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“To boldly go where no one has gone before” – through its various incarnations, this was the continuing mission of the starship Enterprise, as its intrepid crew traveled the lengths and breadths of the universe in the star vessel that doubled as a cozy permanent home for all.
As cosmic citizens, Captains Kirk and Picard were no doubt convinced that self-sufficient shipboard living was synonymous with interstellar exploration. But thanks to the innovative and adventurous work of one man – architect Michael Reynolds – we have now come to realize that the feeling of community, group camaraderie, and sense of independence that flourish in the shipboard environment can still be achieved even if we jettison the quest for far-flung adventure. In reality, some of the best and most satisfying human adventures can be found right here on earth, in marvelous vessels that were never intended to leave the surface of our planet.
Earthships: this is the name coined by Michael Reynolds to describe the innovative style of home building and self-sufficient low-consumption living that he pioneered back in the 1970s. While Reynolds was neither a part of the astronaut program nor a confidant of Gene Roddenberry, he was nevertheless inspired by the self-sufficient and hyper-efficient culture of the interstellar spaceship, as it has so frequently been imagined by science fiction writers and other far-sighted visionaries.
Wandering alone through the infinite depths of space, the passengers and crew of such a spaceship would need to be able to survive for months, if not years, at a time without any kind of outside intervention or assistance. Food, shelter, and energy needs would all have to be met within the closed confines of what would essentially be an island environment, a requirement that would provide logistical, engineering, and design challenges that would push even the brightest technological innovators to their limits.
But efficiency is an imperative for all societies, and in all households, especially those that have been set up to function separately from the false security provided by the electrical grid. Sensible off-the-grid living choices should actually bear a striking resemblance to conditions aboard the starship Enterprise, and this is what makes Reynolds’ earthships so intriguing from the no-grid perspective. Reynolds’ singular mission was to create a type of home that would give its residents a highly developed form of independence as the living quarters themselves blended seamlessly into the surrounding landscape, and his achievement is as fine an example of boldly going where no one has gone before as you would ever hope to find.
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But what exactly are these self-contained units of living that recreate the spaceship experience here on our fragile blue planet? After learning more, anyone not previously familiar with earthships are likely to be quite pleasantly surprised by what Michael Reynolds and those who have followed in his footsteps have been able to accomplish. But there is nothing magical at work here – as Mr. Spock would certainly point out if he were here, earthships are eminently and relentlessly logical in their conception, design, and execution.
Earthships From Lift-Off To Touchdown
From the outside, earthships really do look like saucer-like vessels whose pilots have set them down upon the face of the earth before digging in to survive for the long haul. But on the inside, these sturdy, bunker-like structures are spacious, comfortable, well-lit, and entirely modern in appearance. Opportunism combined with artistic flair characterize earthships in both the construction phase and in the residential experience they offer, and no one who has been fortunate enough to see one up close has failed to be impressed by the vision of functionality and efficiency it represents.
Some have suggested that Michael Reynolds is more alchemist than architect, affecting the transformation of waste, dirt, and garbage into off-the-grid residential gold. But in reality, Reynolds is first and foremost an efficiency expert who saw possibility where others only saw trash. The style of construction he invented works with recycled materials because they are cheap, available, and exquisitely functional, and the mentality that prizes economy and efficiency above all else naturally gravitates toward choices that promote self-sufficiency in general, making the earthship concept and the off-the-grid lifestyle a match made in heaven.
What follows is a quick rundown of the various elements of an earthship. As you will see, earthships really do offer economy, efficiency, ingenuity, cost-control, and self-sufficiency all at the same time – quite an achievement, to be sure.
The Building Site
Rather than sitting on top of the earth, fully exposed to the elements, earthships are essentially planted in the ground like seeds, with north, east, and west sides bermed or buried and only the south side exposed to the open air. Earthships can be entrenched on hillsides or mountainsides (the perfect option for those who like great views) or dropped down directly into specially excavated holes on flat lands, and ideally their concrete foundations should be buried at depths that will protect the home from extreme outdoor temperatures. Properly implanted earthships should be able to preserve their thermal equilibrium throughout the summer and winter.
