An Appalachian Earthship: Reinventing the Wheel

Ken and Etta Lebensold reside in a house made of garbage. If their walls could talk, they would tell of traveling cross-country thousands of times. They are well-traveled walls, insulated with 700 used tires, which have been rammed with soil from the home site to create large rubber-rimmed bricks.

The Lebensold house is an earthship, a design created in the American Southwest by Michael Reynolds. The earthship gets its name from the concept of a ship at sea being self-sufficient and contained.

The two-year-old home, located in Johnson County, Tennessee, is the first Reynolds’ designed earthship to land on the East Coast. Each of the filled tires weighs 300 pounds, assuring that the earthship is anchored for good.

If you have to ask, “Why an earthship?” or “Who would want to live in a house made of tires?”, then you haven’t met Ken and Etta Lebensold.

Etta is a native of Northern California, a region where alternative ideals are the mainstream. Nearly 30 years ago, she purchased land in Tennessee, hoping to someday make it an intentional community. The land sat dormant and life in Northern California went on.

One day, a friend brought Etta an article about earthships and it was the start of an epic home-building journey. Sitting in a chair by the earthship’s sculpted woodstove nook, Etta remembered the moment she decided to build her home. “I read that article and I didn’t even get up from my chair. I just picked up the phone, called the number they provided and told them ‘send me everything you have on building an earthship’.”

She knew it was time to go to Tennessee. Ken was interested in exploring other forms of alternative building in addition to earthships, but when Etta became inspired, he decided to jump on the earthship too.

After ordering house plans from Reynolds, the Lebensolds set about finding a contractor with the skill and passion necessary to undertake the complex process of crafting an earthship. Through contacts in the solar energy industry they found Appropriate Building Solutions, a sustainable building company based in Asheville, North Carolina.

Having a local contractor with a background in sustainable construction was a tremendous asset as the Lebensolds set about building their dream. “They knew that the winters here were much harsher than in the southwest where these plans were designed. They encouraged us to adapt the plans to include a woodstove,” Ken said of ABS.

“We had the woodstove going all winter,” he admitted, adding in defense of the earthship’s insulation R factor of 70, “but we did have periods when we didn’t need it.”
Admiring her living room, Etta said, “Everything in this house is done with a purpose. Every window has a reason. This house is extremely low tech because the design is brilliant.”

The Lebensold earthship is completely off the electrical grid, with only an on-demand propane water heater for cloudy periods during which laundry still needs to be washed. All of its electricity comes from the bright blue solar panels that reside just up the hill from the house or from the power generated by a small hydro generator that sits next to a nearby stream.

The hydro turbine is the first thing you see when you reach the Lebensold home. It looks like Star Wars robot R2D2, short with a rounded top, but it behaves like a natural waterfall. Like everything in the earthship, it is one of modern technology’s best efforts to return to the natural rhythms of living.

“Our water is better than any bottled water you can find,” Ken said as he filled up a glass from the earthship’s tap. He explained, “This comes directly from a spring above the house.”

A gallon of water consumed by someone in an earthship is used four times. If someone washes the dishes, for instance, the water that goes down the drain and flows directly into garden space located along the entire south side of the earthship. The Lebensolds are careful to use only biodegradable detergent so that their various banana trees, tomato plants and salad greens thrive.

Even in the dead of winter, the Lebensolds will have tomatoes popping up in their dining room and bananas showing their colors in the bedroom. Sometimes, the plants thrive a little too well. “That plant is a child of one from the jungle in our bedroom,” Etta said motioning towards a large tropical plant inching to be taller than a nearby piano. “We have to trim them quite a bit. These plants are reaching for the ceiling.”

The earthship’s ceiling is constructed of blond wood, harvested from the Lebensold’s land and milled on-site. The ceiling complements the walls, which are the color of a sandy beach at sunset. Each wall has a different form, slight variations that give it character.

Just behind the Lebensold’s television set is a small window. Etta keeps it covered most of the time, but when sharing her home’s history, she likes to show it to visitors. When the wooden shutter swings open, stacks of tires and aluminum cans are revealed. “It’s a truth window,” she explained. It is proof that the classic southwestern design of the house is not only beautiful; it has a story to tell. It is a monument of sustainability.

“Words in and of themselves don’t change anything. But when someone sees something is possible, it can inspire them. People might be interested in building sustainably, but most of the time, it stays an idea. It just seems too hard. When you can see a house that uses those ideas, it brings it that much closer,” Ken offered as an explanation as to why the Lebensolds feel it important to open their home to student groups and others interested in sustainable building.

He continued, “We wanted to build a house that wouldn’t just be a healthy house for us to live in, we wanted it to demonstrate ecological living…There’s no way of having no footprint, but can be lessened with ecological consciousness. We hoped this house would help get the message out.”

Being environmentally conscious does not mean giving up all modern conveniences. The Lebensolds still have an entertainment center, a washer (specially designed to conserve water), and even a dishwasher – though it’s only large enough for one table setting.

Etta and Ken enjoy living in Eastern Tennessee – the quiet of the forests, the dancing leaves of fall, and the curiosity of their neighbors. The trash pick-up man was intrigued by the Tibetan prayer flag that waves from their flagpole, the propane man is curious as to why their meter never changes and alternative building proponents from all parts of the East Coast have made pilgrimages to see what an earthship is really like.

One of the educational tools provided by Reynolds is a video, Earthship 101. When it is popped into the VCR, just below the truth window, the Lebensold living room suddenly becomes a classroom and, as the video rolls on powered by the sun, you are reminded that the ship in which you sit is actually a schoolhouse of sustainability. One man’s trash is another man’s palace.


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  1. Bert Murray on April 25, 2023 at 10:26 pm

    How did you control humidity for the mid Atlantic climate?

  2. Michael on January 29, 2013 at 9:44 pm

    I wonder, if you bring water in, you have your own power from plenty of solar, and you supply your own materials, what kind of permits would you need?

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