Category Archives: What is an Earthship

Posts that describe in detail what an Earthship is and how it works.

What is an Earthship

Considering how often I run into people who have never heard of an Earthship, I thought I would make a separate space here on my blog to address that question. If you haven’t visited my About page, you might start there for a general description, or you could head over to wikipedia and read their article on it.

The purpose of this section is to address the six main building principles in more depth so if you want to know more how an Eartship is implemented you can get some idea. The six principles are listed on those other pages I linked, but just in case you don’t want to go check them out, I will list them again here.

  1. Building with Natural & Recycled Materials
  2. Thermal/Solar Heating & Cooling
  3. Solar & Wind Electricity
  4. Water Harvesting
  5. Contained Sewage Treatment
  6. Food Production

As I fill in the section for each principle, I will update that list with links on each article. If you have any questions regarding any of it, please feel free to leave a comment.


Building with Natural & Recycled Materials

Building with natural and recycled materials is the first principle when constructing an Earthship. Using recycled materials is often expressed by using what is lying around that has usually been tossed away into a landfill. Automobile tires are probably the signature item that everyone thinks of when Earthships are mentioned.

Why would you want to use tires? How about these two pictures for some motivation.

Humans have made so many tires now and after they wear out they end up in huge tire dumps because we don’t know what to do with them. That is starting to change as we are slowly finding ways to reuse tires, but building houses with them is just another item to add to that list. We have a LOT of tires lying around, billions of them. In fact there are now so many junk tires lying around this planet that you could almost call them a natural resource that we can use. It’s a funny way to think about it, but it might just stop you in your tracks to consider that we may have more junk tires on planet Earth than trees right now. That’s a disturbing thought.

Another natural resource used is dirt. Plain dirt, not pure sand or clay, but your run of the mill pile of dirt that is a mixture if things. You don’t want organic matter in your dirt, but other that that, most dirt will work.

And what do you do with that dirt, you may be asking? You pound it into the tires with a sledge hammer.

I’m not going to go into the process of how that works here, but if you want more details you can check out my other post on pounding tires.

Another really popular material used in building Earthships is beverage cans.

When Michael Reynolds was first experimenting back in the 1970’s with alternative building materials, he started with cans. This is long before Earthships had been conceived and also long before there was any such thing as recycling. Placing cans in concrete to build a wall means you need much less concrete to form the wall.

These days we do have recycling programs and beverage cans are recycled all the time. This may lead one to ask, why bother using cans when you can put them into the recycling and have them made into something new? First of all, cans are free and there are a lot of them. It’s difficult to pass up free building materials. Secondly, let’s consider a scenario where we take said cans and recycle the aluminum into some other building material, nails or flashing or whatever. The big difference between using the can as-is and using the remade building material is energy used. Using the can requires no additional energy, but there is a huge energy usage when recycling aluminum. By using the can you save that energy cost.

Not all recycled materials are purely functional. Glass bottles are used to create very decorative and amazing pieces of art. This is a bath tub in the Phoenix Earthship in the Greater World Community of Earthships down in Taos, NM.

Here is a bottle wall under construction at the Towers, a two storey Earthship down in Taos.

The glass bottles have their necks/tops cut off. You then find two bottoms that match and tape them together forming what we like to call a bottle brick. Similarly to the cans, these are placed in concrete. If you’re good, you plan it ahead of time, have the right colours and you can make some really awesome designs.

Some other natural and recycled materials being used are straw and clay for making adobe, cardboard for putting in the bottom of the tires so the dirt doesn’t fall out the bottom when you start pounding it with the sledgehammer and old pallet wood that is repurposed into making kitchen cabinets.

Earthships do use some conventional materials, like lumber, concrete, rebar and glass (windows) but the idea is to only use those things where necessary. What constitutes “necessary” will vary according to your design, location on the planet and what rules your municipality impose.

You may be wondering why go to all that trouble of pounding dirt into tires and putting cans into concrete. The answers to that and other questions will be handled in the Thermal/Solar Heating & Cooling post.

Stay tuned 🙂

Thermal/Solar Heating & Cooling

In this article we’re going to talk about how heating and cooling works in an Earthship. An Earthship uses passive solar energy to accomplish this without the need for big furnaces or air conditioning. First, let’s talk about something called Thermal Mass.

Here is a scan I took from a page out of the Earthship Vol I book. Click on the image for a larger version.

After reading about the jars experiment, consider how most conventional buildings are constructed: they are insulated boxes of air with thin walls. There has also been a concerted effort in construction to try to make houses as air tight as possible, which has also lead to requiring elaborate venting systems to get fresh air into the building. This is all in an effort to try to keep the air inside at a stable temperature.

