Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Garbage Warrior

I watched the documentary Garbage Warrior this week. It is about architect Michael Reynolds who builds "earthships" in the New Mexico desert. These homes are built from used tires and pop bottles. They are completely self-sufficient with their own power, water source, heating and sewer systems. The movie documents his beginnings and his fights with government regulations to allow him to continue his work.
He started by constructing experimental buildings with trial and error experiments. Not everything worked correctly at first.

You can sense his passion for his early work:
"We couldn't worry about what it would look like we just wanted it to work. Everything was striking intense the whole time. People would come out here and they never wanted to leave. It was a time of magic."

But as he started to become known the local government sought to shut him down for his unorthodox methods. One of his workers/friend said:
"The powers that be in the architectural world, and in the planning world,can't see any other way than the way that got established. There is only one way to be an architect."

Shauna Malloy, Attorney for the State Architects Board says,"Standardized design in construction is so important because it means safety."

There are many parallels to education in this film. The government regulators and politicians could only see the way things have always been done. Architects (educators and students) must do things the way that they have always been done according to the codes (core standards) and must have inspectors check that they meet "standards."  Even most of the vocabulary is exactly the same!

So he was shut down by the local government for a few years. He then worked for years and became a legal subdivision. He was now legal but not happy:

"For a period of time there I was not exploring, I was not evolving.I was taking what I had learned to that date and keying it in to convention as clearly and legally and straight forward as I could to try and not make any waves. Just do something that they could relate to for a few years and get stable with the powers that be."

His wife says,
"We lost this ability to dream an idea and do it the next day."

His friend adds,
"He lost the right to experiment and create new buildings and innovations on the buildings.You got to be able to make mistakes. Otherwise you never evolve housing type. So that's what the rest of the country is. They're still stuck in the same housing as they were in World War II or World War I. It's the same exact housing. Everybody's so stressed about getting sued for a single mistake that there is no evolution of design."

"I had lost the freedom to fail."

Sometimes we need to reject the "safety" of standardization to challenge students to be creative. In order to make new designs architects (educators) and builders (students) need to work hand in hand to creatively experiment with new ideas. And yes, failure is part of the process. But when Michael was forced to bow to the codes (standardized curriculum), he lost his passion and creativity. How many students can not find their passion or creativity at school because of restrictive, standardized tests and curriculum? How many students sit and listen to traditional architects who design the same way that has been done for years creating bland sub divisions that all look the same? I think students would much rather take some risks with a lead learner like Mike Reynolds who is modeling his learning with his "students."

It is also obvious in the film the sense of community among Reynolds workers. They are closer than family. Another intangible (not testable) trait that we desire to teach our students.

So Reynolds tries to get the state to pass a law creating a space for experimental housing without building codes. It fails because of politics. After the tsunami in 2004, he and his team head to an island in India to teach them how to build earthships that are cheap and reliable.

Michael in India after tsunami:
"They whole heartedly jumped on the fact that this may be a way to keep them  cool and get them shelter and get them water and treat sewage.  There were no barriers. You go to a situation that's been devastated and the barriers are gone."

"When you see how open people are immediately after a disaster. There is a real difference in the people and the opportunity here and the people and opportunity in the West."

I think many (but not all!) of the most creative education ideas are happening outside of regular public schools. They are happening in charters, private schools, and international schools. These schools have less restrictions and more opportunity to experiment and yes fail at times. I hope that public schools in the USA will be given the freedom and will move to creative environments before an educational tsunami hits.

PS: Thanks to Shelly Blake Plock aka TeachPaperless for recommending the movie many moons ago.


  1. This is a movie I must watch. Thank you for sharing this story. This story reminds me of the quotation, "The personal is the most universal." I can really relate to some of these comments.
    @mmeveilleux (on Twitter)

  2. I just hope he is not building in earthquake territory. Some of those designs look very dangerous in a quake.
    Who pays the price (in lives and property) for failure?

    I, for one, am very glad for building codes and building inspection. Of course, the codes need to be updated every few years as new building techniques are developed and some old ones shown to be unsound. Building codes are no substitute for competent contractors, but they do have an important role.

  3. @gasstationwithoutpumps Actually his work in India is designed to survive a tsunami and most likely an earthquake too. You should watch the movie before judging too hard. When he talks about failure he is talking about leaks, not optimum temperature, and unpleasant sewer smells (he designs the waste to feed plants in the house). He has overcome these problems by the way.

    He is not talking about structure failure that endangers people's lives and property. And his clients choose to live in this kind of house.

    As a concrete finisher in my alternate life I can promise you that building codes do not always make sense and are extremely slow to adapt to change. I work for a contractor using insulated concrete forms (ICF's and even though the forms have been around for years, they are still looked at skeptically by many architects and building inspectors.

    To my point schools function the same way-very slow to adapt to change and accept that there may be alternative ways to teach and learn.