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Musings of an Energy Nerd

Earthship Hype and Earthship Reality

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

An earthship in Taos, New Mexico. Pull-down interior shades are needed to keep this earthship from overheating during the summer.
Image Credit: Images #1, #7, and #8: J. Burton

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:

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  1. jinmtvt | | #1

    We should try and push aside
    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. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    Response to Jin Kazama
    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. jinmtvt | | #3

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

  4. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #4

    Response to Jin Kazama
    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.)


  5. jinmtvt | | #5

    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. user-1055261 | | #6

    Earth Sheltered Nostalgia?
    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 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. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #7

    Response to Cameron Taylor
    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. watercop | | #8

    Much ado about nothing
    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. Expert Member

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

    That's great!

  10. itserich | | #10

    Dennis Weaver
    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.

  11. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #11

    Reply to Curt Kinder
    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. BobConnor | | #12

    Response to Jin Kazama
    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. lutro | | #13

    A useful and timely article.
    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. user-757117 | | #14

    Value of the extreme example.
    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. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #15

    Response to Derek Roff
    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. lutro | | #16

    I share the nostalgia
    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. aleeor | | #17

    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.


    "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.

    "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. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #18

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

  19. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #19

    A further response to Alex Leeor
    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. aleeor | | #20

    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. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #21

    The Flagship Movement
    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."


  22. user-1033003 | | #22

    I have read quite a bit about
    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. Expert Member
    MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #23

    "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. kim_shanahan | | #24

    Wonderful Walls
    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. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #25

    Response to Kim Shanahan
    Thanks for your comments, which made me smile.

  26. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #26

    Comments on this article from other sites on the web
    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. jinmtvt | | #27

    Kim and tyres ...
    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 .. )

  28. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #28

    Response to Jin Kazama
    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.

  29. jinmtvt | | #29

    Sifu Martin :
    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 :)

  30. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #30

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

  31. mjncad | | #31

    Earthship mumbo jumbo.
    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.

  32. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #32

    Some frozen bits are still hanging on even in central MA
    ... 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:

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

  33. jinmtvt | | #33

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

    Where you at again ??

  34. morganparis | | #34

    One more thing...
    Don't know how I missed this article first time around but I'll add a comment to Martin's excellent critique. Beyond the details of R value and mass effects, beyond its inappropriateness for climatic and topographic conditions much different from its native New Mexico, beyond its heavy labor demands, the Earthship, like so many idealized projects of its ilk, fails most conspicuously in its solipsism and lack of scalability. It exists only in an exurban context which can only be more or less parasitic on the human society it condemns. As a vision of the future it's more Mad Max than Hobbit. Yes, a vibrant society can afford to support a few dwellings like these on its outskirts, and even learn to cherish and value the few creative renegades they shelter, but a community cannot survive if everyone needs to be an opera singer or a poet. At least Passivhaus can succeed and even flourish in an urban context as apartments and attached homes, but if Earthship began to even approach mainstream we'd run out of suitable south facing lots (and tires) pretty darn quick. Unless we're thinking of sustainable communities rather than just individual homes, communities which include the contemporary equivalent of the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker, we're just micturating against the tempest.

  35. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #35

    Response to James Morgan
    You wrote that the earthship "exists only in an exurban context which can only be more or less parasitic on the human society it condemns." That's partially true. Certainly I agree that earthships require a rural location, and that fact undermines Reynolds' claim that he has invented a universally applicable solution to the world's housing problems.

    But when it comes to parasitism, I don't buy your critique. Most of us are dependent on a complicated web (or network or collection of systems) that delivers food and energy to our homes. You and I are are no less "parasitic" -- or dependent -- on this web than the average earthship owner; in fact we are probably more "parasitic."

