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Earthship Hype and Earthship Reality

Should you build your house out of old tires, rammed earth, and empty cans?

Posted on May 23 2014 by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

If you are a hippie from Taos, New Mexico, you know what an earthship is. It’s an off-grid earth-bermed passive solar home with exterior walls made of old tires packed with dirt.

Although many people assume that the term “earthship” is generic, like “straw-bale home” or “underground house,” it isn’t. It’s a trademark owned by a for-profit company, Earthship Biotecture. The company was founded by a Taos architect named Michael Reynolds, who began developing his earthship construction principles in the 1980s. Over the years, he gradually refined these principles and shared them with the public in several books and articles.

Michael Reynolds is an architect, custom home builder, and real-estate developer. His business activities include new home construction, consulting, the sale of earthship plans, and the promotion of Earthship communities.

Reynolds does not live in an earthship, however. In his book Off the Grid, journalist Nick Rosen describes several encounters with Mike Reynolds. “When I asked to visit him in his own home Mike was surprisingly reluctant,” Rosen wrote. “I found out where the Reynolds house is located and was brought there by a local guide. … And it’s on the grid — all of the grids: power, water, sewage, even cable.” [Author's postscript: According to Alex Leeor, Michael Reynolds now lives in an earthship; see Comment #17 below.]

The defining characteristics of an earthship

According to Reynolds, earthships have the following six characteristics:

  • Some of the building materials consist of discarded or recycled items, including old vehicle tires (typically used to build earth-bermed walls). Interior partitions are sometimes made from discarded aluminum beverage cans (used as “bricks”) and mortar.
  • The homes are oriented according to passive solar principles (and in some cases use earth tubes as ventilation ducts).
  • In most cases, the homes are off-grid, producing their electricity on site with a PVPhotovoltaics. Generation of electricity directly from sunlight. A photovoltaic (PV) cell has no moving parts; electrons are energized by sunlight and result in current flow. array, a wind turbine, or a gas generator.
  • The homes usually include a cistern to store water gathered from the roof.
  • The homes treat sewage on site rather than being hooked up to a municipal sewer system.
  • The homes include a greenhouse capable of growing food.

Earthships have a strong appeal to a certain category of green builders. The elements that Reynolds emphasizes — the use of discarded materials and dirt to build walls, the focus on passive solar design principles, and the use of renewable energy systems — are aligned with popular ideas about environmental stewardship.

One possible problem with a wider adoption of earthship construction methods: foundation walls made from tires packed with dirt do not meet most building codes.

Comfortable in all climates?

Like Wolfgang Feist, Reynolds suggests that his design and construction principles are universal enough to apply everywhere; in fact, the official Earthship website brags that “earthships maintain comfortable temperatures in any climate.” Yet some of Reynolds’ requirements — including the requirement for a cistern — don’t seem particularly universal.

In New Mexico, where Reynolds’ principles were first developed, water can be scarce; in that climate, a cistern connected to a water filtration system may be useful. In well-watered areas like northern New England, however, where rural homes commonly draw water from surface springs or drilled wells, installing a cistern to gather rainwater from the roof is usually an unnecessary expense.

Setting off a reader’s “exaggeration alert system”

Most intelligent readers have an E.A.S. — that is, an exaggeration alert system (also known as a bullsh*t alarm). Unfortunately, Reynolds’ statements frequently set off my E.A.S.

For example, in a video promoting his earthship designs, Reynolds introduces the topic this way: “Imagine living in a home that costs you nothing to heat or cool. … Imagine no utility bills. … The three-foot thick massive walls and the method of incorporating them into the earth create living spaces with a thermal dynamic that results in a stable room temperature.”

In an article called “Australia falling for Earthship marketers,” journalist Nick Rosen reports that Reynolds told an Australian audience that earthships are “buildings that heat and cool themselves.” He also claimed that “an Earthship home has no utility bills.”

In an article on Earthships published in Makezine, an online magazine, Andrew Terranova reports that “The Earthship team has even designed their own vertical-axis windmill, called the Dynasphere.” Indeed, information on the Dynasphere turbine can be found on the official Earthship website. Since vertical-axis machines are the “insulating paint” of renewable energy equipment, this news is not encouraging. (For a physics-based explanation of why vertical-axis wind turbines underperform their horizontal-axis rivals, see “Thoughts on Vertical-Axis Wind Turbines,” by Robert Preus. In his article, Preus notes, “There is an all-too-common belief that a VAWT [vertical-axis wind turbine] approach will revolutionize the small wind industry. This seems to be a lot of wishful thinking by people who don’t understand physics.”)

Greenhouses produce food

The typical earthship includes extensive sloped or vertical south glazingWhen referring to windows or doors, the transparent or translucent layer that transmits light. High-performance glazing may include multiple layers of glass or plastic, low-e coatings, and low-conductivity gas fill. that is usually fitted with moveable interior shades. The area behind the south-facing glass can be used to grow crops or ornamental plants. In many cases, these plants are watered with graywaterWastewater from a building that does not include flush-water from toilets and (as most commonly defined) water from kitchen sinks or dishwashers. In some places, graywater can be collected and used for subsurface irrigation. from the home’s shower, bathtub, or washing machine.

When Reynolds speaks publicly about the advantages of earthship construction, he sometimes implies that a residential greenhouse can provide most of a family’s food. (A poster at the earthship visitor's center in Taos explains that the food production “effort” aims “to produce enough food in one’s home to survive.”)

