Thinking About an Earthship? (Pros and Cons)

EarthShip Pros and Cons

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EarthShips. Maybe you saw a picture of one on Pinterest or Instagram. Perhaps, you were Googling off-the-grid housing. Maybe you started at tiny houses and ended on the other end of the spectrum. Whatever it was that lead you to these alluring homes made of rammed earth, tires, and tin cans, we're glad it brought you to this page. In this article, we attempt to demystify these brand-name passive-solar houses.

If living off the grid in a home made of earth and garbage sounds appealing, you've come to the right place.

What is an Earthship?

Earthships are passive solar structures made of natural and recycled materials. According to Earthship Biotecture, these incredible structures are designed to support off-the-grid lifestyles. A well-engineered Earthship is a source of shelter, water, electricity, and food.

It eliminates its inhabitant's dependence on major supply chain services, giving them unmatched financial freedom and personal independence. Amongst growing concerns about the climate and environment, many people consider these types of structures to be a radical form of sustainable living.

Earthships were first designed by Michael Reynolds in the 1970s. Reynolds is an American architect that developed the practice of Earthship Biotecture. It didn't take long for Reynold's oddball homes to attract the attention of people seeking to embody their eco-friendly values.

It is important to note that Earthships are not vague architectural concepts that can be reworked and reproduced by just anyone. They have trademarked custom home designs that are owned by Reynold's for-profit company, Earthship Biotecture. However, that's not to say that people haven't used his creations as inspiration for their fully autonomous off-the-grid shelters.

Why are they called “Earthships?”

Michael Reynolds was the first to call his creations Earthships. Reynolds picked this name for his creations because they are made of earth and built into the earth. Plus, they operate completely autonomous from outside sources, just as ships do when they are sailing the open seas.

How do you build an Earthship?

There's no one way to build an Earthship. You can hire an eco construction company to build one for you. You can purchase an already built Earthship. Or, you can attend Michael Reynold's Earthship Biotecture Academy online or in-person to acquire the skills you need to build one on your own. He even offers building internships at his Earthship community. 

There are also several instructional textbooks available. These include but are not limited to "Earthship: I Want One: The first steps. (Volume 1),"  “Earthship: How to Build Your Own, Vol. 1,” “How to Build a Global Model Earthship: Operation One,” among others, including spin-offs written by other authors.

As you might expect, Amazon has no shortage of books on the topic of Earthships. Check out any of these titles - some of which are written by Michael Reynolds, and others which are coming from a different perspecitive. (Simply click here or on the image and you'll be taken to the Amazon page that shows a variety of books currently available.)

Earthship Pros and Cons - Earthship Construction - How to build an Earthship

Basic Design Principles

Keep in mind that all Earthships must adhere to six basic principles of design, including:

  1. Shelter must be constructed of a mixture of reclaimed and organic materials: rammed-earth bricks cast in old tires, cans, glass bottles, adobe mud, reclaimed wood, waste metal, etc.
  2. Capable of producing food: Indoor organic gardening, gray water hydroponic systems, integrated greenhouses, etc.
  3. Autonomous sewage treatment: gray water botanical filters, traditional septic tanks, exterior botanical filters, reduced water consumption, etc.
  4. Autonomous water harvesting: Rain and snow water collection, built-in filtration, well system, etc.
  5. Autonomous power: Solar panels, passive solar, efficient appliances, windmills.
  6. Autonomous heating/cooling: Thermal mass, solar gain, passive solar heat, built-in ventilation, etc.

Can you build an Earthship anywhere?

Earthships are a grand experiment with a base in Taos, New Mexico. In the arid, mild climate here, these buildings seem to thrive. However, they do not perform well in colder, more humid climates, such as the American Northeast and Canada. However, it is worth noting that Michael Reynolds has modified some of his earthship plans so that they are better suited for these climates.

Permits and Legality

The legality of Earthships and any subsequent permit requirements are going to be determined by the construction codes and zoning regulations in your area. Do not purchase a plot of land before researching federal and state construction codes.

Be prepared to submit a proposal to your local zoning board. What's more, check with your local building code department to ensure that you are working within the limits of the latest guide to permits, codes, and regulations for more information.

How do you treat/dispose of waste water/sewage?

Earthships are designed to manage water efficiently and autonomously. First off, all of the gray water produced by day-to-day living is filtered and reused. On top of that, Earthships are equipped with low-consumption appliances and water fixtures, such as energy-efficient toilets, low-flow showerheads, and Water Sense-compliant washing machines. Wastewater from showers, washers, and sinks are sent to botanical cells.

