A New Earth
Andy Hickman (B.A. ’99) builds model for large-scale, sustainable homes
As 2008 was drawing to a close, Andy Hickman was successful but not satisfied, and he wasn’t sure why. He was co-owner of a company he had started in order to escape the corporate cubicle world he found so stifling, and he was making plenty of money. He knew he didn’t want to keep working with the chemicals used in the spray-foam installation business, for the one thing, and slowing economy was making construction-dependent businesses less lucrative.But it was deeper than that: he just wasn’t fulfilled, and it was obvious to his girlfriend, artist Rosemary Kimble.
“She could tell I was unhappy,” said Hickman, who graduated from Georgia State in 1999 with a degree in international finance, and went on to earn his MBA at Mercer. Kimble made him quite a compelling offer: she suggested he sell his half of the company and put the proceeds in the bank, then take a year off to figure out what really makes him happy. She would pay his bills while he focused on this passion project. He took her up on it, though he admits it was hard to let go and surrender to this exciting but uncertain phase of his life.
About three months into his hiatus, Kimble borrowed a film from the library called “Garbage Warrior,” which highlighted the work of architect Michael Reynolds, founder of a company called Earthship Biotecture. Reynolds created a model for sustainable homes that exist “off the grid,” meaning they don’t rely on municipal utility services. It wasn’t a tough sell for Hickman. “Within the first five minutes of the movie, I knew right away, then and there, that’s what I’m going to do,” he said.
Hickman had already been in the energy-efficiency industry, and he knew he loved building. As a kid he was always constructing forts in his backyard, and he would soon be scaling that experience up considerably. When he found out that Earthship Biotecture offers internships, he applied right away and was accepted to attend the April 2009 session. “I was at a point where I was completely liberating myself, living there in Taos for 30 days,” said Hickman. Meanwhile, people thought he was crazy. Some people were no longer talking to him, and “You’re doing what?” became a common question.
Returning from that life-altering experience he told Kimble, “We’re going to build one of those, but we’re going to do it differently.”
Reynolds’ model used tires rammed with earth, which Hickman knew wouldn’t fly with building inspectors. Hickman was inspired to make a similar structure that would still use harvested rainwater, wind power, solar energy and edible landscapes, but would also be building-code permissible and wouldn’t be devoid of modern comforts or conveniences. He put up a Craigslist ad for an architect, and within 24 hours, he heard from architect Seth Jacobs.
With Jacobs’ design, Hickman searched for land for several months before he found seven acres of “completely raw” land in Royston, Ga., just outside of Athens, where he would launch his company, New Earth Homes. He had a travel trailer, so he parked it at the new site and got to work building the house he calls Northeast Georgia Earth Home, which is now about 85 percent complete.
The scope of Hickman’s goal has expanded to a flexible approach that makes his designs sustainable on a large scale, and more apt to be adopted by greater numbers of people. The goal is to design homes that are “as sustainable as possible, relative to where you are, while playing by the rules,” says Hickman. The model can vary depending on location, because building codes vary, he said.
“This model home is an example of what is possible within the rules,” he said. Contrary to what one might imagine, Hickman’s home has all the technology and modern appliances that most conventional homes have–and that might make the model more attractive to the generation he hopes will eventually see this as a regular way of life.
“I want children to grow up in these homes so the next generation will be more evolved,” he said, “thinking that everyone gets water from the sky and electricity from the wind.”
Tori Rodriguez, MA, LPC, is a psychotherapist, journalist and singer-songwriter. She has also written for Scientific American Mind, Real Simple, Women’s Health, Atlanta Magazine and many other print and web publications.