EARTHSHIPS: Sustainable Pockets of Freedom for Everyone

June 5, 2013 by Frontline Copy

by Faith Attaguile

green homes for a sustainable world

Global Model Earthship, Greater World Community, Taos, NM (photo: earthshp.com)

We need to evolve self-sufficient living units that are their own systems…. We are now in need of Earthships – independent vessels – to sail on the seas of tomorrow.

                      – Michael Reynolds

It would be a little over 950 miles from the Pacific Ocean to Taos, New Mex. But my friends and I were on a mission.

We wanted to experience the phenomenon of Earthships – Michael Reynolds’ off-the-grid eco-homes developed from four decades of experimentation. Vessels that provide comfort for its inhabitants even in a time of climate change.

And without using fossil fuels.

We had attended a two-day earthship workshop a few weeks earlier. Now we wanted to test these ideas in real time.

So on May 3, 2013, we set out on our journey to Taos. We drove through exquisite Arizona mesas. Then climbed to 6900 feet to reach the high desert plains of Northern New Mexico. Finally, we arrived in the small town of Taos.

After lunch at Michael’s Kitchen (a town icon, and not related to Michael Reynolds), we continued on until we found the Earthship Welcome Center – about 8.5 miles west of Taos. And it was a jewel:

sustainable housing from recycled materials

Earthship Welcome Center (photo: earthship.com)

 

As we transitioned from the dry desert outside air to the moist inside air of the greenhouse “airlock” (a hallway wrapped around the Welcome Center south wall) we were surprised at the climate change. Then we looked around at all the growing plants:

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Earthship Welcome Center Entry

Happy tomatoes, huge cucumbers and thriving basil greeted us. They were nurtured by the moist air, the greywater running through the planter system and the sun shining through the floor-to-ceiling windows. We even found a mushroom log!

sustainable housing made from recycled materials

Earthship Welcome Center Greenhouse Area

 

sustainable housing made from recycled materials

After we introduced ourselves to the staff, Mary (our earthship guide) took us farther down the road. In a bit, she turned onto smaller roads that wove through an area that would eventually bring us to our earthship home for the night.

Breathtaking views of the Sangre de Cristo mountains surrounding sagebrush-covered high desert plains greeted us.

Other-worldly houses dotting the inner landscape fascinated us. They were like nothing we had ever seen before.

All of them, painted in beautiful desert hues, were hugged on three sides with earth. They sported rounded, hobbit-house edges and boasted expansive, south-facing windows angled to reap the greatest benefit from the winter and summer suns.

None were the same. But all smiled with whimsical touches of tile, rock and metal – signatures of the people who were living in them.

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The Phoenix Earthship, Greater World Community

 

Called the Greater World Community, this area covers about 650 acres of land. The private lots are all circular so people can take walks and never trespass on someone else’s land. And 347 acres of this community are commonly owned, available to all … never to be developed.

Around 65 earthships have already been built in this community (there are two other earthship communities in the Taos area). But with a total of about 130 mapped lots, there’s still room to move in and build -- if an earthship is on your agenda.

But we weren’t at that point yet. We were just eager to experience our earthship rental for the night …

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Entry to the Corner Cottage, Greater World Community

 

 

The Corner Cottage Earthship

At first we stood there, amazed.

We looked. Touched. Noted the lines, colors, flow of light -- and the fact that no rammed earth tires were in evidence!

Just a rounded, welcoming, adobe wall entry studded with glass bottles – throwaways from the dump -- now lit up by the afternoon sun.

We found our little earthship, built in 2008, to be a comfy two-bedroom, one-bath home. It offered a spacious great room that served as a living, dining and kitchen area.

Here’s the Corner Cottage layout, and below that, a photo showing its south-facing greenhouse windows:

 

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sustainable housing made from recycled materials

Corner Cottage Earthship, side view, Greater World Community

Just as we did at the Welcome Center, we entered our Corner Cottage through the outer greenhouse area, essential to all earthship models:

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Corner Cottage Inside Entry

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Corner Cottage Outer Greenhouse Area

 

 

 

Serving not just as a greenhouse to grow food, this area also acts as an airspace between the inner rooms and the outside world, helping to control inner space temperature.

But our Corner Cottage was kept at a comfortable temperature in another important way …

The Story Behind
Rammed-Earth Tires

You’ve probably heard horror stories about houses built with smelly, rammed-earth tires. Well, you can throw them all out the window.

We had been told there’s no tire odor in earthships because the ones used in the earthen walls are …well… used. Not to mention they are ultimately covered with a thick, plaster finish.

Still, that was one of the first things we checked out when we entered our Corner Cottage.