These cells filter the gray water so that it can be used to irrigate gardens and landscapes. Once the water is filtered through traditional digester or particle filter, it enters into a shallow cell called the “salad bar.” After that, it is absorbed through various plant roots in a larger plant-fille cell. Then, it is pumped into a plant-filled gray water board.

After this process, it is pumped and redistributed back into the house. All sorts of vegetables, fruits, and herbs can be used to fill cell planters. They filter the water through the processes of oxygenation and transpiration. When the water finally makes it back into the home's system, it is used to fill toilets for flushing.

Since toilets are the most significant water-consumers in the house, many models utilize water-free composting toilets. Composting toilets do not generate black water. When composting toilets are not utilized, plant rock filters are implemented. Plant rock filters purify wastewater so that it can be used once again.

Some Earthships utilize traditional septic tanks. Septic tanks treat and redistribute water. In these structures, a septic tank is not responsible for gray water. Ultimately, this type of system keeps the Earthship from relying on the pricey and often dilapidated public wastewater systems. For more information, check out this informative video tutorial:

How are they heated/cooled?

Earthships are capable of maintaining comfortable temperatures all year long. Naturally, they are rigged to do this without relying on electricity, fossil fuels, or other wasteful consumables. The principal source of insulation is its earth-filled tire walls. The tires collect and store heat from the sun. Then, they release it when the temperature drops. This phenomenon is referred to as thermal mass.

All Earthship designs feature at least three solid earth-filled tire walls and one window-filled south-facing wall. The glass windows also help to direct heat into the main living spaces and the three earth-filled tire walls.

Earthships are also equipped with underground ventilation systems. Vents keep these structures cool on hot summer days. They do this by pulling hot air out of the main living areas and forcing it out of exterior vent boxes.

How much do they cost to build?

The cost of building one of these off-grid units is going to fluctuate, and of course will depend on whether you hire a professional builder. If you are a skilled craftsman, you may be able to save money by building your own dwelling. However, you will still need to invest in official Earthship building plans. Official plans range in price from hundreds to thousands of dollars.

According to The Globe and Mail, “turn-key” Earthships costs roughly $215 per square foot. However, homeowners can save thousands by building their own. Of course, not everyone is willing to spend hours pounding dirt into used tires. Even the process of collecting old bottles and tires can be daunting. Plus, like any home, there are plenty of variants that can increase the price of these dwellings.

You're also going to need a plot of land. The price of your property, your annual property taxes, and your monthly mortgage payments should all be considered. Of course, most builders have their eyes on a different type of savings. In theory, Earthships should save homeowners thousands of dollars over a lifetime. After all, they are designed to function autonomously from public infrastructure. That means an entire lifetime without electricity, water, sewage, or grocery bills.

What are the biggest pros and cons?

Pros

You can save a lot of money when you don't have to pay for utilities. Earthships are engineered to create their own electricity, heat, cooling, water, etc. In theory, these homes should eliminate all outside bills. Still, it is important to note that these systems do not always work as efficiently as expected.

You can eliminate the grocery store. Earthships designs contain indoor greenhouses, hydroponic growing systems, and gray water filtering planters. Again, in theory, these fixtures should keep you from ever having to shop at your local big-box grocery store. All that indoor greenery also improves the look of your rooms.

They are less wasteful than traditional home constructions. Earthships require the reuse of many single-use consumables, including tin cans, glass bottles, and rubber tires.

The lighting and views are amazing. Most Earthships designs require at least one entire wall of windows. These south-facing glass surfaces are designed to harvest heat and energy for internal temperature regulation and plant growth. However, they also improve the overall lighting inside these earthen homes.

They're visually appealing. It's hard to ignore the overall beauty and mystique of these eco-friendly houses. If anything, they are aesthetically enriching. They tend to appear as though they are sprouting up from the ground. The smooth earthen exteriors, grand glass walls, numerous indoor plantings, and colorful glass details are truly awe-inspiring.

Cons

Earthships are only possible in some climates. Traditional Earthships are made from densely packed rammed-earth tires. These materials work well in arid, warm climates, like that of Taos, New Mexico. However, these earthen homes are likely to fail in humid, rainy climates. 

