Kelly Hagelund and Willow King lost everything when their two-story cabin in the Southcentral Alaska town of Kasilof burned down in 2009. But from the ashes of their previous family home, Hagelund and King are creating a new, eco-friendly abode for themselves and their three children. Known as an Earthship, the new structure is on a lot not far from the Sterling Highway, boasting walls made of tires, bottles and cans, held together by concrete. The roof is composed of welded rebar undulating in a latticework beneath more concrete, combined with tiny bits of ground-up Styrofoam.
If it sounds a little strange, well, it is.
The concept behind an Earthship is to be “a ship upon the earth,” meaning everything a person could need is contained within the dwelling itself, like a ship crossing the ocean centuries ago, King said during an interview at the structure this month. Mariners needed water, food and all other necessities of everyday life with them.
The house traps heat thanks to a wall of windows on the south side, letting Alaska’s light in when it’s scarce in the wintertime and abundant in the summer. Radiant heat is installed in the Earthship’s concrete pad floor, and trapped further by the thick concrete and eventual plaster that will make up the walls. Some walls are still exposed, revealing bottles on their sides with light shining through, or tires stacked up one on top of the other, packed tight with earth and sand pounded in by jackhammer. Eventually, the house will boast an indoor garden, irrigated a “grey water” -- the water derived from things like washing dishes or bathing.
It hasn’t been an easy road for the family. A 2010 Redoubt Reporter article chronicled the difficulties of the first summer of Earthship construction, when the tire walls were going up.
“It’s going a lot slower and has involved a lot more work than we originally anticipated, but overall it’s going good,” Hagelund said at the time. He would likely say much the same today. Originally, the plan was to have the Earthship completed in a couple of years, but now, “it’s more of a five-year plan,” he said.
Last year, Hagelund welded that elaborate spiderweb of a roof, undulating and fluctuating, still visible on the second floor of the structure. Like much else to do with the construction, King said, the welding was an unfamiliar process. She said that much of the Earthship’s design has been decided in the midst of building.
“Our neighbors, I’m sure, think we’re crazy,” King said. “We’ll just be out there, waving our arms around,” trying to visualize what the end product will be.
The roof was a big step, allowing the family to live in the Earthship last winter, in one relatively small section where King and Hagelund packed in with their three children, ages 5, 9 and 11, and two dogs, including a bulky great dane named Merlin.
Inspired by documentary
Like the rest of the Earthship, the room where the family lived over the winter is only semi-complete -- it’s just more semi-complete than the rest. Fabric lines the walls, layered over foil bubble insulation protecting the interior from the weather outside. An accumulated, mismatched collection of furniture populates the space, along with a kitchen area and a collection of dishes. King pours a cup of cold, “chewy” coffee into a pottery cup with no handle.
That description may make the Earthship sound unpleasant, but it’s not. It’s warm inside, thanks to a wood stove. The Earthship is currently powered by a temporary electric line, which King and Hagelund plan to eschew later into the construction. Hagelund’s trade is installing solar and wind power arrays that are well-suited for the self-sufficient home that they plan. That will probably be one of the last steps in the Earthship construction.
King and Hagelund, though, don’t mind the nature of the living arrangement -- after all, they wouldn’t be building such an unusual home if they did. After the fire burned down their first home, King said, they began to re-evaluate what they really wanted out of life. Staying in a hotel after losing their home, they saw a documentary called “Garbage Warrior,” about Earthship architect Michael Reynolds. The Earthship model is popular in places like the southwest U.S., though such structures can be built anywhere. They were inspired.
“We’ve always kind of been in love with the idea of non-cookie cutter homes and we’d already been moving in the direction of trying to utilize sustainable resources,” Hagelund said.
The Earthship concept takes that to the extreme, meant to be constructed solely from recycled or sustainable materials -- hence all the old tires, the bottles and cans that make up the walls, and recovered concrete. As the family accumulated the materials for their Earthship, King said that they became increasingly aware of the degree to which people discard useable goods. Losing everything in the fire that engulfed their first home heightened their sensitivity.
“It’s just really pretty gross,” she said, “the prices that people pay for things, and the things people just throw away.”
Kids not always thrilled
The kids’ rooms are off to the side in the liveable space, tucked into little nooks where the stairs to the second floor will eventually go. It looks like a fun space for a child, a cozy little fort. But King said that the children occasionally get tired of the lifestyle.
“Sometimes they say, ‘Couldn’t we just sell this whole thing and do something normal?’” she said. King herself grew up in part on a fishing boat, so she’s accustomed to odd living situations. The kids are currently home-schooled, though they’ll return to public school in the fall. She said they typically take hot showers at a friend’s house.
The family had attempted to move into the Earthship in the winter of 2011-2012, but a mishap forced them out again two days after Christmas 2011 until March 2012.
“We tried to live in it last winter. We were in this same space,” King said, indicating the small living area around her, “but it started raining in December really badly.” Through a leak somewhere, one of the pieces of foil bubble insulation lining the ceiling began to fill with water. Suddenly, five gallons of icy-cold water burst from the ceiling and landed on their sleeping son.
They moved in with family for several months after that, until they could return to the Earthship and complete the roof that summer. Since their house burned down, the family has moved around, spending time in an apartment, with family, and even in a wall tent built atop a platform on property where the Earthship is located.
Despite numerous setbacks and the slow pace, King is thankful that nobody has been hurt during the seat-of-the-pants construction process -- Kasilof, as an unincorporated community, does not have the typical building codes or permits associated with building in more populated areas -- and no major complications have arisen. As she walks around the Earthship, she raps her hand against various surfaces.
“I’m just continually knocking on wood,” she laughs.
And in the end, she said, she, Hagelund and their family have learned more about what’s really important in life. Though they had lost almost everything material in the fire that consumed their last home, the family and dogs escaped without injury, and King is thankful for that. The Earthship may not ultimately have all the amenities of modern living, but that might come with an upside, too.
"I think we're going to have most of the comforts of home," King said. "It's just a matter of figuring out what you want, versus what you need." She said the ultimate goal should be to "keep the kids warm and fed, and keep the roof from falling in." Everything else, she said, is a bonus.
"This world will just distract you until you don't have anything left, and all I really want is just to be here, be in it," she said.
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com