For those looking to go off grid and venture into full sustainable living, building your own “earthship” house is a great option. As our modern world brings non-renewable resources to the brink of depletion, more and more homeowners are considering making a change in their lifestyle.
However, with big change comes big commitment. Building an earthship requires serious hands-on knowledge and quite a few sacrifices.
If you’re up for the challenge, living a fully sustainable life in an earthship has the power to change your – and our – world.
What is an Earthship?
The name may sound more like a concept from a sci-fi novel. However, the reality is much more down-to-earth.
Basically, an “earthship” is a home design. It attempts to address human needs effectively while consuming as few resources as possible. It also attempts to limit our environmental impact.
The concept revolves around the idea of complete sustainability. It attempts to combine every eco-friendly option under one roof.
A Sustainable Home that Meets our Needs
Earthships address our basic needs as homeowners while remaining as eco-friendly as possible. As you can imagine, that’s no easy feat. These needs can be broken down into six categories:
- Energy (electricity and thermal)
Management of non-sewage waste is done through recycling and reusing whatever possible.
Unsanitary waste is treated in self-contained units using recycled water.
The construction of the building uses as much natural and recycled material as possible.
- Clean water
Drinking and bathing water is harvested and stored long-term.
All food is produced on-site using organic growing methods.
An all-natural design
The innovative earthship concept was pioneered by Michael Reynolds in the 1980s in Taos, New Mexico. The hot southwestern weather largely influenced the original design. He considered the sun and its effects in almost every part of the structure.
What separates this design from many other off-grid homes is that the earthship emphasizes climate control. Earthships can avoid excess energy use by using insulation, air flow and warmth from the sun. Natural methods of addressing human needs is the basic premise of this sustainable housing plan.
How do Earthships work?
There are many different forms of technology and design woven into a standard earthship. That’s for the purpose of being as sustainable as possible.
Harnessing the Power of the Sun
Passive Solar Design
Arguably the biggest focus of the design is the effect of the sun. During the summer, the sun can warm the home but may make it too hot, and during the winter, it needs to conserve energy.
The direction the earthship faces is incredibly important as it dictates how much of the sun’s energy it can harvest or avoid.
The solution to this seasonal difference is “passive solar design”. This concept uses floors, windows, walls and other surfaces to absorb, store and distribute solar energy in the winter. Conversely, it does the opposite during the summer as it rejects the heat wherever possible.
The sun’s warmth is not only for warming the home. It also provides electrical energy using solar panels. As these homes strive to be as off-the-grid as possible, this makes solar energy essential to achieving energy sustainability.
Producing their Own Energy
Earthships utilize sustainable and renewable energy as much as possible. This may be in the form of solar, wind, hydro or any other suitable source of energy that you can harvest to meet the entire home’s needs.
Location largely determines how these homes produce their own energy as a homeowner needs to take the environment into consideration. If it’s near a fast-flowing river, the earthship will need more hydro power producers than one that’s in a dry desert.
In many situations, a combination of more than one energy source can meet the home’s needs more effectively.
Easy and Affordable Construction
People make earthships using reclaimed or recycled goods, which are often free or much cheaper than traditional building materials. They usually construct the walls in these homes from old tires, cans, glass bottles and any other material that they can repurpose.
Builders use local materials as well, like rocks they found on the property, to reduce their overall carbon footprint.
The general design is also easier to build for future homeowners who have little experience in construction. People usually build the earthship in a simple horseshoe shape, which doesn’t require a high degree of skill to create.
Producing their Own Food
Food is an integral part of the earthship plan as it’s a basic necessity for any family. Homeowners should produce as much of their own food as possible so they’re entirely self-reliant.
This is often a challenge given that it’s quite difficult to produce all the food a family needs on just one property.
People use organic gardening and permaculture methods to produce food without artificial pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. Animals are usually incorporated as well in order to improve the efficiency of the system and reduce organic waste.
How do I create my own Earthship?
If you’re ready to make the leap to complete sustainability, there are several things you’ll need to do before you can officially launch your own earthship.
Consult the Experts
As the original inventor, Michael Reynolds and his team are arguably the most knowledgeable when it comes to the constructing earthships. He and other experienced contractors can be contracted to construct your own earthship for you.
While this may be more expensive than designing and building the structure yourself, it may be a better option for those who don’t have the time, resources, or capability to build an earthship.
If you’d prefer to do it yourself and feel that you may need some help learning the basics, there are earthship building courses available from a few industry experts including Michael Reynolds himself. Learning from the best is a great way to make sure you get it right the first time.
