From the first moment that I heard about Earthships I was hooked.
Fifteen years ago in Brighton (UK), I went to a talk by Mike Reynolds, the father of Earthship building and experimentation. He outlined his dreams of making housing affordable, built from recycled materials, off grid for water and electricity, and capable of freeing you from the rat race of rents, mortgages and endless utility bills. I loved the dream and I wanted to see if it could come true. So I became part of a group called ‘The Low Carbon Trust’ who received planning permission from a very forward thinking local council to build the first English Earthship in Brighton’s Stanmer Park.
As part of the build, I helped design and run training courses, to attract volunteers to help with the build and to also seed the inspiration and knowledge elsewhere. As I’d never physically been inside a working Earthship before, all my knowledge came from the Earthship manuals 1,2 and 3 written by Mike, as well as testimonies from people who had built and lived in them. These were the days before YouTube. There is a film about Mike and his Earthships, called Garbage Warrior which was made during that time.
So how does the Earthship at Brighton measure up to the dream as set out by Mike Reynolds? I stumbled across an article by Steven Bancarz about how awesome Earthships are, and it struck me that this was another person selling the dream of their potential – and a great dream that is – but how accurate is it?
1. Sustainable doesn’t mean primitive
Yes I agree that Earthships do represent a very sophisticated version of off grid living; they have functioning bathrooms with toilets and hot showers, a normal looking kitchen, doors and windows as you’d expect in an ordinary house. An Earthship is so named because it is an independent ‘vessel’ that provides for your needs without being connected to the grid for water and electricity, so in order to live comfortably within it, you need to be able to live within the limitations of what it can provide. For example in winter in the UK, you’d have plenty of water, but perhaps not so much electricity if the weather is cold, dull and still for days on end. It’s about adapting to live within those restrictions, which we are not used to. But it’s possible.
2. Free Food
This was something that got me really excited. How wonderful to be able to provide for your food needs from right inside your home! In permaculture terms, this means food production in zone 0 – how easy it would be to grab a few fresh tomatoes, herbs or bananas right in your kitchen while you are cooking! Alas we have never been able to pick bananas from our Brighton Earthship as yet – perhaps one day they’ll flower and go into fruit, but it’s not something you can rely on for a steady source of food. Other crops have proved more successful though; I think I’ve spotted tomatoes and peppers and aubergines in the Brighton Earthship’s greenhouse planter. Perhaps if it was someone’s home (the Brighton one is a demo building used for courses and an office), the planter would receive more intensive attention and the yield would be greater?
The article mentions a fish pond or chicken coop to provide a constant source of meat and eggs. I think the fishpond is possible, but I wouldn’t recommend living with chickens inside your house, with the smells they make and possible cross-over of infections.
3. Brilliant Water Recycling
Yes this is truly inspirational. They collect rainwater run-off from the roof in large tanks, which goes through various filters to make it drinkable and usable for washing, then it’s reused again as it drains through into the grey water beds inside the earthship and is filtered by the plants growing in the planters, and this is fed to the toilet which is then flushed out into an outdoor reed bed (see the article for a diagram of what’s possible).
In the UK we can become very complacent about water use especially when it’s raining buckets outside, but it’s madness that we use drinking water to flush our waste with! We could be collecting rainwater from our roofs and using that to flush with instead. We could be reusing our bath water for the garden too in dry weather. I am hoping that I might find a way to introduce some of these concepts in my own house.
4. Warmth and Shelter
The idea with Earthships is that they are built with rammed earth (into car tyres) which creates very dense walls, which are also partly submerged underground. This creates a very large area of ‘thermal mass’ inside the building, which functions like a battery, storing the excess heat generated during hot sunny days and slowly releasing it during colder nights and winter days. The theory is brilliant. In practice however, I don’t think our Brighton Earthship performs as well as hoped.
I’ve spent some rather cold winter afternoons in there when the weather was damp and dull, and nobody knew how to work the wood pellet stove. If I was to do it all over again I’d introduce a simple wood burning stove to top up the heat on such short dark days as we have here in the UK winter. We also don’t generally have too many blisteringly hot days in summer, but when we do, the thermal mass works a treat and it’s a rather pleasant cool temperature inside.
Through solar and wind, and a bank of batteries, the Earthship is designed for self sufficiency. Again the dull quiet UK winters can hamper energy generation and restrict the amount of energy available. We’ve had days when we dare not turn on the lights until absolutely necessary!
This is the part of the dream that really excited me – no more utility bills! Yes that’s true and it is brilliant, but there are other limiting factors to consider if you are living off-grid. You have to live within the confines of how much energy and water you can generate/catch and store, and without the grid as back-up, if anything goes wrong you are on your own. For many this is preferable, especially if they have the skills to maintain their systems themselves, but I don’t think this is for me – I’d rather be a part of a supporting network.
7. Easy to build
I would argue that building an Earthship is far from ‘easy’. Have you ever pounded a tyre full of subsoil with a sledge hammer? I have. It takes 20-30 mins per tyre. And that’s on a good day when you are feeling fit. There are a hell of a lot of tyres in an Earthship and so it’s not something I could do now that I have health problems. But for young fit people, it is certainly doable.
It is possible to build a very basic model of an Earthship hut for an affordable sum – if you have the land to build it on. I know Mike Reynold’s team goes to third world countries to build cheap shelters out of recycled materials for people who have been made homeless through various disasters. This is great. In my experience in Brighton, our project ran over budget and would not have been considered affordable despite the number of recycled materials used. I think it may have been due to the various systems bought from Mike’s Biotecture firm that are really prototypes and not easily and cheaply available here. I’m sure other members of the Low Carbon Trust could give more details on this – I don’t have the facts.
9. Made of recycled materials
Tick. Yes I learned to build with glass bottles, plastic bottles, car tyres, old beer cans, and whatever else we could put to use – along with plenty of concrete. I remember at the time someone asking ‘Do the buried car tyres create any off-gassing?’ and being reassured by Mike’s team that this was not the case – the tyres are sealed inside the walls. However as the years have slipped by, I am questioning this again myself and so I had a look online and found this article; apparently they don’t leach enough substances to be worried about. It certainly puts to good use something that’s a real waste problem.
10. Think different
The final point made is a good one. Yes being part of the Brighton Earthship project definitely helped me to think differently about the way we live, and how we could make our living systems more sustainable. It introduced me to permaculture, and taught me about creating looped systems so that we create no waste.
Being a part of the Earthship Brighton project undoubtably set a course for my life that has taken me on a particular path ever since; searching for ways to attain the dream that was sold to me. I’ve lived in a passive solar timber house with a wood burner for 12 years in a housing co-op, and now I’m retro-fitting my own brick house using some of the same principles that I learned back then, but instead of being off-grid we’ll be working out how to manage this while remaining part of the grid and becoming ‘prosumers’ (consumers and energy providers).
I’d love to hear of your own experiences of eco-building and Earthship building – or whether you agree or disagree with my own comments about them.
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