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

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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