Bill and Ruth Craven’s longtime dream to build and live in an Earthship was nearly snuffed out in mid-June. The couple were preparing to construct the unconventional home — which utilizes discarded materials including used tires, bottles and cans stuffed with trash to create structural walls — when a fire was started south of Red Lodge.
The Cravens were living in a yurt on their property between Belfry and Red Lodge when the Robertson Draw fire erupted on June 13. The following day, evacuations were ordered for the areas north of fire, including the Craven property near Ruby Creek.
When Bill and Ruth returned to their property they found the yurt and all the building supplies they had amassed to build their Earthship destroyed.
“We’d been collecting for a year,” said Ruth. “Everything went up in smoke.”
A Bridger resident has been charged in connection with the nearly 30,000-acre fire after he admitted spilling gasoline and igniting a fire while attempting to repair a dirt bike on Forest Service land near the base of Mount Maurice. The fire, which spread for nearly a month, destroyed at least 26 structures, including seasonal cabins and full-time residences.
“The first couple days I was walking around all sad and teary eyed,” said Bill. “And then I was angry at the person who started the fire, but that does not do any good. So you move forward, and now it’s a push to get the building finished before winter time so we have a structural building to move into.”
The couple had gathered building materials including windows, doors, framing materials, rigid insulation and thermal wrap, as well as 1,500 discarded tires and recycled bottles and cans used as the building bricks of the structure, which all needed to be replaced.
And, they had just one month to do so.
The Earthship was pioneered in the 1970s by Michael Reynolds, an architect turned “biotect” who developed a building brick made from discarded cans to help form and strengthen concrete walls.
Earthship Biotecture is now a global builder centered on six principals of sustainability: food, energy, clean water, shelter, garbage management, and sewage treatment. Homes are built using waste materials with construction techniques that utilize thermal mass and passive solar to heat and cool the structure. The walls are insulated by tires lined with cardboard and compacted with dirt, stacked like bricks, then covered with adobe or concrete stucco. A front greenhouse allows residents to grow food year-round, and the home’s design collects water from rain and snow melt while also containing and treating sewage on-site. The property can exist without city infrastructure or utility hook-ups.
People interested in an Earthship may purchase construction plans from the company and build their own or hire Earthship Biotecture, based in New Mexico, to complete construction. The company also offers workshops and hosts an academy in Taos that teaches these building techniques.
There’s also the option to host an Earthship field study, where interested participants join the homeowner in constructing the property. Each person pays Earthship Biotecture $500 to attend and participate. Most have the goal of building their own Earthship someday.
Upwards of 40 participants were expected to join the Cravens to build their home. Though several dropped off because of the fire, about 30 people ranging in age from 18 to 70 arrived in Montana in mid-July from Columbia, Mexico, and all across the U.S. including Massachusetts, Florida, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Washington, and California.
“That they would come out for me and my wife — who they’ve never met and know practically nothing about us — because they have a love of Earthships and heard about our plight and wanted to help … People are wonderful and there is no way we would be able to do that without them,” said Bill.
Participants camp on site, and hosts are expected to provide basic facilities and some meals. The Cravens had to rebuild their supply of materials as well as reconstruct outdoor showers, bathrooms and a kitchen and eating area.
“We had everything prepared … all the tires, the materials that they require,” said Ruth. “I even had all the food, buckets of beans and oats; all this stuff was ready.”
Once the surrounding community members heard of the Cravens’ misfortune, materials began showing up.
“People just reached out with monetary donations and tools and supplies,” said Bill. “Some people would even come out here and bring things and help work. We are just overwhelmed by the support and the love that people have.”
For many of the people who traveled to Montana to participate, it’s their first build. For construction foreman Rory Morlan, he’s lost count of the number of Earthships he’s built in the past two decades.
“The demographic is completely random,” said Morlan of people who choose to build and live in an Earthship. Morlan is one of three staff employed by Earthship Biotecture.
“Along this corridor, from Alberta all the way down to Mexico, that’s where the densest interest is,” he explained. “But they are in remote places everywhere, usually places where you can’t get power to it and all the infrastructure. It’s appealing for that reason.”
Morlan organizes people by strengths. “There are all kinds of skillsets,” he said. “And, they kind of form their own village mentality and figure out what everyone is good at. They will go to a place where they want to learn something or go to a place where it’s something they are good at.”
Naomi Koster, of Michigan, is in her final year of college at Grand Valley State University studying biology. “We all paid to be here to help these people, and if you’re willing to pay to help someone, you already come in with a good attitude,” she said.
Koster attended an Earthship Academy when she was 19. “I’ve pounded tires before,” she said. “I know how much work it takes.” She estimates an experienced worker can pound about four tires an hour. “But it’s very tire-ing,” she said with a laugh.
“I want to do this forever,” said Sam Marcelino-Duprey, a contractor from Massachusetts who attended the build with his wife Laura. “l love building, but especially with this in mind. I think it could be a lot better for everyone in the future.”
This is the first time either have participated in an Earthship build, and Duprey hopes to build his own someday. “I am wicked excited about being able to see this thing actually run by itself.”
Rowin Schonbeck, from Boulder, Colo., also wants to build her own Earthship. “I need the skills to do that, and I’m out here to learn,” said Schonbeck, who attended with her boyfriend, Jake Price, also of Colorado.
At age 18, they’re the youngest participants on site.
