Meet the couple bringing Earthships to hurricane-hit Puerto Rico

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Aguada, Puerto Rico – In the opening of a cleared field that hugs the hillside of a family farm in Aguada, Puerto Rico, sits a cylindrical building with a dome roof.

The walls of the building are made of tyres packed with earth that individually become 136kg bricks.

Light shines through parts of the wall that have been lined in intricate formations with recycled glass bottles, creating green and brown-toned patterns on the inside of the building.

Rebar, recycled plastics that have been cut and ironed into shape and lined with bottles and cans that are then covered with cement, all meet at the apex of the roof with an octagon-shaped skylight, illuminating the packed dirt floor inside of this unfinished structure, Puerto Rico‘s first Earthship.

It was months after the devastating Hurricane Maria hit the island, but signs of the previous destruction were still present in this open field.

Piles of debris and downed trees were a reminder of what the island had recently been through, but the beginnings of this Earthship was a sign of life being rebuilt.

Just after Hurricane Maria hit last September, Lauralina Melendez and Mario Atunez looked out at the new landscape of their neighbourhood from the doorway of their tiny wooden home that was surprisingly still standing.

There were so many uprooted trees that it had taken the couple a week to make the seven-minute drive to their home from where they had weathered Hurricane Maria.

Where there once had been concrete and wooden homes alongside one another on a quiet street, there was a scene of destruction.

Downed power lines and rubbish littered the yards of roofless homes.

When the hurricane hit, we knew it was time. The day after Maria became day one for this island. Everybody’s life has changed.

Lauralina Melendez

“We were hit by this massive Category 5 storm and witnessed devastation for the first time in my life,” Atunez told Al Jazeera.

Melendez and Atunez, along with their two children, Poe and Taboga, live in Aguadilla, a town on the west coast of the island.

It was destroyed by the Category 5 storm, the second hurricane to make its way across the US territory in less than two weeks, leaving many without homes, power or a lifeline on the island.

The couple helped their neighbours, family and friends clear paths, building a network to care for the kids, elderly and abandoned animals. They also took in a young couple and their infant son who lost their home and belongings.

While they coped with the dire conditions, the hurricane eventually pushed Melendez and Atunez to look for a way to build the “forever” home they had moved back to Puerto Rico to initially build using resources already on the island.

“We moved to Puerto Rico to build an Earthship, but got caught up with life,” Melendez told Al Jazeera.

“When the hurricane hit, we knew it was time. The day after Maria became day one for this island. Everybody’s life has changed.”

‘Now was the time’

Melendez, a Puerto Rican native, holistic life coach and home-schooling mum, had returned to Puerto Rico two years before the hurricanes with her husband, a Venezuelan green-engineer who had been living in Miami when they met.

After their children were born, the couple realised that they wanted to raise them in Puerto Rico, where they could connect to Lauralina’s culture and have a close relationship to nature.

They began exploring what that home would look like when they came across a book about Earthships, a sustainable home made out of natural and recycled materials, including dirt, tyres, glass bottles, among other things.

Earthship homes are also built to withstand natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes.

Even before Maria hit, Melendez and Atunez thought that the concept would be a perfect solution for not just their family, but the island as well, where the average household owns at least two cars.

“Tyres come to the island, but never leave and there is no system for recycling glass bottles,” Melendez told Al Jazeera.

It was when the hurricane hit, and the family decided to leave the island, that they took the first steps to put their plan into action, emailing those behind the Earthship concept.

“Now was the time,” Melendez said, recounting how they had gone to the local K-mart store, which was full of people trying to access a morsel of the only accessible wi-fi in the area at the time. 

Tyres come to the island, but never leave and there is no system for recycling glass bottles.

Lauralina Melendez

Both the Earthship Biotecture Academy, a training programme for building Earthships based in Taos, New Mexico, and Biotecture Planet Earth, Earthship Biotecture’s non-profit organisation, had been looking for a way to get involved in the relief efforts on the island when they received Melendez’s email.

“When there’s desperation, there’s a hole in dogma,” Michael Reynolds, the founder of Earthship Biotecture told Al Jazeera. “That’s when we go and try to introduce these ideas that will work in the real world even when there’s no catastrophe.”

The organisation invited Melendez and Atunez, as well as the couple that was staying with them, to New Mexico on full scholarships for an Earthship Biotecture training course.

At the course, they developed a plan to build what would become known as Villabonuco, a structure made up of five geodesic domes connected by water catchment systems forming a pentagon with a garden courtyard in the centre.

Nearly three months later, the couple, along with a team of more than 70 volunteers from all over the world and Puerto Rico, began construction on what would become the island’s first Earthship and education centre.

“This is surreal. It’s amazing! Dreams do come true!” Melendez said.

‘Let’s stand up and construct’

Within two weeks, nearly two of the five dome structures were completed, with plans to build phase two in June.

Villabonuco will be an educational centre for Puerto Ricans and the international community to learn about how Earthships may be a viable alternative to the infrastructure that has failed the island.

Earthships are built to withstand natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes [Jayme Gershen/Al Jazeera] 

Altogether it will cost about $80,000 for the non-recycled materials that are needed to build Villabonuco. That includes things like rebar, cement and tools, as well as the water and solar systems that will be implemented into the structure.

Villabonuco will be a home base for Earthships in Puerto Rico, but this first structure is not a home. Melendez and Atunez are looking for additional land to build a residential Earthship community on the island within the next two years.

More than six months after the earthquake, nearly half a million people were still without power.

Whether it is Earthship homes or some other alternative, Puerto Ricans are actively taking the rebuilding efforts into their own hands as many feel the government has failed them.

“We got our butts kicked, but we learned our lesson,” said Carlos Chaparro, who is part of the family, that donated the land Villabonuco now sits on.

“We are strong people and we will survive,” he told Al Jazeera.

“The people of Puerto Rico fixed Puerto Rico. We stood up as a community and cut ourselves out of this place. So let’s stand up as a community and construct.”

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