The exterior walls of earthships (or more specifically, earthship rooms, as we will explain momentarily) are constructed from old tires that have been packed full of dirt pounded in by a sledgehammer. After being filled, the tires are piled one on top of the other in staggered layers, with large tires on the bottom and smaller-sized tires on each successive level. The spaces between the tires are then patched up with mud, before the whole arrangement is coated with plaster, adobe, or stucco finish. Departing from the normal style, north, east, and west walls are built up in a series of U-shaped modules arranged linearly, each opening to the south. Once an earthship is finished, each module will function as a separate room, connected by a long corridor or hallway located at the front of the house. Nearly three feet thick from top to bottom, the series of finished tire walls that have been constructed should be more than capable of bearing any load or meeting any building code requirements. Needless to say, these types of walls have excellent insulating properties, and their most notable feature is their high thermal mass, which allows them to moderate indoor temperatures by absorbing and eventually re-emitting enormous amounts of heat at a gradual and sustainable rate.
The Southern Façade
The southern wall of the earthship is composed entirely of slanted transparent glass, designed to allow ample penetration of sunlight. Naturally, the amount of heat and light produced inside the home from the sun’s energetic rays can be quite substantial, but because the high-thermal-mass tire walls absorb and re-release much of this heat on a time lag, indoor temperatures are generally kept consistent over the course of a twenty-four-hour day during all four seasons. Operable skylights and fan systems may still be needed to ventilate the house on hot summer days, however, and some kind of shading should be provided on the outside of the home to limit the amount of sunlight that enters on days when the mercury is soaring. This shading could be something retractable installed directly above the windows, or it could be in the form of deciduous trees that will foliate during the summer but lose their leaves during the winter months when more direct sunlight is desired. In winter, it may be necessary to have indoor fans in operation that will distribute the passive solar heat collected to the rear sections of the U-shaped modules/rooms that form the horizontal expanse of the home. In order to guarantee that the tire walls will be able to radiate enough heat to keep the indoor spaces warm during the coldest months, maximum module size should not exceed 468 square feet (eighteen feet by twenty-six feet).
Roofs on earthships are comprised of beams that span the length of each U-shaped module, with decks on top and plenty of insulation between roof and ceiling. Soil from the excavation site is often piled on top of the roof to provide extra protection against the elements, although this step would obviously not be necessary if the earthship were being built inside a cavity created in a hill or mountainside. Part of the reason for the modular approach to wall construction is the fact that roof beams would become overstressed by the weight above them if they had to cover an expanse more than eighteen feet across. So, if the earthship being built will be larger than eighteen by twenty-six feet (and most will be, obviously), a series of walls will need to be used to ensure safe roof construction.
Staying with the theme of using recycled materials whenever possible, extra interior walls and partitions added to the basic tire wall structure are made from cement mortar inlaid with aluminum cans, covered up with a mud plaster finish, and perhaps painted with latex paint for improved appearance. Recycled glass bottles are also sometimes fused to create partitions capable of reflecting the sun’s natural light in fantastic and visually pleasing patterns.
Many earthship builders choose to install greenhouses behind the southern façade, and as long as water is available for irrigation, a wide range of fruits and vegetables can be successfully grown indoors in this environment. Self-sufficiency in food is important for off-the-gridders, and properly-designed earthship greenhouses are capable of making a significant contribution to a family’s diet. It is important to keep the greenhouse closed off from the rest of the home, however, to protect living areas from excess heat and moisture.
Gray water from sinks, bathtubs, and washing machines is recycled for use in irrigation and for flushing toilets, while black water produced by toilets must be pumped into a septic tank located somewhere on the property underground. Rainwater collection and purification systems or onsite wells will allow prospective earthship builders to choose land that may be far off the beaten path, and both are good options for those determined to stay off the water grid as well as the electrical grid.
Backup and Additional Heating and Energy Production Systems
Solar panels, wind turbines, and wood stoves can all complement the passive solar heat and light that earthships harvest in abundance. Fans may be needed to facilitate effective air circulation in some cases, to make sure that heat collected through southern windows is distributed evenly throughout the structure.
