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Earthships make a big landing in Puerto Rico

By Manuel Crespo Feliciano, Accuweather en Español staff writer
April 18, 2019, 11:14:02 AM EDT


AGUADA, PUERTO RICO- In the mountains of the Naranjo neighborhood, a well-known song of Puerto Rican rapper Calle 13 rang from some loudspeaker:

"Si quieres cambio verdadero, pues, camina distinto (If you want real change, then, walk differently)" - it was heard.

The words echoed through the leafy trees, mingled with the singing of the birds and resonated through the accumulated mountains of garbage.

Yes, garbage. Endless piles of tires, glass and plastic bottles and aluminum cans that will be used as raw material for the creation of self-sustaining residences that are resistant to atmospheric phenomena.

The song was also a metaphor for what happened in the Naranjo neighborhood: a project known as Earthship Biotecture that is proposed as a solution to the problem of waste management in the territory of Puerto Rico, as well as a way to provide pragmatic options to confront the permanent threat of hurricanes and earthquakes.

Noemi Puerto Rico

(Photo/Manuel Crespo Feliciano)


Noemí Chaparro is in her early 30s and is the owner, along with her husband Carlos, of the three acres of land where the “Earthship PR at Tainasoy Apiary” project developed.

She carries in her arms the youngest of her four children, Lolita, a healthy little girl who responds vivaciously to all the sensory stimuli that surround her.

Two dogs play near the camp's improvised kitchen and the smells of freshly cut fruit flutter through the air. You can hear laughter, hammering and a mixture of Afro-Caribbean rhythms that serve as inspiration for the over 80 volunteers who work in the construction of the “earthships.”

"Being part of this movement is something that explodes your mind. Now we want to be an example of how we can live here in a simpler way and in connection with nature," said Noemí.

(Photo/Manuel Crespo Feliciano)

An Earthship is a state-of-the-art self-sustainable off-grid building that covers six basic human needs:

(Photo/Manuel Crespo Feliciano)

1) Building with natural and repurposed materials.

(Photo/Manuel Crespo Feliciano)

2) Heating and cooling through thermal mass to create a comfortable living environment.

(Photo/Manuel Crespo Feliciano)

3) Using wind and solar energy to create electricity.

(Photo/Manuel Crespo Feliciano)

4) Harvesting and filtering rain water to provide drinking and wash water.

(Photo/Manuel Crespo Feliciano)

5) Containing and treating its own waste water without external contamination.

(Photo/Manuel Crespo Feliciano)

6) Producing its own food in an integrated greenhouse.

(Photo/Manuel Crespo Feliciano)

Aluminum cans are used as building blocks.

(Photo/Manuel Crespo Feliciano)

Volunteers learn from expert Earthship instructors on how to build using every aspect of the six core principles, while at the same time helping to construct Puerto Rico’s first hurricane-resistant self-sustaining educational Earthship compound.

(Photo/Manuel Crespo Feliciano)

"It’s important for the island because it is showing us an example for other countries that can use this as well."-Angie Otieno, volunteer

(Photo/Manuel Crespo Feliciano)

“This is a dream coming true. Waste removal is so important, especially on an island. And it feels amazing to share with so many dedicated individuals."-Amanda Lingerfelter, volunteer

(Photo/Manuel Crespo Feliciano)

“I quit my job to come here and dedicate to develop this kind of project.” Kim, volunteer

(Photo/Manuel Crespo Feliciano)

“I’m here because I like it.”- Joan, volunteer


Before the hurricane, Noemí and Carlos were dedicated to removing bee combs near residences and the production of soaps and natural products for sale in local markets.

In one of these markets, they met Lauralina Meléndez, Mario Atunez and Derrick Hernández, who introduced them to the project and expressed the need to have a space to develop the project.

Without thinking, Noemí and Carlos offered the land where today the five circular domes made of recycled material are developed with the idea to become, upon completion, an educational and community self-management center.

The domes are built mostly of garbage. Used tires hold the walls. Aluminum cans and glass bottles mixed with cement serve as building blocks. Plastic bottles are used as insulation to keep the residences cooled without the need to apply mechanical systems.

In addition, they have their own water collection system, produce energy with solar panels and have a garden to grow fresh fruits and vegetables.

The best part? Due to its dome shape, the structures are 100% resistant to hurricanes and earthquakes.

"You do not necessarily have to get to the point of having a wall made of used tires in your home, but you can apply rainwater collection techniques, cooling systems for the home. Techniques that you can implement from tomorrow, " said Derrick Hernández, one of the locals who serves as project leader.

Derrik Hernandez earthship puerto rico

Derrick Hernández was invited to New Mexico to learn how to build Earthships and develop them in Puerto Rico. (Photo/Manuel Crespo Feliciano)


In the case of Derrick, the arrival of this project in his life was a spontaneous process.

Before Maria, Derrick lived tied to his work, had no time for his family and began to contemplate the possibility of adopting a more ecologically sustainable lifestyle.

After Maria, some friends told him about the project and he was selected to receive a scholarship to learn how to build domes at the Earthship Biotecture Academy in Taos, New Mexico.

"Agriculture taught us that it is necessary to cut trees to grow better. Maria was that cut, and this is what we have now: a good solution for the island," Hernández added.

The project has also represented an awakening of consciousness as people have realized that it is necessary to recycle and minimize waste on the island, according to Hernández.

In Puerto Rico, approximately 5.6 pounds of waste per day per person are produced according to data from the local Solid Waste Agency, which makes the island one of the jurisdictions in the United States with the largest generation of garbage.

Given this scenario, projects such as Earthship could represent the perfect solution for two problems that are experienced on the island: waste management and reliable access to essential services such as water, electricity and housing security.

Phil Basehart

Phil Basehart is a lead builder and proffesor at the Earthship Biotecture Academy. (Photo/Andy Coates)


“On an island, garbage is a huge problem. There is an endless supply of used tires on the island and there is no other thing to do with them. So we construct hurricane resistant homes out of tires,” said Phil Basehart, who works for Earthship Biotechture and is primarily responsible for the construction of the project.

Among the over 80 volunteers from all over the world who work in construction, as bees in a honeycomb, the figure of Phil is essential because he has vast experience developing this type of dome; also, the necessary empathy to make the project have a real impact in the country.

“You build a house for somebody and the family experiences the difference, but nobody else does. You build an educational center and loads of people get to learn about it,” said Basehart.

"People [in PR] are tired of being absolutely dependent on a very unreliable network and that the government of the United States is not doing much for them. There is this sense of the need to create a more self-sufficient existence. And that's precisely what these buildings do," he added.

In January of this year the third phase of the project was completed and it is expected that by December 2019 it will be completed with a final investment of $80,000 used to acquire non-recycled materials such as cement, rebar, tools, as well as the solar energy systems that will integrate in the building.


Listen to AccuWeather reporter Jonathan Petramala and AccuWeather and AccuWeather en Español's journalist Manuel Crespo Feliciano, discuss their experience covering the special series "Puerto Rico: The Art of Recovery":


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