Earthships: Sustainable Living for TEOTWAWKI, by Sgt. P.

How much did the average home owner in the United States pay for utilities last month?  Last Year?  How much will they pay for utilities by the time they pay off their mortgage?  If they averaged $250 per month in utilities, which is below the national average of “$264.33 per month” (Statistic quoted by White Fence) the answer is shocking.  With the average home loan lasting 30 years, without taking into consideration rising costs, utilities would be $90,000!  For that amount of money this homeowner could put one child through a four year-degree at a very nice university.  What if I could explain how to build a home that would have little or no utility costs and cost the same or less to build as a conventional home?  I think that everyone should consider living in a growing architectural design called an Earthship because it will provide housing to live sustainably with no utility bills, ever.

There is an Earthship community where people live and work on their own property; and share labor and food with each other.  “Stacked up in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near Taos, New Mexico, is a community of ‘Earthship’ houses, a pioneer of the Rural Earthship Alternative Community Habitat (R.E.A.C.H.) concept.  Earthships incorporate walls made of discarded vehicle tires, rammed earth and concrete, systems for recycling water and waste, solar technology, and a design that reflects the local adobe vernacular. Designed by architect Michael Reynolds (who lives in the one at the top), they are almost entirely self-sufficient in energy” (2010, Martin Bond).  Whatever a household does not grow or raise themselves they trade with another households that do; back and forth until everyone in the community has everything they need.  Communities such as this one are popping up all over the world. 
Earthship homes are designed to be self contained living units with the construction being out of various recycled materials.  The load-bearing walls are made of counter-stacked, earth-packed, used tires much like a brick wall, only much wider.  “The major structural building component of the Earthship is recycled automobile tires filled with compacted earth to form a rammed earth brick encased in steel belted rubber. This brick and the resulting (load) bearing walls it forms are virtually indestructible” (2010, Earthship Biotecture 1).  These tires can usually be acquired free from local tire companies because the companies have to pay to have them removed so they will happily give them away, ultimately saving them money.  Aluminum soda or beer cans can be acquired free and are used as bricks for interior, non-load bearing walls.  Glass wine or liquor bottles are cut with a wet-saw and placed end-to-end inside non-load bearing walls.  This allows light to shine through, creating beautiful kaleidoscope effects inside the home.  Once the home is complete, the owner can immediately start growing their own food and raising their own meat to supply themselves with the basic sustenance of life.  Because the building will supply the owner with clean drinking water, electricity and comfortable temperature control, there is no need for exterior supplied utilities.  This means the owner has no bills to speak of except the occasional trip to the grocery store for what the Earthship itself cannot provide the owner and propane for backup hot water generation.

Earthships also provide their owners with the three basic needs in life; shelter, food and water.  Additionally, they can provide income if wanted.  If everyone in the United States lived in an Earthship, this country would no longer be dependent on food and fossil fuels imported from all over the world, or huge water and waste treatment plants, run by the government.  This would also eliminate huge corporations controlling public utilities and deciding how much they want the populous to pay for their basic essentials of life.
Earthships are normally built on the downhill slope of a south facing hill but this is not a necessity; a level plot is sufficient.  The “hill” design is so the main structure of the home is underground, keeping it cool in the summer and warm in the winter; and the southern face of the home is almost completely made of windows.   These south facing windows allow the sun to heat the walls and floors.  This keeps the temperature in the home comfortable during the winter time when the sun is low in the sky as well as bringing in natural light for the plant life year around.  The average temperature in an Earthship is 70 degrees, year-round.  This temperature is controlled by the occupant through various means built-in at the time of construction.  Vent tubes placed inside of the uphill section of the construction near the floor bring in air from behind and above the home; the air cools as it passes through the earth.  Skylight vents in the ceiling also allow hot air to escape upwards and bring in cool air from the front of the house through windows that open.  This cools the home during the summer and also allows various insects to enter the greenhouse area and pollinate the plant life.  Closing these vents during the winter eliminates this cooling effect allowing the sun to warm the home.  This is an extremely efficient form of heating and cooling, requiring no outside power whatsoever. 
Earthships also supply their owners with an abundant amount of fresh water from rainfall, even in very arid climates.  The water collected is then used four times.  Runoff from rain collects in a cistern where it is cycles through a copper pipe to keep bacteria from growing.  When the inhabitant requires water, it is run through a filtration system to make it cleaner than most municipal water supplies.  “Earthship Biotecture has created a board that contains a series of filters and a pump that does this.  They call it the Water Organization Module” (2010, Earthship Biotecture 2).   The first use of the water is for various household duties including drinking, cooking, washing dishes, and taking showers.  This converts clean water into gray water.  Gray water is then recycled the second time by being pumped into the in-home garden where it feeds the plants that will feed the inhabitants.  This is completely safe because no human waste has been introduced into the soil.  Once the water settles down at the low end of the planter system, it is then pumped to a holding tank where it waits to be recycled for the third time to fill the toilets.  Water used to flush the toilets is now considered black water.  The black water is pumped outside where it collects into one of two types of water treatment areas.  The most common is an ordinary septic tank.  Bacteria in the septic tank break down the human waste and the leftover liquid is fed into the ground through a leach field.  “The septic tank contains baffles that prevent any scum that floats to the surface and sludge that settles to the bottom from passing out of the tank. The gases that are generated vent to the atmosphere via the plumbing vent system. From the septic tank, the segregated and relatively clear liquid flows into a small distribution box where it is then metered out to several perforated pipes” (2010, 