  36. Laurah | | #36

    Negativity solves nothing
    I stumbled on this site and want to say that the author of this seems very... Mean spirited and exceptionally negative. I wonder why? Why would he and others in this "green building" forum not support someone who has dedicated his life to green resources that can be implemented in a home? Maybe some of the ideas need development? What industry doesn't? Even nasa has had thier own "oops."

    I don't know Michael Reynolds, don't own an earthship, nor am I a hippie, ponytailed "alcoholic." I'm not an activist and this is the third time I've ever actually commented online.

    I would like to remind people that jealousy is a nasty mistress. Spend more time encourGing those around you and then actually do something meaningful.

  37. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #37

    Response to Laura Hodges
    I don't think that the question of "negativity versus optimism" is the issue here. In my reporting, I strive for accuracy.

    The reason that I believe that it is worth shining a spotlight on Michael Reynolds and enthusiastic proponents of earthship construction has nothing to do with their optimism. It has to do with the fact that their claims are inaccurate.

    Building a house is an expensive undertaking. Owner/builders usually have only one opportunity in their lives to build a house. When people like Michael Reynolds make false claims about the homes they build, there are victims -- including disappointed homeowners who believed his false claims.

  38. chrisb13 | | #38

    Your Living a Lie Right Now
    Earthships aren't perfect. I'm sure there are a lot of things that need to be worked out but the concept is way better than housing now a days.

    Lets talk about the food you eat. Do you know who grew it? Did they wash their hands? Is it a GMO crop? Can you eat your fruits & vegetable and know for sure what pesticides were put on them if any? Earthship solves these questions. Grow fruits & Veg. indoors year round, can you do that now with a condo, apartment, two story brick house? No. Want more room to build indoors? Build it, expand it... earthship style. Its an empowering idea instead of the capitalistic approach of make more get a bigger house. You can buy organic or grow it.

    Water. Is tap water any better than rain water? Have you looked at how much crap is in tap water these days. When you shower you turn the chlorine in the water into an aerosol that you inhale. No commercial filter takes fluoride out of tap water. There's a reason people drink bottled water. Look up what tap water does to you over time.

    Hot & cold. If you need heat cause its cold in an earthship build in a fireplace, don't use it if you don't need it. Sounds like something a lot of ordinary homes have, if you like it adopt it into your custom built home. If it gets to hot for you in summer put a 12 volt AC in your earthship, they make them for boats. Is it cheating, no, its called adapting.

    Electrical, now your in my territory. Being aware of how much energy you use is never a bad thing. Solar & wind are both proven technologies. Batteries are being improved all the time. Check out the battery sleeve on kickstarter (+800% battery performance). Lithium Iron Phosphate batteries which have 2000 charges verses 1000 for a standard AGM battery. Or Elon Musks new battery factory (also now doing its own solar solution for ordinary homes). Batteries are getting cheaper and so are the solar solutions. Look at solar costs today verses ten years ago and then rewrite the crap you put down about solar costs. You can even get paid to push electricity back into the grid. Do some research.

    This is for the guy who said tires aren't a problem today. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Did the population of cars go up or down over the last 10-20 years? What do you think we do with all the tires genius? They sit in tire dumps.

    Ordinary houses have a lot of flaws as well. Have you ever spent the money to roof a house? Had a leak in a pipe wipe out your kitchen because some plumber didn't want to spend the two seconds to use the correct materials and do the job right? Ordinary houses breakdown, need maintenance, and are just as screwed up as earthships. Are you telling me all the building materials in regular construction these days are save or perfect? Really? How many houses in this country are even up to code? <20%

    Using Tires. If you don't want to use them, don't use them, I'm not going to. There are lots of alternatives, this is just one (Earthbags, EarthBricks). Think about how much crap is on the side of the road or in your air while just driving to work on a busy road. How much of that is tire dust? You inhale it all the time right now every time you go outside. If your looking at a car when you go outside then you are probable inhaling tire crap. Why do you think we need to replace tires every few years? They wear out. Where does the wear out go? Into your yard, walk ways, stores, houses. How do I get away from this stuff. Get off the grid and go out in the middle of nowhere and... don't build your house out of tires. Agreed.

