ADAMS, Neb. — From the dirt road, this plot of land looks like any other.
A gravel drive leads through a few trees to a cream-colored outbuilding topped by a weather vane. But sitting on the grass and surrounded in mulch is a tiny house, the kind you might find on HGTV.
Peek down the hill and you’ll see an even more unique place to call home.
A dozen or so sweat-soaked volunteers side-step their way down a sloppy mud slope. They dump shovels of dirt into empty black tires and pack them till they’re fat. They stack the 400-pound tires like bricks, forming a wall along the excavated earth.
They’re building an “earthship.” It’s believed to be the first one in Nebraska.
Basically, it’s a two-bedroom ranch nestled into the hillside, with two sides hugged by the earth and the other two walled with glass, facing the southern sun. Earthships rely on the sun and cool air from the ground to maintain temperatures around 70 degrees. They also collect rainwater and generate energy with solar panels.
“The whole idea is you’re off-grid, you’re completely sustainable, you have your own water, you grow your own food,” said Cathy Krueger, the owner. “It attracts a certain type of person.”
The earthship concept was created in the 1970s by architect Mike Reynolds in New Mexico. “Gunsmoke” actor Dennis Weaver, a noted environmentalist, built one in the ’80s.
Krueger’s model is fairly standard as earthships go. At a cost of about $57,000, the 56-year-old has based her design on one in Australia.
Construction began in the spring, and the metal roof went on in September. Gaps in the wall of tires are filled with concrete and loose cans and bottles. Soon, the tire walls will be plastered and covered by drywall.
Krueger’s 1,000-square-foot earthship will have a greenhouse stretching east to west along its southern edge. There, she’ll grow fresh produce, even bananas — a true test of legitimacy for earthship owners, Krueger said.
The earthship will have a living room, two bedrooms, a bathroom, a laundry room and a kitchen with a thermal mass wood-burning stove that heats the couch. Yes, the couch.
Krueger will use fresh filtered rainwater, collected in a cistern and cycled throughout the structure. Water will be piped to the kitchen and shower. From there, water drains into the greenhouse or into the toilet, then down a pipe and into a septic system that fertilizes a botanical cell positioned to help grow berry bushes outside.
Ventilation tubes built into the tire wall foundation channel air in from underground to keep the house cool in the summer. Flaps can be closed to cut off that cold air, allowing the sunlight to provide heat in the winter. If the space gets too hot, roof vents in the greenhouse can be opened, enabling hot air to escape and ventilation tubes to pull in cold air from underground.
“It’s a thermal battery,” said Reynolds, the earthship pioneer. “The design is so massive and insulated and tight that it really is easy to heat. People say you can heat these things with a candle.”
Krueger has been planning to build her earthship for decades.
The purple-haired divorcée and former business owner first heard of the concept while watching a documentary in the 1990s. She still has a copy on VHS.
Years ago, she moved to Oregon and built a tiny house to save on rent money. Then she moved back to Nebraska, sold her catering business and flipped a house in Lincoln.
She flew to Argentina to learn from Reynolds and volunteer with a team building an earthship on the southern tip of South America. Then she returned home and started planning.
She found a location — Gage County — where she felt she could meet all the building requirements without much trouble, and she picked out her location: a breezy hilltop on the shore of a private unnamed lake.
“It represents years of a dream,” she said.
This spring, Krueger called for volunteers to help build the foundation and frame. About 50 people — roughly 10 per month — came to help, Krueger said.
She also hired Robert Hirsch from Reynolds’ Earthship Biotecture in New Mexico to lead construction for about a month.
Some neighbors, who didn’t want to be named, told The World-Herald they disliked the earthship. One worried it would lower property values.
Others don’t seem to mind.
“The (neighbors) I’ve talked to, I’ve not heard anything negative,” said Nathan Dorn, a farmer who lives less than a mile down the road. “I’m more in favor of it than neutral, I would say. As far as building it, go right ahead.”
Krueger hopes to enclose the earthship before winter, so she and her Yorkie, Lola, can move in and finish the inside. She’s awaiting final approval on the septic system from the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality.
By now, most of the volunteers have moved on. For the most part, it’s just Krueger and her family working evenings and weekends.
“My daughter loves the earthship concept,” Krueger said. “My sons are probably a little bit more skeptical. My one son worked for a builder, and it’s really unconventional. He’s like, ‘Why are you doing that? Wouldn’t you rather do it this way?’ He won’t be building one.
“Once it gets done, they’re all going to be converts.”