A member of the audience at one of Reynolds’ lectures in Australia (an architect who blogs anonymously) reported, “The facts of habitation and performance in Mr. Reynolds’ presentation were very thin, all glossed over quickly as though they were undisputed truths. Providing your own protein with fish from the tank? He illustrated this with [a video of] a child catching one fish with an overly long rod and then cooking it. The camera panned in to show decorative red carp gliding under the water plants. Are these fish or plants edible? What are the details for fish production? What space is required? What numbers? What is the cycle for sustainability? If a family eats fish three times a week, as some dieticians recommend, then at least a dozen large fish will be required every month; a gross in one year. What infrastructure is required to achieve this outcome? How many banana trees are needed? How many other plants and varieties have to be cajoled to continue production 24/7/52?”

The skeptical tone adopted by this architect represents a fairly typical reaction to Reynolds’ claims. (Another reaction, enthusiastic discipleship, is also fairly typical.)

Heating and cooling

In a variety of videos posted on the web, Michael Reynolds can be seen describing an earthship's heating and cooling systems. Space heating is provided by the sun, which shines through the vertical or sloped south-facing glazing. Cooling is provided by earth tubes; the air in the earth tubes is drawn into the house when an operable skylight is opened.


QUOTES FROM EARTHSHIP: VOL. 1 by Michael Reynolds


“Too Hot. If you are too hot, it could be from air temperature, direct sun, or both. If direct sun is involved, see the shading section. To cool the air temperature down, you must create a ‘chimney’ for hot air to leave and an inlet for fresh, cooler air to come in.”

“Too cold. Obviously, if you are too cold, you must close all vents, windows and doors. … If control of venting and/or insulated shades does not provide the comfort level you want, a small amount of backup heat is necessary. … A fireplace, small wood stove, small ventless gas heater, or warm floor system is recommended here. … Bathrooms that are not directly on the solar face often require a blast of heat after a shower. This can be achieved with instant electric heaters with fins or small gas units.”

“When one buys an earthship, there are certain factors relative to performance that one must accept as givens to allow it to be a vessel that will ‘sail on the seas of tomorrow’ where common housing will surely sink.”


(Earth tube ventilation might be an important requirement for anyone with allergies. Author Nick Rosen reports the following anecdote: “The late actor Dennis Weaver ... bought a set of Mike’s blueprints in 1980, built an Earthship, and produced a documentary about it. … Weaver moved out of the Earthship shortly afterward, when he discovered he was allergic to the gas the tires gave off, which seeped through the limestone walls.”)

Many earthship claims — for example, the claim that an earthship is “a house that heats and cools itself” — resemble claims made by some Passivhaus advocates. In both cases, the claims are exaggerations.

The Earthship website reports, “One of the most recently built Packaged Earthships reports a maximum [I think the author means ‘minimum’] low temperature of 64 degrees (for a brief time) early in the morning before sunrise after two cloudy days.”

That’s all fine and good, as far as it goes. But any Vermonter who reads this sentence is likely to think, “Well, what would the indoor temperature be after twenty cloudy days in a row?”

Describing a presentation given in Australia, the architect who had doubts about earthship food production capabilities reported, “Mr. Reynolds … elaborated on the systems of air extraction and intake, and passive heatingSpace heating that does not require electricity or fuel consumption. The most common type of passive heating system is passive solar heating — that is, heating which depends on solar gain through windows, thermal mass, and insulation. Unlike an active solar heating system, a passive system has no pumps or blowers. and cooling that would keep the home at 21 degrees Celsius [70°F]. His graph seemed to suggest a variation between 19 [66.2°F] to 26 degrees [79°F], but this was never spoken about.”

While many websites trumpet the claim that “Earthship homes will work in any climate,” they rarely note that earthships work a lot better in some climates than others. Earthship owners in cold climates who prefer comfortable indoor temperatures are likely to install a heating system. The owner of an earthship in British Columbia wisely included a radiant floor heating system, noting, “Our valley gets very little sunlight in December and January.”

Insufficient insulation

Many earthship owners with comfort problems can trace their homes’ poor thermal performance to a lack of insulation. Before Reynolds understood the reason for these comfort problems, many earthships were built without any wall or floor insulation. Oops.

According to the Wikipedia article on earthships, “Some earthships appear to have serious problems with heat loss. … This situation may have arisen from the mistaken belief that ground-coupled structures (buildings in thermal contact with the ground) do not require insulation.”

One of the many earthships with insufficient insulation was one built in Brighton, England. According to an anonymously authored online article called “Some Thoughts on Earthships,”, “The Brighton Earthship was designed by Michael Reynolds himself and it is an incredible structure. … It was not by any means a cheap build and mistakes have been made. … The failure to insulate under the floor (on Reynolds insistence that it was unnecessary) was the result of the success of this strategy in New Mexico. Unfortunately temperature analysis of the Brighton Earthship has demonstrated that the lower ground temperatures in England cause an uninsulated floor to act like a bottomless drain on the internal heat rather than a store for it. The team have learned from this, but it is a mistake that could have been avoided had other advice been heeded.”

Summer overheating

It should come as no surprise that homes in cold, cloudy climates need insulation and heating systems if the homeowners expect to be comfortable during the winter. But it's worth noting that earthships can be uncomfortable during the summer as well as the winter — especially if they have sloped south-facing glazing. When Nick Rosen interviewed Pliny Fisk, the founder of the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems in Austin, Texas, Fisk “was dismissive of Mike Reynolds’s Earthships: ‘He doesn’t have good criteria for designing his buildings. They totally overheat.’”


“HARD TO MESS UP”


“Though Mr. Reynolds said his do-it-yourself earth-ship formula is ‘hard to mess up,’ the idea that any committed person can build one is certainly debatable. Marsha Campbell, a 49-year-old social worker, moved to Taos from Ohio to build an earth ship in 1991. Her tales are reminiscent of Great Plains pioneer women in sod houses — living in an unfinished dirt house, hauling 40-pound containers of water, dashing to the outhouse in the dead of night. Eventually she reached the end of her $20,000, unable to complete the project. Along the way, she and her lover broke up.

