What have we here? The building block for a new house, of course.
I was looking in the National Archives digital copy catalog for something else entirely when I came upon a series of photos taken by David Hiser in 1974-1975 for the Environmental Protection Agency documenting the construction of several experimental houses designed by architect Michael Reynolds.
Curious about whatever became of this project, I searched for “Michael Reynolds,” “architect,” “Taos,” and discovered that over the past 35 years later Reynolds has continued his experiments in what he calls “Earthship Biotecture.” You can read about it and see photos of his recent designs at Earthship, and his work and life are the subject of a recent award-winning documentary, Garbage Warrior, by Oliver Hodge, now available on DVD.
David Hiser went on to work with National Geographic. You can read about him here.
These EPA pictures are from the DOCUMERICA collection in the National Archives and Records Administration, which contains almost 22,000 images taken between 1972 and 1977:
The idea behind DOCUMERICA was simple. Beginning in 1972, the EPA contracted out assignments to photographers who were paid $150 a day plus film and expenses to shoot a variety of images. . . . Photographers received full credit for any accepted images, and any rejected images were their property. All approved DOCUMERICA images became property of the U.S. government. DOCUMERICA drew upon a long history of government photography projects, but it was the brainchild of Gifford Hampshire. . . who raised the idea of a documentary photography project with aides to EPA director William Rickshaws. Several of the staff members had heard of the New Deal photography projects and were intrigued with the idea of a new project dealing with environmental issues. Soon afterward, the EPA`s Office of Public Affairs asked Hampshire to organize DOCUMERICA.
I don’t know if Hiser or an EPA staffer wrote the captions for the pictures. I’ll let them tell the story. All photos by David Hiser, all courtesy National Archives.
Caption for top picture: “BASIC BUILDING BLOCK OF EXPERIMENTAL HOUSING BEING BUILT OF EMPTY STEEL BEER AND SOFT DRINK CANS NEAR TAOS, NEW MEXICO. A TOTAL OF EIGHT CANS WEIGHING 14 OUNCES ARE WIRED TOGETHER AND PLACED IN MORTAR IN THE OUTSIDE WALLS AT A COST OF 15 CENTS PER UNIT. SIX CANS ARE EVIDENT IN THE PICTURE. THE OTHER TWO CANS HAVE BEEN FLATTENED AND PLACED BETWEEN THE UPRIGHT AND HORIZONTAL CANS TO ACT AS WEATHER STRIPPING AND TO PREVENT AIR FLOW THROUGH THE WALLS. A MACHINE COULD BE DESIGNED TO MAKE THE UNITS AT A SHARPLY REDUCED COST.” [ARC Identifier 556616]
“THE INSIDE WALLS ARE BUILT WITH CANS IN THE POSITION SHOWN. THE OUTSIDE WALLS ARE CONSTRUCTED USING AN EIGHT CAN UNIT AS A BUILDING BLOCK” [ ARC Identifier 556618, 55631]
“FIRST EXPERIMENTAL HOUSE COMPLETED NEAR TAOS, NEW MEXICO USING EMPTY STEEL BEER AND SOFT DRINK CANS. THE HOUSE WAS BUILT USING CURVED WALLS BECAUSE THEY HAVE MORE STRENGTH, RESULTING IN PIE-SHAPED INTERIOR ROOMS. THERE IS A LAWN ON THE ROOF BELOW THE OVERHANG AT THE TOP OF THE STRUCTURE. RE-CYCLED PAPER PULP IS USED TO COVER THE CEILING OF THE INTERIOR. LATER HOMES WERE BUILT WITHOUT CURVED WALLS AFTER THE DESIGNER FOUND THE CANS WOULD SUPPORT MUCH MORE WEIGHT THAN THEY WOULD HAVE TO BEAR. UNIVERSITY TESTS LATER SUBSTANTIATED HIS FINDING.” 06/1974 [ARC Identifier 556623]
