Missouri couple builds self-sustainable home from used tires, cans

Wednesday, October 14, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 3:26 p.m. CDT, Thursday, October 15, 2009
Vendoni Colvin, Karen Spicer and Kenny Colvin consider the possibilities of what will eventually become the kitchen of the "Earthship" house the Colvins are building in Brumley. The Colvins have been building the house, largely composed of repurposed materials, since April 2003 after visiting some other Earthships in Taos, N.M.

BRUMLEY — Kenny and Vendoni Colvin didn’t expect stuffing dirt into tires to be so time-consuming.

It takes two people three or four hours to put 300 pounds of dirt into a big tire, one shoveling and the other packing with a sledgehammer.


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It took the Colvins four years to finish packing all the tires they need to build their house. They stopped counting after tire No. 550.

“Both wrists were blown up, and you develop tennis elbow after the tenth tire,” Kenny Colvin said.

Stacked tires have become the load-bearing walls for an Earthship, the Colvins’ self-sustaining home built almost entirely from natural and recycled materials. Still a work in progress, it is located in a quiet and isolated forest in Brumley, near Osage Beach. When finished, it will have solar and thermal mass heating, a cistern for water and composting toilets.

After about five years of labor, the Colvins may be among the few Earthship builders in Missouri to have made any significant progress toward completion, according to the Department of Natural Resources, which administers the approval of beneficial use of scrap tires.

They will share their building experiences during the Sustainable Living Fair on Saturday at Columbia College Student Commons. Sponsored by Mid-Missouri Peaceworks, it runs from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The Earthship concept was developed by New Mexico-based architect and builder Michael Reynolds about 20 years ago.

According to Kirsten Jacobsen, education director of Reynold’s company Earthship Biotecture, it's called a “ship” because it is disconnected from the world’s main utility lines, like a boat.

The Colvins began their project in 2001, armed only with experience in landscaping and Reynold’s Earthship instruction manuals. Prior to building, they visited the 633-acre Greater World Earthship community in Taos, N.M., which provides nightly rentals.

Their Earthship looks like an ordinary house partially built underground. Inside, the raw framework of the house is clearly visible.

The packed tires are piled like bricks in a checkerboard pattern with cement filling the gaps. Wooden frames and windows connect the tire wall with the ceiling. An interior wall made of evenly spaced aluminum cans has been cemented together to serve as shelves.

None of this will be seen after the tires are stuccoed and the cans are tiled. The roof will be metal, keeping the structure fire resistant.

The land around the Earthship is paved with irregular rock tiles. A layered watershed drainage system made of cans keeps the rain from rolling down the hill and flooding the house.

A glass wall faces south to maximize sunlight. The earth-filled tires absorb heat from the sun and release it slowly at night, keeping the temperature stable.

Windows are arranged so that the sun shines directly onto the tires during the winter, providing extra heat. There is also a ventilation system to shuffle heat in and out as the climate changes.

“In the summertime, you don’t have to have A/C, and in the winter you don’t have to have heat,” Kenny Colvin said.

Because their cistern is still under construction, the Colvins haul all their water from a well nearby and rain buckets collect extra water.

By using a compost toilet, the need for a sewage system is eliminated. The shower is a flash-on-demand process — when turned on, a paddle wheel ignites the burner.

Dirty shower water will flow outside to a tub that waters the planting beds. Used kitchen water will flow indoors into a hydroponic system with a fish pond.

Almost all of the materials are recycled. They are collected from homes, factories, construction sites, rock quarries and tire dealers.

The Colvins first became environmentally active when Vendoni Colvin founded Waste Watchers in 1994, a drop-off recycling organization for Lake Ozark, which at that time had no recycling at all.

“Getting into household recycling was our first earth-conscious thinking and that led to wanting to live more sustainably,” said Vendoni.

In 2000, Kenny wrote on the family Christmas wish list that he wanted 250 acres of unspoiled land in Montana or Wyoming.

Not wanting her son to move far away, his mother typed it out as “Kenny wants 50 acres of land in Brumley, Missouri.” By March 2001, they had purchased the land.

After doing much Internet research on alternative living, the Colvins decided on an Earthship because it seemed the most durable.

They spent two months constructing an off-the-grid, two-story temporary home from recycled material. The Colvins moved in on Memorial Day 2001.

They didn’t expect to live in it for the next eight years.

Another couple moved in with them to help build the Earthship. Unaccustomed to the hard labor, they left after six months.

Since then, the Colvins have tried hiring laborers to pack tires, invited a few families to stay and help out and asked carpenter friends to share their expertise.

Yet, they have done most of the work on their own.

The Colvins quit their jobs when they started their project, hoping to speed up the process. 

When it became apparent that it would take years, Vendoni went to a school for massage therapists and set up a studio in Osage Beach. Kenny is on call 24/7 as a wastewater technician.

“When you’re in the rat race of everyday life, it takes a lot more to do this,” Vendoni said.

They no longer try to estimate how long it will take. "For years, it was next year,” Kenny Colvin said.

Yet, they keep moving forward, determined to take it one step at a time. The next objective is to have the floors insulated and paved by this winter.

When it is finally done, however, it will just be the beginning.

“We intend to make this into a small eco-village,” Vendoni said.

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Charles Dudley Jr October 14, 2009 | 4:37 a.m.

Isn't Brumley where that concrete UFO is at too in that field?

(Report Comment)
Courtney Shove October 15, 2009 | 7:32 a.m.

Very interesting!

(Report Comment)
Carol Colvin October 16, 2009 | 2:31 p.m.

Yes Brumley is where the cement UFO is, and is about 10 miles as the crow flies, from Kenny and Vendoni's home.

You can only appreciate their home after you have seen it. It is awesome.

(Report Comment)
Han Cheung October 21, 2009 | 6:57 p.m.

What exactly is this concrete UFO?

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