    I don't own an Earthship. I'm not a hippie, I served in this country military for six years. I'm a computer geek, a rebel, a techie and I make good money. I'd still jump at the chance to do something green for myself and my kids. At least someone is trail blazing, even if he is in over his head or makes a few mistakes. He gave me a few more ideas than I had before. Learn from his mistakes and make your own earthship with your own ideas or build a tiny home or buy a catamaran. Just get away from everyone else and you'll be a lot happier.

    Build green your way.

  39. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #39

    I'm not sure why you say I'm "living a lie"
    Since you asked....

    Q. "Let's talk about the food you eat. Do you know who grew it?"

    A. Yes. I have a huge garden. I grow more of my food than most people who live in an earthship.

    Q. "Can you eat your fruits & vegetable and know for sure what pesticides were put on them if any?"

    A. Everything I grow is organic. No pesticides.

    Q. "Have you looked at how much crap is in tap water these days?"

    A. My water comes from a spring above my house. The water is great; I've had it tested.

    Q. "When you shower you turn the chlorine in the water into an aerosol that you inhale."

    A. My water isn't chlorinated.

    Q. "If you need heat 'cause it's cold in an earthship, build in a fireplace, don't use it if you don't need it."

    A. I use a wood stove, which is much more efficient than a fireplace.

    Q. "Being aware of how much energy you use is never a bad thing."

    A. That's why I generate 100% of the electricity I use. My house is off-grid.

    Q. "Have you ever spent the money to roof a house?"

    A. I've roofed more houses than I can count, because I used to be a roofer.

    Q. "Ordinary houses break down, need maintenance, and are just as screwed up as earthships."

    A. True.

    Q. "Get off the grid and go out in the middle of nowhere and... don't build your house out of tires."

    A. Yes -- I took that advice in 1974.

    So I'm still waiting for you to explain why I'm "living a lie."

  40. DarfieldEarthship | | #40

    Clarification from the Earthship in British Columbia
    I am the owner of the earthship in BC, the one who "wisely" decided to add radiant floor heating to our earthship design. I wish the author had checked in with us when he wrote this article (we had been living in ours for more than a year at that time) to find out if we felt we needed it in the end. We didn't. We've never hooked it up. Turns out our earthen floor and our available sunlight in December and January (which is minimal, combined with a home-built rocket mass heater, keeps us plenty warm. I wonder if the author will correct this in the article, as he corrected the erroneous information about Michael Reynolds not living in an earthship? I seem to recall seeing a comment from him above that accuracy is his main objective? Provincial building code (my husband is an engineer and designed and permitted our build) requires that homes have a thermostatically controlled heating system and radiant floor heating connected to some method of heat generation counted against this requirement. To date our floor tubing for all six zones sticks up through our earthen floor in the utility room, unconnected to anything - the materials for this cost $300. A stupid waste but a smaller price than hooking up a boiler or some other system to hook it up to if we needed it. The rocket mass heater provides heat during cloudy days (fueled by waste wood from our land), but when we have sun at -30C outside, we are plenty warm without it. The sun is enough. We are also not off-grid yet. That was a cost we were not prepared to expend at the time, especially since our useage for our lifestyle hadn't adjusted yet. We have now been practicing conservation. We now live with about 1/4 the electricity of our former home and most of what we use is the electric stove and hot water tank. Next project is solar hot water. We are trying to avoid getting gas/propane appliances (ever) since those are non-renewable sources of fuel. Instead, we are still evaluating a home-built gasification system (running on waste vegetable oil, like both our vehicles). Turns out, since this article was written, solar systems have reduced in price and we are now looking at that. We built the home for $75,000 (land not included) and have not continued building much since we moved in. We remain debt-free and are now assisting our children with their post secondary plans so that they, too may remain debt free during their lives. It is now about priorities and we will get back to the earthship in a few years. Issues with the earthship? Higher humidity in the winter...but every year since moving in (fourth winter in the ship) we've noticed an overall reduction in humidity. This may change when we add the plants to the greenhouse but we are armed with much knowledge from others who built before us. We lose heat in the winter nights from the front windows..but really only on the coldest nights and our Ontario earthship friends installed thermal blinds which seems to have solved this issue. Otherwise, our drop in temperature is no more than about 2-3 degrees overnight. In fact, as I type it is -4C outside and our inside temperature last night was 19C and it is 18C at this moment. My observations have been that those of us who want to do things differently and who are prepared to research, experiment and move forward, are the ones who are best suited to build alternatively. A person who is looking for the same performance as a traditional home while looking at alternative building methods, could still be living with a consumer-driven, my-needs-first approach to things. We asked ourselves how we could impact the world less when we built a house and while we wanted to be as comfortable as possible (and we are), we weren't prepared to buy into convenience and comfort at all costs.