“ ‘I think Michael Reynolds is a genius,’ she now says, ‘and the idea works if you can hire him to build the house. But if you can't, you suffer. In my life, I've been pretty much able to do everything I set out to do. But I certainly couldn't build that stupid house.’ ”

“Father Earth,” New York Times, January 10, 1993


In a letter to the editor of High Country News magazine, Beverly Fung, the owner of an earthship in Santa Fe, New Mexico, reported that she “signed an agreement to have Solar Survival Architecture (SSA) and Michael Reynolds manage the construction of our Earthship.” She went on to explain that the indoor temperature in her house reaches “95 degrees with an outside temperature of 90 degrees during the summer with cellular shades on all windows. This house was designed by SSA architectural staff for another client and appears in Volume I of the Earthships manual. We made no modifications to the plans other than those suggested by SSA and their representatives.”

No utility bills?

Reynolds often tells his audiences that off-grid living is cheaper than gird-connected living, because homeowners have don’t have to pay for their energy. “Imagine no utility bills.”

It doesn’t take much digging, however, to discover that earthship homes use gasoline to fuel generators and propane for domestic hot water and cooking. An earthship model advertised on the Earthship website is described as a house that accommodates “solar electricity with capabilities of wind, gas generator or conventional utility backup.” Moreover, the house is equipped with a “gas on-demand hot waterSystem to quickly deliver hot water to a bathroom or kitchen when needed, without wasting the water that has been sitting in the hot-water pipes, which circulates back to the water heater. [heater] with capability of solar hot water addition.” The kitchen is set up for “gas cooking,” and space conditioning is provided by “solar thermal heating and cooling with option of gas or fireplace backup.”

Off-grid homes require large battery systems, and these batteries need to be replaced every six or eight years; that’s why off-grid electricity is almost always more expensive than grid-supplied electricity. So, once a homeowner squirrels money away every month for the battery replacement fund, pays the propane bill, and buys gasoline to feed the generator that provides electricity during cloudy weather, the off-grid lifestyle doesn't quite match the one implied by the phrase, “imagine no utility bills.”

In spite of these awkward facts, Reynolds told an Australian audience, “Because Earthships don’t need to use fossil fuels to stabilize the temperature in the building and they generate their own electricity, the costs of living are reduced.”

For an ironic capstone to this discussion of whether off-grid electricity is cheap, let’s listen to the words of the owner of a recently completed grid-connected earthship in British Columbia: “We have been asked why we aren’t off-grid yet. This is simple. We are building without a mortgage and some systems cost more than we can afford right now.”

How much do these homes cost?

Anyone who thinks that a house built out of old tires, dirt, and discarded aluminum cans must be inexpensive is mistaken. According to most reports, earthships cost just as much to build as a conventional house. A model called the Global Earthship, which Reynolds calls “our current favorite model,” can be built for $225 per square foot. According to Trent Wolbe, a journalist who took a course in earthship construction at Reynolds’ training center in Taos, the Global Model costs $300,000 for a one-bedroom, one-bath home, so “it’s certainly not for people who don’t believe wholeheartedly in the concept.”

Nick Rosen quotes a Taos resident named Bill Reed, who explains that Reynolds’ problem “is building at a reasonable amount per square foot. Those tires, they’re labor-intensive.”

Reynolds has arranged to build earthships for many wealthy clients, and he says, “If you’ve got a pocketbook to match, the sky’s the limit.”

Of course, owner/builders who can supply their own labor can build an earthship for significantly less than $225 per square foot. But they had better have strong arm muscles — compacting dirt with a sledgehammer is fairly brutal work — and several months to spare. Moreover, even though old tires and aluminum cans can sometimes be had for free, an owner/builder's bank account still has to be fat enough to cover the costs of roof framing, roofing, insulation, glazing (and lots of it), adjustable window shades, appliances, interior finishes, a complicated plumbing system with more tanks and pumps than a conventional system, and a pricy renewable energy system.

A personality-driven movement

Michael Reynolds believes that the wide adoption of earthship principles will solve many of the world’s environmental problems. He is an enthusiastic and self-confident proselytizer. Some methods of residential construction — including straw-bale construction, passive solar construction, and superinsulation — are not personality-driven. Other methods — including Wolfgang Feist’s Passivhaus approach and Michael Reynolds’ earthship approach — are very much personality-driven, for better or worse.

The problem with a movement propelled by a leader with a strong personality is that the leader has a strong personality. Michael Reynolds is no exception to this general rule. In his book Off the Grid, Nick Rosen reports that “Mike is admired and despised in equal measure by his clients, who find his brusque style off-putting. And there have been accusations over the years of far worse than rudeness — broken promises and bad workmanship are two of the lesser charges. … Mike turns out to be a bizarre and socially dysfunctional character.”

Another assessment of Reynolds comes from Trent Wolbe, a journalist who took a course in earthship construction at Reynolds’ training center in Taos. In an article published by The Verge, Wolbe wrote, “I began to pull at every loose thread I could find in the Earthship rhetoric — the main chunk of cognitive dissonance that gnawed at my conscience was how much this emphatically off-the-grid operation depended on very gridlike formations: the internet as a global publicity tool, existing transportation infrastructure for moving raw materials to and from builds, and phone networks to communicate. On the last day of class I brought this up, and Mike, double-fisting a pair of margaritas, conceded that the Internet was very important to his operation, but not vital. To end the conversation he said, with his signature blend of comedy and gravity, ‘F*ck you and your grid,’ and laughed it off with a contemplative sip(SIP) Building panel usually made of oriented strand board (OSB) skins surrounding a core of expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam insulation. SIPs can be erected very quickly with a crane to create an energy-efficient, sturdy home. from a salt-dusted rim. Although he constantly proclaimed that no one knew the answers to everything, he seemed to bristle at any questions that peered closely at the jagged seams of his theories. At times this moral certitude gave off an air of religious evangelism, a blind hippie faith that Earthship devotees sometimes exude.”

