What do you think of when you hear the name “Earthship”?
For many, it conjures some type of UFO-shaped mechanical transport that may have been seen in a Star Wars movie.
However, these homes are remarkable, solar-powered designs.
So, if you’re seeking an eco-friendly home that’s off-grid ready, look no further!
Here’s what you should know.
1. What is an Earthship?
An Earthship is a type of passive solar home created from natural and recycled materials.
This type of architecture was designed and developed in the late 20th century by architect Michael Reynolds.
Earthships feature numerous amenities and can have a variety of different aesthetics.
They’re designed to withstand extreme temperatures in the desert and can remain around 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius) regardless of outside weather conditions.
Reynolds first designed the Earthship after living in New Mexico.
He intended for them to be “off-the-grid” ready and placed in the rural desert.
Though these homes were originally built for the New Mexico climate, they have spread to small pockets of Earthship communities around the globe despite legal opposite to their construction/adoption.
Earthships are supposed to have minimal reliance on public utilities and fossil fuels as they use available natural resources, including the sun and rainwater.
They are intentionally uncomplex in design so that people with little building knowledge can construct them.
Their design includes thermal mass construction and natural cross-ventilation to regulate indoor temperatures.
2. What makes a house an Earthship?
In short, an Earthship is a special kind of passive solar home (or community of homes).
It’s normally made of natural and recycled materials, like old tires or recycled cans, and isintended to make use of non-polluting renewable energy sources and smart design to meet most of (if not all) heating, cooling, and power needs.
If you want to live a more sustainable life or make yourself less dependent on the grid, this is one of the best ways to transform your living situation.
3. What is the history of Earthship architecture?
The history of Earthship architecture dates to the 1970s.
Michael Reynolds set out to create a home that would fulfill three categories:
It would utilize sustainable architecture and materials indigenous to the local area or recycled materials whenever possible
It would rely on natural energy sources and be independent from the electrical grid
It would be feasible for a person with no specialized construction skills to build
Reynolds’ vision took shape in the common u-shape earth-filled tired homes seen today.
The home is based on the idea of a spaceship to allude to the idea that inhabitants can survive.
It provides everything they need in terms of power, waste management, water, food, and shelter.
4. What six human needs can be addressed through the Earthship’s design?
Earthships were based on the idea that there are six human needs which can be addressed through environmentally sustainable building design:
Energy: Thermal and/or solar heating and cooling, solar and wind electricity
Garbage management: Reuse and recycling built into construction and daily living
Sewage treatment: Self-contained sewage treatment and water recycling
Shelter: Building with natural and recycled materials
Clean water: Water harvesting and long-term storage
Food: In-home organic food production capability
5. What are the basic design principles used to build Earthships?
Earthships are normally constructed in a horse-shoe shape due to the difficulty of creating sharp 90-degree angles with rammed tires.
Reynolds had a prototype of the Earthship at Taos in New Mexico where the opening of the horseshoe faced 10 to 15 degrees east of south to maximize natural light and solar gain during winter months.
The prototype also had windows on sun-facing walls to admit light and heat.
However, the best angle for the Earthship will ultimately depend on the building’s geographic location.
The Earthship’s thick and dense walls will provide thermal mass that naturally regulates the interior temperature during both cold and hot seasons.
Outer walls are normally created with earth-rammed tires (or another dense material) that helps to store heat.
Rammed tires are assembled by a team of two people.
One person shovels dirt and places it into the tire one scoop at a time.
The other stands on the tire and uses a sledgehammer to pack the dirt in while moving in a circle around the tire to keep the dirt even and to avoid warping the tire.
These tires can weigh up to 300 pounds each after they are filled.
Because the tire is so full of earth, it won’t burn when exposed to fire.
In colder climates, extra insulation is added on the outside of the tire walls.
On top of the tire walls, there are “can and concrete beams” that are made of recycled cans joined by concrete or wooden bond beams with wooden shoes.
These are attached to the tire walls using concrete anchors, or poured blocks of concrete placed inside the top tires.
Wooden shimming blocks placed on top of the wooden bond beam make up the wooden shoes.
The wooden bond beam is made of two layers of lumber bolted on the concrete anchors.
Rebar is used to “nail” the wooden shoes to the wooden bond beam.
Internally, non-load-bearing walls are often made of a honeycomb of recycled cans joined by concrete.
This is where you’ll get the nickname “tin can walls.”
The walls will be plastered with adobe and may resemble traditional adobe walls when completed.
The roof is typically constructed using trusses or wooden support beams called vigas.
These rest on the wooden shoes or the tin can walls placed on the bond beams.
The roof as well as the north, east, and west facing walls are heavily insulated to reduce heat loss.
6. How are Earthships designed to catch all the water they need?
One of the huge benefits of having an Earthship is that they collect all the water that they need from the local environment.
Water used in an Earthship is harvested from rain, snow, and condensation.
Water will collect on the roof and then be channeled through a silt-catching device into a cistern.
A cistern is a waterproof receptacle for holding liquids (usually water).
It’s a large tank or container built specifically to catch and store rainwater, and is usually stored underground.
Cisterns are positioned to gravity-feed a water organization module (WOM) that filters out bacteria and contaminants.
This allows the Earthship’s inhabitants to drink the rainwater.
The WOM consists of filters and a DC-pump.
After it is fed through there, the water is pushed into a conventional pressure tank to create common household water pressure.
