Category Archives: Earthships

Parent category for all earthship related posts.

Work Weekend at Dash and Y.P.’s

Yes, we need to keep up with our Earthshipping so this time we spent some time the past weekend (Sep 23/24) working at Dash and Y.P.’s simple survival model Earthship. We weren’t the only ones helping either. There was a whole gaggle of friends and neighbours who had shown up to lend a hand. As a result, a number of things were accomplished.

Here is what it looked like from the back when I arrived on Saturday morning (Kat arrived a bit later).

So, if you remember from the last time we were here, Dash and I had been doing the fill in at the back between the domes. Since then, the rest of the fill was put in place, all of that was covered with four layers of rigid insulation and then a double layer of vapour barrier put on top of that.

When I got there, I was helping out to finish with the vapour barrier up around the skylights. That’s this area, in case you forgot.

Everything was covered with heavy dew from overnight so we had to try and mop it up as best we could before tacking it down. You don’t want to wait for the sun to dry it as that takes too long and it was stupid hot on the weekend. We got up to 36C with the humidex (97F) which makes it uncomfortable to work in.

Anyway, we split up the teams and others were taking care of the vapour barrier and I was put on rigid insulation carving details until lunch. Dash and Y.P. provided us all with a pizza lunch from the local diner so we were all well fed, but with the heat, it really reduces your appetite.

After lunch, we all gathered together to tackle the EPDM waterproofing layer that was being put over top of the vapour barrier. One of the key things about this layer is that it have no holes and you try to do it in one piece without having to create a seam as that can create a weakness in the seal. Needless to say, the rubber sheet is big, heavy and unruly to deal with if you only had one or two people.

Here is a picture of the group contemplating the roll of EPDM.

EPDM stands for Ethylene-Propylene-Diene-Monomer, in case you were curious. It’s essentially a pond-liner-grade rubber sheet. We unrolled it, cut it to length and then had to haul it into place. Here you can see me helping with the hauling (Kat was taking the picture).

With so many people helping, it didn’t take too long to get up over the lip of the roof and, more or less, into position. It certainly would have been a daunting task without all of the extra help.

EPDM is not the nicest stuff. It off-gasses in the sunlight and it has this fine powder-like coating that comes off so you and your clothes get covered with it. It really makes you want to take a shower.

Being short on showering facilities, and it being ridiculously hot out for the end of September, we all decided to go for a swim. It felt a bit odd with it being so hot out and seeing trees with their autumn colours and you’re swimming, but it was quite welcome.

That was it for Saturday, but I went back on Sunday to help some more. I had managed to pre-cut all of the first layer of insulation pieces on Saturday, so all we had to do was finalize any spots that still needed to be covered with vapour barrier and then start installing it.

Here you can see the first few sheets after they were put in place.

You can’t really see it as the corners are in shadow in the pictures, but there were some wood blocks installed in strategic places that we needed to trim the insulation around so it would fit so it wasn’t just a matter of slapping in the pieces and calling it a day.

There will be four layers of that rigid insulation so it will be well covered. The EPDM will go over that up to the top of the roof peak at the front.

As I mentioned earlier, there were quite a few of us helping out and not all of us were working up on the roof. Some were working out front.

You can go back to my previous post I linked above to really see the differences, but the plywood was put across the angled part and the doors were installed. Both the top and bottom sections had their plywood on, but they removed all of the top pieces so they could be stained and then reinstalled. This is to protect the wood over the winter, as they probably won’t be getting to putting the flashing on before then.

They also covered their fancy doors with cardboard to protect the windows and finish from harm during construction and moving things in and out of the building.

I couldn’t stay as late as we did the previous day on Saturday, as I had some errands to run in town. Y.P. had to head back to Toronto anyway so we quit at 13:00 for some late lunch. Did I mention it was stupid hot that day too? Well, it was.

Dash and Y.P. are now that much closer to having their Earthship fully enclosed. It will be a great day when that happens and I am very happy to have been a small part in making that happen.


Day at Dash and Y.P.’s Earthship

It’s been too long since my last post, and it’s not like things haven’t been happening. Just got busy.