A blogger who goes by the nom de plume of ChillumJon reports that the earthship project in Brighton, England “for Reynolds was an experiment that he got paid for and left behind; one in which he ignored advice from local architects who were familiar with the climate. His struggles to get permission to build experimental houses in the U.S. have no doubt forced him to rigidify his thinking and stick to his guns but the result is that when one of his Earthships does not work or [someone] disagrees with his assessment of something, he is all too quick, it seems, to dismiss the client as ‘bitching and moaning’ for not having realized how experimental their home would be, or just not seeing things as clearly as him. … Mike Reynolds is on a mission. I guess his failure to heed the warnings of others is because in his haste to save the planet he doesn’t feel there is time for him to mess around with checking whether or not something will work in one place just because it did in another.”

Optimizing the design of a passive solar house

For owner/builders with lots of time on their hands who live in rural areas with plenty of winter sun, earthships make sense. Many finished earthships are attractive buildings with plenty of natural light and a generously sized greenhouse. Most earthship owners are happy with the design and performance of their homes.

The on-site wastewater treatment systems that Reynolds has developed, while more complicated and expensive than ordinary septic systems, are undoubtedly useful in drought-stricken regions.

When evaluating the pluses and minuses of the earthship approach, however, it’s important to separate the hype from the facts. Michael Reynolds implies that the thermal performance of an earthship can be attributed in part to the excellent thermal storage characteristics of earth-filled tires. He’s wrong on that point.

Earthship design principles do not include a magic formula. Experienced passive solar designers know that in most North American climates, below-grade walls and below-grade floors need plenty of insulation to separate indoor conditions from soil temperatures. While thermal mass can be an important element of passive solar design, it must be located on the interior side of the insulation layer to be useful. Building walls from earth-filled tires doesn’t alter these facts.

During the 1970s, many designers of passive solar homes specified large areas of south-facing glazing. In areas of the country with plenty of winter sun — including Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico — south glazing helped these buildings stay warm, even during spells of very cold weather. However, extensive south-facing glazing is a double-edged sword. Its advantages during sunny cold weather are balanced by its disadvantages at night (when its low R-valueMeasure of resistance to heat flow; the higher the R-value, the lower the heat loss. The inverse of U-factor. leads to thermal losses) and during the summer (when daytime solar gain is usually undesirable). Balancing the advantages of wintertime solar gain with the disadvantages of nighttime heat loss and summer overheating is tricky, but designers of low-energy homes have learned a lot since the 1970s. Optimized passive solar designs require less glazing and more insulation than earthships provide.

Martin Holladay’s previous blog: “Solar Hot Water System Maintenance Costs.”

Click here to follow Martin Holladay on Twitter.


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Image Credits:

  1. Images #1, #7, and #8: J. Burton
  2. Image #2: Dominic Alves
  3. Images #3, #4, and #6: Marvin's Dad / Flickr
  4. Image #5: Jessica Reeder

1.
Fri, 05/23/2014 - 11:24

We should try and push aside
by Jin Kazama

Helpful? 0

We should try and push aside the "personality " of the promotor to focus solely on the building design.

But anyhow, even for an apprentice as myself, the regular design of the earthships brings up serious basic questions.

When i first gave a chance to the design a few years ago, i quickly understood that this kinda of contraption was very "climate specific " design.

I still do not understand why the original design didn't include some kind of seperation between the front "greenhouse aka solar heat collector " and the remaining of the building.
during summer time when it overheats, the hot air from the green house could be evacuated by operable windows/openings near the roof and act as a seperate room,
and during winter time you open doors/glass separation to the building completely.

Currently, using old tires to build earthen walls is not very ecofriendly,
as most rubber is recycled to products and tires are not a pollution anymore.
All the rubber used on a earthenship will need to be replaced by new tires/rubbers to compensate on its recycling cycle.
A wall made out of tires has probably a much larger impact than a wall consisting of foam boards,
with much lower performance.

Neway, any building design that does not incorporate proper sunshades for winter/summer solar is disqualified automatically. :p


2.
Fri, 05/23/2014 - 11:40

Response to Jin Kazama
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

Jin,
You wrote, "I still do not understand why the original design didn't include some kind of separation between the front 'greenhouse' a.k.a. 'solar heat collector' and the remainder of the building."

Many earthships do, in fact, include such a separation. For example, look at Image #7 (the photo showing the greenhouse plants).


3.
Fri, 05/23/2014 - 14:25

Martin :
by Jin Kazama

Helpful? 0

i was referring to the "venting" setup rather than the seperation ... another syntax error on my part :p


4.
Fri, 05/23/2014 - 14:43

Edited Fri, 05/23/2014 - 14:48.

Response to Jin Kazama
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

Jin,
There are many different earthship models, and designs have changed over the years. But many earthships do include operable skylights that allow hot air to escape from the greenhouse area. See the two images below. (Click on an image to enlarge it.)

.

Earthship ventilation 1.jpg Earthship ventilation 2.jpg


5.
Fri, 05/23/2014 - 14:56

wow
by Jin Kazama

Helpful? 0

ok i stand corrected ... maybe i don't recall seeing about this, but then i never really indulge in learning about the ships after the first few hours of research.

i guess it was intuitive design to the same conclusion :)

Do they still overheat ?


6.
Fri, 05/23/2014 - 15:22

Edited Fri, 05/23/2014 - 15:29.

Earth Sheltered Nostalgia?
by Cameron Taylor

Helpful? 0

Boy does this article bring back memories!

Years ago I was involved with an earth sheltered "off grid" housing movement near Denton, Texas. Instead of rammed earth and old tires, as used on the earth ships, the personality driven design of choice was ferro-cement, an approximately 1" thick composite of rebar, hardware cloth, e-lath, and Portland cement. The personality center's own home was very similar to earth ship in that it used a south facing greenhouse attached to the dwelling, with earth on the roof and bermed up on all sides. This was circa 1979-1980, on the heels of the latest oil embargo.