Rainwater is used for all everyday activities except flushing toilets.
That water — called greywater — is water that’s already been used once.
It is usually filtered wastewater from sinks and showers.
Greywater isn’t suitable for drinking, but it can still be useful for flushing toilets.
Alternatively, black water is water that’s been used in a toilet.
Earthships will channel black water to their septic tanks where anaerobic digestion separates solid waste naturally.
Black water is used in concrete cells containing plants.
It may also be used in exterior planters.
It isn’t recommended to use blackwater with edible plants and building permits may be refused if plans indicate the usage of black water.
If you’re not able to use flush toilets in your Earthship, you may consider dry solar toilets.
7. How are Earthships designed to collect and store power?
Just like water, Earthships are designed to collect and store their own energy.
Most electrical energy will be harvested from the sun or wind.
Electricity will be generated and stored in deep-cycle batteries from photovoltaic panels and wind turbines on or near the Earthship.
These batteries are kept in a purpose-built room on the roof.
Additional energy can be obtained from gas-powered generators or by integrating with the city grid (if desired).
8. How does ventilation work?
Earthships have a natural ventilation system based on convection.
A 30-foot pipe extends from the interior of the house, through the roof, and into the outside environment.
As exterior air enters the tube, it is cooled to a pleasant temperature by the thermal mass of the building’s ceiling.
At the same time, warm interior air rises and eventually exits through smaller vented windows in the greenhouse.
In this way, the system creates a steady airflow that brings cooler air and ejects warm air.
9. Why are Earthships considered sustainable?
Earthships have numerous sustainable features, including renewable energy sources and passive heating and cooling.
They also have cisterns to catch rainwater.
Often, Earthships will include organization modules that allow them to purify drinking water while also transporting wastewater.
In addition, Earthships are equipped to run on solar, wind, or biodiesel and can be made from recycled materials.
These recycled materials include glass, aluminum cans or bottles, adobe, dirt, recycled tires, or plaster.
For example, outer walls are usually made of two rows of recycled aluminum and separated by an air space.
This helps to keep the outer walls insulated.
If you require additional insulation, then you may have inner walls made of tires filled with dirt.
Earthships are often built directly into hillsides, which assists with insulation as well.
10. Where are Earthships built?
Most Earthships are built below the frost line.
Those in the Northern Hemisphere are southern-facing so they can absorb the maximum amount of heat.
11. How can I stay in one?
Are you intrigued by the Earthship design, but want to try it out before committing?
You can visit and stay in one by contacting the Earthship Global Visitor Center in New Mexico.
12. What are the advantages of Earthships?
Because of their inherent sustainability, Earthships provide many advantages for those looking to live more sustainable or zero-waste lives.
Here are some of their top benefits:
Rare opportunity to employ only eco-friendly means of generating electricity, such as solar panels, wind turbines, and biodiesel generators
Utilize climate, sun, and terrain to generate natural heat and cooling
Use of recycled and natural products
Minimize utility bills, water bills, and other expenses after making an initial investment on an Earthship home
13. What are the disadvantages of Earthships?
The disadvantages that come with Earthships are the same as those that come with other sustainable homes.
Resale value of the home is not always great because most are custom-built in areas of low population density
Earthships sometimes have issues with water tightness and leakage
Lack of living space
Not every jurisdiction’s zoning regulations and/or building code will allow Earthships
14. Where are Earthships used around the world?
Earthships are have been built on almost every continent.
Here’s a summary of how they are used.
Africa: The first Earthship was built in South Africa between 1996 and 1998.
They’ve since been built in Swaziland, Sierra Leone, and Malawi.
Australia: Earthship Ironbank was an Earthship built in southeast Adelaide by Martin and Zoe Freney.
Europe: Michael Reynolds and his team built the first European Earthship in Belgium.
Since then, Earthships have been built in the UK, France, and the Netherlands.
Central America: In 2015, an Earthship was constructed by the Atkinson family in southern Belize.
South America: In January 2014, the first Earthship was built in South America.
It is located in Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina.
Two other Earthship schools were later built in Uruguay and Argentina in 2016 and 2018 respectively.
North America: Earthships can be found in most U.S. states today, though New Mexico is the leader followed closely by Colorado.
15. What are some examples?
Cobbhouse Earthship: Cobb is a material made from sand, clay, earth, straw, and water.
It’s used for construction purposes and very suitable for areas with earthquakes as it’s resistant to seismic action.
It’s versatile, natural, sustainable, and easy to work with.
Custom Earthship: This is likely to be more expensive than any other model because it incorporates all the Earthship ideas perfected over the years.
It includes electricity generation, water catchment, food growing, sewage management, and heat insulation.
It’s can also be expanded to include more rooms.
To create this type of Earthship, you’ll need to partner with an Earthship biotecture team.
DIY Earthship: Most people will choose the DIY model because it’s cheap and can be built with readily available materials.
These models can be modified for different environments, but the concept is just the same.
You can start with this Earthship as a beginner home and add onto it over time.
What do you think?
Many people are drawn to the idea of living off-grid, but they don’t want to do it out of an RV.
They love the idea of a home built with natural and recycled materials.
They want it to have a built-in sustainable water system and to have everything you need to grow your own food.
From this perspective, Earthships are a dream come true!
If you can find the right land, why not go for it?
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Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our own research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.