Now following what was discussed in the jar example, it would seem to make more sense to incorporate more water in our buildings. Unfortunately, humans don’t thrive so well in an aquarium, so Earthships use compacted dirt and concrete. They’re more easily formed and they don’t make your bread all soggy, cause who likes soggy bread.

Here I have included a section (side) view of a typical global model Earthship, with some extra labels that I added. The front of the Earthship (the part with the glass) is on the right side.

During the winter time, the sun will be low, around 20° above the horizon for our latitude. This means the sun will shine deep into the Earthship. Here is a picture I did in Sketchup to give you an idea.

The Earthship has a massive tire wall at the back, where each tire has been filled with compacted dirt. You pound it in with a sledge hammer to make it nice and firm. Behind the tire wall is another section of compacted dirt that is about 1m (3′) thick and goes from the bottom of the tire wall to the top. This adds more thermal mass to your wall so it is, in effect, almost 2m (6’6″) thick. You’ll notice from the section drawing above that after the compacted dirt comes insulation. There isn’t much point in having all of that thermal mass if you don’t insulate it.

If you live in a part of the world that experiences snow during the winter, have you ever parked your vehicle so its windshield is facing the sun during a really clear, cold day? If you get inside, you’ll notice that the interior of your vehicle is much warmer. This is because the sun is shining through the window and heating up all of your upholstery and other bits you have inside your car. This is the same type of effect we are using in an Earthship.

The sun shining in the front of the Earthship will bring a lot of heat with it and that heat will be absorbed by the thermal mass. Remember those can and bottle walls we talked about in Building with Natural and Recycled Materials? Those will also hold temperature. Your floors will also have thermal mass: concrete, adobe, brick, tile, flag stone or similar earthen type covering. This is so they can also absorb the heat coming from the sun. You don’t want wood or carpet as those things are insulators and will prevent the sun’s energy from being absorbed by the mass. This would defeat the purpose of having the thermal mass in the first place.

From a physics point of view, if the air in the room is +1° warmer than the mass surrounding it, the heat will move into the mass. If the mass is warmer than the air, the heat will move into the room. So, if the sun is shining during the day, the thermal mass in the Earthship will absorb all that heat. When the sun goes down at night, that heat will be released into the room. There have been comments made by people who have stayed at Earthships in the winter about the fact that the “furnace came on around midnight and it got really warm”. There is no furnace, that is just the heat coming out of the wall.

So, what about summer then? Obviously, you don’t want to be storing all of the summer heat in your house, you would be cooked.

During the summer, however, the sun is really high in the sky. About 70° off the horizon up here. This means the sun is only going to shine into the green house at the front.

So the front green house will be pretty warm with all of that sun, you might think. However, due to the fact that the glass on the front of the Earthship is angled so as to be at 90° to the sun during the winter, the summer sun shine will be hitting that glass at a fairly oblique angle. Because of this, much of the suns effect will be reflected away from the Earthship.

Not all of the sunshine will be reflected, obviously, and the sun is quite strong during the summer. This is why there are also skylight vents in the roof above the green house, so you can naturally vent out that excess heat from the highest point in the Earthship.

Behind the angled glass of the front face there is another wall of glass that separates the green house from the interior. This creates a buffer zone that keeps the areas where people are the most stable. At the top of this second, vertical glass wall are openable vents. The purpose of these will be discussed shortly.

Going to the back of the Earthship, if you refer back to the section drawing, you’ll see that outside the layer of insulation, you have your cisterns (which will be covered in Water Harvesting) that are completely buried in an earth berm that reaches to the edge of the roof at the back. Buried at the bottom of this berm are several steel culvert pipes that are referred to as vent tubes.

With the greenhouse at the front of the Earthship heating up and venting that air out the ceiling, new fresh air must be brought in to replace it as it will cause a drop in air pressure. The vent tubes allow fresh air to pass through the berm and into the back of the Earthship. Once you dig down far enough into the earth, you will reach a stable temperature point of about 15°C (68°F). Now imagine pulling air from outside on a hot 30°C (85°F) day through that tube. The air will be cooled down by this action so when it enters the back of the Earthship, it will feel like air conditioning.

This is where those vents at the top of the vertical glass wall come in. With those open, the hot air escaping out the ceiling of the green house will cause fresh air to be pulled through the vent tubes into the back of the Earthship, creating a natural cooling convection current that uses no power and only natural processes.

Here is a diagram.

The cool air comes through the vent tubes, hot air is vented out the top of the vertical glass wall into the green house, which is then vented out the ceiling. A simple solution and it doesn’t have any moving parts so it won’t break. No having to call the heating/cooling techs to come fix your Earthship.