I was a very young man when I got involved with the movement and community...seventeen years old. Although my enthusiasm for all of it was idealistic and untempered by years of correcting poor building design choices, even at that time I remember having misgivings about earth cooling tubes. For example, how effectively would they dehumidify hot, humid air during a typical North Texas summer? It wasn't enough to just cool it. Perhaps because I was also studying for a career in HVAC, this partially advised my doubts.

Many years later I live in a suburban North Texas home of mid-century modern design. Working with a friend who has a blower door has taught me many things about how a conventionally (stick) built dwelling with brick veneer facade performs in Texas weather. This was the type of house villified by the personality driven Denton earth sheltered "off grid" community, but I have found with even moderate effort can be made much more comfortable and energy efficient than its demonized version would have it to be.

Various members of this community did experience less than ideal results with their ferro-cement earth ship versions: one hard lesson learned was ferro-cement is not friendly to cold joints...it should be done in one pour or gunnite pass. But a lot of these folks were hippie-like in life outlook; gathering a group of friends or fellow community members to have a "mudding party" was how many of the homes got built. Overall I really appreciate the times I had with these folks, but am glad I did not stick with it. That said, it laid a foundation for my interest in building performance, efficiency, and comfort that has never left me in all the following years.

Thanks for this article; enjoyed it and my flashback very much! :)


7.
Fri, 05/23/2014 - 15:33

Response to Cameron Taylor
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 1

Cameron,
Many people of our generation -- those of us in our late 50s and early 60s -- were introduced to construction at mudding parties, barn raisings, and similar communal gatherings, where all the young people with ponytails got together and learned how to build. Good times.


8.
Fri, 05/23/2014 - 21:56

Edited Fri, 05/23/2014 - 21:58.

Much ado about nothing
by Curt Kinder

Helpful? 0

What an amazingly long and well-constructed article about a concept whose time has clearly passed, and arguably was never relevant in the first place!

I'm unsure whether to consider it as an interesting history lesson or a stern warning to those whose blind tree-huggery might lead them to ignore the hard physical realities of Manual J and psychrometrics.

This reminds me of the minor stir I caused last year by describing the "Stockholm Syndrome" that affects some PassivHaus aficionados...that is that "despite interior discomfort many hours per day during some seasons, my beloved project is intrinsically a success by definition, since it is a PH".


9.
Sat, 05/24/2014 - 00:53

Curt
by Malcolm Taylor

Helpful? 0

"my beloved project is intrinsically a success by definition, since it is a PH".

That's great!


10.
Sat, 05/24/2014 - 06:02

Dennis Weaver
by Erich Riesenberg

Helpful? 0

Here is an article on Mr Weaver's home from 1999. Apparently he lived there for more than 10 years. The only reference I can find to a problem with the home is one sentence in the book Off the Grid.

http://www.motherearthliving.com/green-living/a-visit-with-environmentor...


11.
Sat, 05/24/2014 - 06:50

Reply to Curt Kinder
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

Curt,
Perhaps you are right that this article is "Much ado about nothing." I agree that earthships represent an insignificant percentage of residential construction projects in the U.S.

However, a surprising number of green building enthusiasts -- especially those in the "natural building" movement -- consider earthship design to be the Holy Grail of green building. While the earthship movement may be small, I think the topic was worth addressing -- if only to give some green builders food for thought.


12.
Sat, 05/24/2014 - 10:21

Response to Jin Kazama
by Robert Connor

Helpful? -1

We should try and push aside the "personality " of the promotor to focus solely on the building design.

Ah, actually I think the personality does matter. It sounds like Michael may have an alcohol problem and no, it doesn't sound like he is getting any rehab. Why do you believe a "drunk"? He would have more credibility if he were sober and because he is not, that is how he comes up with these wrong ideas.


13.
Sat, 05/24/2014 - 12:35

Edited Sat, 05/24/2014 - 12:51.

A useful and timely article.
by Derek Roff

Helpful? -1

I see this article as more than a walk through history. Earthship's mindshare among a current crop of young, self-taught alternative builders and back-to-the-landers is huge, and seems to be growing. Successful sales tours and revival shows have hit not only Australia, as the article mentions, but Northern, Central, and Eastern Europe, and even Haiti, as well. The Earthship ideas sound good, and sell well, in certain circles. The sales pitch combines beautiful concepts with superficial platitudes and sometimes downright deception.

I'm in favor of providing honest information and a reality check, as Martin has done to some extent. There are a number of more specific problems and flaws that could be delineated or explained in more detail. For the moment, I'd just like to protest one of Martin's closing sentences, "For owner/builders with lots of time on their hands who live in rural areas with plenty of winter sun, earthships make sense."

I don't think they ever make sense, in terms of building science and comfortable living. I think it is time to stop being so charitable toward Earthships and their foundational design errors. If GBA would be as forthright and specific about Earthship flaws as it has been about Passive House and solar thermal, we would have some valuable articles to hand to our starry-eyed nieces and nephews, who are already speculatively sipping from the earthenware mug of Earthship Kool-aid.


14.
Sat, 05/24/2014 - 13:27

Value of the extreme example.
by Lucas Durand - 7A

Helpful? 0

I think one of the often unsung virtues of the Earthship concept (and PH for that matter) are that they are the $5000 grill of "green building".

That is to say that because they represent extreme points of the spectrum, they make a "pretty good house" seem quite reasonable by comparison.

That is also to say that people in the business of marketing "pretty good houses" should probably be grateful to the extremeophiles for setting "anchors".


15.
Sat, 05/24/2014 - 13:49

Edited Sat, 05/24/2014 - 13:56.

