earthship homes

Exploring Earthship Homes and Living Off-Grid

Foreword by Ian Thompson, Editor

Welcome to today’s video where we delve into the intriguing world of Earthships – homes that combine eco-friendly building materials, energy efficiency, and sustainability. Join our host, Matt Farrell, as he navigates through this unique method of building that, while arguably the most inefficient building practice possible, holds a fascination for its unconventional approach to net-zero living.

I’ve heard many people rave about Eartships, but most of them have never built one, and for me, there are many alternative builing methods that produce similar performance results for a lot less effort and possibly investment. But that’s the beauty of building, you have choice, and if you have time, muscle power, and endless patience, then this may well be a building method worth considering. Let’s face it, building an eartship will be like going to the gym every day for an 8 hour workout 🙂

In this video, we’ll explore the concept of Earthships, their construction, and viability. We’ll discuss how these homes, built from upcycled materials, can offer comfortable, energy-efficient living spaces without relying on public utilities. We’ll also delve into the principles behind these homes – from building with natural and repurposed materials to thermal solar heating and cooling, and even food production.

Let’s face it, building an eartship will be like going to the gym every day for an 8 hour workout

Ian Thompson, Editor

However, as much as these homes are a beacon of sustainability and autonomy, we’ll also shed light on the challenges they present, such as their suitability in different climates, issues with water collection, and potential health risks.

So, if you’re intrigued by the idea of living off-grid and want to know if an Earthship could be your next home, or if you’re simply fascinated by unconventional building techniques, this video is for you. Despite their inefficiencies, Earthships still offer valuable insights into sustainable living and energy conservation, making them an interesting piece of the larger puzzle of achieving net-zero living. Join us as we set sail on this Earthship journey!

Exploring Earthship Homes: Living Off-Grid

Video Transcript

Renewable energy and EVs are just a few pieces of a puzzle for achieving net-zero living. But what if we could combine eco-friendly building materials, energy efficiency, and sustainability like a passive house being heated and cooled by the ground without relying on the electrical grid? It’s time to get on board an Earthship.

It’s a house, not an actual ship. What are they? Where can they be built, and are they even worth it? I’m Matt Farrell, welcome to Undecided.

There’s a lot of focus on getting solar panels for your home or buying an EV to go net zero and save money in the long run. But that’s only one piece of a much larger puzzle. Finding ways to reduce our energy use and live more sustainably is just as important, like building a net-zero or passive home or using smart technologies to optimize how and when things inside your home actually use energy.

I’ve done several videos on various aspects of these concepts already. But just like the Passive Haus standard, there’s another building technique that doesn’t get as much attention. Now, while I don’t personally see myself building or living in an Earthship, which sounds like something that should be traveling the galaxies, I find myself endlessly fascinated by the approach and how some of these principles can apply back to more traditional mainstream approaches.

Now in the construction sector, sustainable buildings like passive homes and green buildings are getting traction and are important solutions for a low-carbon future, combined with renewables, EVs, and battery storage. Now these homes naturally reduce carbon emissions from heating and cooling, which is a very good thing, especially when you consider that heating and cooling accounts for 51% of the total energy used in the U.S. Even though green buildings and passive house designs have a positive impact, for the most part they still rely on the electrical grid and public utilities, which depending on where you live, isn’t as reliable as it should be.

But what about an approach that could pull together energy efficiency, upcycled materials, and even food production and cooling from the earth itself, combined with off-grid living and potentially do it for less money than something like a passive haus? Enter Earthships.

Now built with eco-home building materials, Earthships offer comfortable, energy efficient, and cozy living spaces without relying on public utilities. I’ve been drawn to solar power and battery storage in my grid-tied system to try to reduce my dependence on the grid, but not to cut it out altogether. Now this on the other hand takes this thing to a whole ‘nother level.

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It all started in the 1970s in New Mexico with the architect, Michael Reynolds. He proposed the inclusion of bio-ecological features like beer cans, old tires, and bottles into his designs, which was very curious at the time and even today. Airships can be boiled down to six basic design principles.

The first is building with natural and repurposed materials. Some of these materials are available in abundance worldwide. In the U.S. for example, about 290 million tires were scrapped in 2003, that’s just one year. Now most of that is chopped up and burned, recycled into other products or burned in landfills, but there are millions of tires stockpiled every single year, so you can get some of them for very cheap, or sometimes for free.

