When we tell people that we spend time making our urine separators in an Earthship, the information is received almost immediately with a mix of curiosity and awe. It is with the same mix of curiosity, awe and determination that we embarked on a journey almost ten years ago when we first decided to build our own Earthship. It was a process, still is and we have learned and are learning so much from it.
So, this blog post will be exactly that – sharing what we learned, what is still left for us to learn, and giving you insight into our personal journey
There’s a reason why the term might remind you of a spaceship. The name is based on the ship’s ability to provide the inhabitants with resources for survival: shelter, power, waste management, and food.
The architecture behind the Earthship concept was introduced in the 1970s by architect Michael Reynolds. He was a prominent critic of the architecture profession, advocating for the reuse and recycling of materials.
Reynolds’ inspiration with the use of recycled materials spans back to his father and his habit of hoarding anything that could be reused. This thinking led him to develop a concept of “Earthship Biotecture” – utilizing any object for the purpose of building a sustainable house. For example, an old tire could become a powerful and durable thermal mass when it was filled with soil, or a pop bottle could be used for insulation.
Reynolds’ Earthship design reached its full form after he moved to New Mexico and completed his degree in architecture. He intended them to be “off-the-grid ready” homes, with almost no reliance on public utilities and fossil fuels. They are constructed to use available natural resources, especially energy from the sun and rainwater. The designs for these houses are intentionally simple and mainly single-story so that people with little building knowledge can construct them. However, the reality is (and this is spoken from our experience), you still need people who know how to build structures and houses.
Earthship is a neo-sustainable living concept that addresses six principles of human needs:
- Reducing and even eliminating utility bills.
- Getting all of the electricity from the sun and the wind.
- Using and reusing rainwater for drinking, bathing, cleaning, showering, washing,
- Contain and treat ALL of the sewage you produce in a healthy and beautiful way.
- Maintain comfortable temperatures in your building ALL year long, in any climate. Reduce or even eliminate your heating and cooling bills
- Some internal food production capability
In the 2007 documentary “Garbage Warrior” Reynolds is shown leading legal and bureaucratic battles in order to ensure Earthships’ legal status. Faced with the end of his career, Reynolds agreed to follow state and federal codes, though not without protest.
Reynolds’ architect’s license was reinstated in 2007 after a 17-year battle, and he resumed building Earthships. Since then, the American Institute of Architects has asked Reynolds to give a lecture at its headquarters in Colorado.
In Garbage Warrior, Reynolds describes one of his new homes, called the Phoenix: “There’s nothing coming into this house, no power lines, no gas lines, no sewage lines coming out, no water lines coming in, no energy being used … We’re sitting on 6,000 gallons of water, growing food, sewage internalized, 70 degrees [21° C] year-round … What these kinds of houses are doing is taking every aspect of your life and putting it into your own hands … A family of four could totally survive here without having to go to the store.”
Can sustainability be legal?
One of the biggest challenges for anyone crazy enough to give up conventional housing is the legality of the Earthship concept. In every country in the world, there are clear guidelines on which materials are to be used in order to build houses. And unfortunately, glass bottles, tires, straw, and clay are not on the “approved” list.
For example, the USA and Canada have very complex residential building codes, with residential zoning and other head-wrecking bureaucratic must-haves.
It isn’t much different in other parts of the world, so if you’re just as crazy as we are, make sure that you inform yourself on your local residential codes, building laws, and regulations, or find someone who does – and stick to their knowledge.
Our Earthship story
We embarked on an Earthship-building journey in 2010. We relied on a community of like-minded people who joined together in an organization called Earthship Europe. The idea behind this community was knowledge gathering and sharing since Reynolds’ concept of Earthship was suited for New Mexico, but that concept is not applicable for climates that exist in Northern Europe, for example.
Serbia’s climate is continental, meaning we have very distinct all four seasons, sometimes with very cold winters, but with significantly fewer sunny days in a year’s time. Our concept of an Earthship was a result of year-long research and drawing of 300 + models. One of the key takeaways was using more natural materials. For example, instead of cement, we switched to using clay and earth wherever possible. There’s a simple test you can do, called the “Soil Jar Test”, to check the ratio of sand and clay in your soil.
Then, we were in a not-so-stable life situation. No stable job, still a student, you know how it goes. We certainly had no budget whatsoever to embark on such a challenging project as building a house absolutely from scratch.
Seeing “Garbage Warrior” was an eye-opening experience for us, realizing that the solution was in front of our eyes all the time – we were, after all, coming from Arte Povera practice, and gathering “waste” and making use of it was nothing strange to us.
So then we started gathering bits and pieces all over the place. We used to roam the city streets during the day and at night in search of things we could salvage. It would go something like this – when we found a piece that could be used, one of us would stay and guard it until the other came with a car to pick it up. Eventually, we wound up with the most incredible things, and each and every item we found has a backstory to it. If you ever wondered what’s the best time of the day to gather bottles, here’s a tip – it’s 4-5 AM since cafes and restaurants drop it off at that time. So we gathered bottles, cleaned them, cut them in half to be used as glass bricks.
One time, we even found a shop window that is now the biggest window in our house. A fun fact about that shop window is that we immediately adjusted the project to suit the biggest window we’ll have!
Then, in Spring 2012 we finally started building our Earthship. We gathered volunteers over Earthship Europe and WOOF, friends, family. First, we lived in a trailer, during the coldest four months EVER, followed by living in a tent INSIDE of a house that wasn’t finished.
While living in an Earthship definitely has its perks and massive pros, there are also a number of cons to consider. Like any other sustainable alternative to modern life, it requires much work, dedication, and perseverance in order to benefit from all the perks.
Sustainable living brings you down to Earth (pun intended) with the material reality of the living concept itself. Just like you need to take care of your composting toilet and clean it regularly while producing humanure, Earthship requires maintenance and mindfulness of the resources found in it. If this post didn’t demotivate you, rather on the contrary made you want to build your Earthship even more, feel free to contact us for any advice you might need.