One Man’s Trash Is Another Man’s Eco-Friendly Building Material

Aluminum cans are known for their almost infinite recyclability, but you’d be hard-pressed to find many who’ve made greater use of this attribute than Demian Larsen.

As a builder, Larsen has used these cans as a material for about 25 years. His official title, in fact, is “earthship builder,” meaning he helps erect environmentally friendly homes and structures for the architectural firm Earthship Biotecture in Taos, New Mexico.

According to Larsen, it all started decades ago, when Michael Reynolds, the founder and principal architect of Earthship Biotecture, had a vision: Reynolds wanted to make use of something largely viewed as a byproduct or waste. This was before widespread recycling, when cans were liberally strewn about the American landscape, Larsen says. You could say Reynolds was recycling before recycling was cool.

Initially Reynolds formed the cans into building blocks but realized it was an unnecessary step. Instead he used the hollow cans essentially to take up space in non-load-bearing walls and structures. This reduces the cost of building materials, and the air inside the cans also acts as an insulator, Larsen says.

But, as much as anything, Larsen says, the cans look incredibly groovy as part of a structure. “It’s a lightweight building material that gives you the potential to do a lot of freeform construction and create really cool shapes and more organic spaces,” he says.

Credit: earthship.com

You might not think that a can, so easily crushed on its own, would make the sturdiest structure. But when paired with cement, the combination is remarkably strong. Larsen estimates he’s worked on about a dozen homes that used aluminum cans as a building material — and they’ve all held up well. He says there are even a few buildings in the greater Taos-area where aluminum cans were used with the ends of the cans exposed to the elements, to no ill effect. “They’re still there, and they are as shiny as the day they went in,” he says. “There is no rust or degradation because … aluminum doesn’t rust like steel does.”

Some of the homes are domed structures. In these, the builders use cans to form walls and the dome of the house — and they, too, have proved durable. “The domes I’ve worked on are still existing and they’re as substantial as they were the day we built them,” Larsen says.

Earthship homes cost about $230 per square foot, according to the company’s website, and construction drawings for DYI-ers range from $5,000 to $10,000.

By his estimate, about 20 buildings in New Mexico have aluminum-can components. That doesn’t include the homes people have built using the how-to books his firm sells.

It’s not easy to get a definitive count on the number of aluminum-can homes elsewhere in the U.S., either. Whereas Larsen’s company uses the cans as a construction material, some of the better-known “can homes” used them as a sort of readymade, pop-art shingle or siding.

Either way, the number is low, Larsen says, because most people just can’t wrap their minds around the idea that they could make a home from cans. “It’s against the norm of conventional construction, and most people aren’t exposed to buildings of this sort, and they’re used to your typical stick-frame house,” he says. “It’s what people see, it’s what the market puts out, and that’s what everybody says you should have.”

While there may not be a lot of can homes, Larsen says the ones that go on the market sell easily. For those in the know, it’s become a proven building material over the past 25 to 35 years, he says. “They don’t sit very long,” he says.

As for the future, he says, there will never be a shortage of aluminum cans in America if people keep drinking sodas and beer. He also says every time his company builds a new structure cans are always incorporated, one way or another. “It’s part of our signature.”