Choose the Right Location
Due to the importance of natural temperature control in an earthship, choosing the right location, position and surrounding environment is vital to your success. For example, if you’re located in the Northern Hemisphere, you’ll need your structure to face south so it can warm itself with sunlight in the winter.
Future homeowners should also consider that the earthship was originally specifically for the dry, arid and high-altitude environment of Taos, New Mexico. People in other climates , like the cold mountains of Canada or humid jungles of South America, may need to alter the design quite significantly. Even so, people have made many successful adaptations to the earthship all over the world.
Building your Earthship
One of the most important parts of constructing an earthship is finding all the necessary materials. A lot of these materials are difficult to source and transport as an individual homeowner, although they’re generally free pieces of junk.
For example, an average earthship design calls for more than 800+ dirt-filled tires to support the main structure the walls.
Glass bottles are another material in earthship walls as they allow light into rooms without a window or large glass surface. These cement and glass walls are also great insulators and can store heat from the sun and release it during the evening if you’ve filled them with a dark liquid.
Other common materials include:
- Bags of dirt
- Reclaimed timber
- Natural materials with high thermal mass properties
The shape of an earthship’s walls are almost always a horseshoe. This shape eliminates the need to create clean corners with round tires and maximizes the amount of warmth allowed in while providing as much insulation as possible.
Walls of these structures are usually then built up with a large amount of sand on the outside which adds to the insulating effect. Often plants such as grasses are grown on these surrounding heaps of soil to keep them in place and prevent erosion.
Producing your Own Food
When it comes to food production for an earthship, being able to produce enough food to fully satisfy your household’s needs is the primary goal.
Whether you can realistically achieve this lofty goal is ultimately contingent upon the size of land and the environment you live in. Maximizing what you can get out of the space you have comes down to a little creativity and research.
The sunniest side of the house will need an atrium-like structure that’s glass. Here, you can produce food indoors while also warming your home like you would a greenhouse.
The more sun you get, the better. These indoor garden systems may also serve multiple functions by treating grey water naturally or providing a source of humidity and climate control in hot, dry conditions.
Outside the earthship’s walls, permaculture and organic methods of small-scale farming are the go-to methods of food production. This style of farming will produce a wide range of foods for many months of the year, reducing your dependence on commercial produce.
This food should be produced with zero to little waste, with crops being nourished from the very waste the house produces.
Overall, the most successful methods of small-scale food production are:
- Organic farming
- Microgreen farming
Earthships focus on storing as much rainwater as possible as this is an essential function of being “off-grid”. Often, the structure of these homes implement clever designs with catchment funnels on roofs that ensure they don’t miss anything.
They also collect water from snow and condensation in some situations, adding to the total amount of harvested water.
People often place large water tanks under the home to store the water that they’ve harvested. Inside, a pump system brings the water up.
Once you’ve used it, you can recycle the water back to use it as grey water for flushing toilets or watering plants. It’s important to not waste a drop of water you’ve harvested as it’s a precious commodity for your earthship.
Treating your Waste
While it may not be the most glamorous of projects, treating waste is by far one of the most important. The earthship’s approach to treating waste is entirely unconventional, yet practical and sustainable.
This is where many people begin to second guess their choice in building an earthship- however, we must remember that for most of human history, we didn’t have access to treatment facilities and instead had to safely handle sewage ourselves. In an earthship, people commonly deal with sewage and wastewater completely on-site with septic tank systems.
Once you’ve treated the water in the system, you can recycle as much of it as possible. One common way of achieving this is with a wastewater wetland.
Wetlands are the kidneys of the earth and naturally filter out contaminants from water. People can use this quality of wetlands to effectively treat blackwater waste in a natural way using a human-made wetland.
As sustainable as earthships may be, it would be impractical to assume that any modern home would be able to survive without a constant supply of electricity. In order to meet these needs, earthships usually utilize solar panels, and in areas that permit it, wind power via windmills.
If the location you have chosen happens to have a decent river or stream running through it, you could even consider generating power with hydroelectric generators.
Some earthships are successful in being completely off-grid. Others are still hooked up to it and benefit from being ‘paid’ for creating enough excess electricity to feed back to the grid.
Even though a large part of the ethos earthship creators espouse is to be completely ‘off-grid’, one cannot ignore the benefits of producing their own energy while having the stability of the grid should they need it.
Is an Earthship right for you?
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to live away from civilization to enjoy the benefits of sustainable living. When built properly, earthships allow individuals to customize their home to their family’s needs and environment, wherever that may be.
If you can’t commit to the more difficult realities of living in an earthship, like treating your own waste or producing all your own food, you can always supplement with modern conveniences.
There’s no reason not to shop at your local market or dip into the power grid when necessary. Ultimately, the basic premise of the earthship remains: reducing our impact on the environment.