Findings? No odor. Nothing. Just smoothly plastered and painted walls covering what we knew to be a huge, rammed-earth tire mass.

But why use tires in the first place?

As Mike Reynolds notes, when pounded with dirt, used tires become the best free, indigenous source of steel-belted, rubber-encased, 300-lb. bricks available anywhere.

As such, these tires serve not just as the earthship’s unmoveable but earthquake-friendly spine. They also act as the primary source of mass heat storage in winter. And mass cool storage in summer. Both of which leak out into the room to balance its temperature.

Working in partnership with a system of skylights, greenhouse windows and shades (and more recently air vents), these massive, rammed-earth tire walls naturally heat, cool and ventilate inner rooms.

Reynolds claims that this integrated system of solar gain and thermal mass storage maintains an ambient room temperature of between 60-70 degrees F in cold winters -- as well as hot summers.

OK. But being the skeptics that we are, we decided to test his claim during our stay at The Corner Cottage. After all, the Taos area is well-known for its temperature extrermes. Triple digits in summer. Minuses in winter.

And it was May, when temperatures still get really cold at night.

So we took photos of the time and temperature in our earthship that afternoon. The next morning we did the same. Here are the results:

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May 5, 2013 ~ 4:30pm: 70 degrees F

sustainable homes for a green world

May 6, 2013 ~ 7:15am: 70 degrees F

 

Could this be true? After all, night temperatures had dipped into the low 30’s.

So we checked again. Felt and measured the still-frigid outside air. Ran back to the inside 70 degree comfort.

It was true: the system worked. Fossil fuels, be gone!

The Other Essential
Corner Cottage Earthship Systems

1. Managing Rainwater and Sewage

In an earthship, no captured rainwater is wasted. Rainwater harvesting and blackwater management are key earthship systems, keeping it off the grid and free of “The Man.”

So, during initial construction, large cisterns are buried under the earth behind the earthship’s north wall. These are poised to capture every inch of moisture from roofs designed to shed water with the greatest efficiency possible.

Once water is captured, a Water Organizing Module oversees the process of rainwater filtration for use and reuse in all earthships. This is what ours looked like:

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Water Organizing Module, Corner Cottage

 

The first use of captured rainwater is a four-step filtration process for drinking water. The other steps involve imaginative reuse, and here’s how they work.

  • shower, washing machine and sink greywater particles are filtered out before draining into the earthship planter systems. Plants love and thrive on this greywater!
  • after drinking and eating it, plant roots filter the greywater enough so that, once it reaches the other end of the planters…
  • it is pumped into the toilet tank and used for flushing.

Here’s a diagram showing how this works:

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Earthship Water Management

 

But that’s not the end of the story.

Flushed blackwater goes into a waiting septic tank. This tank processes the blackwater to the point where uncontaminated overflow drains into outside planters that can be used for more food production.

We experienced this system in our Corner Cottage. It was the smartest four-step reuse of captured rainwater we had ever seen. No need for off-site, centralized sewage treatment plants. No spillage into rivers and streams. Just brilliant onsite rainwater use, reuse and blackwater management.

In our Corner Cottage earthship, planters in the outer greenhouse and the south wall of the inner rooms fed off our greywater -- exactly the way they were supposed to do.

And with great results.

Ever heard of a banana tree growing in the high (and very dry) desert region of northern New Mexico? Well, we found one in our Corner Cottage. And believe me, it was a happy camper:

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Thriving Banana Tree in Corner Cottage Great Room

2. What about ventilation?

Looking at our Corner Cottage blueprint (see the drawing above), you might wonder about this.

After all, it’s logical to wonder how a home surrounded on three sides with earth, and “airlocked” on the remaining side with a greenhouse, can get fresh air.

Well, here’s how it works at the Corner Cottage. The north wall, hugged by earth, is capped with skylights in the roof to allow light and airflow into the north side of each room.

Skylights also sit on the top edge of the south greenhouse wall, like this:

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Corner Cottage Greenshouse Skylights

Note: In this photo, the middle box houses batteries that store captured solar power for electricity generation.

But that’s not all.

Windows along southside greenhouse wall can also be opened or closed – and shades pulled down or released – according to time of day and weather.

Learning when to do this is important in an earthship, for that process helps with heating and cooling regulation. And it means that occupants must be more closely tuned into the world around them than most people are today.

These ventilation and shading techniques, along with the thermal-lined, rammed-earth tire mass walls, are keys that allow earthships to provide year-round comfort. Solar heat enters the earthship through its greenhouse windows and is absorbed and stored in this thermal mass.

