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9 Earthship Biotecture Facts

by Gloria Louden
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Almost every tree hugger (and I mean this in the best possible way) has heard about Earthships. Some people from the older crowd surely remember the boom the Earthship Biotecture made back in the 70s. Promoting self-sufficient homes perfect for those of the highest environmental awareness, the Earthship was a green dream-come-true.

A Quick Rundown of Earthships and Earthship Biotecture

I once asked myself, “What can I do with a bunch of old tires?”

Tires are notoriously difficult to recycle. So what can I do with a few (hundred) of them? Well, if I have enough, I can, apparently, build a house! At least that was Michael Reynolds’ idea back in the day. When he founded Earthship Biotecture, he envisioned using dirt-stuffed tires to build self-sustainable homes by only using recycled materials.

His vision was brought to life in Taos, New Mexico, where he used natural and recycled materials to build a passive solar home. The idea was to design and build a home that would become a synonym of sustainable living. With solar panels, the Earthship would generate its own electricity, and it would collect and recycle rainwater.

Sounds interesting, right? Here are a few more facts about the brilliance and a few shortcomings of Earthship Bitoecture’s dream.

#1. Thermal Mass Conduction

The main idea behind the first-ever Earthship was that it could control the temperature. Michael Reynolds envisioned external and internal walls that would maintain a specific temperature within the Earthship to achieve that.

The external ones are made from tires filled with earth, while the internal ones have a honeycomb structure made from glass bottles and empty cans. That makes for a fantastic thermal mass heating and cooling system.

Both internal and external structures isolate the Earthship, making it easy to maintain a specific temperature. They also provide sufficient ventilation. Not to mention that the glass bottles make a gorgeous mosaic light.

#2. Tires Giveth and the Tires Taketh Away

Although using tires for thermal mass conduction is a brilliant idea, I remembered that they have toxic properties. When they start breaking down (and they will), tires emanate toxic gas. What’s more, this all happens in a closed environment (the walls).

Now, at first, I didn’t think that would be an issue. After all, I’d still have internal walls, as well as vents in my Earthship, right?

Well, yes. However, the internal walls and vents can only do so much. The plastering on the inner walls can crack, for example. That leaves plenty of room for the toxic vapors to wiggle their way into my home.

But that’s not all. Even if there are no cracks on the internal walls, the gases will still be trapped within the pockets of external walls. They can build up and expand. I’ll leave you to guess what happens to the Earthship walls then.

#3. Recycled Materials

One of the pillars of the Earthship as an idea was that it should be eco-friendly. That means that the original designs (as well as the ones used today) call for as many recycled materials as possible.

Aside from using recycled materials, Earthships are built and positioned in such a way that they make the most of their surroundings. For example, the majority of Earthships have quite a few large glass windows that allow for plenty of natural light.

That means that there’s plenty of heat, even during winter. The Earthship will make great use of anything nature provides. The heat that the sun radiates warms up the Earthship, and the thermal mass conduction makes sure that the heat doesn’t escape.

#4. But Is It ALL Recycled?

Unfortunately, no Earthship is made out of 100% recycled materials. Although the original idea was to use as little of other materials as possible, not using concrete still isn’t an option.

An Earthship has a natural design, and it looks as if it belongs in nature. However, the truth is a bit different. I found that even if I make it myself, it will never be 100% natural and organic. Sure, I can use materials that would otherwise end up in a dump. I’d recycle and reduce my carbon footprint by a smidge (hey, every little bit counts!).

But at the end of the day, I’d have to use cement as well. Concrete is responsible for around 10% of greenhouse gasses. What’s more, concrete also isn’t ideal to have in a home. It sucks the oxygen right out of the air. If there’s no adequate ventilation, this can be a potential issue.

So while it is eco-friendly and more mindful of the state of the environment, an Earthship isn’t entirely green.

#5. Sustainable Energy

An Earthship will make great use of both solar and wind power. Solar panels and wind turbines that are essential parts of any Earthship power up the household. They provide enough energy so that there really is no need for additional electricity.

