After spending 6 days driving from Winnipeg via America’s Midwest to New Mexico, we wound through mountain roads up to 7000 feet in altitude and arrived to a nuanced Star Wars-esque landscape. We were given a special tag to hang on our rearview mirror so the neighbours would recognize us as renters. We followed a lead car to our new home past the “private property/no trespassing” signs. We had finally arrived at The Phoenix in the world’s largest off-grid legal subdivision. I stayed in an Earthship, and here’s how it went!
What is an Earthship?
“If bees and beavers can build their own housing, yet humans can’t, there’s something wrong.” Michael Reynolds, the founder of Earthships, is featured in a short documentary which showcases a hut that was built as a young couple’s first off-grid home. Earthships were started in Taos, New Mexico, as a self-sustaining off-grid building. The Earthship was conceived of in the 1970s in order to create an affordable, sustainable option for communities worldwide. Aiming to educate and inspire, Earthship Biotecture has a community in the mountains of Taos New Mexico. People can learn to build their own structure at the Earthship Academy, do a 3-week internship, or in our case, try living in one by renting it for a few days.
Conventional housing is hooked up to utilities, and our homes cannot function without them, creating a dependency on those systems and the financial means to pay for them. Earthships aim to address this problem in a way that maximizes interaction with our natural environments with passive design techniques. The Greater World Earthship Community is 630 acres, with 347 acres reserved as a green belt: an area that will never be developed. The land itself is less attractive for conventional developers, as a rural, undeveloped mesa (tabletop) in the mountains that do not have utilities. There is a Board of Directors, and community members follow by-laws.
We stayed in the smaller west annex of The Phoenix but had the luxury to spend time in the more luxurious, 3-bed East Wing of the Phoenix as well. This particular Earthship allows for an experience of comfort and luxury: with all modern conveniences, including a TV, wi-fi, full kitchen, and a fireplace. Without being hooked up to conventional plumbing, there was always enough water, and the shower was steaming hot after turning on the 2-minute inline water heater. Sunlights are weighted by rocks so that when you unclamp the string, they open and pull warm air out of the unit. The Earthship Biotecture website outlines the 6 basic principles of their construction.
Building an Earthship with Natural and Repurposed materials
Earthships are made of 45% recycled materials. They are commonly known for the use of tires filled with dirt for the raised bank on the north side of the structure. Recycled materials are also used for more artistic elements: glass bottles and cans can be used as fillers for walls, creating a shimmering, or stained glass effect depending on the position of the sun. Glass ‘bricks’ are made by cutting bottles in half, and taping two bottle bottoms together. There’s notably very little art hanging on the walls but has recycled art integrated into the walls instead.
As our time in The Phoenix went on, we slowly noticed the more nuanced details of repurposed materials. Plastic bottle bricks create a flower pattern; the lid of fuel can was our front door handle; tin can lids become outlet fixtures and mason jars for lampshades. The creative re-use of materials as decor felt like living art, as interns and staff involved in construction also hand-make a lot of the furnishings, from mosaic tiles to chairs to blankets and pillows.
Heating and cooling through the thermal mass to create a comfortable living environment.
The North facing side of an Earthship is built into a raised bank called a berm which is approximately 25 feet deep. The berm is built up using tires filled with compacted dirt that weigh 200-400 lbs each, which then becomes a thermal mass wall (the back wall of the house), maintaining a consistent temperature attuned to the earth’s temperature. Newer models of Earthships have cooling tubes that go through the berm, pulling fresh air into the unit, and when the gravity-operated skylight in the front greenhouse is opened, it will pull warm air out of the building.
We were at the Phoenix in February at just under 7000 feet altitude, so on a cloudy day’s evening, it was a basement temperature (around 17 degrees Celsius). One night, there was a strong wind, sleet, and rainstorm, which was fascinating: in the back part of the building, it felt very sturdy, with no rattling. Earthships have an exceptional load-bearing capacity and are fire-resistant due to their construction, making them a viable option in extreme weather.
Using wind and solar energy to create electricity.
As a result of the natural sunlight that would flood the south-facing front of the house, we were drawn to the greenhouse, terrace/front porch (also referred to as an “airlock”) during the day. We also woke up earlier and went to bed earlier as a result of the sun. Solar panels and greenhouse windows all face south to maximize sunlight, and use a photovoltaic array to produce energy.
Harvesting and filtering rainwater to provide drinking and wash water.