Their rammed-earth tire walls can not hold up to intense temperature changes and regular humidity. In colder places, sometimes boast backup heating systems. Unfortunately, these systems sometimes use fossil fuels or wood.

Earthships are brand-name dwellings.It's hard to get past the fact that Earthships are being peddled as custom homes. Reynolds may have wonderful intentions for the world. However, it's hard to see how his brand-name dwellings can have such a big impact when they're sold for such steep profits.

They may not be as green as they appear. First off, it is worth noting that most of the trash items that are used are already part of the post-consumer recycling system. Many of these items pose potential health risks as they breakdown.

Mold may be an issue. Some Earthship dwellers have reported issues with mold and algae growth inside their dwellings. These issues can cause health concerns. They can be costly to repair.

When your water system isn't adequate... All of an Earthship's internal and external elements are dependent on one another. What happens when the arid desert doesn't offer enough water for things to run efficiently? You need enough potable water to keep all your plants moist. Plus, you need water for drinking, bathing, and cleaning.

Where can you find Earthship plans?

Michael Reynold's sells official construction plans through Earthship Biotecture. Available construction plans range from a simple studio to a grand split-level home. Biotecture's “Studio Construction Drawings” for a 1,100 to 1,800-square foot off-grid studio currently sells for $595.

According to the website, it originally sold for $6,000. The priced construction plan available is the “Split Level Global Construction Drawing 3.” Plans for this massive compound currently sell for $6,995. However, the pre-sale price for the plans is a shocking $20,000.

Keep in mind that you will probably need to submit your Earthship plans with your permit application. In many cases, you will need to pay extra fees for Michael Ryder's stamp of approval. According to Reynold's website, he is currently licensed in the following areas:

  • Arizona
  • Colorado
  • Nevada
  • Ontario
  • Puerto Rico

What about Resell Value?

While it is possible to resell an Earthship, it's not wise to think of these homes as investment pieces. Many of the Taos Earthships are listed for sale through New Mexico Mountain Properties. A two-bedroom, two-bath Earthship on 1.76 acres is listed for $515,000. Meanwhile, a picturesque 5,000-square foot model with three bedrooms and two baths is listed for $1,500,000. However, a nearby two-bedroom, two-bath model with nearly 4 acres recently sold for just $250,000.

With all that said, there's seems to be a continued and even heightened interest in Earthships. These stunning structures appeal to people who are looking to steer clear of societal norms and environmental destruction. In an ever-changing real estate environment, there's no telling whether the value of earthships will rise or fall.

What do people REALLY think about Earthships

What do actual Earthship owners say about their experience with these one-of-a-kind structures? We dug deep to find out how Earthship owners felt after the honeymoon period. In an article by the Globe and Mail, a retired Canadian couple discuss their experience building an Earthship.

While the couple has yet to move into their home, they seem to have enjoyed the construction process. Their only qualm seems to be their friends' initial reactions. They say that people are often confused by their choice. Earthships are certainly not the most traditional dwellings.

Cnet also did an in-depth expose on these curious earthen houses. The reporter suggests that the houses are far more stunning than to be expected. He explains that the interiors of the homes in Taos, New Mexico, were modern and elegant.

He interviews some of the residents in the Earthship community where most say that their homes are initially pricey. However, their ongoing savings have proven to be well worth their initial investment.

Some people have been overwhelmed by the building process. It can be challenging and time-consuming to find supplies. Some builders were also caught off-guard by local zoning and construction codes. Some people have even had to hire lawyers to smooth out bureaucratic kinks.

The most common complaint we hear concerns the construction of rammed-earth tires. These bricks make up an Earthship's load-bearing walls. Each brick weighs over 300 pounds. Plus, making them is a very laborious and time-consuming process.

Still, many people say the hard work is well worth it. After all, few other off-grid housing options come with climate control. Earthships tend to maintain a 70-degree internal temperature at all times. When you consider the fact that most of these homes are built in a community deep in the New Mexico desert, that's saying something.

Bottom line:

Could Earthships be the key to future human habitation on earth, or are they just another failed counter-culture concept? One thing is for sure. These incredible structures have sparked countless conversations about sustainable alternatives to regular post and beam dwellings.

Thank you for taking the time to read about this alternative housing choice! We hope that we were able to shed light on this intriguing and mysterious subject matter. Still, have questions? Maybe you should consider renting an Earthship for an overnight stay. Experience an Earthship firsthand by booking a stay through Biotecture. If nothing else, you're certain to have an experience you're likely to remember!