern Kansas, a few miles outside Lawrence, David and Susan Millstein’s contribution to environmental sustainability curves and bends around the Kansas landscape like an undulating gray ribbon. It’s an earthship. To be more precise, it’s a variation on the theme of this green building technology, which incorporates into its design thermal walls built of used automobile tires filled with earth from the site and passive solar heating.

Ten years’ worth of lovingly collected recycled building materials are incorporated into the modified earthship’s construction. Its windows are framed with cypress rescued from a mushroom barn; recycled flooring from a University of Kansas handball court covers the dining/activity room floor. The living room floor is fashioned of planks from old tobacco sheds in Louisiana, and the marble floor in the home’s entry hall comes from a hospital in Kansas City. The opening portholes that add a touch of whimsy to the second story are Navy surplus. All the interior walls get their color from tinted plaster, not paint.

Safe and sound 

The house, which covers 2,700 square feet—3,000 square feet with the sunroom—is light and airy yet massive and secure at the same time. The first floor contains the living room, greenhouse, bedrooms for three children who are now grown (although daughter Casey, age nineteen, still lives at home while attending University of Kansas), and the dining activity room—which the Millsteins call “The Egg” because of its shape. The second floor contains the master suite and reading nook. And besides fulfilling the Millsteins’ desire to tread lightly on the earth, it’s exactly what they were looking for to insulate themselves from the endless Kansas prairie winds.

“We wanted this house to be passive solar and to use recycled materials, but we also wanted to let the wind play with this house rather than fight it,” explains David, who has a background in building restoration. According to Susan, the house has achieved their objectives and more. “There’s wonderful lighting that accompanies passive solar heating,” she says. “I love the light, and I wanted to use all these wonderful materials David had accumulated over the years.”

The house has cut their energy bills drastically. David says they spend about half what they paid for propane at the family’s former residence, a Victorian farmhouse. It’s also wired to accept direct current (DC) if the Millsteins ever go completely off the energy grid. “Being off the grid would be perfection, but the payback is so extended we thought conservation would be more pragmatic,” David says.



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