Passion For environmental protection
Mike’s passions for nature and architecture have enabled him to create designs for buildings that benefit both, as well as the people who will use them. And yes, while Mike is a critic of architecture in spite of being an architect himself, he has a good reason: after so many years of researching and studying to make structures more eco-friendly and sustainable, Michael has seen how standard building designs over the years have contributed greatly to the effects of climate change:
“People can live in carbon zero homes right now. The technology is here. Allowing it to happen is the problem. Our rules and regulations won’t let us do it... Our rules and regulations are about things that aren’t pertinent any more – stick frame houses that you pump heat into, endless of amounts of energy and water – wasteful methods of living. Those days are over due to climate change, population explosion and dwindling resources. If you project them into the future we’ve got a problem.”
Sustainable Houses reduce Stress
Mike does not see his work as only a means of preserving the environment – sustainable living spaces reduce stress, which he believes is one of the world’s greatest problems. According to him, the way a person’s house is designed can contribute to their stress, and this is why he considers his job a way of helping people alleviate themselves from stress through more comfortable living:
“It’s clear to see that people are in a lot of stress themselves due to the way they live. And they’re imposing that stress on other people and the planet. If we are able to remove the stress from people in terms of how they live and what they have to give of themselves to exist and what they have to take from the planet to exist – if we’re able to eliminate a lot of that stress, the world’s going to be a better place. I think if you simply remove stress then people will be much better.”
Little is known about Mike’s childhood; he was born in 1945 in New Mexico and has had a passion for architecture since he was young. According to his childhood friends, Mike was an outgoing person and loved to experiment with things and build stuff out of recycled material. He was an outstanding student, and throughout his primary and secondary years was always at the top of his class. By the time he entered college, Mike was a scholar.
How His Passion Began
Mike went to the University of Cincinnati, where he studied Architecture to pursue his passions for building and designing. While studying, he became interested in the concept of using recycled materials to construct buildings after seeing how much waste is left behind by current construction methods. So, Mike used the knowledge he gained to find ways to use what many consider “garbage” as construction material. Many of Mike’s classmates and professors described his designs as “radical” and “unorthodox,” but Mike amazed them nevertheless with his intellect and academic excellence.
When asked about the beginnings of his work, Mike responded:
“It’s not like a light bulb went on and I thought: ‘I’m going to make sustainable housing.’ It happened little by little as a result of responding to the news of environmental issues. I stumbled into this as a result of responding.”
Building The “Thumb House”
After graduating from college and earning his degree in 1969, Mike began working and promoting his ideas. His college thesis, which focused on his study of using recyclable stuff as construction material, was published in 1971 by the Architectural Record magazine, a well-known publication in the fields of construction and architecture. The following year, Mike finished building his own house, which he called the “Thumb House.”
Mike’s Thumb House was among the first of its kind in the United States. The house was built using empty beer cans (which Mike spent much time collecting prior to his plans of building the house) which were wired together to form bricks and then mortared and plastered together to form the house’s walls. Upon completion, the house became quite popular for both its unconventional design and the material from which it was made.
As with many radical ideas, Mike’s method of constructing houses from recyclable materials received mixed reactions. While some praised Mike for introducing a revolutionary new way of building sustainable homes, others criticized his unorthodox methods and even branded him as a “disgrace” to the architectural community. In an interview, Mike recalled the initial ridicule of his ideas when he first showed his house to the public:
“When I first started doing it, people thought I was crazy. When I told an engineer I was building a house out of beer cans, he told me I was a disgrace to the architectural profession.”
Establishing “Earthship Biotecture”
In spite of the negative reactions from Mike’s fellow architects and structural engineers, he was not discouraged from continuing to build environmentally-sustainable homes. In 1973, his building designs were patented under the name “Earthship Biotecture,” which came to Mike after an epiphany in which he discovered that any object, when filled with dirt, could become effective and durable insulation material.
