What on earth is an “Earthship”?
Michael Reynolds – founder of Earthship Biotecture
This guy has been experimenting with bio-climatic, site-specific, passive-solar-design, self-sufficient, cradle-to-cradle approach, off-grid, & eco-homes for over 40 years now! (So he has been into true-sustainability well before any of those terms even existed – a real hero of the environmentally sustainable design movement!)
I was fascinated by the ethos & earthy curves of earthships when I first heard about them decades ago & there’s no doubt they’ve impacted the direction I took with my architecture career as a young student. It was inspiring to hear Mike speak when he was in Melbourne last year – with passion & some good old common sense about his inspiring approach. When I saw on the Earthship Australia Group that he was touring, I thought it would be a great opportunity to hear from a true pioneer, but I was also interested to see how the philosophy, theory and practice has evolved since his first experimental buildings back in the 70s…
What is a earthship-biotecture?
Earthships are radically sustainable buildings, that aim to be autonomous, self-sufficient, and co-exist in harmony with the earth – just “like a tree” (I’ve talked about this before). They are built with natural and recycled materials, and are designed with passive solar design principles. They are powered by renewable energy, harvest water and treat waste-water on site. ‘Biotecture’ refers to the combination of biology and architecture.
Why the term earth”ship“?
A ship at sea, or a space-ship must take care of ALL of its inhabitants’ needs within the vessel. So Mike’s philosophy is that our homes here on earth should be treated the same way – completely self-sufficient, autonomous and resilient. Our needs include: comfortable shelter, water, food, dealing with human waste, power/electricity, and a way to deal with rubbish we produce. There’s a great kids’ story that is an excellent explanation of earthships here.
How do you design and build an earthship?
There are six principles:
- Building with Natural and Re-Purposed Materials: Usually reclaiming tyres, glass and plastic bottles, aluminium cans, and other waste that would otherwise go to landfill. Using earth from the site and local timbers to keep the embodied-energy of the build low. The construction method is also low-tech which enables un-skilled labour to construct these buildings at a low cost.
- Thermal/Solar Heating and Cooling: Passive solar design principles; including orientation to the north here in the southern hemisphere, thermal-mass to help stabilise indoor temperatures, and natural ventilation. It appears that the Earthship crew now also understand the importance of an insulated building envelope (with the mass inside), double-glazing, adequate ventilation to prevent condensation, and summer shading to prevent the buildings from over-heating.
- Solar and Wind Electricity: Renewable power generation on site – either photovoltaics, wind turbines or a combination.
- Water Harvesting: Large cisterns/tanks on site to collect rainwater, plus greywater re-use.
- Contained Sewage Treatment: Treating blackwater within the greenhouse-garden ensuring human-waste gives nutrients back to the earth for growing plants.
- Food Production: Year-round edible garden/jungle in the attached greenhouse, often with space out front for chickens/eggs, aquaponics/fish, and perhaps goats too.)
Where are Earthships built?
The first earthship experiments were built by Mike in the desert of New Mexico, USA in the 1970s. The temperature extremes there range from hot-dry in the summer, to snow and below-freezing temperatures in the winter! Mike has fought hard since then to be able to continue designing and constructing experimental buildings. Over the years, the designs have evolved through a trial & error process, improving all the time, and they now have a number of models available. Mike and his crew have helped communities all over the world to build their own versions, with earthships on every continent and in every climate – with different climatic considerations and design-responses due to location. There is currently one being built here in Kinglake – you can find out more and join the Melbourne Earthship Facebook group to be kept up to date with the local movement.
How relevant are earthships for the southern Australian climate?
There has been increased knowledge in the Building Sciences since the 70s when it was all about ‘mass and glass’, and the importance of including high levels of insulation and air-tightness plus controlled ventilation is now proven be paramount for the performance of an ultra-low energy home like certified Passivhaus/Passivehouse buildings.
Whilst it is true that the power to heat and cool a home is still the MOST energy consumed over a building’s lifetime (much more so than the embodied energy of the construction materials), if you want to be 100% sustainable, you should consider the environmental impact of BOTH the building envelope AND the ongoing running costs. i.e. Some earthy buildings can still have high utility bills if not designed correctly (and can have dampness issues if not waterproofed properly), and some Passivhaus buildings are full of materials made from fossil-fuels with a higher environmental footprint.
These autonomous ‘ships’ also mean they are completely separated and isolated in a way. Yes a group of them can be ‘moored in the same harbour’ like Mike’s estate in Taos, New Mexico, but they are all very independent dwellings. A part of me can’t help but think about how Earthships could now evolve into a co-housing community model of development where skills/tools/surplus harvest/excess power/etc. could be shared… this would then also cover the social sustainability aspect too…
Earthships may not be for everybody, but I think the world does need more visionaries like Mike to help stretch our hearts and minds to embrace different ways to live more sustainably.
With increased uncertainty about the future of our planet due to climate-change (and the powers that be), Earthships are an alternative option to how we can choose to live more sustainably and on our terms, not relying on the outside world and infrastructure to meet our needs. Earthships go beyond environmental sustainability; they are a resilient housing model, providing security and ensuring people and the planet can survive and thrive together.
Where can I find out more?
- Earthship Biotecture
- Earthship Global
- Garbage Warrior Documentary (2007) fascinating behind the scenes look at some of the ups and downs of Mike Reynold’s journey. Currently screening on SBS On-Demand.
- Earthship Australia
- Earthship Australia Group (facebook)
- Melbourne Earthship Group (facebook)
- Grand Designs New Zealand episode: Te Timatanga Earthship An interesting episode all about the design and building process of a modern Earthship build in the southern hemisphere.
- Hacking the Earthship blog & book
- Earthships in Europe book
- Earthship Biotecture books
Have you ever heard of earthships? Would you like to live in one? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below!
We aim to answer questions about sustainable design, green buildings and healthy homes, also with reference to our local climate (Regional Ballarat area and Melbourne) in future articles. Don’t forget you can sign up to receive our occasional news so you won’t miss out on our posts!