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Tales From The Dark Side: The Drawbacks Of Earthships
Do earthships sound too good to be true? According to some, that is exactly what they are, and these folks urge those considering this option to proceed with extreme caution at the very least. While the majority of those who have chosen to construct earthships appear to be satisfied with their choice, this sentiment is certainly not universal – and even many who like them still have complaints.
According to detractors, some of the problems that plague earthships include:
- Moisture – Earthships frequently suffer from roof leaks, and molds often form on interior walls because of elevated indoor moisture levels. Covering the outer walls and roof with a waterproof membrane while providing for drainage might be able to prevent these problems, which is why it is surprising that articles on earthship construction seldom recommend this option. Because of potential moisture issues, if an earthship is to be built in an environment with humidity rates that routinely rise above 50 percent, the foundation of the home will need to be suspended off the ground on concrete piers and beams, so that air can flow beneath the structure and provide natural ventilation that will help keep molds from forming on the home’s interior.
- Excess heat – The regulating effects of high-thermal-mass walls notwithstanding, excess heat inside of earthships during the daytime can be a significant problem, even in wintertime. Southern windows oriented to the southeast instead of true south can help, as can shade trees, retractable window covers, fans for interior air redistribution, and skylights that open to the outside and are able to facilitate good air flow.
- Poor light penetration – Even in the daytime, supplemental forms of lighting are usually required in the rear sections of the U-shaped modules that form the rooms of an earthship.
- Lack of access to water – At the present time, earthships are most commonly found in the desert areas of northern New Mexico, which is Michael Reynolds’ home territory. Earthships seem perfect for dry elevated locations that don’t experience temperature extremes, which can overtax a passive solar set-up in winter or provide too much interior heat in summer, but securing adequate water supplies off the grid can sometimes be next to impossible in these types of environments.
- Tire off-gassing – Earthship boosters claim this is not a problem, but to prevent tire decay and gassing, it is necessary to keep tire walls completely air tight at all times. They must be inspected constantly, and any cracks in the plaster or adobe must be fixed immediately. The gases emitted by decaying tires are inimical to human health and should be kept out of the interior of the home at all costs.
- Cost savings are exaggerated – Advocates assert that earthships are at least 25 percent cheaper to build on average than homes that rely on conventional materials. Others, however, dispute this, claiming that unless a family builds an earthship entirely on its own, the alleged cost savings will all but disappear. Fortunately, earthships are relatively easy for DIY’ers to construct, but in order to make sure further savings are enjoyed beyond the free labor, a real effort to use as much recycled stuff as possible will need to be undertaken.
- “The best laid plans of mice and men…” – Earthships may use recycled materials, but there is nothing second-hand about the type of craftsmanship they require. A finely tuned earthship can be a beautiful thing to see and to live in, but if any corners are cut or if any aspect of the project is sloppily executed, a chain reaction of malfunction could be set off that will end up causing just the sort of problems we have been discussing. Many things that look great on paper don’t work out so well when they are actually put into practice, which is why the best laid plans of mice and men do indeed often go astray, as the old adage states. So proper earthship construction absolutely demands great care, and if anything is done half-heartedly, an earthship owner could find himself stuck with a real lemon.
The Earthship Has Landed
Like anything else, an earthship is only as good as the effort that is put into designing and building it. Earthships are not perfect, and because perhaps no more than a few hundred have been built across the country up until this time, mostly in the southwest, there is still an aura of experimentation about the whole concept that might scare off some. But there are many people out there who have built earthships, often all on their own, who are extremely happy with the living experience these innovative homes offer, and anyone who is determined to get the straight scoop about earthships should search out the testimonies of these adventurous souls before they do anything else.
Some believe that space is the final frontier. But right here on earth, truly efficient and independent living may be the final frontier we will all need to conquer if we expect to survive an uncertain future. Earthships are designed to provide safety, security, self-sufficiency, and comfort in good times and bad, and this could make them an ideal residential option for off-the-gridders who are truly serious about making it through the trials and tribulations that may be coming in the years ahead.
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