  41. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #41

    Response to Sandra Burkholder
    I am delighted to hear from you, Sandra. Congratulations on your reductions in energy use. I'm glad to hear that your earthship is performing well.

    You wrote, "I wonder if the author will correct this in the article...? I seem to recall seeing a comment from him above that accuracy is his main objective?"

    Indeed, I strive for accuracy, and I have corrected the article to reflect the fact that your heating system is a rocket stove rather than a radiant-floor heating system. Thanks for providing the correction.

    Your correction doesn't undermine my basic point -- namely, that builders of earthships in cold climates would be wise to include a space heating system.

  42. HenryArchitects | | #42

    Happy to Live in an Earthship
    We are a family of four who live in an Earthship Home that we built for less than $75 per square foot (out of pocket.) We have $100 of utility bills per year. This is for the propane that is the fuel source for our cookstove. We live comfortably without burning fossil fuels. In our climate, we have winters with below zero temperatures, and a summer season that can top out in the 90s. We did not insulate the floor- this is because it is our thermal battery. If we were to insulate the floor, we would have minimized the value of the thermal mass, and probably would have needed additional heating and/or cooling. We live without any back-up power system off of a PV array that is comprised of 3 solar panels. This system works because of designed-down electrical loads with efficient electrical appliances. We live very well this way- television, computers; modern conveniences. This Earthship home has profoundly impacted our lives in positive ways. We are aware of what we consume, water, power, materials, and this is a benefit. Our day to day activities are informed by the climate and weather patterns; this is a benefit to our lives.

  43. ethan_TFGStudio | | #43

    I am curious what climate zone Alix's earthship is in...
    Sounds pretty cold... And he's comfortable with no supplemental heat

  44. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #44

    Response to Ethan Timm
    I'd be happy to see Alix Henry post more details. I note that Alix wrote, "We have $100 of utility bills per year. This is for the propane that is the fuel source for our cookstove. We live comfortably without burning fossil fuels."

    It's noteworthy that (a) Propane is a fossil fuel, and that (b) Many people use firewood gathered off their own land for space heat; firewood is not a fossil fuel.

  45. Jeff Brown | | #45

    Water Use System

    All in all, good article, thank you. I'm a skeptic, so I value dissenting views as nutrition for the mind--food for thought.

    Question: aside from collection, have you analyzed the Earthship water use design? Is it sound... does it work as intended... what needs to be improved... etc.?


  46. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #46

    Response to Jeff Brown
    I haven't made an in-depth analysis, other than to note that many Earthships are designed for arid climates, and therefore include an expensive cistern and systems to recycle wastewater for watering plants.

    If you live somewhere with limited water resources, these features may make sense, especially if you live in a rural area -- even if you aren't building an Earthship. That said, it doesn't make any sense to install expensive equipment to recycle graywater unless water is hard to get or expensive.