Response to Derek Roff
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

Derek,
I'm glad to know that you found the article useful. I certainly share your desire to pass on our hard-won knowledge, wrought as it was from so many errors, to our starry-eyed nieces and nephews.

Concerning your protest at one of my sentences, and your insistence that earthships never make sense, I'd like to say a few words in my defense. The bulk of my article explains that earthships are expensive, poorly insulated, cold in winter, and likely to overheat in summer. At the end, however, I came up with a balancing sentence that tried to describe the (very small) population that might want to consider building an earthship. After all, very few houses are built by owner/builders in rural areas that get lots of winter sunshine.

However, there are a few builders in that category, and I feel they are kindred spirits in some ways, because I was once young and poor and idealistic and interested in building a house in the wilderness. Young people who get together to smash dirt in old tires have a lot of fun. They have smiles on their faces. At the end of the day, they share a six-pack and pass around a joint. If they are gathered together as volunteers to work on a construction project for an environmental organization, some of them may fall in love. Later, when they are in their 50s, they will remember their earthship project fondly.

Let them build their earthships. If they have read all of my caveats, and still want to pound dirt into old tires, by all means they should.


16.
Sat, 05/24/2014 - 14:05

Edited Sat, 05/24/2014 - 14:05.

I share the nostalgia
by Derek Roff

Helpful? 0

I cherish the memories of my teenage years of awe, experimentation, and discovery. I have great compassion for our young people, currently in that phase of life, and for their dreams of eco-homesteading. It is precisely because I want them to have their fun, and live their dreams, that I want to steer them toward things that work, and away from false promises. There is no better dream-killer I know of than naïvely embarking on an Earthship project.


17.
Tue, 05/27/2014 - 09:37

FULL OF UNTRUTHS AND BIASED
by Alex Leeor

Helpful? 0

Reading this document, its clear that almost NONE of the points really hold any relevance or actual fair criticisms of the Earthship concept. They are either totally wrong, or at best single examples of one persons build that wasn't perfect. Therefore you are not actually critiquing Earthships as a concept but instead just one persons experience. This article would only be fair if this article was a write up about individual cases rather than the whole approach.

That said i will pickup on a few points.

1. Michael Reynolds DOES own an earthship (perhaps as well as a normal home) and he lives in that Earthship.

2. I have lived for several years in an earthship with NO allergies to tyres, as have many people. In fact i have never been so healthy and comfortable as i am now since the climate and air quality is so good. This is true about most people who live in them. Tyres need UV light and significant heating up to off-gass. HOW do you know Dennis Weaver has allergies to tyres and that was the cause of him moving out? Did someone scientifically test this? Do you have enough evidence to support these claims past someones assertion that this is the case?

3 ARTICLE SAID "Before Reynolds understood the reason for these comfort problems, many earthships were built without any wall or floor insulation. Oops."
So what? It took some time to learn how best to make Earthships. Anyone who builds today knows that you need insulation in extreme climates. Mike learned from experience and trial and error. That is his way of learning.

4. Summer overheating is not an issue when bermed and vented correctly.

5. ARTICLE SAID

"While thermal mass can be an important element of passive solar
design, it must be located on the interior side of the insulation
layer to be useful. Building walls from earth-filled tires doesn’t alter these facts."

Earthships have incredible thermal mass from rammed earth tyres. Their thermal mass IS located on interior side of the walls which is why Earthships are insulated 3 ft or more outside of the walls. There is NO wall ive ever seen with as much interior thermal mass.. This is why in Taos at -20 degrees you can feel the warmth of the tyre wall and don't need a heating system!

6. The budget of an Earthship is extremely flexible. I have built incredibly cheap versions that use different approaches and materials. The global model that Mike is working on is one that is indeed a higher budget version. If you want you can modify many things and totally change that.

7. ARTICLE SAID
"their own labor can build an earthship for significantly less than $225 per square foot. But they had better have strong arm muscles — compacting dirt with a sledgehammer is fairly brutal work — and several months to spare"

nonesense! You can finish tyre work within 1-2 weeks with a team of totally unskilled labour at minimal rates. i have made small Earthships in under a week to the roof with only unpaid volunteers who are totally happy to help. Bottom line is that you are FINISHED ramming before you would still be waiting for your foundation to dry on any other kind of building.

9. If you want NO utility bills its possible. It depends on your personal desires. Most people choose to use gas for cooking but they could have a free alternative. You can also grow enough food to require almost no food shopping, if you choose. Again most people choose to have a balance of some food and then buy the rest. I would say it is an exaggeration to say there are NO utility bills since most people don't go all the way.. but it is very close to that.

These are just some points. Basically i think this article is clearly biased and unfriendly. Its missed the point of Biotecture completely, i.e that it is an adaptable concept that needs constant refinement in each new location. It is permaculture, and as such it is not a fixed way of doing things, but more of a way of thinking. We MUST NOT take examples of either OLD designs or peoples mistakes and say that Earthships don't work. We just have to learn and improve so that they are even better.

The bottom line is that there are not any alternate models out there that can perform as well as an Earthship; or have the longevity, strength, resilience, minimal carbon footprint and low maintenance that an earthship can offer.


18.
Tue, 05/27/2014 - 09:57

Response to Alex Leeor
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

Alex,
Thanks for your comments. I have edited my article to reflect the information you provided about Michael Reynolds residing in an earthship.


19.
Tue, 05/27/2014 - 10:25

Edited Tue, 05/27/2014 - 10:28.

A further response to Alex Leeor
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

1. I'm glad that you haven't noticed any odors from the tires used to build your earthship. Your report is consistent with what I wrote: "Most earthship owners are happy with the design and performance of their homes."

2. Thanks for confirming my report that Michael Reynolds advised that earthships didn't need any insulation before he discovered that, in fact, earthships perform better when they include insulation.