Fortunately, for all of you, I was over at another local Earthship yesterday.

A short 20min drive from our trailer is Dash and Y.P.’s Earthship. It is not complete yet, so I volunteered my time yesterday to help out. Actually, that was the second time this summer that I have been over there helping, but I forgot to take any pictures the first time so I didn’t have much to post. I remedied that this time.

This first picture is the back of the Earthship.

Dash is the guy on the tractor. Unfortunately, we haven’t had the pleasure of meeting his wife Y.P. yet as she is working in the city to support this venture of theirs.

Getting up a little closer and looking over that wall of white Styrofoam insulation you saw above, you get so see the area we were working on.

If all you have ever seen are global model Earthships, this may look a bit odd. This one is built using the simple survival design, which uses domes made of concrete. What you’re seeing in that picture above is the tops of the domes, three of the four in this Earthship.

If we move a bit more towards that far end you see in the picture above, and turn the camera south, you can see the empty gaps between the domes.

Standing on top of the western most dome and looking back you can see the retaining wall that circles the domes. That is what is covered with the Styrofoam insulation. The previous work day I was here, we worked on that concrete bottle retaining wall.

This next picture will give you a good shot of the framing for the greenhouse at the front. Dash used hemlock as his framing material of choice. He said he really like it too, as it made for a really rock solid structure. If you know anything about hemlock, “rock solid” is not just a comment on the framing technique. Hemlock happens to be one of the hardest of the softwoods.

The colouring of the hemlock is due to the stain they used to treat the wood.

I took this picture from above, standing on the western most dome, looking down through the roof framing into the area that will become the greenhouse. That door looking thing is actually just a window. That’s the door frame beside it to the left.

The bottle wall to the right will be finished up to the roof, insulated with more Styrofoam and then covered with the berm.

Next we’re looking down the length of the greenhouse. The greenhouse will eventually have an EPDM liner put in to contain the planters along the windows.

Here is a picture of the front/south face. If you’ve been following me for a while, you might recall we first visited Dash and Y.P. last October.

So, what were we working on yesterday, you may be asking? Remember those big gaps between the domes you saw in the earlier pictures above? We were filling them. Dash worked the tractor and dumped load after load of dirt over the retaining wall and I shoveled it into place, tamping it as we went along. We managed to fill in the first two trenches completely before lunch.

In the afternoon we worked on filling the gap between the two central (and largest) domes. There was a bit of a delay in getting to that stage though, as Dash had to build a dirt ramp up the outside of the wall so he could get the bucket of the tracker over the lip. Once that was completed, we were back to filling in the berm.

When you first begin, the gap is quite narrow and you’re thinking, “okay, this is going well”. Then you realized that the gap just keeps getting wider and wider as it goes up, needing more and more dirt.

We weren’t able to get it finished by the end of the day, unfortunately. This is as far as we got.

I don’t think we would have been able to fill it completely, even if we had kept going as we were running low on dirt by that point. Still, a pretty decent day’s progress for two people. Yeah, it was a full day of physical labour, but I knew that when I volunteered and I’m not afraid to break a sweat. Yes, you can get expensive machines to do the job quicker and faster, but you really need to pick and choose those carefully, or your costs just start running away.

Besides, I’ve worked with the Earthship Biotecture crew and they are no strangers to physical labour.

If you’re wondering what goes on top of the dirt after it is all filled in, there will be 10″ (25cm) of rigid foam insulation, two layers of 6mil vapour barrier, an EPDM liner covering all of that and then a 3″ (7.5cm) concrete slab will be poured over the thing like buttercream frosting on a cake.

There is a good chance that we will be doing more work over at Dash and Y.P.’s before the snow flies. The goal is to try and get it enclosed completely before winter arrives. With a little bit of help, I think that is quite achievable.

Martin Earthship Pack-out

It’s been well over a month since my last post and I’m sure there are people wondering what is going on with us. Fortunately, I have some Earthship related news this time.

Last Saturday (July 15th) we trucked down to Mallorytown (near Brockville, ON) and helped out at the Martin Earthship. It’s a full three hour drive for us to get there, so we were up early and out on the road to make it there for 10am.

