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Whether as a fleeting thought while driving through quiet countryside or as a dream that sparked when first learning about solar panels, many of us have probably — for however briefly a time — entertained a fantasy of living off the land. Growing our own vegetables, utilizing natural resources like sunlight and rainwater, perhaps even existing entirely off-grid; how lovely to live in harmony with nature while saving countless thousands of dollars on utility bills!
Even if you have no plans to trade your cozy neighborhood for a plot of land, you’ve likely made (or plan to make) a few green improvements around your home to boost efficiency and comfort. Sustainability is top-of-mind for many homeowners, both in the interest of saving money and doing good for the environment, so it’s no surprise that the popularity of alternative housing is also on the rise.
You may have heard of passive houses or tiny homes, but there’s a truly unique type of green housing with origins in Taos, New Mexico: Earthship homes. In this article, we’ll explain what exactly an Earthship home is and how to know if an Earthship is right for you.
What is an Earthship home?
Built with natural and upcycled materials, Earthships are autonomous houses that, according to company principles, address the six human needs for a harmonious life:
- Clean water
- Sewage treatment
- Garbage management
The goal of an Earthship home is “to provide the inhabitant with all of the basic necessities to live. To really take care of the people no matter who they are, how they live, what they do, what they believe in — the basics,” says Jonah Reynolds of Earthship Biotecture.
Created in the 1970s by founder Michael Reyolds, Earthship homes began as discarded tin and steel, quickly gaining attention for the useful repurposing of materials. Through subsequent years, Earthship designs have evolved to take full advantage of solar energy, thermal mass, and natural ventilation.
What are the components of an Earthship home?
Because Earthships are purpose-built to be environmentally sustainable — and are frequently off-the-grid-ready — these homes are as in-tune with nature as it gets.
Let’s take a closer look at the six human needs and how Earthship construction facilitates harmony:
Construction of an Earthship home incorporates as much natural and repurposed material as possible, and the key element is earth itself. “The rammed earth is the strength; it’s the heating and cooling system,” says Reynolds.
Disused tires provide the perfect container in which to pack earth and create a robust, insulated structure. Given that there are at least 2.5 billion tires currently stockpiled in the U.S., it’s a win-win solution for both construction and recycling.
If you’re wondering whether tires deteriorating over time or off-gassing with age should be of concern, according to Reynolds, “In a word, no. Tires will last probably the longest of any part of the building.” Additionally, the tires are sealed in with whichever material a client chooses to finish the walls, be it mud plaster, drywall, or anything else.
The systems that make Earthships self-sufficient are built into the structural shell, and every detail is considered during the design process.
Most Earthships are U-shaped to maximize natural light and capture solar energy.
Since they’re built into the ground, the thick walls of an Earthship home naturally help to regulate temperature. Additional insulation is often added to the roof and the north, east, and west-facing walls to further reduce heat loss.
To make truly passive living possible, Earthships are typically built with solar cells and deep-cycle batteries to capture and store energy. Some Earthship homes also have small wind turbines to further optimize energy capture and retention.
Take your windowsill herb garden to the next level with an Earthship home!
Earthship Biotecture encourages organic, in-home food production by incorporating greenhouse space and hydroponic planters into home construction.
Earthships collect water directly from the roof, storing rainfall and melted snow in cisterns. The cisterns then feed a pump system that filters the water and routes it to a solar-powered hot water heater and separate pressure tank.
After you’ve showered, done your laundry, and cleaned up the dinner dishes, the water then moves on to its next phase.
Used “grey” water is directed to botanical cells, which both waters your plants and gives the grey water its first round of cleaning. After the in-home garden, used water is collected and pumped to toilet tanks for use in flushing. Toilet water, however, is routed outside the home to a septic tank, which may then nourish exterior landscaping.
The built-in system to contain, treat, and distribute liquid waste water is an important component of any Earthship home.
“Every drop is contained,” says Reynolds, and “nothing leeches into the earth.”
Because Earthships are built from recycled materials and are so self-sufficient, there’s less material waste right from day one. You’re likely to notice less waste in the kitchen, too, thanks to the Earthship’s ability to aid in food production.
Who can build an Earthship?