If the Earthship owners are mindful of how they spend the power that the solar panels generate, they might not even need wind turbines (and, of course, electricity). But that also depends on where the Earthship is located. In areas that aren’t particularly windy, wind turbines are more of an expensive and unnecessary add-on than means of sustainability.

#6. Water Harvesting and Recycling

Every Earthship has a water harvesting system. It collects rainwater and distributes it throughout the household. The water harvesting and recycling system is actually the entire roof. It collects water with the help of strategically placed gutters and drives it into a cistern.

Once in the cistern, the water is pumped into the bathroom for sink and shower use. After it’s used there, it moves on through the pipes into the greenhouse. There, it waters all plants (both edible and non-edible). Finally, the water ends up in the toilets where the household can use it for flushing.

Thanks to this system, an Earthship only uses 20 gallons of water per day. That is a fantastic feat, given that the average American household uses at least 80 gallons.

So, in theory, Earthships are sustainable even in dry climates. However, the reality is somewhat different for those who live in New Mexico, for example. As a notoriously dry area, with only 11 inches of rain per year, New Mexico doesn’t have an ideal climate for Earthships.

That means that if I decide to take an eco-friendly plunge and build an Earthship, I might have to buy additional water. So, then, what’s the point? Well, the original idea of sustainability is still there. The water I’d buy would still go through the harvesting system, and I’d be able to use it multiple times.

#7. What About the Humid Areas?

By following our previous logic, I figured that it would be better to build an Earthship in a humid area, right? Well, not really.

Because of high humidity, people who build Earthships in areas that have a lot more rainfall per year have a whole different set of problems. Moldy walls and ceilings are some of them. Overwatered gardens and algae-filled gutters are also huge issues.

Overall, Earthship might not have the ideal solution when it comes to water use. But it does promote and facilitate conservation (to some extent).

#8. Food and Crop Production

As mentioned, every Earthship has a greenhouse. That means I can grow my own fruit, vegetables, and herbs. In theory, since I’m not a versatile or picky eater and don’t mind a strict raw vegan, a greenhouse meant that I could live off of what I grew in an Earthship.

Since the greenhouses are an integral part of the Earthship, the plants in it have plenty of sunlight but are sheltered from harsh elements. Again, in theory, that means I could grow plants year-round.

Of course, as I already mentioned, all plants also have plenty of water, given the water harvesting system.

Now, the primary issue with Earthships and crop production is that I can’t grow everything. And, because Earthship Biotecture promotes complete, off-the-grid sustainability, one would expect that they could grow their own food, without being dependent on outside resources.

That simply isn’t possible. Even with a top-notch garden, I’d still have to buy groceries.

#9. The Cost of Near-Perfect Sustainability

So, now that you’ve heard the pros and cons of the Earthship, you’re probably wondering how much it costs.

I’ll be honest here — Earthships don’t come cheap. Even if I decided to build one myself, I’d still need around $150 per square foot. I could cut costs, of course, by collecting the materials myself. However, that might take quite a while (a couple of years, at least).

So if I wanted a sustainable home and I wanted it now, the only option I’d have would be to reach out to the masterminds. At Earthship Biotecture, the price per square foot is around $225.

Earthship Biotecture offers several different versions of these homes. The prices range from $25,000 to $1.5 million. The most expensive version is the Phoenix, which is both gorgeous and fully sustainable. So, evidently, sustainability comes at a very steep price (at least in Earthship Biotecture).

A Few Parting Words

It’s vital to note that Earthships fall under “experimental architecture,” which means that getting a loan for them or a permit to actually use them for anything other than a home is nearly impossible. That, of course, depends on the local regulations. Still, in most cases, you’ll find that getting permits and financial aid is an uphill battle.

Whether you like it or not, Earthship really is the most sustainable home to date. It has its flaws, sure, but it’s the closest the society got so far to our eco-friendly dream.

Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/

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