“LAWN ON THE ROOF IS ONE OF SEVERAL UNUSUAL ASPECTS OF THIS EXPERIMENTAL HOUSE BUILT NEAR TAOS, NEW MEXICO, USING EMPTY STEEL BEER AND SOFT DRINK CANS. THE LAWN REQUIRES DAILY ATTENTION BECAUSE OF THE DRY ENVIRONMENT. A DOOR IN THE GLASSED-IN SECTION IN THE BACKGROUND GIVES ACCESS TO A BALCONY OVERLOOKING THE LIVING ROOM WHICH IS PIE-SHAPED. THE HOUSE, THE FIRST TO BE BUILT WITH CAN CONSTRUCTION, WAS MADE CIRCULAR WHICH GIVES THE WALLS ADDED STRENGTH. THE ROOF IS USED FOR SUN BATHING AND ENTERTAINING.” [ARC Identifier 556625]
“ARCHITECT AND EXPERIMENTAL HOUSE BUILDER MICHAEL REYNOLDS LIVES IN THIS STRUCTURE WHICH IS A COMPENDIUM OF HIS EXPERIMENTS IN THE FIELD, NEAR TAOS, NEW MEXICO. THE LEFT PORTION OF THE STRUCTURE WITH THE PYRAMID-SHAPED ROOF HAS BEEN BUILT USING EMPTY STEEL BEER AND SOFT DRINK CANS. THE SLOPING WALL AT ITS BASE IS A SOLAR HEAT COLLECTOR. REYNOLDS HAS BUILT ENTIRE HOMES FROM THE CANS, AND REPORTS THEY CAN BE BUILT AS MUCH AS 20% CHEAPER THAN CONVENTIONAL HOUSING.” 06/1974 [ARC Identifier 556619]
“ANOTHER EXPERIMENTAL HOUSE MADE OF EMPTY STEEL BEER AND SOFT DRINK CAN CONSTRUCTION NEAR TAOS, NEW MEXICO. THIS HOUSE WILL BE PLASTERED WITH ADOBE LIKE THE OTHER HOMES IN THE AREA, BUT WILL HAVE COST UP TO 20% LESS, ACCORDING TO ARCHITECT MICHAEL REYNOLDS THE ROUNDED WALLS ARE LOAD BEARING AND ARE MADE WITH BUILDING BLOCKS OF EIGHT CANS. THE FLAT WALLS ARE NOT LOAD BEARING AND ARE BUILT WITH SINGLE CANS LAID HORIZONTALLY, END OUT, IN THE MORTAR.” 06/1974 [ARC Identifier 556628]
“ARCHITECT AND EXPERIMENTAL HOUSE BUILDER MICHAEL REYNOLDS WHO LIVES NEAR TAOS, NEW MEXICO, IN THE PYRAMID-SHAPED ROOM WHERE HE SLEEPS. IT IS MODELLED EXACTLY AFTER THE GREAT PYRAMID IN EGYPT HE IS EXPERIMENTING WITH THE EFFECTS OF THE PYRAMID ON HUMAN CONSCIOUSNESS. HE IS KEEPING A JOURNAL OF HIS THOUGHTS AND EXPERIENCES, AND HOPES TO WRITE A BOOK ON THE SUBJECT.” 06/1974 [ARC Identifier 556620]
“CONSTRUCTION OF ONE OF THREE EXPERIMENTAL HOUSES BUILT FROM EMPTY BEER AND SOFT DRINK CANS. ALL ALUMINUM CANS ARE BEING USED IN THIS CONSTRUCTION … DESIGNER MICHAEL REYNOLDS IS USING THEM BECAUSE THEIR AVAILABILITY HAS INCREASED. AN UNSKILLED WORKER IS LAYING ONE OF TWO THICKNESSES OF CANS WHICH WILL BE SEPARATED BY A VERTICAL SHEET OF FOAM INSULATION. THE EXTERIOR WILL BE GLASS, UNPAINTED CONCRETE AND EXPOSED CANS.” 06/1974 [ARC Identifier 556638]
“…THE FINISHED FOUNDATION WITH UPRIGHT FORMS FOR POURING CONCRETE BEAMS.” 06/1974 [ARC Identifier 556636]
“COMPLETED PICTURE OF THE EXPERIMENTAL ALL ALUMINUM BEER AND SOFT DRINK CAN HOUSE NEAR TAOS, NEW MEXICO. IT TOOK ABOUT 70,000 CANS TO COMPLETE THE TWO STORY STRUCTURE. THE CANS WERE LAID HORIZONTALLY IN TWO THICKNESSES, SEPARATED BY A VERTICAL SHEET OF FOAM INSULATION.” 01/1975 [ARC Identifier 556644]
“INTERIOR VIEW OF THE ALL ALUMINUM BEER AND SOFT DRINK CAN EXPERIMENTAL HOUSE NEAR TAOS, NEW MEXICO. THE OWNERS REPORT THE HOUSE SEEMS TO WORK WELL SO FAR AND GIVES THE FEELING OF BEING VERY SOLID. THE SOUTH FACING WINDOWS CAPTURE HEAT FROM THE SUN.” 01/1975 [ARC Identifier 556647]