And when they’re used in Earthship construction, old tires are used as bricks. They’re filled with earth that’s pounded to create very strong exterior walls and load-bearing interior walls. They have a much higher thermal mass than traditional construction. A study by the Colorado School of Mines showed an R-value of 40 for a tire bale wall. That’s three times as much insulation as a standard four inch stud wall. Other materials such as cans and bottles are optional, but they can be used as a main material to construct interior walls, which are then plastered.

The second principle is thermal solar heating and cooling. Earth ships naturally heat and cool themselves so they don’t require electric heat, fossil fuels, or wood, but that depends on where you live, which I’ll get to in a little bit. The tires, which I already mentioned are known as bricks, which weigh 300 pounds packed with soil. That incredible thermal mass isn’t just a good insulator but it can store heat or cold.

The basic idea behind heating and cooling an Earthship is to surround each living space with those thermal mass bricks on the east, north, and west sides. On the southern-facing side, you line that wall with windows. The sun shines through the glass, warming the mass of the floors and walls. When the sun goes down and the air temperature drops below the temperature of the walls, heat flows from the walls and the floor into the living space. It’s the same passive solar principle that’s used in passive home design.

Now for cooling, there are cooling tubes fed through the thermal mass surrounding the building. As warmer air is pulled into the building through those tubes, the heat is wicked away, providing cooled air to the inside of the building.

The third design principle is solar and wind energy. Earthships produce their own renewable energy through solar panels and wind turbines, and this part I’m sure you’re very familiar with. But they’re able to provide power to appliances from solar and wind generation, combined with charge controllers, inverters, and batteries to store the excess energy for a consistent power 24 hours a day.

But as you already know, solar panel and wind generation systems like this can be expensive, so to make it more affordable with a smaller energy generator buildout, you typically pair this with super energy efficient appliances like pumps, lighting, and refrigerators, together with natural cooling and heating to reduce the power demand. Earthships only require about 25% of the electricity consumed by a traditional home.

The fourth design principle is water harvesting, and this is one I’m actually interested in for myself to further improve sustainability. Earthships collect and store rainwater and snowmelt in cisterns to supply all their demand. There’s a great YouTube channel, Handyman, who lives in Arizona and has done this exact thing. A few weeks of rain during the rainy season in Arizona and he’s got water for the rest of the year.

Water from the cistern has to be pumped through a filtering system to treat the water, but you can also use a solar water heater for hot water and use a pressure tank to regulate the water pressure.

The fifth design principle is contained sewage treatment, and who doesn’t like talking about sewage? Trust me, this is not gonna be gross. It’s all about reusing water to not let anything go to waste, and no I’m not talking about having to take a bath in toilet water. But the water that’s leftover after washing the dishes, doing the laundry, or taking a bath, this type of water is known as gray water.

It’s basically used water that doesn’t have any fecal contamination in it. You can use gray water to feed interior botanical cells where plants naturally treat the water until it’s clean enough to be pumped and used for toilet flushing. When you’re talking about 40% of typical water use in a house getting flushed on the toilet, this can be a significant savings in water usage. Grey water reuse is standard practice aboard the space station.

For water that gets flushed down the toilet in an Earthship, it flows into a standard septic tank and leech field, but you can also add a line out that overflows into an exterior rubber-lined botanical cell, taking advantage of the, uh, rich nutrients shall we say, that are contained in the isolated cell for exterior decoration plants.

Which leads me to the last design principle, food production. One of the more recent experiments by Michael Reynolds’ company, Earthship Biotecture, is the use of interior graywater botanical cells for food production, and taking all that waste water to grow things inside the building. In Taos, New Mexico, the Airship Visitor Center features things like herbs, peppers, tomatoes, kale, beets, and cucumbers.

Again, this is all tapping back into that same concept of reusing and maximizing efficiency of every single system in the home.

There are several pros that make the Earthship concept attractive. They’re highly efficient buildings and don’t rely on the power grid. Water is collected, filtered, stored, and reused many times and for several different kinds of uses. In addition, the Earthships are made of natural, recycled materials that require no HVAC systems, sort of, and provide organic food that’s healthy for people.