    I live off-the-grid in Vermont, in an area where water bubbles up out of the ground almost everywhere, and where natural springs are clean enough to drink. So it would be a waste of money for me to buy a cistern.

  47. Kristina_H | | #47

    Thanks for your article on earthships Martin,

    I think it's wise to go into any venture with eyes wide open, and your article has led me to ask/consider some critical questions/points prior to venturing into green housing. I have a lot to learn.

    I respect that you live off grid and garden.. I love gardening, and hope to live off grid.

    In my ignorant perspective, I think that each "green housing" solution attempts to address common essential requirements of a green shelter (needs and/or wants): temperature and humidity regulation, running/hot water, cooking, waste management, ventilation, natural lighting/lighting, energy generation/conservation/optimization, etc.

    How would you choose to better-address these aspects of a home... What alternatives (or improvements) would you offer over how earthships attempt to address these requirements? What are the pros and cons of each technique and principle? I do like that you are passionate about green construction, and that you live it. I hope you will consider writing an informative piece on this, it would be educational.

    Also, would you mind to please review your comments on VAWTs vs HAWTs? Your tone suggests VAWTs are a poor choice in all circumstances. Both VAWTs and HAWTs have something to offer (generally stated):
    - HAWTs outperform VAWTs in steady wind with fairly steady direction
    - VAWTs outperform HAWTs where wind direction and speed is inconsistent
    - VAWTs will generate low amounts of energy in low wind, where the wind speed is too low for HAWTs to generate any energy
    - HAWTs require more height than VAWTs, so it's possible that building codes may allow VAWTs where HAWTs would exceed height restrictions

    I was disappointed in one aspect of your article: I think you have been rather zealous in your declamation on earthships - you speak passionately against them, and your article offers only negative discourse. Are you truly certain that they offer nothing "useful/good"? I would give your article more credence were it not written in a negative acerbic tone with unbalanced rhetoric for it's entirety, you have set off my E.A.S with it - though, this is the first time I've read an article of your's, it may simply be your style when making an opinion post.

    In closing, I would like to say that:
    The article and the responses have both, for the most part, seemed to lean strongly for or against earthships, but all seem deeply felt. I think it's important to acknowledge that while no solution is perfect, each solution may have something to contribute, and may be more or less appropriate for a given set of circumstances. By developing an informed non-biased perspective of possible techniques, principles, and available technology (the pros & cons of each, and the circumstances where one may be more appropriate than another) an individual can choose solutions that best align with their value sets and needs/wants.

    ... I would have liked to say that.. unfortunately I had to type it :)

    Thank you all for your passionate posts, you've given me something to think about.
    Kristina H.
    P.S. I live in a cold climate (Edmonton area), and would be interested in learning more about the experiences of earthship owners in Canada(@Sandra Burkholder & company). I actually asked CBC to do a follow up on their prior articles.
    P.P.S. I like the idea of solar cooking - I was also wondering if the concept could be used in green housing for a cooking solution, or .. even possibly, a heating or hot water solution.

  48. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #48

    Q. "How would you choose to better-address these aspects of a home? What alternatives (or improvements) would you offer over how earthships attempt to address these requirements? What are the pros and cons of each technique and principle?"

    A. These are big questions. I suppose you might want to buy my book, Musings of an Energy Nerd.

    In general, any discussion of methods of construction designed to save energy or to be "environmentally friendly" needs to be accurate -- that is, backed by data and true statements rather than exaggeration. The type of house that GBA promotes is usually referred to as a "pretty good house." You might want to read this article: "Martin’s Pretty Good House Manifesto."

    Concerning green lifestyles, you might want to read these two articles:

    "Adopting a Green Lifestyle"

    "Who Deserves the Prize for the Greenest Home in the U.S.?"

