There’s no need to leave our orbit to experience the essence of a spaceship. Keep your feet on the ground and live in an Earthship instead.
What is an Earthship?
Earthships are a building design focused on the efficient use of natural resources. There are some trademark characteristics that classify Earthships, including the ability to effectively heat and cool passively, collect and recycle water, and use renewable energy for power. Another shared trait is the use of recycled and natural materials in the building process. This results in a very low-energy, eco-friendly and off-grid living option.
However, the design isn’t for everyone. Firstly, these are some strange-looking structures. Secondly, as a minimalist form of architecture, it just might not suit your needs. However, if sustainable building and the thought of off-grid living is your vibe, an Earthship might be just what you’re looking for.
How to build an Earthship
Traditionally people built adobe homes, many of which still stand today. Over the years, people have also constructed earthbag homes. Earthships are kind of an expansion of both those ideas married with sustainable building practices.
Although there are Earthships in every state and around the world, the overwhelming majority of them are in or around Taos, New Mexico. The Earthship design is most effective in arid, desert environments. Plus, the local regulations are accommodating for the less-than-mainstream structures.
Most Earthships are built without any sort of traditional foundation. Walls are constructed from tires packed with soil and dirt, stacked, and then covered in adobe mud. They sometimes also incorporate concrete and wall framing for support. Alternatively, the walls may be insulated using straw bales.
Although some Earthships definitely have an other-worldly vibe, there is nothing extraterrestrial about the design concept. In fact, the entire goal of Earthships is to be grounded. Inasmuch, they are built using recycled materials as much as possible. It’s a great use for tires that are otherwise difficult to recycle or properly dispose of. Similarly, most Earthships incorporate large quantities of post-consumer glass.
Interior walls are built using filled aluminum cans, glass bottles or plastic bottles. Shower walls, fireplaces and counter supports are typically built in the same way.
Passive design elements of Earthships
Despite no standardization for Earthships, there is a leading design program offered through builders Earthship Biotecture that teaches people the basics of constructing their own Earthship. With this groundwork, many DIY types are using similar processes to achieve maximum passive design benefits.
It begins with the proper orientation for the effective use of natural light for heating and cooling. Passive heating and cooling is achieved with airflow, heat-retaining building materials, window placement and similar design elements.
Since these homes are off-grid, it means zero reliance on fossil fuels for heating, cooling, cooking and other electric needs. Some structures include fireplaces or stoves to counterbalance the cold drafts.
In addition to helping heat the home, strategically-placed glass windows create a greenhouse effect perfect for growing an indoor garden. Since sustainability is a major goal of the Earthship community, being able to grow food fresh from greenhouse to table, merely steps from each other, is a welcome element of the home, and it’s commonly employed.
Even though heating and cooling require no energy, other modern energy needs are provided for by solar energy systems with photovoltaic panels, batteries, charge controllers and inverters.
Water conservation is also at the forefront of the Earthship design, beginning with rain and snowmelt collection from the roof. The water is stored and pumped into the house for use in bathrooms, laundry rooms and kitchens. Gray water flows to internal greenhouses to water plants and receives natural filtration. Outside, the water is used to irrigate landscaping. All in all, water in the Earthship design is typically used four times for maximum resource conservation and little to no water bill. In addition to water conservation, water harvesting is common.
Hire or DIY?
Some companies specialize in building Earthships, and the initial cost is about the same as traditional construction. Similar to standard stick-built homes, you can save money by building your own Earthship. However, it’s a time and energy-consuming process. Many Earthships sit half built as costs add up and owners throw in the towel.
It is important to remember that even though an Earthship can cost as much, or more, to build than a traditional home, overall water and energy savings run about one-quarter the number of mainstream designs so you’ll be recouping those upfront expenses.
Note that some local building ordinances do not allow Earthship structures. It’s fair to say they are not in alignment with most regional building codes. Getting insurance on your structure is also a challenge due to its non-standard nature. Financing your Earthship is probably not a viable plan either since lenders aren’t too hip on the idea of owning such a structure.
As with any large decision, take your time and consider every pro and con. For Earthships, longtime benefits outweigh short-term expenses if you’re in the DIY mood for a house that’s entirely yours.
Images via Adobe Stock