We had been down there last year, helping to pound tires. This time, we were doing pack-out. For those not familiar with pack-out, this is what we call the procedure by which we fill in the spaces between the tires after they have been pounded with dirt. I talked about this extensively during our trip down to Salida, Colorado, so I won’t go into too much detail.

We had a really decent day for this, as it was partially cloudy, but no rain. Jay and Erin (the owners) also have these portable tent-like shades that we moved around the site to keep the sun off us as we worked.

Here is the first picture of us all looking very busy.

They only have three full courses of tires completed, with a fourth partially done, so it didn’t take us long to move down the length of the wall.

Here you can see the basic idea of what we’re doing. The idea is you throw in a blob of concrete (after wetting the surface of the tires first – very important or your concrete won’t stick) and then put an aluminum can in the space.

Cover the first can with more concrete and then put two more cans in. Add more concrete and by the time you have that all covered, you should be coming out pretty close the the outer edge of the tires. The purpose of the cans is to save on concrete, so they’re really just spacers in this case.

Here you can see Kat hard at work testing out the hammock.

By the end of the day, we had done the pack-out from one end of the house to the other. Here you can see me. It kinda looks like I’m looking for an offering with my hands out like that, but really I’m carting a handful of concrete over to the wall.

Overall, it was a great day, we accomplished things, met some new people, shared our ideas and generally had a great time. Jay and Erin are always great hosts.

Something to note on Earthship pack-out: if you wait until you have the roof on before you start doing pack-out, you can use adobe or cob instead of concrete. This may or may not be cheaper, depending on how easily you can get your hands on clay. You don’t want to do adobe/cob before the roof goes on though, otherwise, if it rains, it’s all going to fall out. Related to that, any tire wall that is exposed to the outside (like wing walls, for example) must have concrete for pack-out for that same reason.

If you’re wondering where we are at with our own Earthship, we still require an engineering stamp for our plans. We have found a local engineer who is himself building an Earthship so that is a big bonus. Unfortunately, he isn’t fully certified yet as he will be sitting his last exam in August, so we’re in a bit of a holding pattern at the moment.

A few words about composting toilets

I’ve been meaning to do this post for a while, and since we aren’t doing much around the trailer right now, I thought this would be a good time to cover this topic.

Composting toilets are very often lauded as a more environmentally friendly option for dealing with human waste and this is the subject that I would like to address here.

There are many different kinds of composting toilets, from the home made to expensive contraptions. Kat and I decided to go with the non-electric version of the SunMar Excel, pictured below.


We didn’t know much about composting toilets when we bought it, but now that we have been using it for about eighteen months or so, we have a pretty good idea of how it works. We also have had to deal with some issues.

Our toilet has a simple drum chamber where the solids collect. There is a screen that allows the liquids to drain into a dehydration tray. You add bulking material and spin the drum using a crank handle to mix up the contents. Fairly simple stuff. After a while, you move some of the material from the drum into the “aging tray” at the bottom and let it sit undisturbed for about six weeks and then, according to the manual, it should be ready for use as compost.

But is this system more environmentally friendly than using a conventional water-based toilet? Let’s look at the details.

First, construction. Most conventional toilets are glazed porcelain. When they break, there really isn’t any way to fix them, so they usually end up as waste at the landfill. This is not a good thing. There have been some articles I have read that say the porcelain can be crushed and used as aggregate for concrete, but I don’t know how often that actually happens.

What about our SunMar composting toilet? Well, it’s primarily made of plastic. There aren’t any recycling symbols stamped on it, so when the toilet breaks beyond repair, it too will end up in a landfill. Both the porcelain and the plastic will last seemingly forever, in terms of breaking down. No one really wants a compostable composting toilet.

Okay, so you aren’t really gaining anything with the construction, at least with these commercial versions. How about daily usage?

Water, of course is always the biggie. Conventional toilets use water as their transport mechanism. Most toilets today are low-flush, meaning the amount of water they use is less than in the old days, but you’re still using fresh water (in a conventional home) to flush your crap away. Depending on the size of your family, this can account for a large majority of the water being used.