I’m going to take a moment here and talk about hemp-crete, as I have been asked about that a lot. It also so happens that this was talked about when I was down in Taos, NM doing my Earthship Academy session 1.

Many people think that replacing the concrete with hemp-crete would be a much more environmentally friendly thing to do as the energy requirements to make it are far less than that of concrete. However, you would be making a HUGE mistake if you were to do that. First of all, hemp-crete does not have the same structural properties as concrete, so you’re not going to get approval from the inspector to replace your footings with it. Secondly, and probably most importantly, hemp-crete is an insulation, not a thermal mass.

What do you think would happen if you did all of the pack-out around your tires and poured your floors with hemp-crete? You would be insulating all of that winter sunshine AWAY from the thermal mass of the tires. You would also create a day-time oven in the winter and you would freeze during the night as there wouldn’t be anything to absorb that heat during the day; it would just accumulate in the rooms making your type-writers melt.

This, in fact, happened at an Earthship build down in Australia. Obviously, Australia doesn’t have the winters that we do here in Canada, so being able to shed heat would be important. However, this one was being built by someone who was an intern for a short while at Earthship Biotecture and then went back to Australia, found a client, and started the build. They had domes in this design, but they replaced all of the concrete with hemp-crete. What they ended up with was building a huge oven. It was so hot inside it was unlivable. Do not make this same mistake.

This same type of mistake can even be made in conventional housing that is built (or converted) to take advantage of passive solar heating. You can have a whole bunch of windows facing south to gather sunlight during the winter, but if you don’t have any thermal mass to absorb some of that, you’re going to be too hot. Yes, the sun is that powerful.

If you have any questions regarding passive solar heating and cooling, please feel free to comment.

Water Harvesting

It’s time to talk about water harvesting. Most conventional housing either has their water coming from a well or the water grid of the municipality in which it is located. Earthships don’t use either of these methods and we are going to discuss the how and the why of that here.

Earthships make use of cisterns at the back of the building to store the water that is used inside. You can see a cross section of one of the cisterns in this drawing.

Here is a top view showing five cisterns in the plans for this Earthship.

Why cisterns? Well there are several motivating factors at play here.

First of all, Earthships were designed to be built just about anywhere on the planet. With this in mind, an Earthship must be self-sufficient and independent. An Earthship takes care of itself and if you hook it up to a municipal water source you are then dependent on it for your water. If something happens to that water source, you are affected, just like everyone else connected to it, and you can’t do anything about it. Stories of communities that have had boiling requirements (huge energy usage there) for their water, or those close to fracking operations who can light their water on fire as it comes out of the pipes are a few issues that come to mind.

Water contamination is one thing, but you are also subject to how your municipality treats their water as well. Overuse of chlorine and fluoride can make city water disgusting, unpalatable and unhealthy, forcing many to buy bottled water which defeats the entire purpose of having municipal water in the first place. Why spend all that money on plumbing your house if you can’t drink the water?

What about being connected to a well? In some parts of the world, like where we live, this is very common and for the most part sustainable as we do get quite a bit of rain over the course of the year. However, there are still weaknesses in this setup. If you go through a dry spell where you don’t have any rain for a while, you have no idea how much water you have access to. Water underground generally moves and you can never be certain of how much water you have flowing into the bottom of your well or out of it. You’re also subject to all of the issues that comes with underground water: hard water, sulfur water or contaminated water caused by run-off from industrial farms or other pollution sources. Sometimes you have to go to extreme depths to get to a water source, meaning you’re going to spend more energy bringing it out of the ground.

In some parts of the world, so many wells have been dug in an area that all of the ground water has been drained and it won’t be coming back as those were ancient aquifers and don’t have any new water coming in. I also saw an interesting documentary on sink holes a while back. Water underground takes up a certain amount of space. If you drain that water, you create a large cavity under ground and sometimes the ground above just falls into it as there is nothing to keep holding it up. There was one incident in the state of Florida where two days of frost forced the citrus growers to continuously spray their crops with water for 48 hours. That pulled a lot of water out of the aquifers and in the week afterwards, they had 60 (yes six-zero) sink holes, some of which swallowed houses and their occupants.

I’d also like to point out a literary metaphor for drilling wells. Mosquitoes are well known in our part of the world, especially in May and June. They land on you, stick their proboscis in your skin and suck out your blood. We are doing the same thing with wells to the earth. We stick our long pipes in the ground and suck out the blood of mother earth. Do we really need to be poking so many holes in the earth?