3. I don't doubt your contention that most earthships have a lot of thermal mass. The question remains: is the inclusion of huge amounts of thermal mass necessary for a low-energy house? In fact, investments in extra insulation almost always make more sense than investments in extra thermal mass. For more information on this topic, see All About Thermal Mass.

4. You report that it is possible to complete the "tire work" (building the foundation walls) for an earthship in 1 to 2 weeks. You go on to say that "You are FINISHED ramming before you would still be waiting for your foundation to dry on any other kind of building." I'm sorry, but it's possible to pour a full concrete basement foundation in 2 days. The very next day, it's possible for the framers to lay sill plates and begin framing. How do I know? I've done it.

5. Thanks for confirming my report that "it is an exaggeration to say there are NO utility bills."


20.
Tue, 05/27/2014 - 11:18

Clarity
by Alex Leeor

Helpful? 0

Thanks for your comments Martin. I'd like to just clarify a few things in the name of open, honest and clear understanding!

Point 2: I didn't say Michael advised against using insulation. Rather he never advised that people require it for an earthship to function.

Point 3: We could debate this I'm sure. It is my opinion that holding heat in thermal mass is preferable
and required for good performance with minimal inputs to ensure good air temperature. Insulation alone can't afford the kind of thermal input that is needed when temperatures drop to freezing and sub zero temperatures. This may not be true of ALL locations, but at least in general this a working concept. One of the many benefits of an Earthship is that ability to stay warm without need of fireplaces and costly heating systems. I believe thermal mass is the key to this very important benefit and you can see and feel that in many places, including New Mexico. Insulation alone would not provide a heating effect if there is no sun on a particular day, whereas thermal mass can give and keep giving for many days/weeks.

Point 4: The reason for my mentioning that we can finish tyre walls before you even get to building was to illustrate that it doesn't take months as you have described. You may well get your framing done, but essentially you cant really start loading on top of a two day old concrete foundation until a reasonable amount of drying and curing time has happened. So the point was that it is MUCH faster overall and certainly not as slow as was described in the original article.

I'd like to add that i have no self interest or profit from promoting Earthships. I simply value them as they are and promote them because i believe in them. If and when i find something that is as good or better, ill be happy to learn about them!


21.
Wed, 05/28/2014 - 15:37

Edited Wed, 05/28/2014 - 15:48.

The Flagship Movement
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

Yesterday I received an e-mail from Marcus Lewitzki, who wrote:

"First of all I'd like to take the opportunity to thank you for an awesome website; Martin Holladay's blog is especially enlightening.

"Yesterday I read the article by Martin Holladay called ‘Earthship Hype and Earthship Reality,’ which was especially good. I was one of the guys who ran the NGO Earthship Europe and we all came to basically the same conclusions that Mr. Holladay has. So we shut down the NGO about 2 years ago and started what we now call The Flagship Movement, which focuses on off-grid, natural building techniques suitable for any specific climates. We draw inspiration from vernacular architecture with an emphasis on locally sourced natural materials and the off-grid aspects.

"Earthship Biotecture seem to believe in the ‘one-size-fits-all-approach’ which is quite counterproductive and illogical, so I was glad to see that there are others out there that writes the truth about this concept, trying to bring some balance to what essentially is hype, propaganda and baseless claims by the company and architect behind it and his ‘disciples’ throughout the world.

"Thanks again for an awesome website."

.

Flagship Movement.jpg


22.
Wed, 05/28/2014 - 17:39

I have read quite a bit about
by Brian Godfrey

Helpful? 0

I have read quite a bit about Earthships, partly because my nephew used to work for Mike Reynolds. I don't think they are for me, but then neither are the plastic bags (PassiveHaus) that seem to be all the current rage in "green" building. (How in the world can so much plastic be "green"?) The simple fact is that NOTHING works for everyone. Nothing. Unfortunately like most religions the adherents think theirs is the only way to go. I read this column to keep up on what you plastic bag people are doing, but I spread my interest father and wider, too. I figure out what works for me and I take what I can use from wherever I find it.


23.
Thu, 05/29/2014 - 11:27

Edited Thu, 05/29/2014 - 11:28.

Brian
by Malcolm Taylor

Helpful? 0

"The Flagship Movement, which focuses on off-grid, natural building techniques suitable for any specific climates."

An approach advocated by Kenneth Frampton in the early '80s for all aspects of architectural design in his seminal essay "Critical Regionalism". The idea that you modify the good ideas of our new global culture by incorporating vernacular or regional considerations seems self-evidently sensible.

That's what makes the Passive House defences in an earlier blog so backwards. They insist on looking at a particular situation and universalizing the solution. The local, the particular, are of no interest. God help us if, as they advocate for, any of these new ideologically driven methods do get adopted into our building codes.


24.
Thu, 05/29/2014 - 16:20

Wonderful Walls
by kim shanahan

Helpful? 0

I'm no hippie from Taos, but I'm close enough to the epicenter to know what I need to know about Earthships, which are pretty far out, dude. It is often said around these parts that there has never been a wall system conceived that hasn't been tried by a Santa Fe builder. And many of them are proud members of our local HBA. Indeed, even my career as a builder saw me dabble in strawbale, Rastra, adobe and even a formed-on-the-wall puddled adobe system I devised and employed on my own personal home. I was certain it would revolutionize adobe construction world-wide.

I took my idea to the local Executive Director of an affordable housing non-profit to proselytize on the cost-saving wonders of my system. It could utilize un-skilled volunteer labor to put up walls, while having beers, getting baked, and socializing in the Southwest sunshine. The ED of the housing non-profit, whose primary function was to provide low-cost home ownership financing, simply rolled his eyes at yet another wonder wall presentation and reminded me that if he could find an extra half a percentage point of savings on a bought-down 30 year mortgage interest rate, he could save a consumer more money over the lifetime of homeownership than I could even if I invented a home that had no walls at all! Chagrined, I shifted my focus to modern building science and re-learned to love frame walls, lots of insulation, tight envelopes, and mechanical air-exchanges.

