The Fetch Blog

The best events and reads for professionals

Earthships: The future of sustainable living — July 5, 2014

Earthships: The future of sustainable living

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We recently sat down with Mat Holroyd to discover more about sustainable buildings – specifically Earthships. Don’t let the name fool you – in 10 years time you could well be living in one.

What are Earthships? What differentiates an Earthship from other types of (sustainable) housing?

Earthships are buildings designed to minimize the fuel and resources needed to run the building, while reducing the waste that leaves the house. Earthships typically collect their own water, generate their own electricity, and the grey water is treated onsite. Additionally Earthships are typically built with recycled material, and when you put all these aspects together, the houses are often labeled as “sustainable”, “environmentally friendly” etc.

I should mention Earthships are the houses invented and built by the company Earthship Biotecture. Anyone who’s interested to learn how to build Earthships can buy their books or study at their academy.

As to what differentiates Earthships from other sustainable houses, probably the most distinctive feature of an Earthship is that all the different systems (electricity, water, sewage treatment, growing food, heating/cooling, recycled materials) are cohesively integrated. That is to say, Earthships are well-designed machines, that have been tweaked over decades to bring all those systems together in a practical yet pleasant package. Because of this Earthships have a very distinctive look – they often look like a glasshouse built into a mound of dirt or a hillside.

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What advantages do Earthships have over traditional housing?

Earthships do not require outside electricity or water supply, and do not need waste water treatment. Hence the bills for running the house are cheaper, but it also means you can build these houses where those services are unavailable. The temperature of the house stays a steady 21°C all year round, whether they are built in Sweden or outback Australia. Parts of the buildings can be built with recycled materials, cutting costs and removing landfill. Earthships have interior plants beds that can grow food, which can be enough for 50%+ of the inhabitant’s needs.

There are more advantages, but these are probably the most important to people.

That said, Earthships do have their limitations. Foremost, the design of an Earthship is not as flexible as a traditional house. An Earthship needs a glasshouse on one side, the side that faces the equator, which shouldn’t be in shadow. In essence, an Earthship is a machine like a car – you can’t just change things around without affecting the performance.

Apart from that, Earthships that look and have all the trimmings of a modern house are more expensive then a house with equivalent floor space. Some of those costs pay off when future bills are reduced. Additionally a lot of the skills for building an Earthship are easy to learn, and people go on to build (or volunteer to take part in builds) outside those guided by Earthship Biotecture.

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You went to the Academy build at the start of the year in Argentina – what was the experience like?

It was awesome. The academy consisted of 2-3 days of classes a weeks and 2-3 days of working on a building site per week, for four weeks. The atmosphere was great, all enthusiastic people ranging from 20- to 60 years-old – it had a school-camp like feel. It was affordable too – around US $1500 for the course, with a lot of the skills being useful for decades to come. E.g. I now know how to collect, store and filter water; collect, store and deliver electricity efficiently; building tire walls; plaster; basic carpentry skills; mix concrete and other building materials; and many other things. The academy also happens frequently within the US.

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You said Earthships remind you of Bitcoin – how so?

When I made that comment, I was thinking of how Bitcoin enables people to take charge of their own financial services (savings, trade, etc), an Earthship enables people to take charge of their own living services (water, electricity, etc).

I’ll give two examples to illustrate my point. In early 2013 in Cyprus, hundreds of thousands of private citizens and businesses who held money in banks had part of their cash seized under government order. Any savings held in Bitcoins (or for that matter, gold in personal possession) were immune to that order. Now take the current situation in Ukraine. The Ukraine government cut off water to part of the country that is under control by pro-Russian people. If you were currently living in that part of Ukraine, what kind of house would you rather be in, a traditional house requiring state provided natural gas, water and electricity, or an Earthship?

These are extreme examples but they highlight how dependent the average person is on the government, whether they are in the Europe, Australia, US, etc.

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You recently set-up some solar panels at your city apartment – what was the purpose of this and what advice do you have for other city dwellers?

A solar system on the ground level of a city yard is a terrible idea if the goal is to save money. There isn’t going to be enough sunlight to offset the cost. However, as a learning experience – it was great! My purpose was to see if I could do it, and it was really easy. Anyone can do it.  You only need four components: solar panels, charge controller, batteries, and an inverter. There are heaps of guides on the net telling you how to hook it up.

If you have a yard with less shade, or can get access to a roof, go for it! I got most of the parts off Amazon. Also, I think in places like Australia, Europe and the North America, the price of the setup is such that the cost will be offset by the energy savings after a decade or less.

How can people find out more?

The first place to start is by visiting earthship.com. There are many documentaries about Earthships. The one that introduced me was Garbage Warrior (trailer here). Garbage Warrior doesn’t explain the systems that go into an Earthship in great deal though. To help with this lack of info, I setup an unofficial wiki while I was doing the Academy. There is a bunch of information about the systems in there, but it’s a bit hap-hazard and not complete.

Image credit: all images courtesy of Earthship Biotecture or academy students

Interview: SF Local, Sandi MacPherson of Quibb — June 13, 2013

Interview: SF Local, Sandi MacPherson of Quibb

This week Eliza interviews the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Quibb.com, Sandi MacPherson. Follow Sandi on Twitter via @sandimac.

Sandi MacPherson
Sandi MacPherson

You are the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Quibb. What is it about your job that gets you out of bed and into the office every morning?