Earthships, on the other hand, catch their water from the sky. This is why Earthships always have a roof that is designed to catch water. Global model Earthships use a metal roof. Other designs use concrete or plaster. Whatever you finish your roof with, make sure it doesn’t have any toxic elements in it that will contaminate your water. Incidentally, rain water is always soft.

I should mention here that you can still get polluted water from the sky, depending on where you are located. If you are downwind from a major polluter (e.g. east of Beijing, for instance), the rain water you get may have serious contaminants in it. My advice: don’t build there.

The first question I usually hear when I talk about this is: will you have enough? Having enough water is based on several variables: how much precipitation you get in a year, how much of it you can store, how big is the surface area of the roof of your Earthship and what are your usage metrics like. If you like to take four or five showers a day, even on a well you won’t have enough water. If you can sit down and calculate how much water you use in a week, multiply that by 52 so you can get your yearly usage, then you have some idea of how much water you need to be storing. If they can make it work in Taos, New Mexico where they only get 8-12″ (20-30cm) of precipitation a year, then you should be able to make it work in all but the driest places on earth. You just need to make sure that when it does rain, you catch as much of it as you can.

The other advantage of storing your water in cisterns is you can always go look and see just how much water you have. Additionally, if we ever got to a point where we weren’t getting any rain and the cisterns where hitting critical low, we could hire a water truck to go visit a lake or river and refill them. We do live in an area with a huge abundance of lakes and rivers. You couldn’t refill your well that way, though.

So, you catch a whole lot of water in your cisterns and now you want to use it in your house. How does that work?

All of the cisterns are joined together so the water you have will distribute itself evenly across all cisterns. One input line goes from the cisterns into the house, where upon it is connected to one of these.

This, is Earthship jargon, is called a WOM. A water organization module. This is the thing you need to take the water from your cisterns and turn it into usable water in your house. I have put numbered labels on the picture and I will give a description of each of them.

  1. Input. This is where the incoming line from the cisterns is connected, with an appropriate cutoff valve so you can turn off the water for WOM maintenance.
  2. 50 mesh (300μ) filter, used to protect the pump (see 3).
  3. DC water pump.
  4. Pressure switch.
  5. 500 mesh (28μ) filter.
  6. T-joint. The water that goes down from here branches into your hot and cold water that will be used for washing and bathing.
  7. 1000 mesh (15μ) filter.
  8. Ceramic drinking water filter (0.5μ or less)
  9. Drinking water output line

If you followed that, you saw that there are separate lines for drinking water and generic washing water. You don’t need to filter washing water as much as you do drinking water, thus the separation. All of the filters that are traditionally used in a WOM have filters that can be removed and cleaned without the need to replace them too often. Of course, if you build your own, you can use whatever components you like.

I should point out that if you are building one of these in Canada, you can’t use PVC connectors like what is shown in the picture. PVC, by code, can only be used for drain pipes, not incoming lines, due to the toxic nature of PVC plastic.

There is also a small modification to the WOM that will make your life a lot easier if you want to know how much water you have in your cisterns.

Just before the valve on the incoming line (number 1 in the WOM photo) you put another T-joint and attach a clear plastic pipe running straight up.

You want the top of this pipe to be higher than the tops of your cisterns. As your cisterns fill up, so will this clear pipe. In fact, the level of the water in the clear pipe will always show the level of the water in the cisterns, just due to the natural leveling action of water. A very simple solution to monitory how much water you have and it doesn’t involve taking the lid off your cisterns and sticking your head in it to see where the water level is at.

Obviously there are a few other components to a standard plumbing setup in a home. You’re going to have a pressure tank to make sure all of your water fixtures get water at a decent flow rate. That being said, if the pressure tank or pump ever fails, the way the cisterns are positioned to the rest of the plumbing, you will still get water just by gravity. It won’t flow as fast, but slow water is better than no water.

Additionally, you’re going to probably want some hot water. This is usually accomplished using a solar hot water heater and a gas on-demand system as a backup. The solar hot water heater is another panel that heats water from the sun instead of generating electricity. It will have a large coil of metal pipe running through it. Actually, the panel doesn’t heat the water directly. You use glycol instead because it has a much higher boiling point than water. You heat up the glycol by running it through the panel then run the pipe down to a heat exchange tank where it transfers the heat from the glycol to the water. While the sun is out, this can give you some very hot water. If you need hot water after sundown, this is where the backup system would be used. If you can adjust yourself to use the majority of your hot water during the daytime, you won’t need to use your backup system hardly at all.

Now that you have your water filtered, pressurized and heated, you can put in the rest of your plumbing to get the appropriate type of water to the appropriate fixture. This is the same standard type of plumbing that you would have in any house.

There is more to the story of water in an Earthship, but that will be covered in the section on Contained Sewage Treatment.