A not insignificant part of my job running our local HBA is disabusing newly arrived aging hippies that the wall-systems they have read about have all been tried by local builders. And the really good ones, the ones still around long after their pony tails receded past the back of their hat bands, will be happy to build them a net-zero energy home that barely sips from our precious aquifer, all while using the same basic construction techniques of whatever kind of home they just moved away from.

After they get over their initial disappointment, I think most of them are actually relieved to have the certainty and warranty that a new home with a genuine HERS rating can provide.

Thanks for the frank and honest article on Earthships. Rest assured that there are plenty of New Mexico builders who are devoted readers of GBA and appreciate the consensus-based vetting of building science that you and other friendly curmudgeons provide.


25.
Thu, 05/29/2014 - 16:50

Response to Kim Shanahan
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

Kim,
Thanks for your comments, which made me smile.


26.
Fri, 05/30/2014 - 09:53

Comments on this article from other sites on the web
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

A few other websites have begun to post comments on this article. Here is a sampling:

From Paul Wheaton's Facebook page: Willie Pierce wrote, "I helped a guy build an earthship shed as a test. It was a pain in the ass. Cold and damp in the winter hot and nasty in the summer."

From a permaculture web forum: Deb Rebel wrote, "Eventually I ended up in a Front Range urban sprawl (city) full of tourism; and made friends with someone that had actually built one [an earthship]. There is a coop enclave where a large number of them [earthships] had been built and to live there you had to build your own or buy a completed one. This little lady and her (now ex) had spent five years busting theirs pounding tires and finishing about 1500 square feet. And sold it right after they finished it.

"She said: Two healthy strong adults if they truly busted theirs all day, could pound three tires in 8 hours. That you had to put over 3 wheelbarrows of dirt into that tire and pound pound pound it in (15" car tire) with sledge hammers and it worked best if two were working on the same one, hitting alternating blows. Cost overruns, yes. Even though they scrounged most of the wood, lights, wiring, fixtures; it wasn't $5 a square foot. If you are in a mild climate, heating may not be an issue but solar gain could be something you couldn't handle on a hot sunny day. They had 'oog' issues with the dirt (weeping and crumbling) She said they lived in it about a week and decided to sell it."


27.
Fri, 05/30/2014 - 16:46

Kim and tyres ...
by Jin Kazama

Helpful? 0

Kim: you should write articles here, it was a pleasure to read you! :)
( from a non english pov.. )

I bet that if we could calculated the carbon/eco impact of using dead tyres VS concrete
( one with local aggregates of course )
it would end up close or in favor of concrete.

So you tell me what is it with used tyres and the required labor ?

4-5 workers ( 1-2 + freebie helpers ) could probably setup and pour an similar ICF structure
to in 2-3 days of easy working ( no pouding required ! )

Or do the same using some reclaimed insulation and used/reused plywood for forms..
there are probably 50 other ways to do it that is less labor expensive than "pouding tyres all day long " and would result in a similar eco impact but with much greater insulation efficiency .

It is fairly easy to use 1 sided ICF forms and use plywood with some basic reinforcements on the interior , to end up with a large thermal mass of concrete walls inside and insulated toward the exterior.

I do not know what are ground temps in south usa during winter,
but here up north i can assure you that you do not want to be "grounded" on your thermal mass
because winter will feel longer than the one we just passed .
( and believe me , it was very nasty and long .. )


29.
Fri, 05/30/2014 - 17:09

Response to Jin Kazama
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

Jin,
This week, I was just digging up some 6x6 pressure-treated posts (supporting a deck) that needed to be removed. It's late May in Vermont, but the removal of the posts had to be delayed because we hit about 12 inches of ice.

After the holes were left exposed for a few days, and we poured a few buckets of boiling water in the holes, we eventually thawed the soil enough to remove the 6x6s.

On the plus side, the water coming out of our taps is at 35 degrees F -- very refreshing when the weather warms up in June.


30.
Fri, 05/30/2014 - 21:27

Sifu Martin :
by Jin Kazama

Helpful? 0

WAT?? still frozen in your neighborhood ?

The last time i heard of ice here was 2-3 weeks ago when a client that has a "chalet " ~ 100km north
of the " fleuve St-Laurent " told me his lake finally thawed.

Although i still have a stash of snow hidden in the shadows , in our 2nd freezer ...
so i can surprise the boys with some late spring " tire d'erable sur la neige " when it'll be sunny and 25c outside!

Water does stay near 5C for a very long time here also.
fresh cold tap water :)


31.
Sat, 05/31/2014 - 05:14

Response to Jin Kazama
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

Jin,
This was frozen soil. We encountered it about 3 feet below grade. It extended down to about 4 feet.


32.
Mon, 06/02/2014 - 04:15

Earthship mumbo jumbo.
by Matthew Nicholas

Helpful? 0

Oh geez....Mike Reynolds sounds like a reincarnated Paolo Soleri with his Arcosanti (sp) wet dream.

P.T. Barnum was right, "There's a sucker born every minute."

Reynolds nonsense causes more damage to creating energy efficient houses.


33.
Thu, 06/05/2014 - 16:08

Some frozen bits are still hanging on even in central MA
by Dana Dorsett

Helpful? 0

... and that's at the surface, out in the open, not 3-4' below grade or in the shade. This was taken on 3 June, 2014:

https://vimeo.com/97332350

( OK, so it was on the NORTH face of the hill... ;-) )


34.
Tue, 06/10/2014 - 09:08

Dana..
by Jin Kazama

Helpful? 0

your traditional "late summer " skying videos again ??? :p

Where you at again ??


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