The Eco-Home: All Aboard the Earthship!

Reading Time: 5 minutes

earthship alternative housing

Sue Stokes / Shutterstock.com

Ever try so hard to solve a problem that you don’t even see the solution is right in front of you? That’s sort of how I feel about “Earthship” homes.

Here we are, facing an energy crisis and climate challenge for the ages, wondering how to make our world carbon-neutral and Earth-friendly, but these guys outside of Taos, New Mexico, have had it all figured out for over four decades.

It’s true. They’ve already solved the climate problem. Waste, solar, climate, comfort, energy, everything — solved in one handy style of home-building.

The problem, of course, is bureaucracy and sex appeal. A lot of building codes won’t allow for a building this off-the-grid being even remotely close to urban areas. Then the structures can also look a little odd from the outside to some folks. But if we’re looking to solve the planet’s woes, we have the solution already. It’s the Earthship.

Prepare for… lift-off?

Despite named for a “ship,” these homes are going nowhere. Originally conceived by Mike Reynolds, he’s on record for saying it was early news stories about clearcutting, energy problems, gas shortages, and other climate strife of the ‘60s that had them feeling like they had to be a part of the solution because the problem was gonna keep growing.

And, boy, has it. Today, Mike’s company Earthship Biotecture sells a variety of plans to help anyone, anywhere, get started on building their own Earthship home. The Earthship’s slogan? “Live free.” With no need to pay for any utilities or be connected anywhere, “Live free” has a powerful message.

What’s the deal?

Earthships aren’t supposed to be sexy. They’re entirely about pragmatism. They’re a one-size-fits-all lifestyle home that includes everything from waste-water processing through to indoor facilities for growing your own food supply year-round.

Earthship_Brighton_Front

An earthship built near Brighton, England.

A huge factor in why Earthships work is because they are generally built into Earth as opposed to sitting on top. They’re easier to heat, to keep cool. They’re cheaper to maintain. They’re entirely off the grid.

In 2012, Canada’s Globe and Mail wrote about a Canadian couple building their dream 2,900-square-foot Earthship home for a staggering all-in cost of $55,000. That article’s a great read overall. Here’s how they explain the basic premise of Earthships:

“…The homes are defined by six guiding principles: building with natural and recycled materials; thermal solar heating and cooling; solar and wind electricity; water harvesting; contained sewage treatment; and on-site food production.”

How are they made?

Earthships are a perfect combination of recycling and sustainability. The placement of the home is significant because the goal is to be primarily heated by the sun, year-round. Windows, angles, and insulation are all pretty important. The insulation is pretty amazing, because walls are commonly made with soil-packed tires that become makeshift “bricks” held in place via rammed-earth construction. All that earth and soil means the internal temperatures are pretty consistent.

Reynolds’ company Earthship Biotecture aims to have their homes made of about half reused materials that include everything from reclaimed wood and metal bitsies from old appliances like stoves, washing machines, and such, through to plastic and glass bottles and cans, plus the recycled tires I’ve already mentioned.

That’s the goal of most Earthships, and it’s frankly the whole point.

It’s off-the-grid, so… water? sewage?

The premise that we have everything we need is never truer than in these homes. Rainwater, snowmelt, and dew are all harvested via catchment systems on the roof and elsewhere. They’re channeled into filtration systems that remove contaminants and make it usable for every activity in the home.

Except, of course, toilet-flushing. That’s greywater resulting from everything else done in the home — dishwashing, cooking, showering, and so forth. It’s second-use water recollected for use in the toilet. Where does that, then, go? It’s re-filtered in another system and used for watering some exterior plants, where Mother Nature recycles and filters the water as she does best, and back into the ecosystem at large it goes.

And how about power?

Because most homes aren’t nearly as efficient as they can be, solar is seldom enough for the average home. For the Earthship, though, Mother Nature is all we need. With a home designed to be efficient, it takes a lot less energy to make it functional.

This is without even branching into some of the cool new technology out there, too. Standard solar panels and wind turbines have been harnessing power for Earthship homes since the ‘70s.

Climate control

Not all Earthships are earth-sheltered, meaning built partially into the Earth, but those that are have an easier road, thanks to the stable temperatures offered by the ground.

Construction methods play a huge role in how temperatures are more stable in Earthship homes. Those rammed-tire walls I was telling you about are a pretty genius idea when you break it down. I’ll turn it over to Wikipedia here:

“The load-bearing walls of an Earthship, which are made from steel-belted tires rammed with earth, serve two purposes. First, they hold up the roof, and second, they provide a dense thermal mass that will soak up heat during the day and radiate heat during the night, keeping the interior climate relatively comfortable all day.”

The way the home faces, internal structures, execution of layout — all these things factor into how air circulates, heats, and cools. It’s why it makes sense to fork out the cash for building plans if these homes speak to you.

Michael Reynolds original earthship

Michael Reynolds built this earthship in the early 1970s. It’s partially made of empty beer and pop cans. (image: David Hiser)

Interior spaces

Early Earthship homes were odd-looking at times. But today they’re spaces made with unique lines, lots of natural accents, and a lot of daylight. Talk about big potential.

As a result, recent Earthship homes tend to be much more beautiful inside. They’re the kind of natural, open, healthy spaces we should all dream of owning.  It’s also a nod to how humans have lived throughout history.

Think about it. Rammed earth/tire walls, reclaimed wood, reclaimed metal, use of bottles and colored glass, stone, natural bricks, and more. These homes are essentially the evolution of Adobe and Cobb-style houses mankind has been building for many centuries already.

The solution is here

Back in the Vietnam War, John Lennon made a lot of people angry when he bought a billboard in NYC reading “War is Over! (If you want it).” When it comes to people like Mike Reynolds and the Earthshippers, I feel like we’ve had four decades of these folks in Taos saying, “Guys — the Ozone, the climate, the melting ice caps? We’ve got a solution… if you want it.”

Our problem isn’t that we don’t know how to fix the world — it’s that we’re just not doing it.

Mike Reynolds and folks like him are the quiet, unassuming eco-idols we need to be turning to, listening to, and learning from.

Because they have had it all figured out for quite a while — for so long, in fact, that they’ve already fixed and improved the model countless times. If we pair new technology with their four-decades-plus of off-the-grid living, maybe we can get on with saving our planet.

***

If you’re really wowed by the idea of Earthship homes and their potential, you can watch free, online, a 2007 documentary called Garbage Warrior about Mike Reynolds and his mission to change the way we live.

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Steffani Cameron

Steffani Cameron is a Victoria BC-based writer on a variety of topics. Here on the BuildDirect blog, she specializes in writing about smaller, urban spaces. How do you make the most of your smaller space? How do you decorate it to suit you? And how do you wage the war against clutter and win? This is Steff’s specialty.