When she's not on stage at Oregon Cabaret Theater in Ashland, Kymberli Colbourne is getting "hugged by the earth."
Colbourne and her husband, Jim Ricks, live in an Earthship — a kit home that was built with castoff and recycled materials and designed to hoard the sun's energy like it is going out of style.
"It's just a little haven," says Colbourne of her long, low-lying home, which was built largely of old, earth-filled tires and aluminum cans. The house, located on Crooked River Ranch, north of Bend, relies on passive solar energy for heating and cooling.
"She's a living thing," Colbourne says of the Earthship. "If we take care of her, she takes care of us."
When Colbourne told her mother about the concept behind the Earthship, "she thought I was going to go live in a garbage dump," Colbourne says.
The exterior walls of the Earthship are constructed of old tires (one of the world's worst garbage problems), which were stacked in a curving, overlapping pattern. The tires were packed with dirt for insulation, then plastered over with a concrete/adobe mixture, giving the home a trendy Spanish look.
Colbourne's house maximizes "solar mass," meaning that the floors and tire-filled bearing walls gather heat, which is radiated back into the home during the night.
The house is oriented toward the sun, with double-pane glass panels facing south. During the day, sunlight pours warmth into the Earthship's solar mass. When the sun goes down, Colbourne pulls thermal shades over the windows to lock in the heat. Awnings are used to shade the windows in the summer, when the thermal mass helps to keep things cool.
The house has backup heating sources — including wood, oil and electricity — to supplement its passive solar design.
"If it's three to five days of cold and snow, where you get that wet cold, we use the wood-burning fireplace," she says.
Many Earthship homes are horseshoe-shaped, because tires naturally stack in a curve — and also to follow the sun's path during the day. Colbourne's home has straight walls, like a longhouse, but individual rooms are curved.
In non-bearing walls, old cans are honeycombed in the adobe, adding both stability and aesthetics. The roof is made of full-tree beams (called "vigas" in desert country) that came from beetle-killed fir trees. Photo-voltaic panels on the roof generate a portion of the home's electricity.
The Earthship was pioneered in the 1970s by Mike Reynolds, who started a New Mexico-based company called Earthship Biotecture.
"A sustainable home must make use of indigenous materials, those occurring naturally in the local area," Reynolds says. "For thousands and thousands of years, housing was built from found materials such as rock, earth, reeds and logs. Today, there are mountains of by-products of our civilization that are already made and delivered to all areas. These are the natural resources of modern humanity.
"An Earthship must make use of these materials via techniques available to the common person," Reynolds continues. "In a time when mortgage payments take up 75 percent of monthly income, homelessness is an epidemic, and stress is becoming a disease, housing must return to the grasp of the individual."
Earthship kits and plans are designed to go with all sustainable energy systems, including solar and wind power. Some come with gray-water systems and self-contained sewage treatment cells that don't smell or pollute.
Colbourne and Ricks paid $298,000 for their home. If you think resale might be a problem for such an unusual house, you're right, admits Colbourne.
"You have to find the right buyer, someone who wants a sustainable house, even if it does look different," she says.
Pictures of Colbourne's house can be seen at www.kcvoice.typepad.com.
Information about Earthships can be found at www.earthship.net.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.