“We gotta learn somewhere,” said Schonbeck. “It’s not like a job. If we need breaks, we take breaks. And they provide us with water and food, and we provide shelter.”
Price, whose father works as a blacksmith, said he’s had minimal construction experience, “but this is the first time I’ve been used as a worker, which is fun for me. It’s much better than high school.”
“Me too,” Schonbeck added. “I feel like my body is being put to use.”
Getting ahead of winter
An Earthship field study is structured in two phases, and Phase 1 ended Aug. 6, which included the initial building’s structure, installing the cistern tanks, building out the structural walls and digging a trench for the greenhouse.
Phase 2 will begin in October, which will finish the building’s exterior walls, roof, doors, windows, and greenhouse, and the Cravens hope to be able to move into the structure before winter. Then, they can finish mudding the walls and begin the interior finishing.
The two bedroom, two bathroom Earthship, when complete, will have 1,800 livable square feet and a carport. The Cravens plan to reside there year-round.
“We will have all the amenities of a modern home: electricity, plumbing, refrigerator, freezer, flat screen TV, internet … it doesn’t lack for anything,” said Bill.
This makes wintertime a bit more palatable, as there are times when the couple will be snowed in. The nearest plowed county road is nearly five miles away.
The Cravens believe their home is the first Earthship in Carbon County. Currently, an Earthship is on the market near Miles City, priced at $425,000. Morlan helped build that property, as well as one near Big Timber, but he has no idea how many Earthships are in Montana.
The Cravens plan to spend about $250,000 for the finished product. Earthship buildings can be challenging for financing based on their inability to meet certain building and city codes, so the couple is financing the project out of pocket.
“The idea is to have a nice little building where there is no rent or mortgage through a lending institution, and now there’s no utility bill and we can grow some of our food year round,” said Bill. “It takes away a lot of stress.”
Such an off-the-grid building hasn’t been embraced by a mainstream building community, even though its been in practice since the 1970s.
“You think it would catch on but they’re not,” said Morlan. “They’re so obscure to look at. Sometimes we go to poorer countries and they are insulted until they see it finished, then they get it. It’s just a construction technique.”
“It’s an eyesore until it’s complete,” Bill added. “Garbage has a stigma.”
Earthship love story
Bill grew up in Snohomish, a small town about 40 miles outside Seattle. Ruth, who grew up in Guam, joined Bill in Washington after years of long-distance love ignited by reconnecting on Facebook, then talking on the phone.
“We are very different people. We are totally opposite,” said Ruth. “But we got to know each other like that. I think I got to know him better through our phone calls.”
There was one phone call in 2014, Bill recalled, where everything came together.
“We’d talk every so often on the phone, but this time we had a 13-hour phone conversation. A couple days later we were telling each other we loved each other and planning our wedding.”
A large community of Earthships is centered in Taos, where Bill and Ruth celebrated their one- and five-year anniversaries by staying in an Earthship.
“There’s nothing quite like it. It feels like it hugs you,” said Ruth. “Every time I stayed in one, I didn’t worry about anything. You have these plants growing in the front … It’s a happy home. It’s grounding.”
Once they decided to build one of their own, the Cravens began to look for land. They were living in Washington when they found an isolated property north of the Beartooth Mountains.
“I am very social,” said Ruth. “When we were coming out here, I was like, ‘No way am I going to stay out there four miles from the nearest person.’” Yet, as soon as she set foot on the 20-acre property, she said she felt a burst of energy.
“It was so peaceful and beautiful, and I said, ‘I know I am supposed to be here.’ A year later, we moved over.”
The couple have been together for six years, and Ruth said as she’s gotten older, she’s learned to let things go in her relationships and in her life.
“We have a choice to make it big or small. All the little bad things, I just choose to make them small. The burn, I chose to make it small.”
About 70 yards to the east of the new build sits the blackened remains of Bill and Ruth’s home. The prairie landscape once dotted with sage grass and pronghorns, elk, cottontail rabbits, and even the rare and once-protected Mountain Sage Grouse, is now a barren and blackened place.
“I hope they come back after the vegetation returns,” Bill lamented. The couple moved to the land in September 2017. They erected a small yurt for their residence so they wouldn’t get too comfortable, explained Ruth, and it would spur them to complete their dream of building an Earthship.
“Basically we were living in a fancy tent with plumbing and electricity, but it was our house,” said Bill. They utilized solar and wind power, and just before the fire, they had a well dug for water access.
For Ruth, experiencing several typhoons while living in Guam has reduced her possessions and increased her desire to live simply, she said.
“I lost a lot of things in Guam … Pictures, I always digitize them.”
Before evacuating, Bill was able to grab some of the family’s possessions, including Ruth’s publication “The Morning Light,” as well as portraits of Ruth’s parents and some clothes and a computer. Art canvases, journals, family photographs and other sentimental items were also burned in the fire.
“When I came out and saw that everything that was gone, all I could say was, ‘Lord, thank you for our lives.’ That is what matters, that our lives were saved and that we’re here together to support each other.”
In this process, the Cravens said they received more materials after the fire than they could amass on their own. Ruth, who worked at the Red Lodge Senior Center prior, was well connected in the local community, but they’ve seen people from as far away as Billings and Cody bring in materials and offer support.
“We rise from the ashes,” said Ruth, “and I really believe that this is going to be a more beautiful space than it ever was before.”
Email Arts and Entertainment Reporter Anna Paige at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @penandpaige.