This type of single-home sewage treatment is used worldwide in areas not connected to sewer systems.  The other type of black water treatment is a self-contained flower garden where the black water feeds into a large area of plants, not suitable for human consumption completing the fourth phase of recycling.  This area is completely sealed so no sewage can leak into the surrounding ground and water table.  These plants soak up the water and treat it through natural processes of bacteria and decay.  Animals can eat this grass, bee’s can pollinate the flowers and these animals can be used for food and the bees, of course, produce honey.  This is completely natural as the black water being recycled through the earth and then through the plants, makes it safe for the animals to eat the plants, and ultimately, humans to eat the animals.  Human food cannot be produced this way, because our digestive system does not break down waste as well as the animals digestive system does. 

Sunlight and wind are utilized through photovoltaic panels and wind generators to produce the electricity needed to power the home.  A bank of 12 volt batteries are used to store the electricity produced by these sources and the home mainly runs on fixtures and appliances designed to run on direct current or DC.  An inverter converts the DC into alternating current (AC) for appliances that require AC.  To send power through power lines over long distances requires AC; that is why alternating current is the world standard.  DC is actually much more efficient when power is not required to travel long distances.  Modern Earthships have all the amenities of any home built from conventional means including large screen televisions and high speed Internet.  Propane can also be used for refrigeration or an alternate hot water source.

It takes approximately one-year for the food growth cycle to become established and the home owner accustomed to it.  Once these factors are in harmony with each other; the balance of food production versus use, the owner will incur very minimal monthly food costs.  Earthship inhabitants can teach these methods of living to their children who can either choose to live in their parents Earthship or build one of their own.  The entire process is self-sustaining and continually replenishing itself; thus an Earthship could provide all the basic needs of an entire family.

The cost comparison from conventional home construction and Earthship construction can vary from much lower to much higher than conventional construction depending on how much the owner wants to put into their Earthship.  Earthship architecture keeps the up front cost of construction to a bare minimum because most of the structural materials are either free or very cheap.  Some owners have even built Earthships with no mortgage after completion.  Those building Earthships can rack up expense very quickly with the purchase of the water treatment units and the power generation systems.  Most builders of Earthships choose to save money by building their own wind generators and solar panels, whereas others purchase top-of-the-line, most expensive components saving time and workload. 

When one considers how much money an average homeowner will spend in utilities throughout the length of their mortgage, I believe that everyone should consider building an Earthship.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have no bills to speak of?  Earthships are self-sustaining and for this reason are fast becoming a more main stream option, attracting people from all walks of life.  Imagine never paying utilities, well into your retirement age.  My wife and I are looking for land to build our own Earthship, you should consider joining us.

References and Illustrations:

Blue Rock Station.
Earthship Biotecture 1.
Earthship Biotecture 2.

Home Quotient. “Food Production”
Home Quotient. “Windows”

Low Carbon Trust. “Photovoltaic & Solar Hot Water”

Specialist Stock. (Specialist Stock photo by Martin Bond used with special
permission via e-mail.)

The Open End. “Phoenix Bath”

The Practical Environmentalist. “Earthship Walls”