    Q. "Would you mind to please review your comments on VAWTs vs HAWTs?"

    A. If you want to build your own vertical-axis wind turbine (VAWT), you should go ahead. However, I strongly doubt that your efforts will be worth the time you invest in developing or building this type of machine. For an analysis justifying my skepticism, I urge you to read Robert Preus's article, "Thoughts on VAWTs."

    Q. "I like the idea of solar cooking - I was also wondering if the concept could be used in green housing for a cooking solution, or .. even possibly, a heating or hot water solution."

    A. Parabolic reflectors can, indeed, be used for cooking, and so can solar ovens without a parabolic reflector. This type of equipment is appropriate in the rural tropics -- especially in regions of the world where firewood is scarce and sunny weather is common.

    Where I live in Vermont, the disadvantages of solar cookers -- the fact that they must be used outdoors rather than indoors, the fact that they don't work in rainy, snowy, or cloudy weather, and the fact that they require long cooking times, even when the sun is out -- overrule their advantages.

    1. Kristina_H | | #49

      Hey Martin,

      I was actually looking at products by GoSun - not a conventional parabolic reflector. It's promoted at working in cloudy weather, and even indoors (iirc)... thought it does require longer to come up to temperature in overcast conditions.

      Also, to clarify, I wasn't interested in building a VAWT or a HAWT: You implied HAWTs are rather .. undesirable... I only offered a comparative list to illustrate that HAWTs will sometimes be more viable than VAWTs.

      And thank you, I think the green articles might be interesting, but I will pass on your book, I'm looking for something more concrete than opinion.

      Thanks for your time!

      1. Expert Member
        MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #50


        You are making a mistake passing on Martin's book. It is an almost encyclopedic reference of energy related, science-based articles. If he ventures opinions, he provides good reasons for them.

      2. GBA Editor
        Martin Holladay | | #51

        The GoSun cooker design is what as known as a "parabolic trough" design -- a variation on the standard parabolic approach. And this solar cooker is definitely designed for outdoor use, not indoor use.

  49. Expert Member
    Michael Maines | | #52

    "How would you choose to better-address these aspects of a home... What alternatives (or improvements) would you offer over how earthships attempt to address these requirements? What are the pros and cons of each technique and principle? I do like that you are passionate about green construction, and that you live it. I hope you will consider writing an informative piece on this, it would be educational."

    " I will pass on your book, I'm looking for something more concrete than opinion."

    Martin's book will answer the questions you asked him. It is informative and educational, as is everything he writes on this site.

    1. Kristina_H | | #53

      @Malcolm and Michael: Thank you for being straight up and providing a reference for Martin's book - I'll take a look (and will probably get it).

      Apologies Martin (sort of) - I tend toward skeptical/cynical, and tend to be good at disagreeing (I love the devil's advocate).

      Thank you all!

      1. Expert Member
        MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #54


        I completely understand. Scepticism is a good thing. Coming to someone's work and ideas cautiously has no doubt served you well. People you can trust in the building field can be hard to find.

  50. NMgreen | | #55

    I don’t have a dog in this hunt, but I have spent several nights in several earthships in the greater world community in Taos. I have had nothing but pleasant experiences during all times of the year. This includes the height of the summer (high 90s) and the peak of the winter (below zero with 30 mph winds). We had all of life’s modern amenities (minus a hair drier and a vitamix). The houses we stayed in were moderate temperature, modern furnishings, and were outfitted with amazing systems. The systems were so dialed that we always had plenty of water, electric, some food for dinner which we picked from the planter, and we enjoyed watching netflix on a 65 inch flatscreen. Some of them have a fireplace, but we never felt the need. I am sure the houses we stayed in do not come cheap, just like any house doesn’t. But it is pretty cool knowing you are staying in a luxury house largely made up of what most consider garbage. Picking fresh tomatoes and bananas grown from water from the roof, in the middle of the winter in the desert is a pretty cool experience. I highly recommend you give one a test ride.
    You might be pleasantly surprised.
    AJ Saunders

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