But is all this sunshine and rainbows? Let’s start with the great question that usually comes up around Earthships and one I’ve hinted at a couple of times – can they be built anywhere? Well, cooler and more humid environments like the American Northeast and Canada can make it extremely challenging.

In general, an Earthship operates best in temperate or hot environments with regular rainfall over 50 inches per year and a humidity less than 60 percent. Orientation is also vital, which might make certain locations impossible. A rule of thumb is to face windows to the southwest if you need more heat and southeast if more cooling is needed andwater tanks should be placed on the northwest if you build an earth ship ina cold climate to prevent them from freezing and in the northeast in a hot climate to prevent overheating earthships in a very cold climate have divergent opinions although reynolds has modified some of his earthship plans to make them better suited for the cold.

His buildings don’t have heat pumps to extract heat from the ground in Canada. For example the ground temperature is below 7 degrees in the winter so keeping the inside warm gets a lot harder. Again it’s not impossible but takes modifications to keep it warm there are few earth ships i found in the New England area that had to integrate some form of traditional heating system for certain times of the year.

Another problem of the earthship self-sustainability is that homeowners can’t grow all the essential food they want because some food is impossible to grow inside the earth ship. Even more important some residents might not have the necessary farming experience. I know i don’t and regarding water collection – it’s hard to have enough rainwater volume in some arid climates. I mentioned that YouTuber from Arizona, well he’s able to do with a fairly sizable rainwater harvesting system, but that may not be the case everywhere.

Earthships also accumulate water in the wall surfaces which might lead to the formation of molds and algae. And the tires used in the walls can break down and expel gases into an enclosed space, which could be harmful to the inhabitants.

And then there’s the costs, but there are a lot of factors that affect how much it will cost to build. But before I get into those costs, let’s take a quick moment to talk about a great way to keep your personal costs and spending in line all while protecting yourself with today’s sponsor Privacy.

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Now back to the cost of building an Earthship house. While a conventional house costs about 100 to 150 dollars per square foot on average, not including the cost of the land, Earthships cost between 150 and 225 dollars per square foot, which is considerably more expensive. But their cost is not that different from passive homes which ranges from 166 dollars to 231 dollars per square foot, which I covered in my passive house video.

The price of labor is usually one of the highest expenses when building an Airship since it requires more unique building methods. Now if you’re gonna do the labor yourself, it’s obviously gonna cost a lot less per square foot. But imagine placing all of those tires, compacting them with dirt to make all those walls. Placing one tire takes about 45 minutes to one hour, and you need to do hundreds of these. Doing this yourself is definitely an option, just not for the masses.

Also, due to their unusual design, an architect or engineer with experience and knowledge to carry this out is usually required and can be expensive. There can also be issues with modern building codes and permits that can come up. Excavation, degrade and level the site, and provide a solid foundation also brings up considerable costs, not to mention all the soil that’s needed for the walls.

But there are plenty of examples of Earthships out in the world. In Taos, where Earthships are born, there’s a 600-plus acre Earthship community which has space for 130 homes. Far from Taos, we have the Brighton Earthship in the UK. It was built in 2007 by Airship Biotecture and the Low Carbon Trust, and it serves as a community center for Stanmar Organics.

In Alberta, Canada, the 1800 square foot Kenny Earthship was built with more than 12,000 cans and 800 tires. Mike Reynolds carried out this project for a whole summer. He brought a dozen workers and 30 volunteers from New Mexico to help complete it. Kenny Earship produces all of its own electricity, grows much of the family’s food, and recycles all grey water. And there are more Earthships in other parts of the world like Scotland, Nicaragua, South Africa and more.

I hope it didn’t sound like I was kind of bagging on the concept of Earthships when I was going over the cons, but there are significant challenges to where you might want to build one. With other building techniques that can provide as energy efficient a home at the same cost with less restrictions, it kind of relegates Earthships to a more highly motivated, more niche option.

And despite all of that, Earthships are a fascinating concept that has aspects that could be applied elsewhere, things that not only benefit the environment but also give you more independence and potentially save money over time with much lower energy requirements. It’s another piece of that much larger puzzle.

But what do you think? Do you have any interest in something like an Earthship? What elements do you think make the most sense for a wider adoption? Jump in the comments and let me know.

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