Earthship homes can be found around the world. Depending on your location and budget, you can either bring in the pros or tackle the project with your own team.
For those who may already own a piece of land and are ready to get started, you can hire Earthship Biotecture to build your home for you. This process begins with a consultation call with founder Michael Reynolds himself, at a rate of $300 per hour.
Alternatively, buyers can purchase construction plans to build an Earthship with their own team.
For those who are particularly interested in the Earthship lifestyle and getting hands-on with their project, Earthship Biotecture offers experiences in the Earthship Academy and through Earthship Internships.
How much does it cost to build an Earthship?
Unsurprisingly, “it depends” is the ground-level answer to this question.
Not factoring in the cost of raw land, which will vary widely based on location and acreage, the most inexpensive path to an Earthship is to construct the home yourself. Earthship design plan pricing starts at $400 and ranges up to $6,995. From there, you’ll need the materials — find a comprehensive list of Earthship materials here — and the know-how to put it all together.
The cost of hiring Earthship Biotecture to build the home for you depends on the design, size, and finish. “Generally, for a turnkey home, it’s right around $180 to $220 per square-foot,” says Reynolds.
What kinds of Earthship homes are there?
As with conventional homes, Earthship models are diverse in size and features.
- The Global Earthship is suitable for a variety of climates and is notable for its double greenhouse design. Underground cooling tubes provide fresh air and natural air conditioning.
- The Unity Earthship is a quintessential model, with simplicity and functionality at the heart of the design.
- The Encounter Earthship is a budget-friendlier version of the Global, with faster, simpler construction.
- The Simple Survival Earthship is the most affordable model, providing the basics of a comfortable, clean, passive shelter.
Earthship Biotecture can help you customize one of their plans, or even build to a more conventional architectural design.
What are the pros and cons of Earthships?
Upsides of an Earthship home
Subjectivity aside, some easy advantages of Earthships include:
- Sustainability. It’s hard to go any greener than living in an Earthship!
- No utility costs, thanks to the self-sustainable nature of these homes.
- Comfort. Earthships provide a stable temperature and modern amenities.
- Ease of construction. You could build one yourself if you’re really committed to the learning process.
- Food, if you so choose, is included! Though you probably won’t be able to grow enough to meet all of your food needs, unless you are also farming the land outside your home.
Potential downsides of an Earthship home
“Earthships, because they relate to the sun for heating and electricity, because they relate to precipitation to catch water — because they relate to the earth — it makes the inhabitant aware of this,” says Reynolds, noting that it really depends on an individual’s perspective.
If you’re not interested in the ebbs and flows of the seasons, if noticing environmental nuances isn’t really your thing, life in an Earthship may feel too unconventional.
Further Earthship challenges may include:
- Maintenance. While relatively hands-off, there are filters and batteries to keep up with in an Earthship home.
- Cost. Depending on the size and your desired level of interior finish, an Earthship may require more capital than a traditionally constructed home.
- Financing legwork. Since Earthships have been around for 50 years and plenty of banks have provided loans to similar buyers, it’s possible to finance an Earthship just as you would with any other home. You may, however, have to do a little educating if your chosen lender is unfamiliar with Earthships.
- Standardization. Because Earthship Biotecture knows exactly what works well with their homes, “we’re always going to try to get people into the standard designs so they don’t waste money,” shares Reynolds. “The Earthship is really ‘form follows function.’ There’s more persuasion from us as a design firm toward a client as to, ‘Hey, stick with this design.’”
Concluding with a note on Earthship home value
While Earthships are found across the country, unless you’re based in Taos, New Mexico, finding comparable properties is going to be a challenge should you decide to sell your home down the road. Though Earthships are valuable in their self-sufficiency, they’re not going to appeal to every homeowner, and you may experience difficulty in finding a like-minded buyer.
That being said, as people continue to shift toward a green mindset, Earthship homes may well become more commonplace in the coming years. And, while their perspective is perhaps not an unbiased one, building with Earthship Biotecture means working with a team that genuinely believes in their mission.
“Getting into an Earthship is a much better investment,” says Reynolds. “It’s going to become more valuable as the decades go by. That’s the most important thing for people to understand about Earthships.”