Water caught on the roof is used four times: First, it is filtered for drinking water, the shower, brushing your teeth, and laundry. After water is used for those purposes, it is greywater and funneled into the indoor greenhouse plants. Then it is used for the toilets and becomes black water. Finally, the black water is used outside to fertilize the landscape. If the region has less precipitation, it’s important to have a larger surface to catch the water. In Taos, they have an annual rainfall of 12.8 inches, just over half of the rainfall Winnipeg receives annually. Water heated up quickly for a shower: there is a timer in the bathroom that you turn on for 2 minutes, and it heats the water instead of running water until it’s warm.
Containing and treating its’ own wastewater without external contamination.
There is a deep, rubber lined hole under the south side of the Earthship yard, which is where water and excrement from the toilet go. This is called black water, and it waters the outside plants, which, since they have trunks and/or stems, can be watered by black water. Compared to conventional systems, where some communities simply have no more capacity to treat sewage at water treatment centres, this water cycle can cut usage by several measurements!
Producing its own food in an integrated greenhouse.
Since the Phoenix is a rental, it may not have the same selection of plants that a family would grow for their own sustenance. However, there were tomatoes, tangerines, herbs, and chickens laying eggs, and some fantastic tropical flowers. The greenhouse also has a pond with tilapia fish and turtles!
Sure, this works in New Mexico. But what about Canada?
We have had a record-breaking Canadian winter these first few months of 2019. In Taos, the lowest temperature is around -12 Celsius. Could an Earthship be possible in our climate?
Earthship Biotecture has expanded around the world, including Canada. The first official Earthship Biotecture in Canada was built in Alberta, and more recently, one has also been built in the Northwest Territories. There are also other Earthships that have been built independently across the country, so if you are serious about building one, consider searching for others in your province or region that have already done it. Earthship Biotecture is the originator of Earthships, but that doesn’t mean they have the local climate and temperature control knowledge someone who has built an Earthship in rural Manitoba does!
International Earthship projects are also popular, particularly since building one is low tech and does not require skilled laborers to do the work. What’s more, one of the obstacles to building an Earthship in North America is licensing, insurance, bylaws, and permits, whereas in some developing countries there are less restrictions. Since Earthships are durable and self-sufficient, post-disaster areas like Puerto Rico have active build projects: local community members and Earthship staff/interns work together to gather garbage in the area and repurpose it into the building itself, which could be a school or community building.
Are you selling your house and building an Earthship?
I’m thrilled to see this experimental take on housing. My major takeaway is that off-grid living is a constant evolution and that Earthships aim to capitalize on self-sustainability, independence from utilities external to the structure, and hold potential worldwide with appropriate enhancements and customization. It pushes the envelope on how we approach housing.
However, take heed: there are well-founded criticisms of Earthships. Research has revealed that over time, tires underground can create biogases that are toxic to the tenants if not vented properly. Also, an Earthship is not 100% built from natural and re-purposed resources: for example, the production of concrete is largely dependent on fossil fuels. The search continues for the perfect, sustainable, off-grid housing model.
Earthships are not without their imperfections, but we are working within a world that’s overwhelmed and I like that they integrate the garbage we’ve already produced into the design. However, before selling your house and -quite literally- pounding dirt, what if you take a good look at your home and use learnings from an Earthship to apply to it, by way of passive design techniques or by consuming more mindfully? I am by no means an architect, but upon leaving the Earthship, I had a fountain of ideas.
Plants, plants plants: A major function of the Earthship is using plants to purify the air, and to make use of greywater. Without plants, the structure simply wouldn’t work.
Learn more about plants and detoxifying your home with The EcoHub’s 30 Day Healthy Home Challenge.
Water: We got really excited about this one. Where does your roof water go? How can it be used for your outdoor plants, reserved for drier periods in the summer? Is there an opportunity to have a rain barrel, but also funnel roof water to various parts of your yard with creative eavestroughs?
Sustainability as a creative outlet: As we spent more time in The Phoenix, we started to notice the little things: tin can lids as outlet covers, pieces of copper and mason jars as light fixtures, oil can lid as a funky door handle. Before you dispose of everyday household items, can they be re-used as decor?
Turning electricity off: Yes- the Earthship had internet. But what we loved was that it was on a switch next to the coffee maker: you could turn the internet off the same way you do with lighting.
Wildlife: Can you enhance what naturally grows anyway? Perhaps you can’t install a blackwater system, but could you plant plants indigenous to your region, rather than grass? Could you provide a haven for birds, bats, and bees?
I loved our time in the Earthship, and the self-sufficiency of the people we met was empowering and inspiring. We met community members who had been building their own houses for dozens of years, always learning, improving and customizing. Residents are excited by the possibility of innovation, and so am I.
What I love about Earthships is that quite literally, the sky’s the limit!