Mike’s idea for building sustainable homes and commercial buildings came from his realization that the design of a house, and the materials of which it consists, can contribute to a person’s overall well-being:
“If every building was to consume its own sewerage that’d be huge. Then if every building made its own power, and heated and cooled itself, and caught its own water rather than sucking water out of the aquifers – the ramifications of how people live in their own units could affect things in an unbelievable way. Ultimately it would affect the minds and hearts of people.”
Not long after Mike established the “Earthship Biotecture” name, the public began taking him seriously after seeing the proven efficiency of his designs. He became quite popular selling his experimental homes, especially with environmental activists and even a few celebrities – such as Keith Carradine and Dennis Weaver, who commissioned him to build them high-end “Earthships.”
During this time, Mike worked tirelessly to improve the designs of his Earthships. Soon enough, he added several features to make the houses more comfortable places to live, such as solar panels for electricity and geothermal cooling.
Although the Earthships were highly successful, Mike was aware that, while his designs were more efficient than conventional building methods, many improvements to structural integrity and other factors were still needed. Because of this, whenever someone became interested in acquiring one of Mike’s Earthships, he would first explain the experimental nature of the structures he built. Many of the people who purchased the houses were satisfied and knew the risks involved, but some failed to understand the concept of experimental homes and filed lawsuits and complaints against Mike after discovering defects in the structures.
The ‘90s And Early 2000s: Tough Times
This became a serious problem for Mike, who stressed the fact that, because his Earthship designs were constantly in improvement-stages, people should expect some problems as they would with a normal house. However, as more and more buyers complained about the problems with Mike’s Earthships, his reputation suffered, and his credentials were eventually stripped by the State Architects Board of New Mexico. In 1990, after multiple disputes with several clients, Mike decided to give up his architecture and construction licenses for the sake of keeping the peace.
The ‘90s and early 2000s thus became somewhat of a “dark period” for Mike’s career. However, in spite of this disappointing period in his life, he never lost interest in building Earthships and continued to search for ways to improve them. Throughout the rest of this period, Mike constantly promoted the efficiency of his Earthships.
Resurgence And Rise To Popularity
Mike’s unfortunate situation would not last forever, as environmental activism grew more prominent during the mid-2000s. Along with the rise of environmentalists and eco-friendly organizations, the public began to realize that what Mike had been promoting for years was indeed true. Mike’s career began to flourish once again, and in 2007 his architect’s license was reinstated after seventeen years of hiatus. In that same year, Mike was featured in a film documentary titled “Garbage Warrior,” which depicted his life and work.
Mike’s career began to rise once again; in 2008, he was featured in an episode of the television documentary “Stephen Fry in America,” in which he gives Stephen a tour of his house and explains the various features and functions.
Today, Mike continues to improve and promote his Earthships, believing that as people become more conscious of how their lifestyle choices affect the environment, they will also place more emphasis on how to build homes, what materials to use, and how to design houses with maximum efficiency that will benefit not only the environment, but their lives overall:
“We should really learn about the Earth (the physics and biology of it) so we can work with it – to make sure we can live here without destroying it.”
Organizations and Programs Supported
- Earthship Biotecture
- Earthship Biotecture Academy
- Global Warming Campaign
- Green Movement
Awards and Achievements
- 1971: Had his thesis published in Architectural Record
- 1973: Patented his “Thumb House” design
- 1975: Received the “Burlington House Award for Interiors”
- 1999: Named the “Alumnus of the Year” of the University of Cincinnati
- 2005: Received the “UK Innovation Award” and the “VIBES Award for Small Businesses”
- 2006: Recognized in the New York Times special “Celebrating our Eco-Heroes”
- 2007: Featured in the documentary film “Garbage Warrior”
- 2008: Featured on the documentary show “Stephen Fry in America”
- 2009: Won the Grand Jury Prize at EKOFILM (Garbage Warrior)
- 2009: Received the Audience Award at EKOFILM (Garbage Warrior)
- 2009: Received the “Spirit of Activism Award” at the Wild and Scenic Environmental Film