Earthship effort taking flight — Kasilof family recycling new home

By Joseph Robertia

Photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Kelly Hagelund shovels sand in front of the main house wall of the Earthship home he and his wife, Willow King, are building in Kasilof. More than 200 earth-rammed tires went into the construction of the wall.

Redoubt Reporter

An Earthship — a home built almost entirely out of recyclable materials — is still taking shape in Kasilof despite minor setbacks, most of which are related to this summer’s wet weather.

“It’s going a lot slower and has involved a lot more work than we originally anticipated, but overall it’s going good,” said Kelly Hagelund who, along with his wife, Willow King, began building the nontraditional, eco-friendly home earlier this year after a fire consumed their two-story log cabin in November 2009.

A malfunctioning component in the home’s wood stove exhaust system is believed to have caused the blaze, which robbed Hagelund, King and their three kids, ages 2 to 8, of their home of five and a half years, and all possessions in it.

Dirt work and pad construction for their new home began in April, and the couple began collecting old tires, nearly 1,000 of them, which are now being used as the major structural building component of the Earthship.

“We just finished the main house wall. It was eight rows high and had around 200 tires to it,” Hagelund said. “The garage wall is also nearly complete. We’re going 10 rows high on that one, and it has four more rows to go.”

The recycled automobile tires are filled with dirt and compacted in by use of a sledgehammer. These “bricks” encased in steel-belted rubber can weigh more than 300 pounds, and they are used to make the outer, load-bearing walls. Hagelund said ramming the tires with earth has been one of the most time-consuming aspects of the project.

“We thought we’d be done with the tires by June, but now we’re thinking maybe September,” he said.

Willow King shows an area of the tire wall where she used clothing soaked in wet cement to chink the wall, making it flush so that it can later be plastered.

Part of the problem has been the precipitation that has persisted for weeks in June and July, which saturated the on-site substrate the couple had intended to use in the tires.

“The rain really slowed us down,” King said. “The clay mixture we had got too wet, so we had to start buying dirt.”

Despite this setback, Hagelund said that help from volunteers and friends, and recently the use of an air-powered tool, have made the tire-packing project move more quickly.

“We’ve had from six to as many as 18 people out here helping us pound tires with a sledgehammer,” he said. “Also, about a week ago, we found out about an air tool, sort of like a jackhammer, and we’ve been cooking since we rented that thing. I did 36 tires yesterday, which is my best day so far.”

Hagelund suspected he only had around 48 more tires to pound before this phase of the project would be complete.

“Compared to what we’ve already done, 48 more doesn’t seem like that much,” he said. “But it will still feel good to finish that last tire.”

While Hagelund has been ramming tires, King has been working on essentially “chinking” the erected walls, but she said the process is as much about making the walls flush as it is about filling the gaps to insulate and prevent air from moving through.

“I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to pack the walls to get them flush for plastering,” she said.

Internally, nonload-bearing walls are made of a honeycomb of recycled bottles or cans joined by concrete, so King initially tried this system as chink for the tire walls, too. She also utilized a straw and cement mixture similar to the mud mixture used in Taos, New Mexico, where Earthships first began being built in the 1970s.

“So far the best thing has been unwanted clothes from The Salvation Army,” King said. “I get the clothes for $1 a bag, dip them in wet cement and then stuff them into the holes.”

Late last week the couple also poured the concrete footer for the 2.5-foot-thick, thermal-mass wall. With its south-facing exposure it will soak up sun and heat, and allow light in through numerous windows. The footer was made of tires, cans and pieces of rebar 2 to 3 feet long, obtained as scrap from Morgan Steel in Kenai.

“With this done, we’ll start work on the concrete bond-beam on the main wall and getting the posts and beams in place for the second floor,” Hagelund said.

Prior to having concrete poured, recycled materials can be seen in the framed footer for where a 2.5-foot thick, thermal-mass wall will be constructed. The footer was made of tires, cans and pieces of rebar two to three feet long obtained as scrap.

King said her father, Rich King, was invaluable to the process of making the form for the floor structurally sound and level. The elder King said he was skeptical about the Earthship at first, but now he’s on board with the project.

“I was concerned about how it would hold up with all the seismic activity of this area,” he said. “But I read about these homes and they got good marks, and as I came and worked on it and learned more about it, I became more comfortable about the whole thing. With these 300- to 350-pound tires, this house will be a brute. I think it’ll be as strong, or stronger, than a house with a traditional frame.”

Hagelund’s parents, Jamie and Harry, from Nikiski, have also taken part in the project.

“We had talked about doing a nontraditional house for years, but we always talked about using cordwood. I never heard of this type of house until they talked about doing it,” Harry said.

“We’re supportive of it, though,” he said. “I like giving him a hand. I teach him a few things and he’s taught me a few things.”

Rich King said that seeing so many people come together to take part in the project has been inspiring.

“It’s like the homesteader days when people would come together, giving endlessly to help those in need, and putting it all together with sweat equity,” he said. “For me, this project captures the Alaskan spirit.”

The Hagelunds are still in need of supplies for the construction of their home, and are taking donations of clean, rinsed aluminum cans. To help or for more information, contact the Hagelunds by e-mail at happinessislocated@yahoo.com.

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