Sometimes when I tell people I’m working on a news product, they roll their eyes and say ‘…another one?’. That attitude is exactly what I think makes the job fun, interesting, and challenging. News is a busy space with no clear winner and it’s a huge market. It’s an established product category with a lot of room for innovating, and plenty of challenges to keep the work exciting.

Beyond that, it really is all about the people. I’ve spoken to so many Quibb members that have had really positive experiences (both online and offline) that wouldn’t have occurred without the product, and it’s amazing to be able to help those interactions occur and relationships develop. My experience with Quibb has also been a bit self-serving, in that I’ve built the perfect learning tool for myself. I’m new to the tech/startup world, and Quibb is a professional news product. This means that it allows me to easily find and read about exactly the topics, trends and news that I need everyday. The first thing I both need and want to check in the morning is Quibb, which is perfect!

Some would describe Quibb as a Reddit for professionals. Why do you think this kind of platform is so appealing? 

There’s so much content available to professionals (especially those of us that work in tech/startups) and it’s getting more and more difficult to find really great content. It’s even more difficult to have interesting discussions around that content with topic experts and professional peers. Through the simple idea of ‘share what you’re reading for work’, Quibb allows professionals to share all the great content they’re reading – and with a basic follower model, others can also get a feed packed full of great content, directly from people within their industry. The initial Quibb membership is focused on tech and startup professionals (i.e. designers, founders, VCs, developers), and will eventually allow professionals from any industry vertical to see what experts and thought leaders from their particular niche are reading and what they think about it.  The role of industry journals and trade publications hasn’t evolved at the same pace that social sharing has, and I think there’s a big opportunity to learn from sites and communities like Reddit, Tumblr, Hacker News, and others – but with a context that is 100% professional.

Do you think the popularity of news/content aggregation will continue to grow, and do you have any predictions for the future of the content sharing website?

There will always be a need for professional news. I believe that great content will win, irrespective of where it comes from.

Traditionally, news organizations have been about vertical integration of content, ads, and distribution. Now this ecosystem is becoming fragmented, where each of those 3 is its own ecosystem. Great content will increasingly find distribution because all of the aggregators and various curation products exist and are seeking that content out – they’re making it easier for people to find it

In the past, the editor-curated model was the most popular – someone within a news organization was responsible for determining (based on a variety of factors) which content to promote. Today, people are more enabled to seek out content that interests them. Running this experiment over the past few years, it turns out that sometimes this leads to more funny cat pictures and less serious journalism. The news market will grow and become more efficient over time. Similarly, I believe that we’ll create and people will find much richer and fragmented ways for both distributors and creators to monetize their audience via many different publishing platforms across many different monetization models.

All of this means that everything is becoming more complex… but that’s what an efficient marketplace looks like, that’s what progress in this space will look like.

You’ve been a leader in ensuring transparency between the Quibb and its users throughout the site’s development. What do you see as the benefits of transparency, and what advice would you give to young startups looking to be proactively transparent for their user base?

I’ve written lots of posts on Quibb – everything from why I’ve added new features, to explaining what I’m working on at the moment and why. Personally, I don’t really think of it as a novel approach, and don’t really understand why I wouldn’t act this way! Part of the reason why it makes sense specifically for Quibb (and potentially other products in this product category) is that the product itself is the members – it’s built on their connections, the content they share, the discussions they partake in. It would be silly for me to not initiate a relationship with the members. Also, I often say that I view all Quibb members as ‘mini-advisors’. My background isn’t related to tech or startups, while almost all Quibb members have expertise in an area that touches the product (e.g. interaction design, email deliverability, community management, etc.).

The fact that I’m so open is a way to initiate discussions with members whose opinions and thoughts I really value, and can learn a lot from as I try to make the product better.

You previously spent your career as a climate change and cleantech professional. What do you attribute as the cause for your move from the environmental sector to the startup world?

It’s complicated 🙂 I worked for Environment Canada (Canada’s federal environment department) directly out of school, followed by positions with a few smaller climate change non-profits. After realizing how hard it is to actually have an impact and create change through those types of organizations, I decided to go back to school and get my MBA, focusing on Corporate Social Responsibility. I was very disappointed when I realized that all of the things that I was learning about there wouldn’t be very impactful either. Since 1/2 an MBA is both useless and expensive, I decided to finish my 2nd year – but I shifted my classes to align with my personal Plan B, which had always been entrepreneurship, specifically something tech related. It’s then that I started going to some startup events in Toronto, and got a taste for all of the things I could potentially work on and create. I started by working on a professional volunteer matching product, but never made it very far. I realized pretty quickly that while the Toronto startup ecosystem is full of talented, super smart people – the quickest and easiest way to de-risk any idea or product that I would work on in the future would be to move to the valley. So I did.

Which Bay Area events or communities are you involved in?

Honestly, not very many. The community that has developed on Quibb has provided me with more connections with great tech and startup people than I could ever hope for! I’ve hosted a few Quibb member-only events too (one in Palo Alto, two in SF, and most recently one in NYC) which have gone over really well. I’m hoping to do more of these in the future, as I think that connecting with Quibb members that you meet online is really important, and helps to strengthen those relationships.

Blue Bottle or Philz?

New Orleans Iced Coffee from BB – straight black (…which I have to convince them to serve to me, most occasions).

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About our contributor // Eliza Dropkin is a lover of live music, good food, and beautiful places. Connect with her on Twitter via @elizadropkin.

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