What Is an Earthship?

Earthship eco house in Taos, New Mexico

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With environmental concerns on the rise, sustainable living is at the forefront of discussions around home design trends and innovations. Some homeowners are ready to make a major change in thinking about the form and function of housing, and the earthship is a prime example of the future of living sustainably. 

A self-sufficient, autonomous building designed to utilize local and recycled materials, the Earthship is built to be as gentle and non-impactful on the planet as possible. These homes generate their own electricity, regulate temperature, and even provide water and food.

Characteristics of an Earthship

Earthships are extremely unique structures and there is no specific construction method. They are generally made of earth-packed tires, aluminum cans, glass bottles, cement, adobe, and stucco. Tires are packed with dirt and stacked to create the bones of the home. These tire cores are then covered over with cement or stucco. The same concept is used with aluminum cans or glass bottles. 

When combined correctly, these recycled and locally sourced materials create thermal mass, naturally regulating the internal temperature of the home without conventional heating and cooling technologies. Oftentimes, these structures are built partly into the ground and sometimes underground to further regulate their internal temperatures. 

These homes are also passive solar structures, meaning they utilize as much energy and heat from the sun as possible without using electrical mechanisms. This is typically done by building the south-facing wall completely of glass, letting in as much light and heat as possible. 

Solar panels and wind turbines are installed on or around the structure to charge the batteries inside the power module of the home, generating its own electricity. 

Water is used to the full and collected directly from the surrounding environment. A collection system directs all the water from the roof into a cistern, where it is fed into a water organization module (referred to as a WOM). The WOM serves to filter and clean the water. After it is suitable for use, the water is first used for washing, bathing, and laundry. This used greywater is then filtered and used again to flush toilets and water plants.  

Origins of Earthships

Earthships first came to be in the 1970s during the energy crisis. Architect Mike Reynolds designed his first Earthship to create a home that was sustainable, self-sufficient, and accessible for anyone to build from local and recycled materials. He created Earthship Biotecture, the leading company spearheading the design and construction of these unique, earth-friendly homes. 

Started in Taos, New Mexico, which is now the headquarters of Earthship Biotecture, Earthships have spread far beyond this desert area. According to Elemental Architecture: Temperaments of Sustainability, over 3,000 Earthships have been constructed from Africa to China. Though they exist around the globe, the majority of these are in the United States.

Pros and Cons 

Earthships offer a completely self-sustaining lifestyle and therefore have plenty of pros. However, Earthships also have some downsides to keep in mind. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of making an Earthship your home. 

  • Independence from conventional infrastructure services

  • Easy access to building materials

  • Greatly reduced or eliminated utility bills

  • Areas with a high water table may lead to unwanted water entering the home

  • Adaptations are required in colder regions

  • Hard to find potential buyers  

Other Things to Know About an Earthship

With their unique design and outstanding self-sufficiency, it’s no wonder that Earthships continue to rise in popularity. However, transitioning to this unique way of living requires a lot of changes and adjustments. It is important to do thorough research before deciding to purchase or build an Earthship. 

One great way to get the feel for these earthy homes is to rent one for a time. Within Earthship communities, there are often Earthships used as vacation rentals. This is the perfect opportunity to experience this unique type of housing without jumping right to purchasing or building. New Mexico and Colorado are the states with the most Earthships.

Earthship Biotecture also has a visitor’s center at its Taos, New Mexico headquarters. In addition, those serious about learning more about building an Earthship and how it addresses key principles of sustainability may be interested in attending Earthship Biotecture’s Academy for an in-person or online session. Of course, the nature of an Earthship makes it adaptable and flexible to meet your specific housing needs, so there is no single ‘right way’ to build this unique, sustainable housing structure. However, the opportunity to learn from the leading architect of the Earthship movement may be of interest to some. 

Whether you simply find this lifestyle fascinating or are ready to roll up your sleeves and build your own Earthship, it is easy to see how this Earth-friendly structure may just be paving the way to a new era of sustainable construction

Article Sources
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  1. Tabb, Phillip James. Elemental Architecture: Temperaments of Sustainability. Taylor & Francis, 2018.