Insulation around this mass prevents the stored heat from exiting the structure. Then, when the earthship’s inner rooms cool down at night, this stored heat leaks back into the rooms, keeping them at a constant temperature of about 70 degrees F without use of fossil fuels.

A creative upgrade to more recent earthship models includes air vents that run underneath, and are cooled by, the north wall earth mass to offset solar gain during the warm months of the year.

At a 4ft. depth, the earth maintains an ambient temperature of about 58 degress F, thus cooling the air running through these vents. When this air enters the rooms, it is then sucked up out of roof skylights, further cooling the inner rooms. No air conditioning units needed!

Here’s an example of what these air vents look like in the bedroom of a more recent earthship model. Beside that is sideview drawing to illustrate the concept:

green homes for a sustainable world
green homes for a sustainable world

Earth Cools Air Flow Into Earthship

 

? Collecting Energy from the Sun and Wind

An earthship wouldn’t be complete without an energy collection system.

But before I briefly cover that one, let me digress a moment and repeat an interesting analogy Michael Reynolds makes on the importance of creating off-the-grid earthships … now.

He compares conventional homes to hospital patients hooked up to lifelines. If you pull a lifeline from a patient in a hospital, she’ll probably die. It’s the same way for conventional homes. They’re hooked up to energy, water and food distribution lifelines. Break them, and the home “dies.”

That’s why he’s designed earthships to be completely off the conventional lifeline grid. If there’s a failure in the centralized distribution system, guess what?

Earthships will continue to sail, using renewable energy resources of the sun and wind, harvested rainwater, food from their greenhouses, and a sewage management system to survive.

That’s why the energy gathering system of earthships is so integral to earthship independence. How does he do this?

Easy. Energy gathered from solar panels and windmills charges a bank of batteries housed in a box on the earthship roof. That energy is then distributed throughout the house, using a Power Organizing Module, which looks something like this:

green homes for a sustainable world

Power Organizing Module
(photo: earthship.com)

 

 

This unit is screwed into the wall, and the earthship is wired to it.

I told you it was simple, and it is. (Unless, of course, you’re designing everything.)

We checked out the system in our Corner Cottage earthship. Found the battery box, solar panels and distribution system. It didn’t have the additional power of a windmill, but it was enough for us. Here’s a photo of the rooftop solar panels:

 

green homes for a sustainable planet

Corner Cottage Earthship
Solar Panel System

 

This system provided us with all the energy we needed for our overnight stay, including a few hours of video watching on a flat-screened TV!

How does the Corner Cottage Earthship stack up?

With few exceptions (and those were mostly in decoration), the Corner Cottage lived up to our expectations. It was truly an independent vessel: an earthship ready to sail us into the future.

The systems worked beautifully, the comfort level enveloped all, and there were some lovely finishing touches to enjoy as well. Here are some photos to prove my point:

 

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Corner Cottage Earthship Great Room
(photo: earthship.com)

 

green homes for a green world

Corner Cottage Earthship
Bathroom Door

green homes for a sustainable world

Corner Cottage Bathroom (photo: earthship.com)

 

green housing for a greener world

Corner Cottage Bedroom

With our Corner Cottage earthship, we experienced a home that:

  • incorporates recycled materials, available everywhere, in its structure
  • captures rainwater and reuses it four times
  • utilizes onsite sewage treatment so nothing flows into rivers or streams
  • generates power from the wind and sun
  • uses solar gain and geothermal mass to heat and cool the interior
  • provides greenhouse space to grow food …

And is completely off the grid.

But there’s something else to think about, too.

 

While checking out the Greater World Community earthships, we met a woman who lives there. She noted,

“Earthships aren’t something you live in part time. That’s because they are living, breathing units. They’re alive, requiring interaction with you. They grow your food. Give you light, water and power. Provide year round comfort. But they can’t do that without your help. Earthships require you to live with them, not in them.”

Having lived with our Corner Cottage for just one night, we understood exactly what she meant. And we were converts.

sustainable homes for a green world

photo: earthship.com

 

Building an Earthship That Floats

Don’t worry if you don’t much like the outside “look” of these Greater World Community earthships. It doesn’t matter.

What’s important are the internal systems. Include them in your own earthship, and you can decorate it any way you want.

As Mike Reynolds explains,

“I let biology and physics guide me to make the basic structure of the building. Then I decorate… but that comes after they function properly. Architects go after the design and decoration of the building first, and some of the buildings are like boats that don’t float, they’re sinking ships. My objective? The boat must float, and by that I mean the building must take care of people and the planet without using fossil fuels.” (The Franki Show)

On that score (not to mention many others), Reynolds is a leader.

Still think earthships are nothing more than mud huts built of stinky old tires? Watch this video, then think again:

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