With the composting toilet, you don’t use any water at all. However, you do use bulking material. Our SunMar toilet came with a bag of this stuff and you can buy more bags from the store. Their recommended bulking material is 40% peat moss, 60% wood shavings. A bag of this stuff runs $20 and it will last roughly 2 weeks for two people. That’s in addition to buying toilet paper, so now you have additional charges for using your composting toilet. On top of that, peat moss is a controversial material as far as the environment goes as it has been debated just how well it can recover after being harvested.

What we ended up doing is ditching the store bought bags of bulking material and just using wood shavings, which I can generate in large quantities using our planer. We also stopped using that aging tray mentioned above. Once we did that, we eliminated the gnat problem we were having during the summer. Which is another issue you generally don’t have to deal with when using a conventional toilet: insect infestations.

So, the purchased variety of composting toilets can end up costing you more per daily use, if you strictly follow the recommendations from the manufacturer. On the other hand, if your house is connected to a municipal water grid, you will likely have a water bill as well which your conventional toilet would be a prime component of, so it may equalize out in the long run.

How about electricity? Our toilet is a non-electric version so we don’t use any electricity at all. Your conventional toilet will use some electricity to run the pump to refill the tank. There are also compositing toilets that use electricity to run fans and a heater to speed up the composting. With those, expect to use way more electricity than your conventional toilet as using electricity to generate heat is not very efficient.

Now there are simple, homemade composting toilets. These might be a simple outhouse style or even just a bucket-loo. The bucket toilet is about as simple as it gets: you have a bucket with a toilet seat attached to it. Add your bulking material as you go and when it gets full, you need to dump it somewhere. The best option we have found for this is to get a big plastic barrel with a lid that can be sealed. Put the contents of your bucket in the barrel and when it fills up, seal it and start another barrel. Let sealed barrels sit for a year to digest and after that, you’ll have perfectly usable compost.

Composting toilets, no matter what kind you have, are a little more hands-on than conventional ones, which can turn people off. Of course, some are more hands-on than others. All for the sake of saving water. It can be argued that the composting toilet gives you access to the end product which you can then use to grow plants. A conventional toilet hooked up to a septic system will end up putting the materials back in the ground, but you don’t get to put those materials anywhere you want. If you live in the city, well, your crap just ends up in the sewer and eventually the sewage treatment plant. Who knows what happens to it there. I can probably guess they aren’t growing plants with it, though it would be really awesome if they did. Unfortunately, a lot of people like to flush things down the toilet that they shouldn’t.

Let’s consider the toilet situation in a conventional Earthship. Water in an Earthship is used several times. It’s first use is when you take a shower, do your laundry or wash the dishes. As the water goes down the drain, it is sent through the planters in the greenhouse at the front of the house. At the end of the greenhouse, there is a small well where water that has traveled the length of the garden will gather there. That was two uses, if you’re keeping count: once for the initial washing, then feeding your plants.

The water that gathers in that well I just mentioned is the water that is used to flush your toilet, so you aren’t using fresh water for flushing, you’re using your grey water after it has been filtered by the plants. That’s usage number three of the same water you used to do your dishes. With this system, you get all of the ease-of-use and benefits of the conventional, low-flush toilet, but you aren’t using any fresh water to make it work. You will still need a septic tank, which people who use composting toilets will say is one of the benefits of them: you don’t need to spend several thousands of dollars putting in a septic system to use a composting toilet.

You don’t have hands-on access to the effluent that comes out of the septic tank, like you do having access to the output of your composting toilet, however you can still use it to grow plants if you put a botanical cell between the output of your septic tank and the leech field. This works great in the desert to create lush jungles around your house, however up here in Canada, it would only be a seasonal thing as the ground is frozen for half the year.

In the end, having and using a composting toilet seems mainly focused on saving water. In some places, this is an absolute necessity and so are highly suitable for those locations. But depending on the style of composting toilet you have, it may be using way more power than a conventional toilet so it is a debatable to say that they are really more environmentally friendly.

All I can say about ours, is if we were to do it all over again, we probably wouldn’t buy the expensive, fancy plastic version. It’s way cheaper and easier to build your own and you don’t have to worry about parts breaking that you can’t replace.